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Dressed To the Nines For the 1040

In The New York Times
April 16, 2004

So there he was, standing in front of the main post office on Eighth Avenue yesterday, a fellow in white pants, blue blazer and commodore's cap, looking like a young version of Thurston Howell III getting set for his star-crossed three-hour tour on "Gilligan's Island."

"What's your name?" he was asked.

"Thurston Howell IV," he said.

Ask a silly question...

First-class sleuthing, in the form of a complaining, "Oh, c'mon," elicited from him the name Kurt Opprecht. He is a writer, he said. He is not a seagoing tycoon, in case you haven't already figured it out. As for his wardrobe, it was, if anything, subdued compared with the tuxedos and gowns worn by his companions who stood nearby greeting working stiffs out for a stroll on their lunch break.

"Corporatize the U.N.," one man in black tie and top hat called out. "Let's make some money out of this thing."

Another fellow cried, "We bought this president, and we want to extend his term four years."

Other men in tuxes carried signs saying, "Taxes are not for everyone" and "Thank you for paying our fair share."

No matter how many times they take to the streets -- and they have become a noticeable presence in recent months -- Billionaires for Bush can still stop you cold for the split second it takes the brain's synapses to recharge. Are they for real?

That is a common reaction, Mr. Opprecht said.

"Some people take a little while, but it's amazing how fast most people figure it out,"' he said. "And when they do figure it out, it breaks through that wall and opens their minds."

If nothing else, Billionaires for Bush were proof that street theater and satire are not dead in this city. That it is possible to make a political point and draw a smile at the same time, indeed a smile may deliver the message far more effectively than a shout.

And where better on April 15 to talk about taxes than in front of the main post office? As ever, thousands of New Yorkers lined up there throughout the day to mail their returns before the stroke of midnight turned them into tax delinquents.

They were a captive audience for the real point behind the Billionaires' smiles. It was that while the richest Americans enjoy the greatest benefits from President Bush's tax cuts, most New York City residents are paying more in higher sales taxes, property taxes, subway and bus fares, tuition fees and health-care costs.

But why dwell on the negative? That's for whiners. Taxpayers, the Billionaires noted in a flier that they handed out, received from the government "a one-time check of about $400 or so." So stop the boo-hooing.

About all that was missing on Eighth Avenue yesterday was a Leona Helmsley impersonator reminding everyone that "only the little people pay taxes."

But that vacuum was amply filled by pitchmen for an array of causes and commercial interests, all taking advantage of both the parade of taxpayers and the television cameras that are lured to the post office every April 15 the way negligence lawyers are to a screaming ambulance siren.

For passers-by, the main attraction was not the group of environmentalists soberly denouncing toxic waste sites or the hotel that put a bed out on the street alongside signs cryptically telling last-minute filers that "procrastination finally pays off." The big hit, commanding the longest lines, was a booth run by a soft-drink company handing out free bottles of lemonade.

Three young women in the company's hire bounced around in lemon costumes. This was a more serious business than you might think. A man with a military manner gave the women their instructions and reminded them to be mindful of the time.

"You lemons got watches?" he asked.

Dutifully, the lemons then climbed the post office's front steps, hoping to greet arriving taxpayers from a perch in front of the central doors. But uniformed security guards shooed them away.

It is tough sometimes being a lemon, harder perhaps even than being a Billionaire for Bush.

Not that the Billionaires lacked for trying moments. One came when an older fellow, a self-pronounced Yippie who was clearly a refugee from the 60's, came on the scene wearing a sandwich board crowded with a dizzying collection of anti-Bushisms.

"Eat the rich, feed the poor," he cried. To one Billionaire, that was nothing if not a provocation.

"Do not listen to that man," he cautioned those walking by.



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