"My canoe?" the visitor from Norway wanted to know. Had his rubber canoe arrived at the general delivery window here from his last stop in Alaska?
He and his wife and friends, traveling the world, were cheered to see that it had, although the craft probably didn't see extensive service during their two weeks in the Southland.
Also at the post office window at 9th Street and Broadway during the course of this particular day was Gloria Cortez of East Los Angeles. She was picking up her letters in person because they were what postal people refer to as Dog Mail.
When a carrier feels he or she is unable to deliver mail because of a threatening dog, the person at that address instead gets a notice (or notices that no mail is arriving), and winds up at general delivery.
"He is an Australian shepherd named Max and I always keep him tied up," Cortez explained as she waited to have her letters handed across the counter. "Somehow he got loose, but it won't happen again."
The procession continued at the busiest such window in Southern California. Travelers, animal owners, street people without addresses, hotel residents who don't trust the delivery where they live--all were taking advantage of a little-known function of the U.S. Postal Service.
It is the oldest method the Postal Service uses. Although not as much fun now as in Colonial time. In those days, general delivery was at the local pub.
It is 6:30 a.m. On the ground floor of what old-timers say used to be the Famous Department Store at 901 S. Broadway, clerk Jonetta Lewis is sorting the newly arrived mail.
In another two hours she will raise her window in the Metropolitan Station and the parade will begin. Lewis, who has been at the window seven years now, deals with more than 60,000 customers a year.
Name Still Counts
"This is one place in the world where your name still counts," she said. "I sort by name, and I hand it out by name."
Of necessity with mail, as is increasingly the case in modern society, everything is usually numbers. The course of a letter, according to local postal spokesman David Mazer, is that it first goes to a processing facility such as the Terminal Annex, where it is sorted by ZIP code.
From there it goes to a local post office, where it is sorted by the last two digits, which represent a neighborhood.
The carrier for that neighborhood, in turn, arranges his letters and so forth according to the addresses on his streets. "Although the carrier may do so, he or she doesn't have to look at names," Mazer said. "At only one place is it necessary for the Postal Service to do that."
General delivery. It also is the only place where mail is sorted alphabetically, which Lewis would shortly do into bins with about 700 pieces she had brought over in a tray.
"First, however, I post-date each envelope with a rubber stamp--10 days ahead for domestic mail, 30 days for mail from overseas. That is the period during which the addressee must come to the window and pick it up."
The dating completed, she places the mail in alphabetical slots. Then one final step: Transferring everything to another case, where the slots are further broken down to indicate the first initials (B-A for a letter for Betty Alexander).
It is 8:30 a.m. The window is raised. Let the names begin.
"She wrote two of them!" 23-year-old Paul Steiner of Australia exclaimed, clutching a pair of envelopes from his girlfriend back home, Ruth Lacey.
Both he and his fellow Aussie traveling companion, Malcolm Grumach, 23, are recent college graduates who decided to check out a little of the world before settling down.
Let Us Hear From Them
"We are going to be here a few days, and then drive to New York," Steiner said. "I told Ruth and my parents, and Malcolm told his people to let us hear from them while we were in L.A. and New York."
The letters they happily walked away with bore the words "Poste Restante," the international designation for general delivery.
There is no extra charge for general delivery, no special stamp is required. The envelope gets no distinctive postmark.
The traveling party who earlier had received the canoe showed up again to see if anything further had arrived. Bjorn Skibenes, 25, of Norway, at the window with his two female and one male companions, said the craft was in the basement of the Norwegian Seaman's Church in San Pedro.
"We are hoping the pictures we took in Alaska will get here before we leave for Hawaii in a few days," he said, filling out a change-of-address card to have everything forwarded there.
By adhering to a schedule, a tourist can receive mail as he moves along, simply by informing correspondents of the approximate date he will be in a city.
Vacationers, though, are just a fraction of the traffic at general delivery.