Pushing open the heavy glass door, I leave the oppressive heat and humidity of Philadelphia in June and enter a cool, dark and dingy hallway. It’s my third attempt to find the correct office in the appropriate quadrant of the municipal labyrinth that is City Hall. More than 30 years ago I was law clerk in this building, stepping over sleeping homeless men in the vestibules every morning to reach the judge’s chambers. I applied for my two marriage licenses and filed for my one divorce here. I have reported to the Jury Room annually for jury duty. Still, I have trouble finding my way around.
Finally, following the patient directions of several City employees, I find the office I am seeking. This will be my fourth (and final) trip to this office–Room 180, the Register of Wills. I realize that something other than the building’s layout, and my terrible sense of direction, must be preventing me from making my way here. It could be the fugue in my brain, the nausea in my belly, or the tears blurring my vision.
I peer at each doorway in the dim corridor, following the numbers until I arrive at the doorway marked “Register of Wills.” A folder containing the Inheritance Tax Return for my son, Jonah, who died in October 2013 at the age of 29, sits inside the slim brown leather tote slung over my right shoulder. It has taken me three years and nine months to complete the co-administration of Jonah’s estate, which consists of two bank accounts, one in Philadelphia and one in Portland, Oregon, and a money market account comprised of his bar mitzvah gifts. The Commonwealth of PA is one of only six states that imposes a tax on inheritance, so someone had to take care of filing the return, and paying the tax owed. Since I live in Center City, I told my co-administrator, Jonah’s dad, that I would handle the inheritance tax filing.
As I turn the knob on the heavy wooden door I notice that the walls of the office have been freshly painted white since the last time I was here, several months ago, when I filed an Amended Inventory of Jonah’s assets. Still, the ground-in grime on the green and white linoleum floor prevents the office from looking clean or inviting. In an admirable effort to make this grim bureaucratic experience less foreboding, visitors are greeted by a cheery receptionist who is seated at a desk near the entrance. She smiles brightly at me. Behind her, a rotund and tired-looking man with a moustache is reading the horoscopes on the back page of the Metro. When he’s done, he re-folds the paper, and replaces it on a tall stack, murmuring, “We’ll see, we’ll see.” I ask the smiling receptionist where I can file the inheritance tax return, and she directs me to Room 177, across the hall.
I open the heavy wooden door, and enter the office. I had expected to find a long line of people waiting to file their returns, since today is the final day of a tax amnesty period on overdue state taxes. I had received a letter in the mail advising me to register for the amnesty, and pay any taxes owed no later than today, in order to avoid late fees and penalties. Jonah’s inheritance tax return was actually due nine months after his death, so, technically, I am three years late. I could attribute the delay to the tedious work of tracking down a variety of small accounts, but most of it is actually due to long periods of emotionally-charged avoidance.
There is only one person in front of me, a young woman who asks the middle-aged clerk whether she can pay her tax bill by credit card. However, in this office, only personal or cashier’s checks are acceptable forms of payment. She doesn’t have a check with her. She asks whether there is any way to pay by credit card, and the clerk looks at her squarely and says, “No.” She wonders if there is anyone she can call, and he writes down and hands her a phone number for the State Department of Revenue. “Good luck with that,” I think.
Then it’s my turn. I tell the clerk that I am here to file the inheritance tax return for my son’s estate, and to pay the tax. I try to calm the churn in my stomach by making small talk.
“I expected a long line because of the tax amnesty period ending today,” I tell him. “I’m surprised that no one else is here.”
“Yeah,” he responds, “but they didn’t tell us about it, so no one knows.” He eyes the Department of Revenue letterhead sticking out of my folder, and asks “Is that the letter you got?” I show it to him. “Hmm. I’m surprised that contractor is still allowed to work in this country,” he states flatly.
I notice a metal filing basket with a hand-written paper notice taped to it that says, “Place two copies of your return here.” Earlier, at home, I was so anxious while completing the simple return, that I kept making mistakes, and had to re-write it several times. I have brought one copy to file, and one copy to keep. The clerk explains, “You need three copies, two to file, and one for yourself.”
I tell him that I only have one copy to file. He says, “Wait here,” takes my return, and goes across the hall to make a second copy for filing. I wonder why is he being so nice to me. Is it because my son died? Official discretion? Whatever the reason, I am grateful for his assistance and compassion.
I hand him my personal check, he places the two copies of the returns in the basket, stamps my copy, and tells me that it will be my receipt until I receive one in the mail.
Tears spring to my eyes with a sudden surge of emotion that I hadn’t expected. I have one more administrative task to complete, so I take a deep breath and ask him where I can pay an invoice for the Supplemental Inventory that I had filed several weeks ago. I don’t know why I wasn’t charged at the time, but I received this invoice in the mail. I just need to pay the $5.00 and any other assorted fees and I’ll be done.
I cross the hall, back to the office for the Register of Wills, and explain that I’m here to pay a supplemental filing fee. This time I am directed to the back room, which lies behind a large counter with a paper sign taped to the wall that reads in capital letters: “COURTESY. COMMUNICATION. COMMON SENSE.” Is that an admonition for people like me? The room is filled with file cabinets and desks. Employees are working at their computers or shuffling through files. A gracious woman, wearing a colorful floor-length dress, looks up and asks if she can help me. I explain that I am here to pay an invoice and present it to her. She rifles through a file cabinet for several minutes before locating my folder. In addition to the $5.00 inventory fee, I owe something called the Jenkins Tax, the Family Court Tax, and an additional fee, totaling $124.00. I make out a personal check for that amount, payable to the Register of Wills.
The amiable clerk brings my folder and check to a tall, mustached man seated at a desk, whom I gather is her supervisor. He vaguely reminds me of Richard Pryor. There is a radio on his desk playing R&B. He smiles at me, and accepts my handwritten check, even though there is a large sign at the cashier’s desk out front that says “No personal checks. Visa, Mastercard, American Express only.” Wait a minute, I think. The Inheritance Tax office only accepts checks for filing returns, but the Register of Wills only accepts credit cards for paying fees? Since he is satisfied with my personal check, and doesn’t ask me for my credit card, I leave well enough alone. I notice that I’m wringing my hands. In spite of the friendly service, this filing experience is beginning to feel like a star chamber, and I want out.
He hands me a receipt, and my three years and nine months as co-administrator are finally over. I thank him, and take one last look around. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling so tender, but I’m surprised to feel compassion for the earnest workers in this sad function of government. We are all doing the best we can, I remind myself, wearily.
I leave the dark halls and emerge into the sunshine, walk through the Second Empire style archway to East Market Street. The 548-foot tower of City Hall is the tallest masonry structure in the world without a steel frame. The dreary interiors of the building really do not do justice to this architectural treasure.
Halfway across the street, the light changes, and I am caught with several other pedestrians on a concrete traffic island in the middle of the street. I look up, and see a blue, cast metal historic plaque with gold lettering that reads: “Mother’s Day. Founded by Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia. First officially observed in 1908, it honored motherhood & family life at a time of rising feminist activism. An early supporter was John Wanamaker, whose store stood opposite. Mother’s Day was given federal recognition, 1914.”
This seems like a strange location for a historic plaque, but we are directly across the street from the Macy’s that used to be Wanamaker’s.
This absurd juxtaposition of Tax Amnesty Day and Mother’s Day causes me to laugh out loud. I congratulate myself on successfully completing one of the most unexpected and emotionally wrenching responsibilities of motherhood. I look up and smile at Jonah in the sky. He would definitely get the irony, and wherever he is, I think he must be laughing too.
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