If you're lucky, those chicken-scratch cards will pass through Bill Patton's coarse, thin fingers. In that case, there is a very nice chance that he will decode your handwriting, automatically know the ZIP code and send the mail on its (now legible and properly posted) way.
Which means that Aunt Elsa in Fishtown will get her card some time in the quite foreseeable future.
You do not know what junk mail is until you see what Patton handles. A 40- year postal-service veteran, Patton is the clerk who gets the worst mail in Philadelphia - the mail that is incorrectly addressed, or hieroglyphically addressed, or hardly addressed at all - and makes sense out of what has eluded others.
There isn't really a formal name for what Patton handles, "but 'bad mail' would sort of sum it up," he says. Right now he is reading the worst mail of the worst week of the year at the 30th Street Post Office, where the daily deluge has swelled from an average seven million to 12 million letters, magazines and packages.
After watching him do this for half an hour, it is very clear that no machine can ever be properly programmed to do the amazing things that Patton does.
LATRONA. SNO #%&*7. PHI.
It's right there, scrawled on the envelope. A novice clerk - someone with, say, only 25 years experience - might consider just sending it back to the return address. Except Patton can't do that because the return address reads, in its entirety, "Mom."
Well, sighs Patton, "you get a lot of those."
It doesn't really matter, because he has already figured it out: The letter is headed to South Fourth Street (sure, anyone can see that) and Patton knew the ZIP code the minute he got the address.
"Now, you've got your common mistakes, like 'S. 14th St.' Everyone knows that's South Broad," says Patton, who is small, slight and seventysomething. He's sitting at his station in the third-floor incoming-mail city-section work area. The room is painted a light green that is never found in nature but always in government buildings and public schools. "Or here's 'Farmouth' for Fairmount. Here's 'Loung' when it should be Loring. The ZIP code tells you that right off. Or 'Camac Dr.' for Camas Dr. There's a Camac Street but, again, the ZIP code lets me know."
The most-often misspelled street is, no question about this one, Sydenham. ''You see it spelled 'Sidman' and 'Sitham' and sometimes they just mess it up because they're not sure. I imagine there isn't any wrong way to spell it that I haven't seen," says Patton, whose shirt pocket is so overstuffed with pens that it is listing toward the floor.
One of the most common stunts is to simply finish off an address with ''Phil. 191?" This trick can't defeat Patton. The man knows his ZIPs, or ''the scheme" as it is called in postal-service circles. Patton hails from 38. That's East Germantown to those who are not ZIP-friendly. He has five children, "about eight grandchildren," and the same wife, Vivian, he started with. (Wait, Patton calls back a few days later to say with a laugh, "I made a mistake about those grandchildren. There are only six.")
"Take a look at this letter," says Patton, who possesses a schoolteacher's penmanship. It is addressed "Social Security System. East S. Treasurer. Dept. QC. Phils." Patton sees a lot of these. He knows it's a long way from home.
"It's supposed to go to the Philippines," he says. "We tend to get their mail when there isn't any ZIP code." Patton gives a look that indicates this is a rather routine occurrence.
He goes through it all, about five or six teeming trays of mail a day, sorting it into the small bins in front of his stool. The postal service will even take the time to sort out the improperly addressed junk mail.
"There is no such thing as junk mail," spokeswoman Cathy Yarosky says emphatically. "We treat it all the same."
Sometimes, though, Patton finds a piece of mail he treats just a little bit better than the rest. He recently took some extra time on one letter that bore only an initial and a common name, then "Rupert St. Phila. Pa." He looked up the full address "because it's got a check inside and I thought the person might be wanting it for Christmas."
Patton figures that about 20 to 30 percent of all mail is, in some way or another, improperly addressed. "And the worst offenders by far, no question about it, are the insurance companies," says Patton. As evidence, he offers up a handful of the transgressors' letters, all of them with nonexistent streets or addresses.
His sorting average is good but, every day, a few letters will elude him, like the one that reads "Mr. and Mrs. Vogt. Phila. Penn.," with no return address, not even "Mom." The letter will be sent to the inquiry section, where it is opened in an effort to locate an address on the letter of either the recipient or sender. (This may make people think twice before improperly addressing a letter.)
Patton has seen a lot of bad mail in his day. He once got an envelope that read "third house on the right with red shutters" on a particular street. Patton hunted down the carrier on the route, who counted the shutters to find the right house. Years later, remembering that letter still makes Patton smile.
"I never really expected to be here all these years. I thought I'd be here for a while and move on," he says. "There's no more mandatory retirement but I think I'll be going soon. I kind of think this will be my last Christmas."
And with that, he goes back to sorting the mail, shoving the letters into the proper bins.