There is nothing so quintessentially American as 8 p.m. on tax day at the Post Office. In the face of this grand national tradition, Mom's apple pie comes off about as patriotic as goulash. And baseball — shit, baseball might as well be cricket.Think about it. Here we have thousands of people waiting in a government institution-related line. (Come on, what's more American than that?) In their idly chugging automobiles. (Ding! Now that's American!) While mundane music blares and corporate representatives shower them with tchotchkes, soda, donut holes and coupons for free chicken sandwiches. (Ding! Sing it with me — Oh beautiful for spacious skies!) And they're here because they're either loath to part with their money until they absolutely have to (OK, so maybe that one's a bit antithetical), or simply procrastinators by nature (Ding! Ding! Ding!).
Short of a concert co-headlined by Creed and Brooks & Dunn, held in a mall, hosted by the original cast of Baywatch and catered by McDonald's, it's about as much of the true American Experience as you're likely to find at one place and time. And if that doesn't warm your cockles, sir or madam, then your cockles are made of smoke and broken glass.
St. Petersburg's largest post office is located at the corner of First Avenue North and 31st Street. The mammoth complex fronts on 31st; this evening, cars are backed up the length of the block in both directions. Police officers deftly direct flow into the building's large parking lot, trying to keep the backup off busy First Ave. They've been a presence since 3 p.m. and began managing the congestion around 4:30, or about the time most nine-to-fivers begin to arrive here after skating out of work early.
In the lot, drivers are directed either right for parking and business inside the office, or straight ahead for the handy envelope handoff. The drive-thru section is a cavalcade of strangely jubilant activity. As taxpayers in wildly disparate vehicles wait to ante up, they're accosted by product placement, free goodies and radio personalities. A six-foot cup of coffee (played today by Anthony Patrone) offers free Munchkins courtesy of Dunkin Donuts, while his mate Ms. Donut (Brenna Barry is the fetching, pale pink oversized pastry) cavorts amid the cars, bringing joy, scaring children and possibly driving the police officers to distraction. One of the bipedal cows made famous by Chick-Fil-A's cutesy billboards hands out sandwich vouchers. And at the end of the line, WRBQ Oldies 104.7 blasts from the past and contributes key chains, stickers, cups and general merriment.
"We just like to come out here and entertain people," says WRBQ's Kimmie Kemerer between station ID's and lip-synching for the customers.
And to give them free trinkets slathered in logos, naturally. In America, no crowd is complete without 'em.
Inside, there's less action than one might expect, even though Tampa tax service Colbert/Ball is here to help with envelopes, extension form submissions and a little gratis tax advice if it's needed. But let's face it, if you haven't started filling out your forms by 8 p.m. on tax day, you don't need tax advice, you need a tax attorney. Or a criminal attorney. Or a valid passport.
The cars keep coming: ancient pickups, late-model Altimas and battalions of mini-vans. When was the last time you saw a real-life station wagon? I see three. Even a guy in a brand-new Escalade drops off his envelope, prompting one to wonder how many H&R Block filings could fit into the price of a 2003 Cadillac SUV. It seems like it could go on forever, and I'm sure it's been like this every April 15 since the United States government instituted the income tax to help offset the cost of the Spanish-American War.
"Since I got here at 3, there's been a steady back-up all the way down the street," confirms Ski, another member of the WRBQ crew. "And it'll be that way until midnight, just like it is every year."
Actually, things have lessened a bit by 11:30. The river of automobiles has dried to a steady stream; police no longer direct traffic, but remain on the scene. Two gentlemen inside the office are actually sitting down, right now, and doing their taxes.
United States Postal Service employee Joe McCauley, who actually volunteered for duty tonight — and, like everybody else I've encountered, seems in inordinately good spirits to be here — reckons the whole evening was a little thinner than in the past.
"I think a lot of people are starting to file on the Internet," he reasons. "I've worked (at Tampa International Airport's 24-hour Post Office), and people were still in line at midnight, and wouldn't get in until 45 minutes ... an hour later."
Still, plenty of folks continue to exhibit the kind of creative prioritizing that keeps credit card companies, convenience stores and Blockbuster Video in business. USPS Customer Relations Coordinator Susan Harton calls an estimation that over 4,000 drivers came through the lot "on the light side."
And how many of the people that wait until tax day does she reckon owe, as opposed to having money coming to them?
"Ninety percent, I would think," she says with a laugh. "They don't want to give up the money until they absolutely have to."
As midnight approaches, employees begin coordinating for a precision cut-off. Nervous, repetitive checking of both one's own watch and the watches of others ensues. Multiple jokes about Greenwich Mean Time and the Atomic Clock are made. Several folks clad in the volunteers' orange vests march down to the end of the lot, preparing to politely inform motorists that they're pretty much shit out of luck.
The final car, a small white sporty job, comes through the line. The man inside hands off his envelope, and there's a bit of a hurrah, which is cut short by an elderly woman in a housecoat tapping on a volunteer's shoulder. No one knows where she came from. She silently hands over her own mailer, then turns and marches away.
The radio guys kill the PA. The cops melt into the night. The volunteers wheel huge bins of tax returns inside.
Five minutes later, it's like the whole loud, weird tradition never happened at all.
And five minutes after that, the parking lot is full again. Cars screech into spaces, their drivers hopping out and striding quickly toward the office's electronic sliding doors, hoping they'll open. And as I walk back down 31st Street toward my own vehicle, the cars keep coming.
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].