I wasn’t expecting to get the police called on me in a post office. I’d had such a good run of friendly post office staff who'd remained professional as I handed them loose vegetables to deliver, and I wasn’t even being a nuisance in this one. The documentary was over; I just needed some shots of envelopes.
But apparently this post office owner didn’t have official Australia Post envelopes. He was selling a cheaper brand and feared that I’d blow the lid on his envelope scam, so he called the cops and I stood around waiting.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
It all started when I read a blog post about the surprising flexibility of the US Postal Service, which detailed how you can send just about anything in the US, so long as you have the right amount of stamps.
It made me curious about Australia’s own postal service. Because here in Australia, there are some pretty stringent regulations about what can and can’t be placed in the post, and what kind of official packaging things need to be placed in. But with their thousands of employees, I wondered just how seriously each individual person might take these rules. And so, just to see what’d happen, I sent a loose potato to a friend—and it arrived a few days later.
The potato experiment was harmless and amusing, but over a year later, I was still thinking about it.
There was something thrilling about the strict regulations of a large bureaucracy being undone by a few employees with a sense of humour. I wanted to know exactly how far I could push it. So for a final year documentary unit at university, I chose to conduct a series of tests on Australia Post.
The primary test was seeing what items could be delivered loose. I’d scrawl the address on the item itself, cover it in stamps, then send it off without any name or return address and see if it'd arrive.
My first real test was speed. But I was concerned staff would realise they were being measured and might be tempted to pause the stopwatch…
…so I attached a photo of former Australia Cricket Captain Steve Smith to remind them about the risks of tampering.
It arrived a few days later: 5 hours, 30 minutes, 41 seconds. I then realised the stopwatch couldn’t even run past 24 hours, but I wasn’t prepared to rule out foul play.
Once I got the stopwatch back from my friend, I gratefully placed it under my bed where it proceeded to beep periodically for the next few months. It probably wasn’t likely someone at Australia Post had had the foresight to set an alarm on the stopwatch for 2:23 AM, knowing it’d be stored under the sender’s bed, and hoping that person would endure the alarm every night, only to forget about it the next morning, creating a vicious cycle of ongoing torment—but I wasn’t prepared to rule out foul play.
I’d been having a lot of success with my experiments but sometimes you have to cross a line to know where the line is.
To Australia Post’s credit, they did actually deliver a condom, but it must’ve got jammed in some kind of sorting machine because when an angry postman knocked on my friend’s door there was lubricant seeping from the packet and into the envelope.
I ended up finding a new address with a fresh postman and decided to get back to basics: letters.
Although the post office’s signage said large letters required two stamps, I was told I needed more.
My letter arrived. Although curiously, it was on the ground a few feet away from the mailbox—as though the postal worker had taken a look at it, sighed, and chucked it on the grass.
So then I thought, “why just mail one letter when I could mail the whole alphabet?”
I bought 26 individual wooden letters and sent them to 26 different Melbourne post boxes, all on the same day.
The whole alphabet arrived, staggered over several days.
Later I realised that if I’d had some better forward planning skills, I could’ve marked all the post boxes on a map with their corresponding letters, noted down the order each one arrived, and then discovered something akin to Coke’s secret formula: Australia Post’s collection route.
It’s worth mentioning that none of the letter footage actually made it into the final documentary. It was an incredibly inefficient production. One problem is that post boxes are the least interesting thing to film, plus if there’s any sun at all you often can’t really make out what’s in the parcel slot.
Rather than mirror the legitimate scientific rigour of the UPS experiment, the project began to find its rhythm when I started incorporating strangers.
For instance, I asked people on the street about their experiences with the post. Shockingly, no one else knew you could mail loose items, so I’d give them some of my stamps and let them mail themselves something (most people were way too relaxed about giving a stranger with a camera their home address).
The project evolved over time, focusing less on novelty items and more on people, so I ended up burning through the bulk of the mailing footage in a thirty-second montage.
I didn’t even include the stopwatch at all. Maybe I felt a spiteful postal worker with far more foresight than me didn’t deserve the validation.
Finally, when I showed my tutor a rough cut of the documentary, he told me it might work for short film competitions but “probably won’t get you a job as a journalist.” Then he told me a long story about Elton John, which I assume was some kind of inspiring analogy but flew over my head.
The documentary later won the most popular television story category at my university’s journalism awards night, and attracted the attention of the highest rated radio station in Sydney: 2GB.
Fortunately, I took my tutor’s words on board and squandered a night of potential networking opportunities. I just hit the open bar and 2GB host Ben Fordham asked whether I’ve been told I’m an idiot.
Anyway, you can send your friend a loose pineapple, or a potato, or most types of things just as long as you have the correct amount of stamps. You’ll almost definitely annoy the nice people at Australia Post, who’ll probably put the pineapple or potato or whatever it is inside something else—but you still can. And that’s the kind of world I want to live in.
The police did end up coming, but they were chill and said I could keep the footage. Unfortunately, I never had enough leads to bust open the envelope scandal.