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Authors: Richard Yancey

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BOOK: Confessions of a Tax Collector
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I told her. She beamed. “I was an English major, too!”

Henry’s narrow eyes became even narrower. “Why you want this job, then? Why ain’t you teachin‘ or somethin’?”

“Hard to find work, even at the high school level.”

Gina said, “What else do you do?”

I told them I worked at the theater in Clearview, teaching and writing children’s plays. I also acted occasionally.

“You an actor?” Henry asked. He sounded flabbergasted, as if I had just confessed to murder.

“That’s what great about this new hiring program,” Gina said. “We’re getting people from all backgrounds.”

“I have an MBA,” Henry said archly.

“That stands for Mainly a Bullshit Attitude,” Gina leaned in and whispered, then clapped her hands with delight. Henry scowled. She said, “Henry’s family business is embalming.”

“There’s more to it than dead people,” Henry said.

There seemed to be nothing to do but nod.

“Why you want to be a RO?” Henry demanded.

“Revenue officer,” Gina translated for me.

“That’s right,” Henry said. “Rev-eh-new off-ih—sir.”

“I need stable employment. I’m a little tired of freelancing.” And, I might have added, there was a reckoning coming.

“Well, lemme tell you somethin‘,” Henry said. “If they hire you they gonna go over your file with a fine-combed toothpick.”

“With a—a what?”

“This is just between me and you and the stop sign, but when you come on board they sniff you out. Gonna audit you, you know.”

Gina said helpfully, “That’s standard for all new-hires. We audit your past three years’ 1040s.”

“And they find
anything
wrong…” He drew a finger slowly across his throat.

“Where are you from, Rick?” Gina asked.

“Lakeside. I’m a native.”

“You don’t meet too many of those,” Gina said.

“Why would an actor want to work for the IRS?” Henry demanded. He was troubled by the concept.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the rent needs paying,” Gina said.

“They look at that, too,” Henry said. “They look at everythin‘. And you don’t have all this together,” he patted his stomach, “they fire you.”

“Henry exaggerates,” Gina said.

He folded his arms across his chest and sat back in his chair. For some reason I have never understood, he said, “And you can put that where the moon don’t shine.”

On Monday of the following week, I was called for a second interview. This time I left the flannel at home. I had trouble with the tie and the coat hung loosely on me; it drooped from my shoulders and bunched into folds between my shoulder blades; I had lost weight in the six years since I had purchased it. I said to Pam, “I can always tell how a jacket in the store is going to look on me: the same as it does on the hanger.” Pam did not think I was funny.

“Your tie’s crooked,” she said. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“What’s wrong with this?”

“I don’t have a good feeling about it.”

“You’re right. I should rely on other people to take care of me the rest of my life.”

The interview was conducted by Gina Tate and Melissa Cavanaugh, the thin, pinched-faced woman with the teased bottle-blond hair. They sat on one side of the conference table and me on the other. Gina opened by wondering aloud why someone with my background would want to work for the IRS. I answered I had not grown up dreaming of being a tax collector, at which point Gina laughed and Melissa scowled. Then I added that I felt it was time to settle into something more stable than the arts; that I needed a good job with good benefits (and government benefits were superb); that the job itself sounded interesting, exciting, challenging, different from your average nine-to-five, blah, blah, blah. The women across the table made copious notes. I would not know until much later that the Service required all interviewers to record
every single word
of an applicant’s answers. Recording devices were not used, on the assumption they might inhibit the respondents.

“Don’t get me wrong, Rick,” Gina said, perhaps in reaction to my slightly defensive tone. “It’s just we don’t usually get applicants from people of your—background.”

“You got an English degree,” Melissa reminded her.

“I
have
an English degree,” Gina corrected her.

“I’m glad you said that,” I said to Gina. It brought the desired response: she laughed, but Melissa did not. Melissa, it was clear, had taken an instant dislike to me. It was as if she thought this artsy-fartsy guy was trying to pull a fast one on her.

I did very little talking in this interview. I learned later that Gina had already made up her mind about recommending me for the final interview with Jim Neyland. Gina talked, Melissa scowled, and I concentrated on not saying anything completely moronic. Gina asked again, perhaps for the third or fourth time, if I understood this was
collection.
I assured her I understood. She explained how the selection process worked: if I “passed” this interview, the branch chief in Tampa would conduct the third and final interrogation. If I passed that, I would be hired, contingent upon my background check. “We fingerprint you, you know,” she said. I said that was fine with me—I was not aware of any felonies in my past. The “new-hires,” as we would be called, would spend two weeks in something called “pre-Phase,” in Lakeside, before going to Tampa for four weeks of Phase One, or basic training.

“It’s during Phase One that you truly begin to understand what we do here,” Gina said. “But I hope by this point you do understand that we
collect taxes?”

She mentioned again that the trainees would be assigned a coach, called an OJI, by the Service.

“Melissa has already volunteered to take on at least two or three of the newbies,” Gina said. “And you can’t ask for anyone better. Melissa is one of the best revenue officers who ever worked for me.”

“I came on-board in 1980, before there was such a thing as the Outstanding Scholars Program,” Melissa said. Her tone was derisive. “Started as a clerk and worked my way up to Grade Twelve. Busted my ass.”

“That’s great,” I said, meaning her achievement, but as she scribbled I realized the notes might reflect that I was referring to her ass. I began to panic, but there was really no way to fix it. Melissa was frowning—and scribbling. I would learn that most revenue officers are determined, if not obsessive, documenters. Conversely, they are also prolific shredders. They had to be to survive.

“We want to get away from the stereotype,” Jim Neyland said. “You know, geeky little four-eyed pencil-necked pencil-pushers sitting in windowless rooms.” He seemed oblivious to the fact that he had just described me. “Lazy, corrupt, livin’ off the government, bullying taxpayers. That’s the whole idea behind this Outstanding Scholars Program. There was a lot of resistance to the whole idea, at least down here at the local level, but I’m a hundred percent for it. For too long the Service has hired—and promoted, God help us—old cops, old grunts, old clerks with nowhere else to go. It’s time for some fresh ideas, some new blood. A new image! Don’t you think we should change our image?”

“Sure, I—”

“Why, what’s wrong with our image?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Come on, Rick, that’s a cheap ploy. You’re smarter than that!”

“Well, I guess most people are afraid of—”

“Huh? Afraid? Shouldn’t they be afraid? What, you think most people Pay taxes out of a sense of patriotism? That’s what you think, Rick?”

“That’s why I pay mine.”

“Good answer! But you’re wrong. It’s fear. So the question becomes, is fear so bad? Maybe the reason we need to change our image is people don’t fear us
enough.
There’s a helluva lot of taxpayers, attorneys, CPAs who’ve got our number, who know how to play the system better than we do. You think I’m kidding, but your average shyster knows how to run rings around your average revenue officer. Why do you think we’ve been authorized to hire five thousand more? We’re coming after these bastards dull as butter knives when we should glitter like daggers! Let me make it easy for you. Let me play Barbara Walters for a minute. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. Seriously.”

“I guess I would be… I don’t know, some kind of hard wood. Is mahogany hard? I don’t know that much about trees.”

“Why a hard wood?”

“Well, you know, something tough.”

“Tough doesn’t matter. Smart matters.”

“I don’t know of any smart trees.”

“I’m not talking about trees right now. I’ve known many good ROs who weren’t what you’d call tough, but they were smart. Smart will get you a lot farther than tough. Tough helps. Next question: What would you want on your tombstone?”

That’s a good question,
I thought,
because you are fucking killing me.
I had not peed my pants since kindergarten. Not in twenty-two years. It was tough to sit there while my bladder threatened to explode. Tough, but not smart. I tried to concentrate.
Don’t give him the answer you think he wants. Just be honest.
But the honest answer was I thought quotes on tombstones were stupid. He isn’t being literal, I told myself. He doesn’t intend to record it for posterity. I said the first thing that came to mind.

“‘He worked very hard.’”

Now, what a moronic thing to hang over your head for all eternity:
He worked very hard.
I crossed my legs and the pressure moved upward, into my stomach.

“You’ve quit a lot of jobs, Rick. What makes you think you won’t quit this one? No, the real question is, what’s gonna make
me
think you won’t?”

“I don’t know how to answer that, Mr. Neyland,” I said. “A lot of things about the job appeal to me. There’s independence, opportunities to advance. I like that it’s not your typical nine-to-five desk job.”

“Lemme tell you something, Rick: you are gonna
loathe
it. Everybody hates it, some more and some less, but especially during the training year you’re gonna say to yourself, ‘Why the hell did I listen to that SOB Neyland and take this stinkin’ job?‘ You’re gonna be confused and upset and dreading getting up in the morning.” A smile slowly spread across his narrow face. “But then, one day, and I can’t tell you when, but one day you’re gonna be sitting at your desk and it’s gonna hit you, and you’re gonna say, ’Jesus Christ, this is the easiest job in the whole damn world!‘ You won’t believe the government pays you forty, fifty thousand dollars a year to collect taxes. Most attorneys in this country don’t make that much. What’s the most you’ve ever made in a year, Rick?”

I guessed. “Eleven, twelve thousand.”

“And you busted your butt for that twelve grand, I bet. Long nights, weekends. At the ranch ripping your hands on the barbed wire, stomping in the cow patties. You understand what I’m getting at. Dollar for dollar, this is the easiest job ever invented by man. You don’t believe me, but you will. I promise you will. So here’s the bottom line, Rick. You want this job? Last chance. You want it?”

“I want it.”

“No going back. You’ll shatter my faith. I’m batting a thousand: no one I’ve hired has yet to leave the Service. My gut is always right, and my gut is telling me something about you, Mr. Yancey. My gut is
screaming
at me to do something to you.”

“What—what are you going to do to me?”

“I’m going to hire you, man!”

He leapt to his feet and thrust his hand toward me. I accepted his iron grip immediately.

“Let me be the first to congratulate you, Mr. Yancey. Welcome aboard the Internal Revenue Service!”

Twilight had come and, with it, a fine, misting rain. I was on the interstate, heading home. I had driven my father’s GMC pickup to the interview, my old rattletrap having suffered another breakdown. I was in a state of shock. If someone had told me just a month before that I would soon be a tax collector for the largest employer in the federal government, I would have laughed. Me? The IRS? Never! It must be fate, I told myself. There was no other explanation. Fate had brought the Service and me together. The world had gone monochrome, and along the interstate the towering pines cast no shadow. I drove nine miles over the speed limit, the volume on the radio set to speaker-busting levels, and thought of towering white sails shimmering ghostlike upon slate-gray seas, of men neither bold nor foolish but merely cognizant of the brutal practicalities of life. Did the crew know fear as they rode the metal cage to the top of
Challenger?
These launches had become routine. How could there be any dread in their hearts? Nerves, of course, and a certain quivery anticipation of stepping through a magic doorway to the wonderland on the other side. But the other side on that particular day had been oblivion.

Every great undertaking balances on the edge of disaster. Yet those commuters on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge were upon no great undertaking. They were going to work, to shop, to visit relatives, to see a doctor… disaster stalks even our most trivial decisions. I had not hesitated to take Jim Neyland’s hand because the alternative, as the
Challenger
crew and the drivers on the bridge understood, was paralysis, a kind of acquiescence to failure and death. That failure resulted did not matter. What mattered was climbing into the car for the trip. What mattered was stepping into the cage for the ride to the top.

Welcome aboard.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2
SHOOT THEM ALL

When I was in college, the remake of
The Fly
starring Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum was released. The movie, about a man who slowly changes into a giant man-eating fly, thus ruining any possibility of true love, deeply disturbed me, on a level beyond the stomach-churning special effects. One scene played repeatedly in my mind for days, of Jeff Goldblum collapsing into the arms of his lover and whispering desperately into her ear, “Help me. Help me be human.” His own ear had just come off in his hand.

I borrowed some money from my father and purchased five neckties, one for each day of the week. Three button-down Oxford shirts, white, blue, and tan, three pairs of slacks, and two pairs of shoes, one brown and one black. (I forgot socks and had to return to the store the next day.) The shoes were size tens; the salesman tried to sell me a ten and a half. I tried on the larger size, but thought my feet looked too big in them. They looked like clown feet. I jammed the tens on and walked about, wincing. I had not worn dress shoes in over ten years. “You really should go with the ten and a half,” the salesman said.

BOOK: Confessions of a Tax Collector
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