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Waving Statue of Liberty works hard to realize American dream

GULFPORT

Lady Liberty drops her daughter at day care, then ducks into the Save-A-Lot for a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke. It's going to be hot today.

She zips the soda into her backpack, hops on her electric scooter and steers into a strip mall.

At 9:55 a.m., inside a small office, she wriggles into her costume. The sea-foam green, crushed-velvet robe slides over her black T-shirt and jeans. The long drape loops off her left shoulder, spills across her dusty sneakers.

"I'm heading out," she calls to her boss. It's 10 days before tax day.

Give me your tired, your poor, the real Statue of Liberty says. Patty McCaslin fits the description. As Lady Liberty, she earns $7.67 an hour — minimum wage — to lure drivers inside to have their taxes done. She breathes exhaust all day. Her eyes get tired from squinting in the sun. Her face hurts from smiling. Her arms ache from waving. Her feet throb.

Sometimes people give Lady Liberty the finger.

McCaslin, 35, has a husband, a daughter, a home, two jobs, no medical insurance — and a $6,000 tax bill she can't possibly pay.

"But when I'm out here in costume," she says, "I feel like I'm making it. Like we're going to make it."

It's not easy symbolizing the American dream, or achieving it. After tax day, she'll need another job.

You see them on sidewalks everywhere. Since January, more than 10,000 Statues of Liberty have walked the streets from Alaska to Florida, according to Liberty Tax's in-house magazine, Give Me Liberty.

Some spin signs. Some wave flags or blow bubbles. All aim to attract customers.

"We rely on that personal connection to bring people in," says Michelle Kotewa, who runs the Gulfport franchise. For every two hours someone stands outside in costume, she says she gets at least one new client.

Most people work as Lady Liberty for only a few days, but McCaslin has worn the costume all season, for two hours a day Monday through Wednesday. She is the store's longest-serving waver, Kotewa says, "and the happiest."

As her shift begins, Lady Liberty dances along 22nd Avenue S, up and down the sidewalk, spinning her plastic hoop with her right hand. With her left, she waves at all the drivers.

But she never wonders about them, or their lives.

That woman wearing a gray business suit in the black Escalade, that man drinking coffee in the paint-splattered pickup, the old couple holding hands in their Buick — they all blur past her.

McCaslin doesn't care that they have cars while she rides a scooter to work. She is thankful she gets paid to smile at people, that she has this second job to help pay her power bill.

Sometimes, right there on the sidewalk, she prays, "Thank you, God!"

• • •

She has always worked, mostly for minimum wage, at stores and fast-food places around St. Petersburg — Publix, Blimpie's, Steak n Shake.

When she was 17, she started ringing up groceries. After she graduated from Boca Ciega High, she took a second job as a cashier at McDonald's. She met a cute fry cook there named Jeff.

They have been married for 14 years and have a 4-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. The McCaslins have never been in any trouble, never declared bankruptcy, never sued anyone or been sued. They are, in almost every way, typical working people, trying to get by.

Jeff works in the cafeteria at Stetson University College of Law. The couple try to stagger their work schedules so one of them can be with Elizabeth. On Fridays, when they both get paid, McCaslin brings her to see her dad at work and they splurge and buy tater tots.

"We live real simple. We don't eat out much. We don't even have a TV," McCaslin says. Her husband drives a 1991 Camry wagon. She rides her scooter and has never had a credit card. She doesn't drink or smoke. "When I do go out, it's for karaoke," she says. At the Stinger bar by her house, she drinks water and sings songs by the Judds.

Buying that house was her dream. Last year, she and her husband cashed in their 401(k) and stock they had earned at Publix to purchase a little yellow home off 49th Street. They paid cash for the foreclosed property: $30,000.

But they didn't fully understand the implications of using the retirement money, so now they have the huge tax bill.

"I have no idea how we'll ever pay that off," McCaslin says. "We also owe $15,000 in medical bills, from when my daughter was born. She was a preemie."

They want to have another child, but McCaslin says they are waiting until they have health insurance. When they can afford the $90 a week, his name will be Scotty Austin.

• • •

Lady Liberty doesn't wear a watch. She stays outside, smiling and waving, until she needs a swig of Diet Coke, or has to use the bathroom.

Her shift is supposed to end at noon, but it's 12:20 before she walks back into the tax office.

"I'm sweating out there today," she tells her boss. She peels off the costume and hangs it on the back wall. "You know, I'd like to see snow sometime," she says. "I've never seen snow."

She has never been to New York, never seen the real Statue of Liberty. "I'd like to do that sometime too," she says.

The statue, for McCaslin, represents freedom. "Being able to do whatever you want, having a house and being an all-American family and being able to work and pay your bills."

She knows Lady Liberty carries a torch. But she had never heard the words inscribed in the pedestal, the ones about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

At 12:25 she stuffs the half-empty soda bottle into her backpack and slides her sore arms through the straps. "See you tomorrow!" she calls to her boss. "I've got to go get Elizabeth."

She has only a few hours until she starts her other job, as a cashier at Save-A-Lot.

• • •

She could go home, rest on the couch, kick off her sneakers. "But I don't want to waste this beautiful day," she says. So she takes her daughter to a playground.

"Let's swing, Mommy!" Elizabeth calls, running ahead. McCaslin drops her bag on a picnic table and chases behind her daughter. When Elizabeth climbs into a swing, McCaslin gives her a slight push.

In a few hours she will have to fill her assigned spot in Aisle 4 at the Save-A-Lot. She cashiers there 20 to 30 hours a week, including most weekends, and seldom gets a day off from both jobs.

When she finishes her shift tonight, at 10, she will ride her scooter home, grab her fishing pole and head to the Gulfport pier. Every trout she can catch is another dinner she doesn't have to pay for.

McCaslin wants more for her daughter: new shoes, a baby brother. She wants her to be a Girl Scout. "And maybe a movie star." She watches Elizabeth sprint to the slide. "She's real smart too. Maybe she'll even go to college. I always wanted to go to college."

Last fall, after moving into their new home, McCaslin took classes and passed the certified nursing assistant exam. She hopes to work at All Children's Hospital, or in a nursing home. But without experience, she says, she hasn't been able to get hired.

When tax day has passed and she can no longer be Lady Liberty, she plans to start searching for nursing jobs again. "Or maybe be a greeter at Walmart."

They play for an hour: swings and slides, monkey bars, hide-and-seek. When Elizabeth gets hungry, McCaslin suggests a surprise. "You want to go to McDonald's?"

• • •

It's lunchtime and the lines at the fast-food restaurant snake out the door. McCaslin holds her daughter's hand and drops her heavy backpack on the floor.

Inside is the black apron she will tie on for her grocery job, the rest of her Diet Coke, a large-print Bible she bought for $2 at a yard sale, and a stack of "smile" cards that she colors late at night.

"I give them to people who look down," she says. "Smiles go miles!" says the card. "Pass me on!"

She also likes to hand out tiny slips of paper, like fortunes, each bearing a handwritten Bible verse. "I get my joy from the Lord," she says. "So I have to share it."

When they get near the counter, a man with a gray goatee greets McCaslin. "How you doing?" He's a regular at her check-out stand at the grocery.

"I'm doing great!" McCaslin beams. "Another day in paradise." She bends down and picks up Elizabeth. "And this is my little one, the one I work so hard for."

Elizabeth hugs her neck and whispers, "Can I have a Happy Meal?"

It costs $2.59. McCaslin orders the rest of their food off the dollar menu: chicken nuggets and coffee, a small Coke, three chocolate chip cookies.

The total is about what she made in an hour standing in the sun, smiling as Lady Liberty. The price of freedom.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story.

Waving Statue of Liberty works hard to realize American dream 04/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 10, 2012 9:25pm]

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