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California and the West

Going Postal Over Home Mail Delivery

Services: Many residents of change-resistant Carmel are upset at a proposal that would require them to put numbers on houses.


In Carmel-by-the-Sea, Joe Steinfeld has become an unwitting Public Enemy No. 1. He's a gray-haired newcomer who gets the Bronx cheer at town meetings, has his face pictured in caricatured newspaper cartoons, his name trumpeted in angry letters to the editor.

And all because the 71-year-old retired antiques dealer has dared to suggest a subtle change that has many longtime residents of this wealthy Central Coast enclave reeling: home mail delivery.

Steinfeld is tired of fighting traffic and tourists to collect his mail each day at a downtown post office box. Like the rest of America, he says, he wants his mail delivered right to his door.

To accomplish the task, the post office says, residents of this quirky former artists' colony 120 miles south of San Francisco must agree to have numbers painted on their houses--a little social nicety the town has battled for a century.

"It's insanity, really," says Steinfeld. "You suggest a change that will improve people's lives and you get booed at public meetings. Some folks here are ready to battle change at any cost."

Thanks to a campaign waged by Steinfeld and others, the Carmel-by-the-Sea City Council will meet today to consider a proposal to paint numbers on 3,400 homes--from bungalows and cottages to sprawling seaside mansions.

Already, though, the home-numbering idea has been lambasted by the mayor and several council members. After all, this is Carmel-by-the-Sea, they say, not some Podunk rural community.

This is the take-charge town that bans such modern intrusions as street lights, illuminated signs, parking meters and neighborhood sidewalks.

Carmel-by-the-Sea once even banished drippy ice-cream cones because they were too messy, and still sets its sights against another public menace--high-heeled shoes. Because of the town's hilly, uneven streets, heels more than two inches high must be accompanied by a city permit. The permits are free and are good for lifetime, officials say, and are required just so folks can't sue if they take a tumble.

So it's not surprising that many locals are ready to nix the home numbering idea. Most say they enjoy the camaraderie of meeting each day at the post office to gossip and trade jokes as they gather their mail.

When it comes to Carmel-by-the-Sea, they say, no change is good change.

"This town has its own ambience, and this change will take us a step in the direction of being just like any other town," said Alice Englander, who serves on the board of the Carmel Heritage Society. "It's a domino effect. One day house numbers, then those ugly cluster mailboxes, then sidewalks.

"We're just one square mile in size. People who want change don't have to live here. There are lots of places where they can get home mail delivery--just not here."

Fire Chief Bill Hill says homes without address numbers pose a danger. Like cab drivers and pizza delivery drivers, he's been frustrated by the community's antiquated--if not colorful--home-locater description system.

"Sometimes when you're out there hustling in a life-and-death situation, it can drive you mad," he said. "Just the other day we had an emergency call, and all we had to go on other than the cross-street coordinates was a 'white house with a red roof and a white Volvo in the driveway.' Or they'll tell you it's a little blue house with the squirrel on the sign."

Hill says the lack of house numbers means at least a minute delay in crucial response time. Sometimes, without residence numbers, visitors don't have enough information to direct emergency response crews.

Dispatchers located 30 miles away in Salinas often don't know that, in lieu of numbers, some locals have named their homes Teapot and Tinkerbell.

"Callers will say 'Well, everybody knows where Mr. So-and-so lives.' And our dispatchers will answer 'Uh, no ma'am, actually we don't.' "

Postal officials will meet today with council members to explain that they can't deliver mail door-to-door without home numbers.

Postal Service spokesman Gus Ruiz says the town has one of 4,400 independent post offices nationwide without carrier delivery.

"We don't want to ram this down anybody's throat," he says. "We're going to tell these officials we're fully capable of providing curbside delivery. But we can't do it without their assistance."

City officials can't say whether they'll make a final decision on the matter at today's meeting. One option, according to a memo from city administrator Jere Kersnar, is to number homes but ban street mailboxes, "denying the possibility of street delivery of mail."

Ruiz says that even if the city fails to number its houses, the post office will attempt to start home delivery to the elderly and bedridden residents who can't pick up their own mail.

Joe Steinfeld says his daily mail pick-up drive is often a nail-biter.

"You've got 5,085 postal boxes and 20 parking spaces," he says. "You've got to fight everybody and their brother, maneuvering through tourists, pedestrians and double-parked trucks."

Steinfeld, who moved to the area a year ago from Big Sur, says he got his home delivery idea in February after he got sick and couldn't make his mail runs. Since then, he's been the lightning rod of the cause, handing out fliers and posting signs that say, "Choice, Not Boxes."

He's made two trips to Washington to interest postal officials and even ran unsuccessfully for mayor on a mail-delivery platform. He ignores the vociferous few who boo him at meetings. "Some people," he says, "are just plain bullies."

So confident is Steinfeld that he's already posted a new mailbox on the street outside his home.

"I put it there as a symbol," he says. "But one day soon, I'm betting there's going to be mail delivered to that box every day."

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