A memory that reveals just how much times have changed.
11:30 p.m., April 15, 1989 . . .
I have no idea why I volunteered to do it, but somehow I found myself standing outside the main Burlington Post Office branch off Maple Avenue as the clock wound toward midnight on Tax Day, 1989.
No one asked me to take on the assignment. And there was no need to do it — not really. But I thought it might be fun to see who showed up just before midnight to beat the tax-filing deadline and hear their tales of woe, sloth or simple procrastination.
And I was itching to write about, well, anything at this point.
I was just about a year removed from the career I had dreamed about all my young life, being a sports writer. Sometime in 1988, though, I ran out of patience with it. There were a lot of reasons why. I was bored, for one. I wanted more money, for another.
Opportunities to move up to larger newspapers didn’t look possible at the time. And if I couldn’t cover stuff I wanted to cover or make better money at least I could work reasonable hours. That was my logic anyway.
So I took a leap into the newsroom. I joined the copydesk. I got a little more money — but far from a windfall — and about every fourth weekend off. Righteous.
Was it a good tradeoff? I’m still trying to figure that out.
I didn’t mind it for a while. The desk has its charms. But after a year of designing pages and writing headlines, I was pretty desperate to write a story or two. So I told the city editor that I would be willing to take a camera and see what was cooking at the P.O. at midnight.
Seemed like a good idea.
I stayed sober as a judge — and more sober than some judges of my acquaintance — until heading over at around 11:30 p.m. In those pre-online-filing days postal workers were kept on duty until midnight to officially stamp the time on those outgoing parcels destined for Raleigh or the nearest federal facility in Memphis, Tenn. I dropped off my own tax returns — dutifully done earlier in the day on the old 1040 EZ form as I consumed a couple of hot dogs at Zack’s downtown. For a few years I always did my taxes at Zack’s — and made sure a chili stain was included on the form.
That was my personal comment about the nature of the American tax system.
I handed my two envelopes — one state, one federal — to the smiling USPS folks working the counter that night. Behind them were stacks containing hundreds of tax forms. I dutifully took a photo of the postal workers with the envelopes in the background. And I got a few quotes from them for the story.
Then I perched outside and waited.
The problem wasn’t a lack of procrastinating filers. They were more plentiful than deer but just as skittish. Absolutely none of them wanted to talk to an unkempt newspaper reporter lurking outside the post office at 11:47 p.m. A few walked toward the door with some hesitation, then bolted through as I tried to ask, “hey would you …” One or two tried to hide their faces with a hand full of envelopes as they walked past. At least one bellowed, “NO!”
It was like trying to meet women in a crowded bar. I was never worth a damn at that, either.
At least a dozen people offered varying forms of rejection before I caught a break. Charlie Brooks, who played on an American Legion baseball team I had covered a few years before, walked up, saw me and just busted out laughing. He was caught, couldn’t get away and he knew it.
As I talked to Charlie another person he knew walked by. I got him, too just as the clock struck midnight.