There was the case, Wellington Arnette remembered, of the inflated balloons that kept blocking a mail chute in a downtown building.
"It was occurring in a psychiatric hospital," he said. "Apparently a patient was inserting a deflated balloon into the slot, and then would blow it up and tie the end. This went on for about three months, and then it abruptly stopped. They must have cured him."
Arnette knows of such happenings, and much more, because most of his 31 years with the U. S. Postal Service have been involved with a little-known aspect of seeing that we get our mail six days a week--the maintenance of its equipment. Currently his responsibility is superintendent of building equipment maintenance for most of Los Angeles.
Average of Five Calls a Day
As such, one of his jobs is overseeing a task force of four men in radio-dispatched vehicles who respond to an average of five calls a day to unclog mail chutes in high-rises--such as removing an inflated balloon that is preventing letters and cards from reaching the bottom-floor receptacle.
A unique situation exists. Although the familiar chutes in every building are the properties of the building owners, only a postal worker is allowed to open them.
You may or may not have noticed it, but at each floor is a locked panel on the 15-inch-or-narrower chutes.
"When we get a call at our special number (894-2305), we immediately send out one of our men in a truck," Arnette explained.
What the balloon prankster did is highly illegal--such chutes are protected by criminal laws applicable to tampering with, defacing or destroying U.S. Postal Service property. Most cloggings, however, are unintentional.
And, sort of like a pinball machine, sometimes a chute will become unjammed when another descending letter strikes the stuck one.
"Most of the cloggings are on the middle floors," the superintendent said. "The envelope starts on a higher floor and then gets stuck while falling. Usually it's because people disregard the posted warnings not to fold oversize envelopes, or not to deposit more than one letter at a time."
But, he went on, frequent culprits are the subscription and advertising post cards found in magazines. "They are light and they bend. If the building has an updraft, the card sits fluttering in the chute, blocking everything above it.
"We have had cases where somebody from the building will take a long ruler or stick and try to remedy things himself. That sometimes makes the problem worse. If you push down, that only packs everything."
Breaking the Glass
There was one instance at a 20-story Westwood structure where the building maintenance man had tried to solve a blockage by dropping a 3-foot metal rod from the top floor. All that accomplished, as it dropped to the bottom, was breaking the glass panels at six different floors.
What the letter-box mechanics (top salary of $27,000) do, if the offending mail is visible at a certain floor, is unlock and remove the panel, then take that mail to the first-floor receiving box.
"If the mail is between floors and not visible, the worker goes to the floor below ," Arnette said, removes the panel, inserts an electrician's snake and pulls down.
The 50-year-old superintendent was a member of the blockage brigade throughout the '60s and into the early '70s, and recalled in particular a problem that developed after the big earthquake of February, 1971.
Checks up to $50,000
"A chute in another Westwood high-rise office building had been knocked out of line. We kept getting calls about letters that had been put into it but had never been received. We were told some of them contained checks for amounts such as $50,000.
"We kept inspecting, but a couple months went by and we couldn't find anything. We finally went inch by inch into the ceiling where we suspected the trouble was. We discovered what amounted to a sack of crammed letters--and they were delivered."
Sharing the Whiskey
He remembered another incident involving a chute, this one in a Century City high-rise, this time the result of the illegal use of the trough for something other than the deposit of mail:
"There had been a New Year's Eve party and some partygoers had poured whiskey down from one of the upper floors. Not only was the chute stained, but it smelled. We had to unlock the panel on each floor and stand by as the building workers did the washing. Took two days."
Sometimes the troughs extend down into parking garages--and are occasionally slammed into by a car.
The busiest time for the trouble-chuters, according to Andy Rooks, supervisor of mechanics, is around Christmas (oversize holiday cards being forced into the slots). The next most troublesome time in high-rises is St. Valentine's Day, followed by Easter.
Another responsibility of the specialized postal mechanics is what are known as gang boxes, those rows of receptacles located in apartment buildings.
A Vintage Post Card