CHAMPAIGN — The back room is filled with gifts — thousands of them. A single string of Christmas lights hangs on a wall.
But instead of wrapping paper, the gifts are in boxes and padded envelopes. Instead of bows, they're tied with Amazon Prime packing tape, stamped "FRAGILE" and to be handled with care. In place of gift tags, they have addresses.
The back of the post office on North Neil Street buzzes. Carriers are working on their off days. Some are working 12-hour shifts. The gifts are sorted and piled — some tossed — into carts instead of under trees. It's the busy season for mail carriers, especially as online Christmas shopping has picked up in the past five or so years.
And today is expected to be the busiest day: exactly one week before Christmas Day. The Neil Street post office, which handles parcel deliveries for Champaign, will see as many as 15,000 of them today, says Postmaster Lauri Poindexter. That's about 18 percent more than the Christmases of five or more years ago.
"On one hand, it is stressful," Poindexter says. "On the other, we know it's coming."
That means carrier Shana Cox is here early, 90 minutes before her shift would normally start. Around 7:30 a.m., she grabs cart No. 20, which has been filled with packages going to an area in west-central Champaign.
They've arrived here from Austin, Texas; Naperville; Orlando, Fla.; Kewanee; Trenton, Utah; and Shenzhen, China. One is from Bob in Santa Barbara, Calif., who writes his name with a peace sign in place of the "O." Another came from a sender in Milwaukee who has an explicit but endearing nickname for the recipient.
Most are likely Christmas gifts being delivered to the people who bought them for someone else — except the one from Milwaukee, which has a "Happy Birthday" sticker on the front. The browns, whites and yellows of the packages piled in the cart replace the greens and reds of typical holiday wraps. There are about two dozen here altogether. Cox estimates it will take her about 45 minutes.
She grabs a cellphone and a barcode scanner and wheels the cart outside. The barcode scanner and the cellphone's GPS will work together to upload information to a website where customers can track their package's progress. Cox is blasted with cold air as the doors swing open — the morning temperature is around 9 degrees. There's a thick layer of snow on the ground. She's not wearing a coat, hat or gloves. She grabs her sunglasses.
"I'm tough," she says.
This is her sixth year on the job, so she knows what to expect by now. She wears boots and three layers of thick clothes — a yellow hooded sweatshirt underneath her dirtied, light-blue postal uniform shirt.
She picks a minivan — 134,199 miles with a busted tailgate — which she'll use to run the route, and she sorts the packages into even smaller piles of more localized addresses in the back. It's a somewhat futile attempt; the packages all slide around once she's on the road, but now she knows where she's going and the parcels are grouped relatively together.
"It's all about saving time," she says.
This is not a normal run. This is extra, early delivery, so the carrier who delivers the flat mail later will not be bogged down with dozens of packages — some too big or heavy to fit in a mail bag. Her first delivery is the plastic envelope from China to a nail salon on South Mattis Avenue. It isn't open this early in the morning. Cox is 0-for-1. She'll give that one to the regular carrier for later.
She swings around to head east on University Avenue — she planned this route to save time — and stops outside her second address as traffic passes by. She scans the package, which registers with a "beep," turns on her hazard lights, gets out of the van, locks the door, waits for the traffic to pass, crosses the street and navigates up a path that's been cleared in the snow.
The snow. The carriers loathe the snow — not because it's cold, but because it slows them down. On a snow-free day, they cut through yards — the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, Cox explains, and when you're visiting hundreds of mailboxes per day, it's a big deal.
But people don't shovel their front lawns, so the carriers have to find a relatively clear path through the deep snow. It adds distance and time.
At this house, she knocks and leaves the relatively small package in the mailbox. It will be fine there. Cox makes a judgment call every time she leaves a package at someone's home.
"You don't want to leave it where someone is going to walk off with it," she says. She tries to find hiding places. In between doors or behind walls, where possible. It depends on the neighborhood, too, she says.
She'll repeat this process many more times as she weaves through University Avenue, Clark Street, White Street and others that intersect them. The "beep" of the barcode scanner, the crunch of the snow under her boots, the knock on the door.
Her van gets stuck in the snow briefly on an unplowed side street. That's more time.
"Three-hundred block, 304, 206, 108," she says, looking at the addresses on the next group of packages as she plans her route. She remembers 108 is the "cookie house," where the resident left a thank-you for her in the past.
"OK, I know we have one on Russell," she says. This is a house where the snowmelt on an awning above the door drips onto the concrete steps and freezes. She holds on the railing and tenderly walks down after dropping off the package.
Yes, she gets curious sometimes about what's in the packages she's dropping off.
On Kelly Court, the door knock draws the attention of the dog inside. Cox was attacked by a pit bull that broke through a storm door last year when the weather was nicer. The dog's teeth pierced deep into her arm, and she came out with nerve damage. She's not sure what type of dog lives here, but she has seen it before, and it's a big one.
"No one has little dogs," she says.
Beep. Crunch. Knock. One younger man answers her knock as she's walking away and waves a thank-you.
The cold hasn't bothered Cox yet, and it's gotten noticeably warmer since the sun came out.
"It's just kind of a day-to-day, this is what you have to do," Cox says. "You get accustomed to it."
Cox drops off her last package on Union Street, and the special morning Christmas-package run is over. It took her a little more than an hour — the small delays added some minutes to her trip. Her day is long from over. Now she has to go back to the post office, regroup and deliver mail. She plans on working until about 7 p.m., a 12-hour shift.
She says she will be tired by the time she gets home. She'll play with her kids before she eats dinner.
"If you can hack the different types of weather, it's a decent job," Cox says. "It's just not for everyone."
Mail carriers arrive early, run special routes and work long hours in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Here's why:
15,000 — The number of parcels expected to have passed through Champaign's North Neil Street post office Wednesday, presumably the busiest delivery day of the year. Normal volume is between 3,000 and 6,000 items.
18% — How much Christmas mail has increased in the past five years, driven by increased online shopping.
11 — The number of times a package may be scanned to update its progress. Customers can watch that progress at usps.com.
4.7 billion — The number of packages, letters and cards the U.S. Postal Service delivers between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
607 million — The number of items the U.S. Postal Service expected to process in a single day this week. That's double the normal volume.