In Hell, Trying to Mail Out My Taxes in Houston

Bring snacks; you may be here a while.
Bring snacks; you may be here a while.
Margaret Downing

The line of people inside the post office lobby on La Branch in Houston’s Midtown stretched back to the front door. I’d thought it was smart to go to the post office in late afternoon, a whole day before the tax day deadline. So had they.

Not too many years ago, Houstonians could count on the main post office at 401 Franklin staying open till midnight on tax deadline day. Postal employees would be out there with sacks, as drivers pulled up and handed their tax envelopes out through their windows, secure in the knowledge they would get the needed postmark on time. News crews would staff the event; it always made a good tax day story.

Seems like an eon ago. In any case, that post office is closed.

On Monday, rather than just tuck a return into a mailbox or an outstretched bag (if they even do that anymore), I – and many people around me – chose to send our returns by certified mail with return receipts requested. No offense to the USPS, but public confidence in your ability to deliver the letter the sooner the better has eroded along with your track record. The last thing I needed was a penalty tacked on to what I was already paying the government if I couldn’t prove I’d made it in time.

It seemed everyone in the room knew that Tuesday, April 18 was drop-dead day – everyone but the lone clerk handling all the customers.

Yes, one woman. That’s it. For the whole room.

There was a young man as well, who would periodically call out: Anyone already paid and just need to drop off? Anyone need postage stamps? Other than that, he wasn’t equipped to help, although he did advise some of the customers to try their luck with the machines in the front of the lobby. And he kept smiling, mostly.

One customer – she was about seven behind me in line at the time I still had six ahead of me — brazenly called out, asking: “Why aren’t there more clerks here?” A few other people chimed in, all for nothing. The two U.S. post office employees just stopped all movement, frozen in stony silence.

Apparently afraid she’d stopped proceedings or that she’d be asked to leave, the woman quickly called out “Don’t worry. I’m not in any rush.” Those of us who didn’t share her suddenly agreeable nature grumbled in low tones but still re-assumed a sheeplike posture, a few whispered asides to the contrary. The young man with postage stamps retreated to a back room and it was a while before he re-emerged. What did he think we were going to do?

As it turned out, nothing. We might as well have been at the DMV. Powerless and trapped.

Now in the great scheme of things, 45 minutes standing in a post office to do a minute and a half’s worth of business is far from the toughest thing anyone will have to do in life. And the clerk, once I got up close, was pleasant.

But it was another of life’s little indignities that simply didn’t need to happen. Really, the postal service couldn’t have made sure it had enough people behind the counter at a time they knew they’d be slammed?

The same postal system that asks us to care for its continued existence apparently doesn’t give a flip whether we stand there all day or not. It’s fairly easy to make a crass remark about “your government dollars at work,” or “going postal,” which are not entirely fair, but really, the U.S. Post Office needs some serious marketing help if it thinks people are going to mount the barricades to keep it going with too many experiences like this.

About four minutes before I finally got to go to the counter, with one person ahead of me, another clerk came in carrying her materials and opened her station. It took a little bit, but she got all set up and then called to the customer ahead of me.

Now we were going to get going. Two actual clerks instead of one! I got called by the first clerk, the one I’d been staring at off and on for all this time. I waited till she was done handling my envelope, sending it on its way to North Carolina, and then I asked her:

“Why aren’t there more people here? Is it because of cutbacks?”

Well, some, she allowed, but people are on vacation and others had called in that they wouldn’t be here.

“Really? So how long have you been here?”

Glancing at her watch, she said, “Since 10 o’clock this morning. And I’m tired.”

“All by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“What about tomorrow when it really is the last day?” I asked. “Are you going to have more people here?”

“No,” she said smiling, shaking her head.

“Not anybody?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “And I’m about to go on break.”

Which she did right then.

Leaving one clerk facing a line that filled the lobby.

Good luck on Tuesday, everybody.


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