It's big enough to play eight football games at once, but instead the room houses a few mostly silent workers and hundreds of whirring machines. They process, cancel, oversee, and sort every single item of raw collection from every single mailbox and every single mail station in over 100 zip codes -- somewhere around 900,000 pieces of mail each day. That's enough post to build a cardboard and paper city way bigger than Legoland in less than a week.
Sundays and holidays are light days, to be sure, but there is no need for locks on the doors at the Margaret L. Sellers facility. The 1700 employees work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in three duty rotations. They use giant machines called the Green Monster, Barney, Spibs, and the Robot.
Mail comes in at the docks, gets loaded onto long conveyors and dropped into deep bins, is conveyed along its proper routes, and then gets carried out to the docks again. Yet somehow, despite this hasty circulatory activity, there is nothing but a certain easy serenity pulsing through the place.
Maybe 150 people work the mailroom this Thursday morning. But I can't see more than 2 or 3 of them at a time. And no one is sweating or yelling or rushing around frantic or anything. No one is even speaking, except for Cleveland and Ferguson-Costa. Otherwise, all you can hear is that overlying calming thrum. Down the long rows of machinery, along every sight line under the hanging lights and high ceiling, it's orderly, slow, easy, despite 900,000 pieces of mail proceeding rapidly past me.
The 11 AFC/OCRs (advanced facer canceler/optical character readers) are taking care of 13 pieces of mail per second, each. That's 46,800 pieces per hour, times 11 machines, equaling a fantastically awful lot of mail. The machines turn the letters face up, cancel them, sort them, check them for biological weapons, and then send them to automation. They can even read handwriting. Then more than 60 automation machines sort the mail by country, state, county, city, and then, if the mail is destined for San Diego, by carrier route, right down to the most efficient walk sequence.
In another corner, the FG-1 sack sorter and Spibs take care of packages using alien-looking robot arms and automated mechanical cranes dipping into bins lined up like huge cages.
The purple winding chutes of Barney and the green winding chutes of the Green Monster snake around like long angular slides in a water park.
And the mail moves along. And moves along. And moves along. And moves along.
Cleveland and Ferguson-Costa taking me to room 199A is like my grandmother taking me up to the attic, except there's way less dust.
And instead of creaky steps past family photos, we walk on concrete past forklifts, electric pallet jacks, and tow motors. We go through automation, the empty equipment area, collection mail processing (operation 010), the back dock, the postal address redirection staging area, the sack sorter area, the sack sorter dumping area, the AFC/OCR, and, finally, near the registry, we reach the "attic," the lost mail room, room 199A.
Room 199A is a small cage, say, 12 feet by 14 feet. It has a heavy door, a desk, a stool, and eight shelves of bins full of stuff. Right when you open the door, you notice it has that flea market slash garage sale kind of feel.
Food, jewelry, prescriptions, books, pens, DVDs, sports gear, cell phones, masks, a snow globe, toiletries, cassette tapes, pet accessories, games, auto equipment, luggage, batteries, posters, gift cards, IDs -- there's an almost inexhaustible mélange of human effects -- all of it intended to go somewhere else, but none of it now getting past the confines of room 199A.
Ferguson-Costa dons blue plastic gloves and a blue apron, and she starts to sort the day's loose stuff.
She opens unmarked envelopes, picks and sorts through them, and comes up with 30 to 40 personal checks, 50 to 60 driver's licenses, dozens of CDs and DVDs, money, photos, books. Over 500 loose items, by our estimates, on just an average Thursday morning in San Diego.
Percentagewise, not bad. Just 500 loose things out of 900,000 pieces of mail. But still, it's 500 loose things. In one day. That's 1000 disappointed people, give or take.
How is this possible? How can our American populace make so many mistakes? I ask Ferguson-Costa and Cleveland for their intuitions on the subject.
"Sometimes people are in a hurry," Ferguson-Costa says.
"Ignorance" is Cleveland's matter-of-fact take. "People don't know any better. How do you package something up so it will be delivered in good condition? It's amazing how people will put something in an envelope and just expect it to get there. They don't take their time and do it right."
But it isn't just human error and machine error that cause loose objects to trickle their way into the mail.
"Sometimes," Ferguson-Costa says, "it could be that when people find someone else's stuff and they don't know what else to do with it, they just drop it into the mailbox. Then it becomes our responsibility."
"I should have put it in a padded envelope," Nancy Drake tells me. "But I didn't do that. So I take the blame."
Nancy Drake had sent a Visa gift card to a family friend, a gesture of thanks from Drake and her husband for helping with some messy work on their rental house. A $200 gift card and a thank-you note, in an envelope, from Carlsbad to Oceanside. She figured it would get to the friend in about two days.
A week later, the friend still hadn't received it.
"I called the post office," Drake says, "and they told me they couldn't do anything until it had gone missing for two weeks. Fourteen days. And that's 14 workdays. I called the 1-800 number, and that's what they told me."
(Incorrect! Incorrect! The phone number for the local loose-in-the-mail unit on Rancho Carmel Drive is 858-674-0561. And if you get a recording while the office is open, that's because Ferguson-Costa is running around collecting or filing loose-in-the-mail items. She'll check for messages when she gets back in and return your call.)