Chicago's 24-Hour Postal Service Comes To An End

Chicago is the only city in the nation that still offers full 24-hour postal service, but that ends after Friday. Night owls looking to mail a package or buy some stamps in the wee hours of the morning will be on their own.

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Chicago is the only city left in the country that still keeps its post office open 24 hours a day. After tonight, that ends. Night owls looking to mail a package or buy some stamps in the wee hours will be on their own, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: At midnight at Chicago's main post office, the lights are bright, music from a satellite radio station floats in the air and the wide hallways are nearly empty. Anthony Fong(ph) says that's exactly the right time for him to ship boxes.

Mr. ANTHONY FONG: It's 'cause there's no lines, no crowd, you can just kind of flow and you come in and get out.

CORLEY: There used to be more than 20 post offices around the country offering 'round the clock service. One by one, they've called it a night. Now, it's Chicago's turn. Signs in the lobby and by the elevators post the new hours: 7:30 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Sunday.

Mr. TOM ZUMA(ph): I got a cab. Can you imagine me trying to park here in the daytime with my cab? You know I'm going to get tickets up the yin-yang and all that kind of stuff.

CORLEY: Cab driver Tom Zuma was talking about the changing postal hours with Norma Navarat(ph), one of the two postal clerks on duty. He's come to buy a bunch of penny stamps.

Mr. ZUMA: That's minor. I really want to know about the hours. I'm very pleased.

CORLEY: Pleased that he'll still be able to come by around midnight, but Lorenzo Washington(ph), a freight train conductor, says he'll miss the 24-hour counter service.

Mr. LORENZO WASHINGTON: Because I've been using this post office for years to mail letters to my family in Louisiana and as well as boxes, last-minute packages and so on and so on.

CORLEY: After Washington leaves, it gets pretty quiet. Customers come in spurts, but rarely two or more at a time. The clerks leave the counter area and go to the back room, where there are shelves of boxes and letters. Leah LaLorent(ph), who's worked for the post office for 30 years, says there's plenty to do.

Ms. LEAH LALORENT: Organizing the stamps and doing the PO boxes, making sure the names and everything is on the boxes.

CORLEY: As well as taking care of post office box payments. By 3 a.m., only about 20 people have stopped by, including a police officer, a hospital worker, even postal employees mailing their own letters at the end of their shifts. Assam Binamar(ph) is an information technology student.

Mr. ASSAM BINAMAR: Well, I'm just sending something for the immigration stuff, some papers for the immigration to California.

CORLEY: To California?

Mr. BINAMAR: Yeah.

CORLEY: Okay, and it's kind of late.

Mr. BINAMAR: Oh yeah, actually yeah. I'm glad.

CORLEY: Glad, says Binamar, that tonight there's still a 24-hour post office window. But hold that joy. Mark Reynolds(ph), the spokesman for Chicago's post office, says there's just not enough traffic to keep it staffed with a couple of clerks all night. Customer volume is down by 40 percent, and the Internet, he says, has changed a lot of customers' habits.

Mr. MARK REYNOLDS (Spokesman, Post Office, Chicago): They can go online and schedule a carrier pickup or buy postage or look up some of that information. So they don't have to necessarily make that physical trip.

CORLEY: The lobby of Chicago's main post office will remain open, though, for anyone who wants to mail small packages or pick up some stamps when postal clerks aren't around. They'll just have to use a credit or debit card at an automated self-service center.

Mr. WILLIAM CERNOTA: I don't like it.

CORLEY: William Cernota is a cellist with Chicago's Lyric Opera Orchestra. He works late, either practicing or performing.

Mr. CERNOTA: I like to come here at all hours and get help when I need it, and a human is the best help I can imagine, not a computer or anything else.

CORLEY: But it's the end of an era, and those humans will only be available during the Chicago post office's new hours.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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