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Solving Lost Mail Riddles : Postal clerks become sleuths in their efforts to unscramble garbled street names or to find the owners of items that have no packaging.


An artificial eye recently turned up on Angel Santana's desk at the post office.

"I didn't want to touch it," Santana said.

As a claims clerk in the Van Nuys division branch, Santana is one of a small band of postal employees who work at solving the mysteries of the mail. If an item--such as a key, a wallet or a glass eyeball--turns up loose in the system, Santana does his best to track down the owner. Other clerks, called "nixie" clerks, handle mail that arrives with garbled or incorrect addresses. For example, a letter addressed to the nonexistent "Fig Tree Boulevard" might actually be intended for Victory Boulevard.

Fittingly, the name "nixie" is an enigma in itself. Some have suggested that it derives from the German word nicht , which means "not," but no one knows for sure.

Many of the postal riddles that these clerks, and claims clerks, encounter are equally unsolvable. The case of the missing eye, however, ended happily. It turned out that a medical company had mailed the prosthesis to a customer and the eye had squirted out of its envelope while passing through a sorting machine. After the empty package was delivered, the recipient showed up at Santana's office.

"He said, 'Do you have an artificial eye?' " Santana recalled. "I told him, 'I just have one.' "

About a dozen claims and nixie clerks work in post offices throughout the San Fernando Valley. Hundreds more are stationed across the country as part of the world's largest postal system. Last year alone, the U.S. Postal Service handled 166 billion cards, letters and packages, or roughly 40% of the world's mail.

Most of those pieces were routinely delivered, postal officials say. Trouble-shooting clerks got the rest.

These people tend to take their work passionately. Even though they fail more often than not, those interviewed said they loathe not being able to deliver a letter or return a lost item to its owner. "That's the sad part of my job," said Doris Dennis, a Saugus nixie clerk.

Dennis and her cohorts are not the last hope. But any mail they can't figure out--and can't return because it doesn't have a return address--is forwarded to one of five ominously named "dead letter" centers across the country.

"It's heartbreaking when you see some real nice things that can't be delivered," said Sandra Stewart, a postal spokeswoman in Washington. There are, for instance, two ash-filled funeral urns in the post office's possession. Other undeliverable valuables are sold at regularly scheduled public auctions.

In the continuing struggle to reduce such sales, nixie clerks such as Joanne Schottel, who works in a Canoga Park branch, have developed a bag of tricks for correcting mistaken addresses. If the street name is in gibberish, she will check to see if the sender had his or her fingers placed incorrectly on the typewriter keys. A reverse directory can lead to answers regarding street numbers that are missing a first or last digit. If these measures prove futile, a nixie clerk can look for the addressee's name in local telephone books and call for the correct street number. Phonetics also come in handy.

"Sometimes, the way a street sounds is the way a person spells it and they come out pretty funny," Dennis said.

Because he receives items that have broken free from their packaging, Santana doesn't get as many clues to work from. His cubbyhole-sized office off the lobby of the Van Nuys postal center is filled with boxes of keys and watches, videocassette tapes and snapshots.

Loose photographs are often the easiest to handle because they will have names scribbled on the back. Like the nixie clerks, Santana will go through local telephone books to locate the owner. Unmarked snapshots end up in a file on the shelf.

That was what happened to a particularly old photograph that arrived in his office not long ago. "It was the oldest photograph I'd ever seen," he said. "You get sentimental about some of these things."

A woman eventually called to say that one of her most prized snapshots might have gotten mixed in with some letters she mailed. It was a picture of her when she was a little girl. She said it was from the 1920s.

Santana had it delivered the next day.

Another time, an elderly woman reported that she had accidentally placed $870 cash in an envelope with a separate bill payment. She thought she'd sent it to a company in St. Petersburg, Fla., but wasn't certain. "When she came into my office, she was shaking," Santana recalled. "It was her life savings." The claims clerk wrote a letter to the Florida company, which promptly responded. They had received the money and would send it back.

"That lady was so happy," Santana said. "She gave me a pillow for my chair and for my little boy she made a sweater."

Nixie clerks don't have as much contact with the public and don't receive as many thank-yous. Still, Schottel and Dennis say they have the best jobs in the post office.

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