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Ask Tuffy – Zip It Monday, August 6, 2007

Posted by Tuffy in ask tuffy, tuffy.
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Dear Tuffy,

I found an old videotape in my parents’ video cabinet the other day where they had taped an episode of “Emergency!” off the television. (Apparently, my parents had a Mark Spitz obsession before I was born. This is a problem for another time.)

While watching the videotape, I saw this commercial for the Consumer Information Catalog in Pueblo, Colorado. Apparently, there was this place in the 1970s where a person could send a postcard and receive a catalog with a whole bunch of knowledge inside.

What was this place and what did they really do? What kind of information did they have?

Diving for Information in Delaware

Dear Diving,

You have uncovered one of the forgotten glories of the American experience in the second half of the twentieth century: the 81009 zip code. Located just outside Pueblo, 81009 was a magical land of brochures and men in sea blue shirts and navy blue ties happily typing away at specially constructed typewriters, pouring the world’s knowledge into those heavy paper beauties.

Alan Zip photographThe idea for the Federal Citizen Information Center came from Alan Zip, the Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service from 1961-1989. After his invention and implementation of the Zip code in 1963, postal delivery became so much easier to complete that his employees became rude and listless in their newfound free time, unlike their hard-working and polite reputation.

Mr. Zip’s talkative and curious young girl, Zelda, provided Mr. Zip’s solution to this conundrum.  As most young children are, Zelda would pepper her father with questions both inane and inspired.  After wearily tackling the thirteenth attempt to explain the transistor radio to his precocious child, it occurred to Mr. Zip that there simply must be a better way to answer people’s questions than shouting “magical pixies live inside the radio and sing to you and will die if you pester them too much!” and absconding to the den.

Unlike most fathers, his solution wasn’t to hide out at the corner bar until Zelda grew up and moved out of the house to put up with her incessant nagging which she got from her mother, the banshee. Instead, Mr. Zip sent his elite postal inspectors out to look for a home for what would eventually become the Federal Citizen Information Center. The FCIC would serve as the trusted governmental father figure for naturally inquisitive people nationwide, big and small.

He eventually settled on a remote location just outside the tiny town of Pueblo, Colorado, and declared it the property of the United States Postal Service by designating it with its own zip code: 81009. During the somber groundbreaking ceremony, Mr. Zip honored four postal inspectors lost in the line of duty during this search in a tragic cheesecake accident in Portage, IN.

When a question arrived in the massive 81009 mail facility, it would be sorted by the Ask-O-Tronic 2000 into one of four main categories: Factual, Predictive, Advice, and (for a brief time) Requests for Autographed Photos of Leif Garrett.

Pink Ladies?  Pink Lady? Jeffs?Questions that could be answered by a trip to the world’s best reference library (constructed mostly from bulk mail extras and “accidentally” lost packages) were delivered to the Zip Library, located on the northeast campus in 81009. There, retrained mail carriers would fashion pamphlets to answer frequently asked questions. Popular editions included “How to Buy a Home”, “101 Uses for Fruitcake”, “Where Did I Leave My Keys?” and ”Shouldn’t It Be ‘Pink Ladies and Jeff’?”

Asking about the future required a little more work. Mr. Zip gathered America’s finest minds (mostly former Nazis) to create numerous scenarios to predict future matters, such as the arrival of the personal hovercar and the winner of the 1994 World Series. After limited success over the years, these questions were reluctantly outsourced to Project Quantum Leap in 1995.

People seeking the advice of a trusted stranger were quite the surprise to Mr. Zip; he didn’t expect millions of requests for the federal government to fix their love lives. Mail carriers did their level best to help these lost souls. However, the overwhelming number of requests required a more efficient approach.

Thankfully, efficiency has always been a hallmark of the United States Postal Service. Mr. Zip handled this problem by quietly releasing two separate solutions: the Magic 8-Ball and Dear Abby. The former solution let the Type A American answer their own questions with eerie accuracy; the latter was a computer program designed to give hope to those that need to look to a higher being. (Dear Abby has subsequently been replaced by a team of robots and now cloned Stepford wives trained for the task in a secret bunker under the southwest campus.) This lowered the number of advice questions sent to 81009 by 87%.

As you might have guessed, 81009 fell into relative disrepute after it could not turn its huge brick-and-mortar facilities into a cost-effective Internet-based service. The Internet could offer the same answers (or close facsimiles with truth-like substances applied aftermarket) along with immense quantities of pornography, which Mr. Zip’s team could not possibly compete with.

A few wise, intelligent, and handsome people have tried to take up the slack on the Internet to apply salve to the mental strains of the terminally stupid by answering their thoughtful questions. Still, we are not enough; it is feared America could continue the intellectual slide first experienced by Great Britain when they discovered the Internet in an Egyptian pyramid outside Gaza in 1908.

There are still a small group of retired mail carriers watching vigilantly over the Alexandria of the New World, caring for its artifacts and knowledge in case there ever comes a time when a small child will need help on a math problem or a housewife needs to know when to leave her lousy no-good spouse without any porn included with the answer.

Alas, that day will likely never come. Perhaps the final confirmation of that comes from the passing of Mr. Zip himself in 1992 after a lengthy battle with a paper cut infection. Mrs. Zip found a copy of the 1743 Poor Richard’s Almanac at his side when he passed, open to the famous Benjamin Franklin quotation: “Everything is better with pornography.”

Ben Franklin Hit Here

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Comments»

1. Baba Oje - Monday, August 6, 2007

I’m beginning to think some of Tuffy’s information isn’t true.

2. LenBiasCocaineSurplus - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

How does this post NOT utilize the “things I associate with Free Mason conspiracies” tag?

3. Moonshine Mike - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I was just glad it wasn’t a homemade ‘video’ of the parents. I had a friend scarred for life with that accident.

4. TheStarterWife - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

“magical pixies live inside the radio and sing to you and will die if you pester them too much!”

I love that line. Quick and inspired.

5. Tuffy - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I’m beginning to think Baba Oje isn’t true. Huh? Huh? How you like them apples?

6. nancy - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

This blog has been making its way around my office today and we’re all new fans of yours. I work for the Federal Citizen Information Center…making those TV commercials. :) I also grew up watching the TV show Emergency and had such a crush on Johnny Gage.

When I was a kid, we used to quote the Pueblo PSAs in school (“Fatty cake, watch out!”) and I even sang a couple of the old Pueblo jingles from the 70s on my job interview. Happily, they hired me anyway.

Though I like your version of the Pueblo story much better, rumor here has it that the Consumer Information Center and the Consumer Information Catalog got their start in the early 1970s distributing government consumer booklets from Pueblo, Colorado because there was all this great information from the government and no centralized way for people to find out about and get it. And there was a government distribution center in Colorado that didn’t have enough business. So like chocolate and peanut butter–they put two great things together and created something even better.

Fast forward to today. We’ve added a bunch of services over the years to help people connect with the government and renamed the program the Federal Citizen Information Center. These days, our PSAs focus on USA.gov, GobiernoUSA.gov and 1 (800) FED-INFO. Those’ll help you get answers to any question you have about government benefits, services or information. We also added ConsumerAction.gov to educate people about making smart purchases and getting consumer complaints solved and Kids.gov for the 6th grade and younger crowd.

Pueblo is still very much alive, still sending out millions of booklets to people who write to the famous 81009 or order the publications by phone or online at Pueblo.gsa.gov .

Most of our ads from over the last 30+ years are here: http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/comrcial.htm

Here’s to nostalgia, and to great blogs!

7. TheStarterWife - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I’ve never been so proud to know Tuffy as I am right now. I cannot believe the actual Pueblo people found you.

8. Jerkwheat - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Bless you Tuffward Von Tuffowitz.

9. Tuffy - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Nancy, thank you for your kind words about DeadOn. Clearly, we have the raw materials for a mutual admiration society; the Consumer Information Catalog and its commercials are some of the best work the United States government has ever done.

Also, I have heard the same rumors about the origins of FCIC you have. However, most of those rumors were quite soundly struck down in Alan Zip’s posthumously published autobiography, “Return to Sender”.

10. nancy - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Thanks Tuffy. FCIC’s obsession with doing good work actually inspired a PSA documentary back in 2004: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2I4oIS-2il0

I’ll have to get a copy of Zip’s book. I knew he wrote “The Postman Always Rings Twice” but had no idea he’d had time in his busy career to compile an autobiography too.


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