Friday, August 21, 2009

A taxing situation

A few days ago, my wife met a friend for lunch at Grand Central Terminal. Unfortunately, she didn't return with our 2004 tax returns.

Even after five years in New York, I've only been to Grand Central about a half dozen times. We just don't go to the East Side much. But in April 2005, we traveled there to find the offices of our new accountant, who had space in a large building across the street from the historic terminal. His name was Sam, and I'd use his last name but it was probably fictitious anyway. A friend recommended him, said Sam always handled his taxes in an efficient - and inexpensive - way.

Our appointment was for 7:30, but when we got there his receptionist said he was running about an hour behind, and by an hour she meant three. We went around the block for a walk, admired the view and came back at 9. The small waiting room was filled with anxious-looking people fondling manila folders and plastic bags filled with receipts. A man who appeared to be in his 70s wandered around the office area and walkways with some type of spray. He'd periodically use it on the carpet and in the corners. We figured it was for roaches or some other bug that had taken refuge amongst the hundreds of files that lined the main hallway and Sam's office, which was visible from the waiting area. Everyone else in the office simply ignored the elderly gentleman wielding industrial poison. Maybe he was an old accountant who cracked under the pressure one April 14 and was now given odd jobs around the office. By filling the bottle with harmless water and telling him he was doing a vital job, they helped him cope.

As I sat there with Louise, we joked that the entire office seemed like a scam. The certificates on the wall likely came from an online diploma mill, or Sam's personal printer. On April 16, the office was probably cleaned out, the only thing left behind for IRS agents to find would be hundreds of dead cockroaches.

Sam finally saw us at 10:15 p.m., though by all appearances he'd mentally checked out at about 5 p.m., about the same time he likely started drinking. Short and in his 50s, his hair jutted out at all angles. He looked like a man waiting to be served with a subpoena.

Thousands of pieces of paper weighed his desk down; he could have hidden under the structure and been just fine during an F5 tornado. A glass of liquor and an ashtray occupied the space next to his keyboard. Before we began telling him about our tax situation, Sam launched into a rant involving a morality play where he was the hero. He'd just won a lawsuit against a musician, he explained. And the next day, Sam was going to have the man's car repossessed. He insisted on showing us a manuscript he'd written, another story where he was the hero, this time it was a tale of his days as a music promoter. Judging by the file he showed us, the book likely ran about 2,500 pages. 

After taking a few moments to look over our W-2s and other files, Sam began to nod off, owing more to the alcohol than our boring returns. Finally he turned to his computer and fired it up. It froze, a fact he realized after a minute. He filled the silence with more stories of his victory over the hated musician. Sam eventually rebooted and soon faced the log-in screen.

"What's my name?" he asked. "What is my name?"

I nervously laughed while Louise asked Sam, "What are you talking about?"

Sam still did know he went by Sam, and while he certainly appeared to be going through an existential crisis, this was simply a matter of forgetting his log-in name. I'd have felt more comfortable if he had forgotten his real name.

Sam's partner - a sane, well-dressed man who obviously locked the doors at night and handled the bills and payroll for the office - wandered in and used his log-in to get Sam into the system. Something had beaten Sam down. Whether it was the IRS, whiskey, the music business or the effects of inhaling insect repellent, the Sam who sat in front of us was not a man you'd want handling your most important financial documents.

As he started typing, he exclaimed, "These taxes are so easy! You don't even need me! You don't need me!" He kept repeating the mantra, belittling his own self-worth much more effectively than even we could have. On at least three occasions, Sam entered my previous address as being North Carolina, when in fact it was North Dakota, a pair of states that share half a name but not much else.

"No, North Dakota," I'd remind him.

"Yeah, yeah."

He quickly finished the returns, becoming the first accountant to take longer on a log-in name than a federal return. He broke out a victory cigarette, kindly offered both of us one and assured us everything was now taken care of. All he needed was 75 bucks. He'd handle the mailing.

As we exited, half a dozen people still waited in the lobby, now aware they were in hell, but unaware of just how crazy the devil was.

We returned home, shared a lot of laughs about Sam and went about our lives. We waited for our refunds to roll in. And waited. Finally, in early June I called the IRS to find out when they might be coming.

"You don't have any returns on file, sir."

Excuse me?

"We never received any returns from you."

Instantly it all made sense. I knew where our returns were: buried under 100 pounds of paper on Sam's desk, probably filed under C for Carolina. Or they'd been shredded when Sam panicked during a pre-dawn raid by the FBI. Wherever they were, they weren't with the IRS. The lady on the phone assured me there wouldn't be a penalty; since we were getting refunds, they didn't care when they received the returns.

We called Sam. We e-mailed him. He never returned the calls, never wrote back. Instead we took all of our information to another accountant, a sober one uninvolved in civil suits against musicians. Our money from the government soon arrived, though we never again heard from Sam.

The next time we saw the friend who recommended Sam, we asked him how in the hell he could send us to a man who appeared to be on the fringes of the accounting world, not to mention society.

"Why, what happened?" he wondered.

"Sam didn't mail our return. And then he disappeared."

"Oh, Jesus, I forgot to tell you. Don't ever let him mail your stuff, it'll get lost. You have to grab it from him and mail it yourself."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What? No, absolutely unacceptable. Call me and I'll give you our tax guy's info. He is cheap, reliable and will get you the most money back that he can while still remaining "above board" and not causing any red flags. He also gives you copies of everything neatly filed in your own folder to take home for your records. We've been using him for 4 years now... no problems.