Daniel Rubin: Couple puzzled by months of missing mail

Got back from the long holiday weekend to find a lone piece of mail waiting. That's more than usual. Postal carriers haven't ferried so few letters since the 1960s.

With my correspondence handled mostly by computer, I sometimes forget how much people rely on the welcome thud of the day's mail. Especially if they haven't heard it in months.

"The two things you think are: Bridges don't collapse, and the U.S. mail gets delivered," said Lynne Berman the other day. At least, she used to think that way.

Lynne, a ceramist, and her husband, Peter, a neurologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, have spent several puzzling weeks investigating why their mail disappeared this spring down a rabbit hole.

For the last four winters they've rented an apartment in Miami Beach. They know to give the Postal Service enough notice so that when they arrive in Florida, mail to their Center City apartment awaits them.

This year Lynne filled out a handwritten form stating that she and her husband would be gone from Jan. 29 to March 26, and left their temporary forwarding address.

In Florida, they got their mail, received their checks, paid their bills - no problem. Before leaving Miami Beach, they let the post office know they were heading north.

That was when their trouble started.

They didn't notice at first, because they were getting some catalogs, magazines, and solicitations. Then the phone calls started.

The phone company wondered why its bill had been returned. Vanguard had put a hold on their account because a statement had come back. Their deposit check for the Miami Beach rental never arrived. Neither did their flexible-spending reimbursement. And the FBI wondered if Peter had seen the paperwork needed to background him for his new job at Children's Hospital.

One bundle of first-class mail did arrive - in late April - but it included nothing that had been sent since the beginning of that month.

So Peter went to the post office at Ninth and Market Streets to investigate. The clerk at the window referred him to a supervisor, who seemed understanding.

"He was very polite, took down the information, took my cellphone number, and said he would call back when he had more information," Peter recalled. "Needless to say, he did not call back."

A few days later, Peter called the post office and got another supervisor. He was understanding as well. And he followed through, checking with the carrier, who told him that the mail was being delivered.

Not the first-class mail, Peter protested. The supervisor said he'd call back. He didn't. In a few days Peter called back. This time the supervisor checked with Miami and learned his mail was being held there and soon would travel north.

He waited a week. He called again. And again. One of those polite supervisors told him that he had neither record nor recollection of their conversations. Peter steamed.

Meanwhile, more creditors were calling. The couple's letters were coming back "return to sender."

Lynne found a national customer-service number and on the third call reached a woman who gave her a number in Philadelphia, where a woman said she had found the problem.

A Postal Service spokeswoman told me Friday that the problem was that in 2010 the Bermans mistakenly had checked permanent, not temporary, when making one of their changes of address, and that meant for one year the computer would allow no more changes to be made. Even she said that didn't completely explain what had happened.

But it's all fixed. Sort of. The Bermans have been getting full delivery since June 23. But still nothing from the 11 missing weeks. Lately, they do more banking online.

I asked Peter what was the most critical piece of mail he had missed. He replied, "I don't know what I don't know. So I don't know."

His wife talked about the loss of certainty in an uncertain world, the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed one rush hour in 2007, now this.

"Obviously," she said, "bridges fail, and the mail doesn't get delivered."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.