The intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and 28th Street looks like a lot of intersections in Los Angeles: There's a Taco Bell on one corner and a strip mall with a liquor store and a Liberty Tax Service office on the other. And out in front, as traffic speeds by, 27-year-old Robert Oliver is hard at work — dancing.
"So, chest movements like this, this is called bucking," he says. His chest bounces to the beat. His Bluetooth headphones are on. And his feet glide across the hot sidewalk like he's on ice. "I come up in here and I go down, and that's called a kill-off."
He gracefully collapses into a pile of limbs, stacked on his feet, with his work outfit pooling around his crumpled legs.
Oliver is dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Liberty Tax Service hires 24,000 part-time seasonal workers to drum up business, dancing and waving at cars.
Robert Oliver, 27, has been dancing on the sidewalk outside of Liberty Income Tax for three years. He performs on the corner of 28th and Crenshaw in west Los Angeles.
Robert Oliver, 27, has been dancing on the sidewalk outside of Liberty Income Tax for three years. He performs on the corner of 28th and Crenshaw in west Los Angeles. David Gilkey/NPR
"I'm never embarrassed to be out here," Oliver says. "I'm proud of what I do. I can dance and not get pulled over by the cops and arrested. And I like dancing anyways. So if I'm not going to be doing it here, I'm going to be doing it somewhere else. But here I get to get paid for it, so it's great."
It's part time and minimum wage (he makes $8 an hour). Oliver says he's happy with that for now. One perk of the job: free tax prep. But he doesn't take advantage of it. He has his own tax preparer: Mom.
Oliver still lives at home with his mother, Vivian Oliver. "I usually use TurboTax," she says.
Sitting in the living room, they talk about his taxes and his work, and they open his W-2s for the first time. They don't add up to a lot. On one, his earnings totaled $398. On the other, he guesses he earned about $1,000.
"A thousand? No, not even close," says his mother. "Honey, you only worked there a couple of days. $114."
For the year, he's earned $512. That's not much, but he's optimistic.
"That's not good, you know, that's terrible," he says. "But for me it's kind of like, where there's a will, there's a way, you know?"
When he has work, Oliver works hard. He sold incense and oils at malls, gas stations and on Venice Beach — unsteady work he really liked. He says he's tried to get a full-time job, but it's tough. He doesn't have computer skills, he doesn't have a driver's license, and he just got his GED last year.
"He worked on his GED longer than anyone alive," his mom says.
On the ride back to work, Oliver opened up a little more about his life and why he and his mother are upbeat about his future.
"When Mom adopted us, I didn't even know how to read and write," he says.
Oliver was 8 when he and his younger sister were adopted. Before he got to his mother's house, he says, he had cycled through five different foster homes. His mother put a stop to that. She nurtured him and gave him stability.
"The skills that I have learned since I've been with Mom — I'm very thankful for that," he says.
He has learned to read, learned to communicate better, has had years of therapy, and has become part of a vibrant church community. For Oliver, this job is an accomplishment. It's a world away from the life he saw for himself.
"I probably would've joined a gang, and I probably would've did things that I know I shouldn't have been doing, and I probably would have been in jail or dead," he says.
He heads back into the office to get into his Statue of Liberty outfit, clamp on his headphones and hit the corner. This Tax Day is his last day here, until next January, if he still needs the job.