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<going postal>

I'm buying the government a Volkswagen. Or maybe just a Yugo. I'm afraid to add up all the checks I'm writing, so I can't be sure how good a car the various Federal, State, and City departments of taxation could buy with my money. I'm pretty sure it's not a Lincoln. I didn't have that good a year.

In my first year as an independent web designer, I made 150% more than I ever made working for anyone else. Not bad considering I spent seven months of last year writing a book (a non-profit enterprise). But running a business is much more expensive than working for someone else. The money's gone and I owe the government a Volkswagen. Or maybe just a Yugo.

Last month, when my accountant figured all this out, I had about $900 in the bank. Which, by an odd coincidence, was exactly the fee he charged me. I was supposed to start a retirement account to lower my tax liability, but I had no money to do that with. My accountant was supposed to wait for me to open the retirement account, but he forgot, and calculated my taxes at the higher rate. Now they're due, so there's no quibbling about it.

I picture myself handing the car keys to an IRS guy in sunglasses. I picture him driving away, not even bothering to thank me for the wheels, not even bothering to wave goodbye.

I'm supposed to be writing the acknowledgements for my book, now that the book is actually finished. But there are so many people to acknowledge, listing them all would double the size of the book. My friend Peyo calls from Sweden and suggests that I do the acknowledgements online. That way, when I forget people, I can hide the evidence of my stupidity by updating the web page.

I'm so relieved by Peyo's suggestion, I overcome my fear of the giant package my accountant sent me last month, and tear it open to see what the damages are. I figure this won't take more than fifteen minutes.

Two hours later, I finish writing the checks, signing the paperwork, and inserting the right stuff in the right envelopes.

Stamps. I'm out of them. I bought a bunch but they're gone. This is what happens when you live with someone. She smokes your cigarettes, uses your stamps, and goes out for the day. Here's a tip: Don't buy the government a Volkswagen when you're out of cigarettes.

Fortunately, the cigarette store is nearby. Fortunately, so is one of New York City's clean, efficient, well-maintained Post Offices. Unfortunately, it's after hours. Fortunately, they've left the lobby open, so I can go ahead and use the machines. Last time I used these machines, I was able to buy stamps—the stamps that walked out of my apartment while I wasn't looking. The time before that, these machines confiscated my money without dispensing stamps. But, hey, what are the odds?

Let me digress. Two months ago, Joan ordered some furniture from Ebay, which has yet to arrive. Weeks after we sent the check to the vendor in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Post Office returned it. Reason for return: Insufficient Postage for International Mail.

Let's reason this out. We live in New York City, U.S.A. The vendor resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A. Where does "international" enter into it?

When the mail returned, I was on my way to SXSW in Austin, Texas. I showed the returned mail to the postman who delivers mail to my building. He shook his head sadly and said, "those are my colleagues."

The postman advised me to go the Post Office, stand in line, and yell at someone. I was on my way to the airport, and had no time for that chore. So I dashed back up to my apartment, grabbed an envelope and stamps, remailed the payment, and emailed the vendor to let him know what had happened. The furniture has yet to appear, and I'm not sure who's at fault: the vendor, his shipping company, or the U.S. Postal Service.

...In spite of these and other recent mishaps, I feel strangely confident as I insert $35 into the machine toward the purchase of a $34 roll of stamps. My thought is, if I buy a $34 roll of stamps, one or two stamps may still be left in my apartment when I need them.

The machine accepts the $35, and indicates that I've inserted $35. Good machine. I press A-3, the $34 item. The machine tells me I've inserted $30 and will have to deposit four more dollars.

Okay, this could be worse. The machine has just "misplaced" $5 of my money, but that's nothing, really. That's chump change, lunch money. We're not talking Volkswagens here. If the Post Office wants an extra five for its trouble, hell, I'm just giving the machine a tip. And it deserves one, doesn't it? Good machine. Nice machine.

By incredible luck, I happen to be carrying a wad of fives and singles. I insert another five.

That is, I try to. The machine will not accept it.

The machine will not accept any of my fives or singles.

The machine begins beeping and blinking at me:





I can't find the Yes button.

An old woman wanders in, stares at me, and cries, "Oh, God." Like I'm doing something wrong and scary. Am I? She flees. Tonight the grandchildren will hear about how she narrowly avoided being attacked by a madman at the Post Office.

My brain splits into channels, like mono reprocessed for stereo. Rationally, I know that I'm not going to die. That the worst that can happen is, my money will vanish, I won't be able to mail my taxes today, and I'll have to return to the Post Office tomorrow.

But that is the rational thought process. The irrational, animal process is quite different. The beeping and blinking make me feel that I'm in a hospital, watching my best friend flatline, and no doctor in sight.

I have a moment of instinctual panic. Then I master it. I stare hard at the confusing panel until I finally locate the YES button. I press it.

I have a moment's grace, now.

Once again, I carefully attempt to insert each and every bill in my possession. Each and every bill is rejected. There are a couple of beep and blink cycles, a couple of passersby who glance in and shake their heads, but by now I'm handling this like a pro. I could stand here all day, calmly feeding bills to this machine, serenely beaming as the pointless process goes on and on like some badly-written Twilight Zone episode. Submitted for your approval. Jeffrey Zeldman. A man who made his mark with computers. And learned, too late, that these "thinking machines" can have minds of their the Twilight Zone.

While I amuse myself on the left channel, the right channel shows me smashing the glass with my bloody fists and screaming about a conspiracy between the I.R.S., the U.S. Postal Service, and Network Solutions, until I am dragged away by bored postal employees, who are used to this kind of behavior.

Finally I accept that the machine will no longer take bills (though it doesn't say so), that the machine cannot correctly calculate how much money I have inserted, that the machine will not refund my money without a lesser purchase, and that there is no human help to be had.

I buy a $6.80 package of stamps, and receive a Las Vegas clatter of Susan B. Anthony dollars as change. The coins spill onto the floor. I scoop them up and deposit seven more for another $6.80 package. And another. And another. Then there is no more money. The Post Office miscalculated my change. I don't care. Let them keep the rest. I just want to get out of here without losing a limb or getting arrested on a 907—attempted stamp purchase. I just want to leave with my dignity and some stamps, so I can send the government its Volkswagen money.

I fill my pockets with the tiny stamp packages. I turn to go. Before exiting, I light my cigarette in the deserted lobby.

I know, I know. Smoking in the Post Office is a crime. But what isn't, I ask you?

27 March 2001
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