Monday, April 19, 2010

Land of the Lunchladies

I love the US government! No, seriously. Any institution with a tax system as ponderous as ours is less like the sword-bearing-marine-mirrored-sunglasses tough guy it wants us to think it is and more like a fat black bear wearing a calico apron and trying to mix pancakes with its clumsy claws. Whenever I do my taxes I am reminded of all our ineffective bumbling bureaucracies: school lunch programs in which lumpish ladies in hairnets seem to be the direct arm of the US Federal government, mail men in Bermuda shorts and white pith helmets, the "Welcome to America" movie you see on US-bound flights with its ridiculous montage of amber waves of grain, Niagara Falls, and muscular football players throwing a pass.

Want to hear my favorite tax-day memory? Too bad, you're going to hear it anyway. I was in high school, at a dance with my cousin Katie. Her father, my Uncle Tom, picked us up from the dance at 11:48 and said, "Quick, get in the car, we have twelve minutes to get to the post office." Then followed a wild ride through downtown Buffalo and into the old First Ward. We drove through neighborhoods that looked like the one pictured below, and my uncle, while speeding through the dark streets, took the time to give us a little history of the area, first built up by Irish immigrants in the 1820s. I was fascinated by the dismal old houses. There was not a light on in any house and their steep gables seemed vulnerable yet also slightly menacing. That midnight ride to the post office made such an impression on me that and as an adult I tried in vain to find the area he said was called the "Valley" and once even got lost after crossing two drawbridges into the sort of neighborhood where people circle you like sharks when you stop for a red light.

Anyway, back on that tax day, we screeched into the parking lot of the post office, and joined a line of cars that approached a postal clerk who stood in the middle of the lot with a stamp and a bin. You handed your tax return to him, through your car window, and he stamped it with an April 15th postmark and dropped it into the bin. I seem to remember there was some generosity here, perhaps a one or two minute extension of the deadline, like if you were in line by midnight, they'd still stamp your tax return. At any rate, we got there in time, but only just. I thought it extremely exciting. My own parents' method of paying taxes was far less dramatic.

I did a search, on tax day, to see if some post offices still stay open until midnight on April 15th, and it appears that they do not. Spoilsports.


  1. I remember my parents racing to the post office before midnight. Not only a weird ritual, but actually pretty amazing that the government has been able to instill such fear of PENALTY in all of us! I mean, here were my parents who paid interest on credit cards and loans, and paid ridiculous check cashing fees because they were too poor-working class to even have a bank account and then, what? Did they even owe much tax? If not, the IRS late filing penalty was nothing, if anything. But here everyone was rushing around not to be a minute late...?? It was/is some weird fear of the government, not of the penalty.

  2. I love it. The image of all those people AND the postman waiting together until the last minute.
    And I adore your description of the government even though it depresses me.

  3. Thanks for the memory, it brought a grin to my face.

  4. Anything to make paying taxes more exciting.