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JUST KILLING TIME AT THE POST OFFICE

Big-time investigative journalists such as Bob Woodward and I often rely on secret tips from insiders. Without giving away Bob's sources, I can reveal that he gets his best stuff from Cabinet members, five-star generals, disgruntled first ladies, etc., and the resulting stories tend to put people in jail or bring cherished institutions to their knees. My secret sources tend to be winos and graffiti, and the resulting stories have disclosed facts such as that women, unlike men, flush public toilets with their feet.

Thus, I was surprised the other day when I got a secret, unsolicited tip from an actual government-type individual. In order to protect his or her identity and prevent reprisals against her or him, I am willing to write awkwardly vague and incomprehensible sentences such as this one, in which I pledge to protect h(is)er privacy even at the risk of incarceration. What I can disclose is that my source used to work in an important capacity on Capitol Hill and that (s)he told me the following:

Over the past two years, as part of a program to modernize and standardize the appearance of the nation's 37,000 post offices, the U.S. Postal Service has been quietly removing the clocks from customer waiting areas. This is said to be the agency's way of solving the problem of customer exasperation at having to wait in long lines.

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, hahahahaha! I am, too! But unlike you, I am a trained investigative journalist, so I was not content with publishing hearsay from a single source, even juicy stuff like this. So I exercised my shoe leather and pounded the pavement, walking a few blocks to my local post office, where a clerk confirmed that, yes, there had been a recent physical redesign, and, yes, the only publicly visible clock had been removed.

Confirmed!

My elation was dampened only slightly when research revealed that someone else had gotten to this enormous story first. Last year, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had a piece about the clock removal program.

I called Gerry McKiernan, Washington spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service. I told him about my secret tip and said I had read the Fort Worth story.

Gerry: Oh, that story was baloney.

Me: You're not removing all the clocks?

Gerry: No, we are. That part was true.

Me: Then what was wrong?

Gerry: The implication that it was because we didn't want people to know how long they were waiting.

Me: Well, the story quoted a USPS spokesman saying "We want people to focus on postal service and not the clock."

Gerry: Yeah. Well, he was off base. He didn't check with anybody. He just said it.

Me: I see!

Gerry: The real reason is uniformity. We want all post offices to look the same, whether you are in Portland, Ore., or Portland, Maine.

Me: Okay, but why remove the clocks?

Gerry: Because they were mostly in places where we want to put signage, so people can see what products are available.

Me: So, that's your story?

Gerry: Yes, it is.

Me: But, if you're redesigning the whole place anyway, why not just move the clock?

Gerry: Why do you need a clock? People have wristwatches.

Me: See, that brings me to my main question. Have you also considered confiscating and destroying people's timekeeping devices - watches and cell phones - when they walk in?

Gerry: Hahahaha.

Me: I'm serious.

Gerry: We have no plans to. But if we did confiscate them, we wouldn't destroy them. We'd mail them back to your homes.

So there you have it. Is the Postal Service solving the problem of long lines by taking out its clocks? You can carefully weigh my big scoop against the agency's conditional, partial, semi-demi-denial and decide for yourself.

In the meantime, I'd like to propose that the rest of the federal government consider taking the U.S. Postal Service approach to solving problems. I'll start us out with two proposals:

Problem: Disturbing images of starving children in Third World countries.

Solution: Prohibit cameras in Third World countries.

Problem: America's financial crisis.

Solution: Stop calling it "America's financial crisis." Start calling it "America's peanuttiest fun-size confection!"

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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