When I was growing up on Riverside Drive in the ’60s and ’70s, the mailbox on the corner listed a couple of times a day when the mail was going to be collected. As I remember it, if you went to the box at those times, the mailman would soon arrive to pick up the mail. I remember often running to catch the last pick-up of the day and seeing the mailman there, opening the box. And I knew that if I missed the pick-up, I could run up to Broadway, where there was a box that had a slightly later pick-up time.

It doesn’t work that way anymore, at least as of November 30, 2007. Click on the picture above (from the box on Fourth Avenue just south of 14th Street, and you’ll get a larger version that shows that the sticker was printed on that date.) As far as I can tell, all of the mailboxes in my zipcode — 10003 — have identical collection times: 7:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Payphone-project.com provides a map on which you can see the locations of all the mailboxes in my zipcode. Click on any of the markers and you’ll see the same two times listed.

I’m assuming that there are not a host of mail carriers simultaneously picking up mail from all of the 10003 boxes. In fact, I’d bet there are relatively few (maybe even one) making the rounds. So what the times 7:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. actually mean are “sometime in the morning after 7:00 a.m.” and “sometime in the afternoon after 1:00 p.m.”

As for that 5:00 p.m. that we all used to know and love? Forget it: go to the post office if you want your mail to move in the late afternoon.

(By the way, it’s even worse in my old neighborhood, 10027, which seems to have a pick-up at 1:00 p.m. only.)

Hopefully the designated hours do indicate the earliest times that a mail carrier might arrive, and not an average pick-up time. Imagine some pour soul running out to make the 7:00 a.m. pick-up, when in fact the carrier had collected the mail at 6:50. Oh, you’ll say, but there’s the 1:00 p.m. as a fallback. Okay, well what if that carrier arrives at 12:50 p.m., and I get there at 12:59?

Which is often the case, when I’m trying to return a Netlix disc in a timely fashion. Generally the mails are pretty speedy in and around the New York area. I know that if I get that envelope in the box around the corner before 1:00 p.m., then Netflix has it the next morning, and I have my new disc the following day (except when Netflix has to send the disc from a non-local warehouse).

What does this all mean? Is it a sign of greater or less efficiency that I can no longer be sure precisely when my mail is being collected? Maybe it all moves so fast and so well that I shouldn’t worry about hitting a particular time of day. But if there is, in fact, an unpublished timetable, wouldn’t you like to know it? Wouldn’t you like to know that you can actually put the Netflix disc in the box at, say, 3:00 p.m. and have it move the same day?

If anyone has any inside knowledge about the USPS’s mail collection policy in New York City, we’d love to hear about it at ahistoryofnewyork.com.