Leave it to Amazon to further enhance what used to be the dead time between ordering something by mail or telephone and receiving it on your doorstep. In the catalog and magazine ad mail-order days of not that long ago, it was always “4-6 weeks,” and you just waited and wondered, and sometimes even forgot entirely that you’d ordered X-ray specs out of a comic book or pumpkin seeds from the Burpee catalog. There was no confirmation email, of course, but you’d likely see your (or, your mom’s) canceled check courtesy of some far-off bank, sometimes long before the package arrived.
These days, Web retailers like Amazon.com and just about everyone else make it possible to track your package from the very moment it leaves the warehouse until it’s on a local truck (“Out for delivery,” in tracking-speak) and almost in your hands. Some might say this stomps out the romance of waiting for a coveted item to show up, but I believe just the opposite. Like NORAD tracking Santa’s sleigh, keeping tabs on a package gives the tracker a vicarious thrill, and a geography lesson on the infrastructure of middle America (at least those communities conveniently located near the Interstate).
As Christmas fast approaches, I’ve got my attention focused on two packages headed toward Seattle. The first left the East Coast Friday (turning up in Saddle Brook, N.J., early Saturday, and then last seen Monday in Hodgkins, Ill.). I’m not that worried about this particular piece of home electronics, since it’s a present for, uh, me. If it gets here after Christmas, no big deal. I’m not even sure which carrier is bringing it to me, since Amazon is big enough and smart enough to make you come to the Amazon website to track your package — not to UPS or FedEx or whatever. That way, you have to login and fight your way past all the enticing “Personal Recommendations” that a devious algorithm somewhere has lovingly used to impersonally select other products you can’t live without (and it’s frighteningly accurate most of the time).
The second package I’m tracking is much more important, as it’s for a younger member of the household. Ordered online directly from the manufacturer late Sunday night, this one has to be here by today, Christmas Eve, at the latest, and so I paid extra for UPS Third Day Select. An automated email late Monday included a link to the UPS website. I clicked to find that this important shipment first arrived at a UPS depot in Englewood, Colo. on Monday; a few hours later it arrived in Commerce City, Colo.; by early yesterday it was already in Hermiston, Ore. and presumably on its way in a flash to our Seattle home.
How wonderfully American these places sound, making me feel as if I’m taking virtual Travels With Charley. I like to think of the crews at work at these depots and hubs, most on the swing and graveyard shifts, hauling their enormous lunch boxes to the facility each night, sharing jocular humor as they slam the packages back and forth off the conveyor belts and industrial wheeled carts. Their modest paychecks pump cash into the little towns and post-industrial neighborhoods nearby, through gas stations and grocery stores, taverns and restaurants, strip malls and strip joints. I think of the yellow sodium-vapor-lit facilities surrounded by huge parking lots and humming with activity as I sleep or, more often than not, as I while away the late-night hours writing or reading (or tracking my packages).
And rather than just remaining names of unknown locales, thanks to the Web, in just a few minutes I learned these fascinating things about the places in America where my packages have made pitstops in the past few days:
Saddle Brook, N.J., was originally part of Saddle River Township, which was created in the early 1700s within the area known as New Barbados.
Hodgkins, Ill., (which sounds vaguely cancerous), is actually a “Progressive Community Based on Family Values.” I don’t know what that means either.
Englewood, Colo., offers small-town convenience with big-city amenities and is home to 32,491 residents and 2,388 businesses.
Commerce City, Colo., city offices will close at noon, and the Parks and Recreation Center will close at 1 p.m. today in observance of Christmas Eve.
Folks in Hermiston say, “Welcome to the Future of Eastern Oregon! Welcome to the City of Hermiston.”
And in Seattle on Christmas Eve 2009, I wait for the screen to say, “Out for delivery.”
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