Friday, February 25, 2011

Mailing a Coconut: A True Story

While on vacation in Hawaii recently, one of my traveling companions and I decided to mail coconuts to friends back on the mainland.

It turns out that this is significantly more difficult than just dropping a coconut in the nearest mailbox.

We found two likely coconuts under some palm trees on the rocky shores of Onomea Bay, just north of Hilo on the Big Island. After pounding them with sharp rocks for about three times as long as it would have taken a stone-age person, we were able to peel off the green outer husks to reveal the hard brown shells underneath.

We took the de-husked coconuts back to Hilo, where we were staying. I poked a hole in the end of mine to drain out the coconut water while my friend decided to leave his intact. Then we let them both dry out for about a week.

When they were dry, we sanded off all the little hairs on one side to make a smooth writing surface and addressed our respective coconuts with a Sharpie. One coconut was destined for Colorado and the other for Massachusetts.

Feeling a little ridiculous, we then took the coconuts up to the counter at the main post office in Hilo. The postal worker helping us looked concerned and said that he had to check with his supervisor. He took our coconuts into the back of the post office where we heard some low conversation and then some giggling.

When he returned, he said that we had to get our coconuts inspected by the Agriculture Department before they could be mailed to the mainland. He gave us two places where we could get it done: the state office downtown or the federal office out at the airport. We opted for the state office, since it was only a few blocks away.

The State Department of Agriculture office in Hilo is a one-story white cinder block building with no discernible main entrance, just a series of widely-spaced dark-tinted glass doors along one side. We followed a couple hand-written "AGRICULTURAL INSPECTION THIS WAY" signs taped to the outside of the building and eventually came to a locked door with a buzzer and a poster listing prices for inspection of various items (seeds $25, plants $40, bacteria $100).

We rang the buzzer and asked the man who opened the door how much it would cost to get our coconuts inspected for mailing. "You wanna put 'em in a box or just wanna send 'em just like dat?" he asked in a familiar Hawaiian accent. When we confirmed that we just wanted to send them as they were, he said that the inspection would be free, but that he couldn't do it. "You gotta get 'em inspected by da Aggie guys at da airport," he told us.

Were we getting the runaround? Were we ever going to be able to mail our coconuts? No way were we giving up now.

We drove out to the Hilo airport and marched up to the curbside agricultural inspection station, where air travelers have their luggage inspected for contraband plants, soil, and other organisms. We were met by an alert-looking official wearing a crisp white shirt with blue and gold military-style insignia. When we explained that we needed him to inspect and certify our coconuts for mailing, he suddenly became baffled and fearful. He wanted no part of us or our coconuts. He quickly ushered us away from his station and directed us to the main USDA office at the other end of the airport.

The main USDA office was located in a tiny building at the far end of the airport by the lost luggage area. When we went in we were met with an icy blast of air conditioning. The office was empty of people but jam-packed with stuff. Books and papers and three-ring binders filled several rows of shelves on all four walls and USDA uniform shirts and vests hung on hangers from several of the top shelves. We were in front of a tiny counter in a tiny reception area just big enough for the two of us to stand in with the door closed.

We stood there for a minute, holding our coconuts, not sure what to do, until what turned out to be the world's coolest U.S. Department of Agriculture Employee came in through the door.

When he opened the door we had to flatten ourselves against the reception area wall to let him past us and around the counter to his desk. We told him about our coconut inspection needs and he didn't bat an eye. He grabbed my coconut and took a quick look at it and said, "Can you just take some more of the hairs off of this side? I need a flat smooth place where I can put my stamp."

We panicked momentarily but then remembered that we had brought some sandpaper with us. We took our coconuts outside to the curb, hastily sanded down another large patch on both coconuts, and brought them back into the office. With consummate professionalism and flair, our federal "Aggie" made several practice rolls with his stamp on each coconut before actually applying ink. The final result was thrillingly official, with a big red APPROVED BY U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE completely legible on each nut.

We thanked him profusely and headed back out to the car, carefully avoiding smearing the still-drying ink.

Luckily, there is a post office right next to the Hilo airport, so we didn't have too long a drive for the last step in the process. We walked into the post office and proudly presented our coconuts for mailing.

Amazing as it may seem, the guy at the post office clearly had never encountered someone trying to mail a coconut. He hefted the coconuts like a coconut expert, weighing them in his hands. He held each one up to his ear and shook it, confirming that mine was empty and that my friend's still had some water in it. He asked us where we got them and agreed that Onomea Bay was very nice. He marveled that we had ripped the husks off of them by ourselves: "Lot of labor went into these coconuts, then."

He checked out our fresh USDA stamps and nodded with approval. He asked what it took to get the inspection stamps and was interested that the state inspectors had actually appeared less familiar with coconut rules than the federal inspector.

He weighed my empty coconut on the scale and calculated the postage: $2.75. Then he weighed my friend's water-filled coconut: $10.20.

He went through the standard mailing questions for us but answered them all himself. "Do you have anything liquid in this package? Yes, in this one is coconut water. Anything fragile? No, it would be really hard to break this package. Anything perishable?" (This one he had to think about.) "No, it will last until it gets there."

He printed out the postage labels and fastened them carefully and securely to the sanded parts of the coconuts. "I am going to make sure these make it to their destinations," he said. Then he placed them on top of all the other packages on the outgoing mail shelf, in full view of the other customers, "to give other people ideas to mail their own coconuts."

I happily handed over my $2.75 and my friend happily handed over his $10.20 (he said later he would have paid $50, just to be able to see this through). We walked out of the post office into the Hilo sunshine, true coconut-mailing champions.

Both coconuts made it to their respective destinations three business days later, to the awe of their recipients.

3 comments:

Lord John Whorfin said...

Danny Kaye would be proud of you!

CrookedPlane said...

so cool!

Chris Hartman said...

Excellent illustration of the economics concept of Consumer Surplus.

Your friend said that he would have paid $50.00 to mail his coconut, yet in actuality he only paid $10.20, resulting in consumer surplus, for this transaction, of $39.80.

I feel justified in terming this a "whopping" consumer surplus. All hail the United States Postal Service!

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