Nobody gave me money today. I paid cash for my newspaper and groceries. The cashier gave me the proper change. I held doors open and gave up my seat on the subway. I received no financial rewards for my courtesy. Finally, I met a few friends today and made several new acquaintances, shaking hands each time. Not one shaken hand offered me a twenty dollar bill.
I don’t know why I make these journal entries. I have an accountant. In saying that, it sounds like I have got it together. Don’t be alarmed; I don’t. I don’t have a personal trainer or a therapist, a wife, a girlfriend or even a dentist. I’ve got a dog, a computer, a pen and a stack of marble notebooks, but I do have an accountant.
I had tried to handle my own records. Tax return forms require little mathematical prowess. There is no Trigonometry or Calculus. You don’t have to bring to mind the mnemonics of Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally or SohCahToa. It is simple addition and subtraction, made even simpler in that the figures reflect my finances. It is about as interesting as my trying to style the hair on my balding head— there is not much to work with. There aren’t many rows of numbers to manipulate, and the figures don’t stretch into enough columns to be the least bit imposing.
Calculating my taxes doesn’t bother me. Paying taxes doesn’t bother me either. In fact, I like it. I think it’s a bargain. If it costs a few thousand dollars a year to ensure my trash is collected, to keep police on the streets and to protect Elian Gonzalez’s civil rights, I’m happy to pay it.
So, why the accountant?
A few years ago I received an invitation from the Internal Revenue Service. They wanted to review my 1994 tax records.
“I can’t believe you’re taking this so calmly,” a friend said. “What can I do?” I said. “They’re not going to find anything. It’s not like I’m hiding money.”
“You’re wrong,” my friend said. “They didn’t send you a birthday card. You’re being audited. The IRS wants to f-ck you.”
I apologize for the language. I don’t use the “F” word casually. I bother friends, asking them why they modify otherwise clear statements with “f-ck” or “f-cking.” They look at me surprised, “What? It’s a good word. It’s expressive.”
I protest the use of the “F” word, not out of any prudish condition, but in the way I’m encouraged to clip the rings of plastic 6-pack holders in an effort to save unsuspecting otters from strangulation—I love the “F” word and want to preserve it. It is one of the few filthy words we still have in the language.
It’s versatility is incredible—whispered as a naughty tease, or stopping the show as a one word declaration. Part of its power comes directly from its phonetics—in a single syllable, it moves from the subtle “fffff,” the gentle sound of air passing through the teeth, to the hard “CK,” the most abrupt sound in the language. It is the sound of the straw breaking the camel’s back
Most of its power comes from the stealth with which we carry it around, each holding it in his secret arsenal, relying on it for the little confidence needed to grab life by the tail and attempt the impossible.
We carefully stitch the big “F” into our worst case scenarios. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll tell them all to go f-ck themselves.
That, in my opinion, is the proper use of the word.
I have been told to go “F” myself over much less. People say it all the time. They write it in big letters on oak tag signs they hold up on Flatbush Avenue during the New York Marathon—”F Paul!” We’ve become a culture of over-reactionaries.
“It never used to be that way,” my friend Sal said, after his sister-in-law told him to shove his whole wedding up his ass. “I remember when people would say ‘it.’ They didn’t name particular items, they just said, ‘Shove it up your ass.’
“That was enough. Then I guess they began to pick and choose, but it was always within reason, a wedding cake, or an invitation, not a whole wedding. Paul, what am I supposed to do? I have groomsmen. It’s a big wedding.”
Minor inconvenience is met with heroic obscenity.
I remember a simpler time, in grade school when I experimented with middle finger gestures and curse words. I’d say them into a vacant garage or an empty paper cup, even the slightest echo enhanced the power of the words. That was it. On the day I rehearsed dirty words, that was all I could do. The words were so devastating that just saying them exhausted me. I didn’t want to think of what I unleashed, what havoc was free in the world because I gave it voice.
I am afraid our filthiest words are losing meaning because of over use. One day I’ll need the words and they won’t be there. I’ll tell someone to go f-ck himself, and it won’t mean a thing.
What do you bring to an audit? I looked in my closet and found a shoe box marked 1994. OK, so I had bought a pair of shoes in 1994. I opened the box to find bank statements, check stubs and credit card receipts, the sad souvenirs of a year. What I found sadder was the fate of the shoe box.
Each time I buy a pair of shoes, I spare the shoe box from the recycling pile for a few weeks. I wait for the day when I am assigned to create a diorama. The subject could be anything—dinosaurs, the Boston Tea Party, Tobie Tyler Joins the Circus. I have been itching to make a diorama since third grade when our entire class displayed our solar system dioramas. I looked across the room to see how my shoe box of construction paper and pipe cleaners paled in comparison with the diorama of Lisa Valerio, who employed genuine rubber super balls of varying sizes. She had done it. She had crossed into the third dimension of diorama design. My world would never be the same. I waited for the next assignment. I wanted to explore the depth of a shoe box. The assignment never came.
On the day of my appointment I passed my shoe box through the plastic ribbon curtain of the X-ray machine and walked through the metal detector. I checked in with the guard and waited for my name to be called.
Any bureaucratic scene tempts a writer to color his description in shades of Kafka—to portray the characters as pasty, apathetic drones with East German accents. Nothing could be further from the truth. Imagine the IRS developed a ‘90s version of the Mod Squad and put them to work auditing good citizens like me. My IRS agent was Link—a cool black gentleman wearing a band collard shirt highlighted with African tartan. This was not the beady eyed civil servant for whom I had prepared. I placed my shoe box on my lap as I sat before his desk.
“Mr. Hawkins, we’ve asked you here today to review your records of 1994,” Link looked up from my file. “I have your return here, with attached W2s, declaring your income and the amounts withheld. At this time I would like to ask you if you have any other information that should be considered.”
I lifted the shoe box from my lap.
“If that is just filled with paycheck stubs and canceled checks that are going to tell me the same story I have here, you can just forget about it,” he said.
I clenched the top of the shoe box. “No, I think you might want to see this,” I said. I removed the top of the shoe box, tilted the box forward, and replaced the lid beneath the open box, creating an apron for my size 10 1/2 stage.
“What the hell is that?” the auditor’s composure cracked.
“It’s a diorama, ” I said to his still gaping face. “You know, like in school. I’ve used it to illustrate my financial situation during the 1994 tax year.” I pointed at figures within the diorama, “You see, here is my boss, handing me my weekly pay, and here I am, handing my pay off to my landlord and dry cleaner.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
“You’re probably surprised by my use of three dimensional space,” I said. “It’s something I learned a few years back. I think it makes all the difference.”
“What is this?” the auditor asked, pointing into the scene. “That is a wedding cake bride. Did you get married that year?”
“No,” I explained, ” but I did attend ten weddings that year. Those gifts represent a significant portion of my income.”
Link was all business. “What about income received from cash tips?” he asked.
“Just like everything else,” I said. “It went to the rent, the laundry and the brides’ purses.”
“Did you declare your cash tips?” he looked back at my tax return.
“I declared my tips,” I pointed to my W-2 form. “My employer recorded them on my pay stubs.”
“This seems low for cash tips,” the auditor commented.
I tried to explain, “I was only a tipped employee for a month before they salaried me as a manager.”
Link, the auditor, nodded at my explanation, carefully looked over my documents and said, “I don’t believe you.”
“What do you mean you don’t believe me?” I began to raise my voice. “Look at the diorama—my employer is handing me checks, not cash.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but your diorama is not the type of record we are looking for.”
“Are you kidding?” I protested.
“Do you have any other record to show that you did-n’t receive cash gratuities?” he asked.
“You have all of my records right in front of you,” I said. “What other type of record could I show you?” “Did you keep a journal or a calendar where you might have kept track of your cash tips?” he asked. “No, I forgot to keep a journal where I’d write, ‘nobody gave me twenty dollars today.'” “That is too bad, ” he turned to his computer. “We’ll have to go with our estimate then.”
According to his estimate, I had received thousands of dollars in cash tips which I had neglected to declare to the IRS. The tax and penalty owed on this sum was $675.00.
“Six hundred and seventy five dollars, are you crazy?”
“No Mr. Hawkins,” the auditor said, “I’m not crazy. I’ve run it through the computer three different ways. This model gives you the lowest penalty. I’ll run it through again, but it looks like you owe us money.”
I’m not one for tantrums, but I threw one in that office. When I was done, I packed up my diorama and took my tantrum on the road. It was the hottest thing on Broadway—all the way down Broadway to 20th street, where the show was rejuvenated by my former employer telling me that the tip records—signed meticulously each day by every tipped employee—were missing from the period of my employ.
I was upset. I had been charged taxes and penalties on money I never had. I didn’t have $675.00 to hand over to the IRS. It was a tremendous inconvenience, but not reason to curse—not reason enough to pull out the big guns. It was not cause to blaspheme, or to tell the IRS and my former employer to shove my diorama and the 1994 fiscal year up their collective asses.
From time to time I begin letter writing campaigns. They are never political or overly humanitarian. I don’t write to members of congress of women sentenced to long prison terms. I usually begin by buying a deck of postcards at the book store and vow to write one card a day to someone I have lost touch with until the deck is finished. I think it is important to nurture hand written correspondence on even the smallest scale. Yes, I am all for E-mail and the neatness with which everything can be saved and filed away, but I am also in favor of the clumsy moments when old love letters confront you while you clean behind the toaster oven.
I sent my IRS agent a card. I had thought about my behavior in his office and I wanted to apologize. It wasn’t his fault my employer had misplaced records that would have exonerated me. He had run my return through his computer system three different ways and finally charged me with the lowest penalty. I had to appreciate that.
A few days later I got a telephone call. r. Hawkins, I’m sitting at my desk smiling,” the IRS agent said. “No one has ever sent a thank you note after an audit.” “I got pretty upset in your office,” I said, “but I appreciated your professionalism. It can’t be easy when it is your job to ruin someone’s days.” “Well, now that the audit is over,” he said, “I wondered if you might want to meet for a drink.” “No, probably not,” I said. “I work an awful lot and I don’t go out much.”
“Well,” he said. “Let me ask you, I know you mentioned you have a roommate … Is he more than just a roommate?”
That’s when I got it. “Oh wait,” I said. “Are you asking me out on a date?” “Well,” he stammered, “I just thought the card was so nice. I hope you don’t find my call inappropriate.”
Cynicism takes so much out of me that at times, I choose naivete. Even when my friends try to tell me what great conspiracies are taking sides against me, I often choose not to believe them. It is like the forest and the trees, in paying no mind to the figurative, the literal hit me right in the face.
I hung up the phone with an understanding beyond everyone’s warning. It was official—The IRS wanted to fuck me.
— June 2000