[2008-01-28] My experience with general delivery

"General delivery" is a service the US Postal Service has offered since its earliest days, before the invention of the telegraph, when the only way to communicate with a person who was travelling, for instance, would be to send them a letter. Since you didn't know exactly when they would be where, you could send a letter to "General Delivery" at a post office in a town they would be expected to pass through. The service survives today as a handy way to send mail to a person who may be without a physical address. Homeless people, for instance, can and commonly do receive mail in this way. Basically, the post office will hold your mail at their location until you come in and ask for it.

I became interested in general delivery as a possible way to receive mail completely anonymously. Not because I'm up to anything truly nefarious, mind you, but because I'm interested in privacy issues and in the possibility of living without my every waking move being monitored by the government. Out of curiosity, then, I resolved to send myself a letter by general delivery and see if I could receive it anonymously. I read about the details of the service on the USPS web site, from which I gathered that it was sufficient to simply write my name, the words "General delivery," and the city in which I live. Each municipality supposedly has a "main" post office where general delivery mail is held. Looking on the Frommer's travel guide site, I discovered that Austin's main post office is supposedly located at 8225 Cross Park Dr.

So I mailed myself a letter addressed "Sean Ragan/General Delivery/Austin,TX" and listed my parents' address as the return address. I dropped the letter in a corner postbox and waited about a week before venturing over to the Cross Park office. According to the clerk, however, it was impossible for the letter to be delivered without a ZIP code. I explained to him what I'd read online about the notion of each municipality having a "main branch," and he just shook his head as though that was completely foreign to his understanding. He went into the back of his office to check for the letter and did not find it. It's possible, now, that my information from Frommer's was incorrect, and the city's main post office is in fact located elsewhere.

Figuring, however, that I was willing to concede on a ZIP code (since, after all, I could always choose one other than the ZIP in which I actually reside), I mailed another letter to myself addressed "Sean Ragan/General Delivery/Austin, TX 78705." Unfortunately, I made the mistake of posting it from my condominum's outgoing mailbox; the carrier recognized my name and simply transferred the letter from the outgoing box to my unit's inbox.

The third attempt was successful. I posted the same letter from a public streetcorner box, waited about a week, then went over to the 78705 post office at 43rd and Speedway at around 7:30AM one morning. I talked to the woman at the dutch door before the main office was open and explained to her that I was picking up mail by general delivery. I gave her my name and, by sheer force of habit I think, she asked "What's the address?" I blinked and told her there was no address, as it was general delivery. She said, "Oh, right," and wandered off into the back to recover my letter. She brought it out and asked for photo identification before she would allow me to receive it. I showed her my Texas driver's license, but she just glanced at the photo. My impression was that she was only interested in whether or not the ID matched my face and the name on the letter.

So the results of this, my preliminary experiment, suggest that, yes, one could receive mail completely anonymously so long as one had false or untraceable photo ID that would pass muster in this inspection.

About a week later I received, by return delivery at my parents' address, the original letter I had mailed to myself without the ZIP code included. It was stamped "unclaimed," suggesting that it had, in fact, been waiting somewhere for me to pick up during that intervening time. My suspicion is that I had wrong information about the location of Austin's "main" post office. The USPS website suggests contacting one's local postmaster to determine this information.

last modified 2008-01-28