A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tax Night

Tax Night has been my favorite holiday for about fifteen years. I've been taking my envelopes to the downtown post office at pretty close to midnight enough times for it to have become a tradition. But this year I topped my own personal best for eleventh-hour tax filing.

The first year it happened, I was living in the suburbs. After procrastinating as usual until April 15th, I had missed the postman's pickup, then the mailbox pickup, and finally ran to the local post office, only to find it closed. On the late news I saw that the downtown Springfield post office was going to stay open until midnight. I woke the kids, who were too little to leave home alone, threw them in the van in their pajamas, and rushed downtown.

I wasn't prepared for what I found. The area around the main post office looked like Times Square on New Year's Eve. A live band was playing; news cameras were everywhere. Traffic was bottlenecked; it was impossible to get near a box. And anyway, I wanted my tax forms postmarked while I watched.

I circled the area, panicking. Finally, I threw the envelopes back to my preteen daughter and ordered her to run over to the building, find her way inside, and hand the envelopes to a clerk. Come back after she'd witnessed them being stamped, and not before.

She was mortified, but I was adamant. The poor girl ran out in her pj's, worried no doubt she'd end up on TV, and eventually came back, mission accomplished. No big deal; nothing six or eight years of therapy wouldn't fix.

So now I knew the last-ditch technique. The next year, I learned that the USPS would be doing it again, and again took advantage. By the third year, it had become a habit.

I moved out of town, but before long, I was back. The first job I got was night shift at the General Mail Facility, where the mail is processed for Springfield and surrounding towns. Tax night, as you can imagine, is a wild and crazy night there.

I handled plenty of tax forms with insufficient postage during my tenure at the GMF. It broke my heart to see those envelopes with a last-year's stamp, a penny short. Or only one stamp on an envelope so heavy, it needed two. I pictured an angry husband slapping around the wife who'd made the mistake, when the letter came back marked "postage due" and a late penalty was incurred as a result. So I bought whole rolls of stamps and bumped up the postage on as many such forms as I spotted.

When I moved downtown a couple of years ago, I realized I'd be able to walk over to the post office on Tax Night. Last year, I strolled by near midnight with my dog. I was impressed at the improvements that had been made. Barrels had been set up in the middle of the road, marked "refund" and "tax due," effectively establishing a drive-through. Postal volunteers manned the barrels and even handed out extra stamps. A radio station was broadcasting from the parking lot. Dunkin' Donuts was handing out coffee and doughnuts; another local chain had just run out of wings, but Taz found plenty of scraps.

This year Tax Night fell on the 18th. The 15th was a Saturday, followed by Easter, followed by Patriot's Day for us Massacusetts folks. I went a bit early--ten or so. The building was dark; the entrance deserted except for a newswoman and a cameraman. The woman was looking into the camera and saying, "Tonight, hundreds of people came downtown for last-minute posting of their tax forms, only to find the door..."--and here she rattled the handle--"...locked. This year, the post office closed at eight o'clock. People are dropping their forms in the box outside, hoping that they will be picked up and postmarked before midnight."

I wasn't taking any chances. I walked back home with the dog, jumped into the car, and off we went to the GMF. I parked and went as far inside as I could go without a badge. I held out my envelope to the first woman who passed me. "Could you take this in to the manual cases?" I asked, in my pleadingest voice. She glanced at the address, then at me. "Sure," she said. "I'll walk it over and wait till it's postmarked."

I raced back out to the car and zipped back home. It was a beautiful, balmy night. Taz stuck her head out the window, and I blasted ZZ Top. Safe for one more year! The USPS might be instituting some dumb cost-cutting measures, but there were still a few good postal workers out there. One of them--a woman after my own heart--had taken my place at the GMF.

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