Chicago Cancels the Stamps--and Some of the Letters : Postal Service: Undelivered mail is found burning or rotting. New management and training are ordered.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mail here has lately seemed defiant of the laws that govern time and space.

Recent bill payments disappear into the void while bank statements from 1988 suddenly show up.

Tens of thousands of undelivered letters have been discovered in the oddest spots: smoldering under a railroad viaduct, rotting in a field, in the back of a postal carrier's truck, stockpiled in a mailman's suburban condo.

Three times last week, people opened collection boxes around town only to be greeted by smoke streaming from the slots.

"Somebody doesn't want the mail to be delivered," said Mark Szumny, rolling his eyes heavenward for clues while his daughters, one 6 years old, one 5, jumped rope on the sidewalk on a waning afternoon. The girls at play reminded him of something. An old friend of his wife's sent cash when each was born. The money has yet to arrive.

Since the dawn of the U.S. postal system, tales of astounding mishaps and misroutings have become part of American folklore. But those were isolated instances. Not so here.

Although Chicago may have slipped from Second City to third, it ranks highest on the Mail Misery index. A recent postal survey found customers more unhappy with service in this city than anywhere else in the nation. The satisfaction rating stands at 69%. The next-most troubled city, New York, scored 76%. Los Angeles, fourth from the bottom, received 81%.

Twenty-seven postal wizards from around the country were imported in March to figure out what's wrong here. Three top managers were transferred out this month. Next week, supervisors and window clerks are scheduled to take training courses, and in coming months each station is supposed to recruit a citizens advisory council.

The Postal Service takes the uproar seriously, said Rufus F. Porter, interim postmaster for Chicago. About 1,500 early retirements in 1992 and this year's severe winter took their toll, but mostly, he said, "it's a matter of bad work habits on the part of our employees. It is embedded in the culture . . . and that was a direct result of management inattention."

The locals, some of whom have been complaining for nearly a decade, remain pessimistic. "The post office has not reached out to private consultants. It is still trying to use its own people," Chicago Alderwoman Mary Ann Smith said. "They've had shake-ups before but every time things--as we say in this office--returned to abnormal."

Each day, the Postal Service is blamed for something else, from the lack of an audience for the Bozo TV show--hardly anyone got tickets--to the decision of a mail-order cosmetics firm to move to the suburbs.

Leaders of the sizable Polish community report with fury that their letters to the homeland are ransacked frequently for cash.

An executive from the Chicago branch of the Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank showed up at a golf tournament a few weeks ago only to be told, to his embarrassment, that his registration fee was never paid. He had mailed a $230 check. He sent it to the right place, but it nonetheless later made its way back to him, with a notation inquiring: "Wrong address?"

Smith fumes. "We're not asking them to cure cancer," she said. "We're not asking them to build pyramids. We're asking them to move pieces of paper from one place to another."

The first report from the postal task force, released earlier this month, found the worst problems at five North Side, lakefront post offices where 40% of the mail faced delays. Service there is already improving, the trouble-shooters said.

Those ZIP codes, however, are by no means the only ones that need help.

David J. Craven, a 35-year-old attorney in the downtown Loop, specializes in customs and international trade law, but he has also become a reluctant connoisseur of postal blunders.

On a conference table, he laid out a succession of envelopes mailed this month to his office from nearby skyscrapers. He called attention to the postmarks and the dates they were stamped "received."

"Seven days from 19 W. Jackson," he said. "Seven days from 225 W. Wacker. That's next door. Twelve days from 321 S. Plymouth Court."

He has noticed spotty deliveries since 1991, but by January and February, the quality of service had deteriorated dramatically.

On March 3, for the first time in its seven-year history, his office received no mail at all. Craven was waiting for a U.S. Customs opinion in a $5-million case.

He checked with another law firm on the 20th floor. Also no mail.

Craven telephoned the post office. When he got no satisfactory response, he took another tack. He wrote a letter.

Four days later, the written complaint was returned to its sender. The address of the central post office-433 W. Van Buren--was scratched out. The envelope was stamped "NO SUCH ADDRESS."

"Occasionally, hey . . . " Craven said, spreading his arms wide. "I understand occasionally. It's a hard job. I understand that.

"But I deal with Customs. I have 7-, 14- and 21-day deadlines to reply to things. They usually use the date of the mailing."

He has upgraded his office fax machine.

To the northwest, in the leafy Belmont-Cragin section, the brick bungalows and two-flats are filled with working-class families trading postal horror tales, fueled by the knowledge that 40,000 pieces of their mail turned up last month at their carrier's house. Firefighters found it when they answered an emergency call.

Along the route, Diane Gaertner had missed two of the paychecks that her employer, an air-conditioning and heating company, sent to her apartment. "It affects my life when I live from check to check and I've got a son to raise," she said.

Her grandmother's Social Security checks stopped coming too. "Grandma's in a nursing home," Gaertner said. "We would take care of it, but it meant calling them, calling the Social Security office, calling them back, them screaming at us."

Nestor Lugardo's family had been wondering why none of their relatives in Puerto Rico had written to them in the two months since they moved here.

Peregrina Aguilar, 17, found out she had missed her April payment on her Prosser High School class ring; she didn't get the bill.

And one woman, whose husband is so chagrined she begged for anonymity, told of an $80 check he received two weeks ago, dated 1988. It was for snowplow services that winter. "I badgered that lady for months," the wife quotes him as telling her. "She always said the check was in the mail."

For once, it really was.

The carrier, Robert Beverly, is suspected of having sifted through the mail for items he could sell or otherwise turn to profit, Porter said. He has been charged with felony theft.

Beverly used his own car, an older Jaguar, on his route, which made hauling the stacks home that much easier. The Chicago district just doesn't have enough vehicles to supply one to every employee.

But his replacement, Eddie Ponce, had a regulation truck on a recent day. "They told me, 'Keep it clean,' " she said, when they assigned her to the route.

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