I bought the car 2 years ago and wrongfully - foolishly - thought the Missouri Department of Revenue would notify Jackson County of my new vehicle so they could mail the property tax bill to me at the end of the year. Obviously this didn't happen. Why would an institution as old and stodgy as Government coordinate itself in an effort to both help its citizens AND collect money for itself? In retrospect, I was clearly expecting too much. And then I simply forgot....
I live in Kansas City, Missouri, where the police wish they had time to care about a middle-aged woman driving her very sensible Honda Accord with slightly expired plates. I say this not to be crass but to point out that the KCPD is contending with much more urgent matters.
Unfortunately for me, the Prairie Village, Kansas, police are not otherwise occupied.
At the end of June, I was pulled over and got a ticket for the expire tags. The ticket is only $65, but if I update the tags before my July 18th court date, they'll cut the fine in half. Since the tags must be dealt with anyway, why not save myself a few bucks and get it done?
I called the Jackson County Assessor's Office to find out what documents I need to bring in order to pay property taxes on my car. I am confident I have everything in order. Here's the thing: Confidence in the face of county government is a fool's paradise. I know this now.
I drive downtown and circle the block several times to find street parking. I spy a man getting into his car, and I think "Ooh! A spot!" But it looks like he's being hustled by a homeless guy. I remember guys like this in Washington, D.C. We called them Car Jockeys. They'd act like they were "helping" you parallel park, and then stand against your door refusing to let you exit unless you paid them. Urban extortion. I decide I don't want to deal with that, and go to a parking garage instead.
I park on the 6th floor of a parking structure that has glass elevators. I hate glass elevators because I am afraid of heights. Two others join me and I stare at my shoes until we reach the lobby. The car jockey is waiting in the vestibule, which surprises me. Damn, he walked up here fast. He asks all of us for money. None of us oblige, but I wish him luck.
One of my quirks is that I count steps. Thirty six steps from the sidewalk to the front doors of City Hall. I go through Security and I'm wanded because my shoes have metal buckles. The very nice security officer asks me where I'm going. "Suite 100," I respond.
"We don't have a Suite 100 in this building. What are you trying to do?"
"I need to pay my property taxes." He points across the street, "You need to go there." The Jackson County Courthouse. I am in City Hall. Of Course.
ABOVE: City Hall. Where I am. BELOW: The Courthouse. Where I need to be.
Back down the 36 steps I go. I pause on the middle landing to consider snapping a picture of the horse head fountains, but I decide not to because it's already hot as blazes.
As I cross the street, I am struck by how beautiful the courthouse facade is, brimming with art deco motifs and the craftsmanship of a bygone era. I read later that the County Courthouse and City Hall were designed by the same architectural firm. That firm designed many other Kansas City landmarks, including elements of the Liberty Memorial (which is now the National World War I Museum) and my beloved Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The Jackson County Courthouse
I imagine the lobby was originally a beautiful space. Now, it's cordoned off so that visitors are shuttled through a short maze leading to a security station. The buckles on my shoes set it off, again. I am wanded. Again.
I enthusiastically pop into Suite 100 but come to a quick halt because the line is nearly to the door. Eek. This does not bode well. Now that I've stopped moving, the heat of the day and the lack of ventilation in this tiny room catch up with me. It is positively stifling. I feel claustrophobic and nauseated. I wish I hadn't left my iced tea in the car. The thought is quickly admonished by a sign that reads "No Food Or Drinks Allowed In Lobby". Geez.
Difficult to tell in this photo, but there are 7 people in front of me. Finally it is my turn at the counter. The receptionist reviews paperwork and then tells "customers" which desk to go to next. Dutifully, I give her all of my documents. By now, I am sweating profusely, fanning myself with a random utility bill I happened to bring in case they needed further proof of address. But it's not helping, I feel like the Wicked Witch: I'm melting! I'm melting! I ask the receptionist if she has a tissue. She looks up from the documents, irritated. But when she sees me, her expression softens. She opens a drawer and hands me a roll of toilet paper. The cheap, institutional kind with only one abrasive ply. I am grateful.
It's at this point that she tells me she needs my registration. I protest, saying that they didn't tell me that when I called yesterday. Isn't that what everyone says in a situation like this? As if it will persuade. As if she will say, "Oh, well, in that case...."
As expected, she hands back all of my documents and tells me to return with my registration. Any enthusiasm I had when I entered Suite 100 has disappeared.
I walked back to the parking garage where the car jockey is still loitering. He asks me for money again, and I remind him that he's already asked me. He apologizes and I'm struck by the high-pitched, childlike quality of his voice. I think he's genuinely sorry that he's bothered me again. He seems, as my grandmother would say, "touched". He's a very skinny African-American, somewhere between 35 and 45. The whites of his eyes are so bright, I swear they glow in the dark. He's wearing white athletic tights, shorts that go just below his knees, at least one shirt, and a heavy wool coat. It's a dark plaid car coat, mostly browns with drab green. It looks scratchy. The internet says that a car coat "gives stylish minimalism to any outfit." Not this one. The coat is unbuttoned, but he has the hood pulled up around his head. It is over 100 degrees outside.
It's obvious this guy's not all there and I feel bad for my earlier assumption that he was a hustler. He's clearly homeless, clearly needy. While looking at my shoes in the glass elevator, I decide that if he's still there when I come back down, I'll give him all the money I have. He needs it more than me.
I turn on my car so I can run the A.C. while I go through every receipt for oil changes and tire rotations in my glove box looking for the registration. I find it, thank God. A piece of paper not much bigger than a check. It looks remarkably unofficial. At the bottom it says "DO NOT DISCARD". Thank God I always follow the rules.
I sat in the car for several minutes with the A.C. and drank the rest of my iced tea. When only ice remained, I poured what was left of the bottled water from yesterday's gym stop into the cup and decided I would take that with me - sign be damned!
I head to the glass elevator. Just seeing that sliver of ground through the gap where the elevator meets the floor makes me anxious. I prefer not to think that I am suspended in a box 70 feet off the ground, hurtling earthward in what I hope is a controlled descent. I fish out my wallet and extract one $20 bill. It's all the cash I have, but when the doors open, he isn't there. I'm a tad disappointed. No chance to redeem myself with a cash donation.
Fortunately, he's right outside.
This is the 4th time I've seen him today, the 3rd time he's asked me for money. I give him the bill and he looks at it the way a kid would, with wide eyes and anticipation, like he's trying to decide how he'll spend it. "I can't believe it," he says. "I only needed $10 but now I have $20!"
In one swift motion, he lurches forward and hugs me. Now I was the wide-eyed one. I'm not really a hugger to begin with, but my God, this is awkward. I say, "Take care of yourself. Buy yourself a cold drink." He looks at my McDonald's cup and asks if he could have it. Sure. What the hell. I need all the good karma I can get today.
He immediately pours the water on the concrete - my precious water! But he keeps the cup. I bet he went to McDonald's and got a free refill, which is A-OK in my book. Lord knows I've bought enough Egg McMuffins to own a franchise, let alone give Homeless Joe a few free rips at the soda fountain.
I cross the street wondering if any passersby saw the skinny black man hugging the chubby white lady, which makes me smile. Let them wonder.
Back through security for the third time today. They don't stop me. "It's OK, ma'am. I know it's your shoes." Great. They know me here.
I wait in line again, only to be told to have a seat and wait some more. Finally, I'm told to go to "Desk 2". I swear, this is how they must do things in Minsk, calling people by numbers instead of names.
There are 8 desks arranged in a horseshoe in a windowless room where air goes to die. This room is surely the Platonic Ideal of bureaucracy. There is no sound - no computers humming or printers printing or even people talking. It is the saddest space I've occupied in a long time.
I give the clerk my paperwork and she starts typing in her computer. The silence is really unnerving, so I attempt small talk. "There's no air movement in here. You guys need ceiling fans."
"Yeah. We used to have them but they took them away."
"You are kidding!" I am incredulous. We both look up at the scar in the ceiling where the fan once hung.
When my property taxes were finally tabulated and double-checked, I handed her a credit card and she said - and I'm not kidding - "We only take cash or money orders."
And that, folks, is what we call a punchline. As in, Punch-In-Your-Gut-After-Waiting-In-Line.
Jackson County broke me. I have lost the will to live. Or, at least the will to drive. Renewing my tags has made me want to sell my car and take the bus. Jeff Probst should host Survivor: Jackson County and see what happens.
The clerk tells me, somewhat absentmindedly, that there's a "kiosk" in the lobby where I can make an online payment with a credit card. Thank goodness.
The "kiosk" is actually a desk and folding chair in a very dark corner behind the security station. On the desk is a computer, circa 1984. The keyboard is so stiff, I have to punch the keys hunt-and-peck style - it may as well have been a vintage Corona typewriter. I swear, as the payment portal loads, the computer is actually creaking, like a ship that's listing a bit in port. A message pops up on the screen that says my session has timed out. "My session hasn't even started." I go to the receptionist's desk and tell them that the computer isn't working. A lovely woman named Keri meets me at the "kiosk", and, voila. The portal loads immediately. Of course.
Keri is kind enough to listen to me complain that everything I'm entering online could have been entered by the clerk when I was at her desk; that this is the most laborious, inconvenient "system" I've ever encountered. She tells me they aren't allowed to accept credit card payments for liability reasons, but wads of cash are A-OK.
"That's absurd," I say. "We give our credit cards to people every day, authorizing charges. Like, at a doctor's office. I can hand the clerk my card and authorize her to charge the payment."
She explains that if I use my credit card at Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart pays the transaction fees by "jacking up prices", but they can't do that because I'm paying a tax and that amount cannot be tinkered with. I suggest they can charge a convenience fee. She says it's just not possible because they can't "break it out" in their system.
"Keri," I say, with a tone of calm conviction, "I know this isn't your fault, and I know you can't fix the problem today, but we have put men on the moon. I know there's a way for this office to accept credit card payments."
I turn back to the computer screen to complete my transaction. I reach the last page of the payment portal and see that a service fee of 2.395% has been added and neatly itemized. That is to say: "broken out". In my head, I am screaming.
I print my receipt. I thank Keri for her assistance. I leave. I jaywalk, figuring that getting hit by a bus can't possibly make this wretched day much worse. Homeless Joe is no where to be found. I hope he's found what I'm looking for: a cool spot to rest.