It’s tax season again. The time of year when we try to complete that most basic of civic functions that is made so complicated that there’s a multi-billion dollar industry of people to do it for us. I can’t really complain too much, since I was once employed by the tax preparation industry. No, I’m not an accountant. I was the guy who from January 1 to April 15 dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and waved at passing cars.
At the time, I was living in Cedar City with my best friend and going to school at Southern Utah University. For those not familiar with the area, Cedar City is a small town high in the mountains that is fairly close to a lot of National Parks, but almost an hour away from the nearest city. It has an overabundance of college students, but very few jobs, which, being an unemployed student, was a pretty terrible combination. After several months of rejection, we were both able to land the Statue of Liberty gig through another friend who was the manager at the local tax prep company. Being a human billboard certainly wasn’t the most glamorous or lucrative occupation, but in Cedar City, I was just happy to have a job.
Being the Statue of Liberty wasn’t for everyone. It definitely didn’t take much skill to hold up a sign and wave, but it could be grueling work. Shifts were long and boring. It was like being a flagger at a construction site, but with about half the pay. The weather didn’t help things much, either. At 5,846 feet elevation, Cedar City is considerably higher than most major cities in Utah, and it was cold and snowy for most of the tax season. On one occasion, my manager went out to check on me after working for several hours during a snowstorm. He found me tightly clutching my sign with six inches of snow on top of my crown. He laughed, took a picture, and went back inside where it was warm.
Of course, most employees didn’t quit out of exhaustion. They quit out of embarrassment. Again, it was a small town and everyone knew who you were. On my day off, we once spotted a new co-worker standing as far away from the road as she possibly could while still technically being visible from the road. She held her sign tight against her face, her arm weakly waving toward the passing cars.
“I bet she doesn’t last to the end of the week,” sighed my manager. Sure enough, he was right.
Fortunately for me, I was perfectly happy to make a spectacle of myself if it meant having money for food and rent. It was a job. While I was on the clock, I stepped into the persona I was paid to perform. I was a symbol. A symbol that had been co-opted as a sort of weird corporate mascot. It was a strange, objectified position to find oneself in. People didn’t exactly treat you as a person, which let me see a side of the town that most people never saw.
Though dressing as the Statue of Liberty on Main Street was the most visible part of the job, we also had a second tax mascot whose job was to stand at the entrance to Walmart and greet the customers as they entered the store while dressed as Uncle Sam. When we worked as Uncle Sam, we were not merely on display to the anonymous passersby who only saw us for a few seconds as they drove past. We found ourselves face-to-face with our audience. This was by far the easier job in terms of physical demands, but no one wanted it. They would rather stand in the snow for four hours than risk having people laugh at them in person. As such, the job usually fell to my friend and me.
Our co-workers weren’t wrong. Laughter was definitely the most common response to seeing us in full costume in the middle of a grocery store. I definitely smiled and waved at the cute girls in my statistics class as they walked past me, snickering uncontrollably. I took solace in the fact that I wasn’t popular to begin with, so I didn’t really have anything to lose. I just kept on smiling and waving. This was my job, after all. I had to be professional.
There was, of course, a wide range of reactions to my character. I got more than a few looks of pity. A couple of girls once offered me a doughnut, which was nice. I also had one guy enthusiastically and bafflingly shout “You rock, Abraham Lincoln!” as he walked past me.
It was also surprising how literally some people took my role as the national personification of the country. People came from miles around to visit the commercial hub that was the Cedar City Walmart. I had several encounters with libertarian sheep ranchers who would march straight up to me and proudly declare “I haven’t paid my income tax in 20 years and I ain’t gonna pay it this year! Whaddya think ‘bout that?” Since I was not actually the federal government and income tax was not paid directly to me, I didn’t actually care at all, but they still seemed to walk away feeling good having told me off. To them I wasn’t a college kid working at a low paying job. I was an idea. I was a nexus to the platonic ideal that was “government,” and they had now personally told that abstract concept to shove it.
My most memorable encounter, however, occurred when I was working Main Street as the Statue of Liberty. It was early April. Winter had finally ended in Cedar City, and the afternoon sun now actually made the job kind of hot. As I smiled blankly at the steady flow of traffic to my right, I suddenly realized that someone was standing next to me. Pedestrians were fairly uncommon on that part of the street, so I expected to turn and find my manager, probably hoping to get another hilarious picture of me enduring some environmental ordeal. When I turned, however, I was met with someone completely unfamiliar.
My new companion, I soon learned, was a drifter who had been in town for a few weeks. This was apparently her first time walking down Main Street during the afternoon and she was intrigued by the conspicuous man in the cyan gown. I suppose I couldn’t blame her. I was pretty intriguing.
She lit a cigarette and took a drag. She looked like someone out of a Mad Max: Fury Road and Freaks and Geeks crossover fanfic, or maybe a background character from a Tank Girl comic. She was tall and thin, though it was hard to tell with her bulky green overcoat. Her head was shaved, but her hair was starting to grow back, leaving her scalp covered in short fuzz. I wondered what color her hair was.
She sat down on the warm cement beside me. I continued standing and waving at the passing cars. She’d apparently been wandering for years, though she couldn’t have been past her early twenties. Her drifting had landed her in a string of bad relationships...or perhaps it was the other way around. She came to Cedar City to get away from her most recent boyfriend and had briefly stayed at the local women’s shelter, though she had been kicked out for starting a fight. Starting fights and beating the crap out of people turned out to be a recurring theme in the story of her life and almost certainly contributed to her frequent need to leave town.
Despite being a self-styled delinquent, she was a very courteous conversationalist. She seemed just as eager to hear about my life as she was to tell me about hers. Despite my somewhat unconventional childhood, my past exploits seemed rather trivial by comparison. Still, she treated me like my life story was just as interesting as hers. Every now and then I forgot that I was still dressed as a neoclassical sculpture.
Several hours passed, I think. I didn’t normally have company during my shift, so time usually seemed to crawl along. Now the sun was hanging noticeably lower in the sky, bathing the downtown skyline in golden light. She stood up and stretched, her long, slender arms reaching into the sky as the loose sleeves of her jacket fell down around her shoulders. I felt small by comparison. I was also still wearing a dress, which probably didn’t boost my confidence much. I imagine we must have looked quite the odd pair to the hundreds of travellers that passed by us on the road.
The day now waning, the conversation turned from reminiscing about our pasts to thinking about the present. Though she had been forced out of the women’s shelter, she hadn’t yet caused enough trouble that she had reason to leave town. She also didn’t have any place to stay. She’d been camping out in the library bathroom, but she had to make sure she got inside before the building closed. April nights were still very cold in Cedar City.
“You can’t just sleep in a bathroom!” I said, turning to look at her while continuing to wave in the other direction. “I mean, you should at least hit up a friend or something to crash at their place for a while.”
“Best friend I’ve got in this town is you.” she replied, shooting me a furtive glance.
If my life were a play, this, of course, would be the part where the audience erupts in laughter as the protagonist blunders into the oh-so-obvious gag that has been setting up since the beginning of the scene. As much as I love dramatic irony, it’s a literary device that’s decidedly less entertaining in real life. At this point, the drivers on Main Street were probably wondering why the Statue of Liberty was staring forward blankly like a deer caught in their headlights.
As my mind raced, trying to think of how I was going to tell my roommates that the woman on the couch was now living with us forever, a figure approached us, silhouetted in the late afternoon light. Two pedestrians in one day was exceptionally odd for that stretch of town. As this third party drew nearer, we soon realized that it was a cop. The drifter took a few steps back and stared sheepishly at the sidewalk. I smiled awkwardly and continued to stare at the oncoming drivers.
Fortunately for my new friend, he wasn’t there for her. He was there for me.
Regardless of my civic virtues or deficiencies, while I was on the clock, I was little more than a glorified signpost. An object. In this case, an object that was obstructing the sidewalk in violation of city ordinance. That sidewalk on which exactly two people had now walked today. I now found myself trying to both avoid getting fined and figure out how I was going to work the rest of my shifts that week. I have no idea why the police decided I was breaking the law that day, since I find it hard to believe they hadn’t noticed me standing there almost every day for the past three months.
In any case, it was a fairly distressing situation, but at least I was able to exchange one awkward situation for another. I never did give the drifter a straight answer on whether or not I was willing to shack up with her. The officer eventually left without giving me a ticket, to which both of us breathed a heavy sigh of relief. We laughed for a while about this unexpected twist in our third act and then, my shift over, I bid her goodbye and good luck, then rushed home.
My boss, fortunately, was able to get our legal troubles sorted out before my next shift. Tax season ended without further incident. I never saw the drifter again.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)