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"It was an envelope from the bank, with four checks in it, and I was on my way to the bank."

Maria Sandstrom gets four personal checks every week from four sets of parents for watching their children.

"But then," she says, "that day, for some reason, my brain took a twist, and I ended up at the post office. I went past one of those drive-through mailboxes. And as soon as I dropped it in, I realized that I'd made a mistake."

Sandstrom had "mailed" her blank San Diego County Credit Union deposit envelope at the Carmel Mountain post office. But it was 7:00, Friday evening, and the post office was closed.

"So I got up first thing the next morning," Sandstrom says, "and drove down, but they couldn't help me. They said the person wasn't there yet, and I didn't have time to wait either, so they gave me a phone number to call and said wait about two hours. So I called after two hours, and they told me they hadn't found anything yet. And they gave me another number to call. So I waited, and I called the other number, and it was a recording. My heart sank. I thought, 'This is it, nobody will get my message.' So I left my information on the answering machine, and I thought that was it. But then, about two hours later, a lady called, and she asked me to go over all the details with her."

That night, Sandstrom decided to take the Zen route.

"I decided there was nothing more I could do," she says. "It wasn't under my control. I went about my business. I came home. I went to bed. I woke up in the morning. I did my thing. And then they called me. They told me they'd found my envelope, and I needed to come down to the post office and describe what was inside. So I showed them my ID, and I got my checks back. The very next day, I got them back."

It's Thursday morning, and we're making our slow way around the outskirts of the mailroom floor. Lori Ferguson-Costa, San Diego's loose-in-the-mail clerk, wheels a bin from green mailbox to green mailbox, stopping to empty each one. The green mailboxes bear the words "Loose Mail."

Inside the green mailboxes, various unsendable items have come to rest over the course of the night and the previous day. By this morning, each box contains dozens of cards, tools, toys, electronic devices, keys, and letters that have fallen out of their envelopes.

"The mail carriers and the guys working in the plant gather all this loose stuff inside these green mailboxes whenever they find it," Ferguson-Costa explains. "Like this little bundle with a rubber band on it probably came from a mail carrier's route, and he just got it all together and made sure it found its way to us. And then these driver's licenses probably came loose in the machinery in this room." Ferguson-Costa says the Department of Motor Vehicles sends licenses just fine; they only come loose when people mail them in envelopes.

Trailing behind Ferguson-Costa, another fellow walks along with us, name of Robert Cleveland.

That's Ferguson-Costa and Cleveland, the postal detectives for the San Diego post office.

Cleveland is the old hand, 21 years on the job. And by now he wears glasses, and his hairline has receded to the very top of his head, which suits him. Like a kingly bird, a cardinal maybe, with a kind of mask and a high crest. He's intense, athletic, smallish, and moves well in socks and sneakers. He has on shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, a watch, eyeglasses, and the blue apron of the United States postal worker.

And Cleveland is full of information.

"Mail and trash are different," he says. He has that same tone as your favorite high school teacher. "Mail is never trash. Once something enters the mail system, it becomes the responsibility of the U.S. government. Eventually, loose bulk paper does become waste mail, but at that point it gets recycled."

Cleveland is the rewrap clerk. He's been the rewrap clerk since 2001. His work is to reunite loose mail with the ongoing "mail flow."

"Rewrap is a solitary job unless I need something or unless someone else needs something," Cleveland says. "Otherwise, I spend most of my day getting as much as I'm absolutely sure of back in its package, securing the package up, and getting it back into the proper mail flow so that it gets delivered."

Cleveland's rewrap alcove looks out on the Spibs machine (the small parcel bundle sorter) and the FG-1 sack sorter. In the morning, he comes to work, goes to rewrap, and sees what has come in overnight. Broken parcels, busted boxes, opened letters. Then he makes his tours around the floor.

"If I've got a box with two cans of Campbell's soup in it, and there's two loose cans of Campbell's soup somewhere, then that's an easy one," he says. "Or sometimes, I've got a set of jewelry, and Lori's got a ring that matches some earrings in an opened box. That's an easy one too."

Now Ferguson-Costa chimes in.

"We got a thank-you card just last week," she says, "from someone who got their insurance papers. They wrote, 'Keep up the good work.' And I thought, 'See? We are good for something.'

"But I also have a whole photo album full of really old pictures," Ferguson-Costa goes on. "And somebody's missing that. This is something that can't be replaced. And that's kind of sad. I'm just holding on to it in the office. I have no idea where it's supposed to go."

The Margaret L. Sellers Processing and Distribution Center on Rancho Carmel Drive -- San Diego's main post office -- covers 662,000 square feet (15.2 acres). And most of that incredible area, the vast majority of it, in fact, is one big room. One great room, probably the biggest room you've ever seen. Standing inside the main mailroom in San Diego, if you can see past all the machinery and packages and postal equipment, you might just about make out the curvature of the earth.

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