Three weeks ago, I began a temporary full-time job. The position requires me to meet with clients and interview them about their financial circumstances. Then I’m supposed to prepare their income tax returns, combining the information they’ve provided and my knowledge of intricate fiscal laws and regulations.
It may not be possible to describe how unlikely a situation this is.
Whenever I read tax forms and publications, I can actually feel my cerebral cortex curling up in a corner of my head and sucking its own thumb. When I try to interpret and explain what I’ve read to anxious customers, I sound as though I’m speaking a language that I’m devising right on the spot. When I welcome people into my office, I’m tempted to say something like, “The real professional is on his lunch break and will be back soon. I’m just here to keep you company and make sure you don’t snoop through the files while he’s gone.”
The truth is, if skill at handling money were a measure of physical health, I would be on life support. If the ability to comprehend legal and technical jargon were a sign of intelligence, I would still be in the fourth grade. Compounding the problem is my stubborn tendency to look for logic in all the wrong places. I expect people – and the bureaucracies they’ve created – to behave in ways that make sense. As a result, I’m almost always observing the world from a perspective of complete bewilderment, like someone who’s crash-landed from another galaxy and has arrived just in time to watch the next Pokemon movie.
The crime of embezzlement serves as a clear example of this. According to a 1952 Supreme Court decision, embezzled funds are fully taxable. The statute appears to be based on the theory that anyone dishonest enough to pirate someone else’s bank account – risking a prison sentence as well as the potentially violent retribution of the victims — will somehow abandon their cheating ways when faced with a blank box on a tax form. My mind persists in sifting through this and similar rules, struggling to find the wisdom behind the words. I should know better, but I don’t.
And so there I sit, day after day, peering across a tiny desk at men and women who have come to me for help and advice concerning vital matters related to medical deductions, non-refundable credits, and pension income splitting. They might as well be going to Donald Duck for diction lessons.
On the other hand, I have been studying for months, and have managed to absorb a surprising quantity of information. One thing I’ve learned is that most people, when faced with the task of working on their taxes, would rather go to an oral surgeon and have their skulls removed with an electric scroll saw. Or so it seems. They venture in with wads of folded receipts, wrinkled evidence of past root canals and ear infections, each accompanied by a detailed narration of the procedure or illness – the fear, the pain, the medical insurance coverage and the resulting co-pay. But when I ask them who did their taxes last year or even where the return was done, they freeze in visible anguish, as though I were probing into some long-repressed childhood trauma. Their eyes are blank, a mask for what I now recognize is a feeling of discomfort that borders on real terror.
“I can’t remember,” they say. “I think my sister did it for me online.”
Insulating them from their agonizing memories are stacks of useless paper – notices from the bank, letters from obscure agencies, the warranty booklet that came with a washing machine they purchased in 1978. But misplaced and apparently gone forever are the critical documents they need to fill out what should be a fairly simple tax return. As a result, they owe three thousand dollars to the federal government, an unpleasant fact that is now my job to convey – and which will instantly become my fault.
Meanwhile, I’m working in a space the size of a gas station bathroom. The computer occupies the whole desk, and acts like an employee who wants to be fired, disconnecting itself from the Internet at will and at the worst possible moment. The telephone sits perched on a small countertop, right next to an adding machine that doesn’t care at all for arithmetic. Side by side, each is a maddening piece of equipment that I would like to grind into fine powder. More than once, in full view of a client, I have put the phone receiver to my ear and attempted to dial an important number by punching the keys on the adding machine. Luckily, the dial tone drones on just long enough to alert me to my mistake, and then I re-dial the number on the phone while punching the adding machine keys once more, pretending that I had been trying to do some critical calculation while waiting for the call to go through.
This conversion of chaos into order is sometimes a long and grueling ordeal, one that brings about an unexpected bond. By the time our session is over and I’ve collected the necessary signatures and transmitted the finished return, the desk seems to have vanished entirely. I’ve gotten to know the person seated across from me – not just as a taxpayer, but also as a human being. I’ve learned about their daughter’s wedding, their cousin’s bankruptcy, or their mother’s cancer. They’ve told me about the job they lost last summer, and how hard it’s been to find another. I’ve heard about a healthy grandson, a difficult divorce, or a student loan that continues to haunt them a decade after graduation.
They were just clients when they walked in, a set of facts and figures ready to be processed and filed. When they get up to leave, they are much more. Not a friend in the true sense of the word, but something close. That’s because a good deal of the uncertainty and discomfort — both theirs and mine – has been replaced by trust. We’ve condensed into an hour the kind of connection it often takes a lifetime to develop.
As I said, it may not be possible to describe how unlikely a situation this is.
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Tax Tip: When trying to use an adding machine to make a long-distance call, press the division symbol before dialing the area code and number.