In the beginning, there was just me. I know it was just me, because “me” was all I could claim when I filled out my federal and state income tax forms. My strong suit was never math, but I could, if I tried hard enough, follow a simple set of instructions. All I needed was a pencil, an eraser, a W-2 form, the blank income tax forms, and those instructions which took me through the whole process step by step. Nothing fancy — which was the way it had to be, for fancy would have surely undone me.
I put the task off each year, sometimes right to the very brink. I can vividly recall one April 15th when I found myself at the post office near midnight finishing up my forms while anxiously stealing glances at a wall clock whose minute hand seemed to move like a propeller. I have no idea why I hated doing my taxes so much, because I always received money back from the government. I suppose I equated it with homework, that laborious affliction that had dogged me for most of my young existence. But I always got the job done.
When I married, there was just me and her. I know it was just me and her, because “me” and “her” were all I could claim at tax time. My wife and I didn’t own anything and there were no little Schprocks to deduct, so my time-honored method of following instructions with a number 2 pencil still held. However, time gradually brought changes, and eventually Daughter Number 1 came along, followed by a condo and a house, and then Daughter Number 2 made her appearance, and finally the missus decided it was time I ceded my job of filling out tax forms to someone who actually knew what he was doing.
Our first accountant was a young guy who advertised his services by stapling flyers to telephone poles with a row of contact information tags at their bottoms. He was a chubby fellow with closely cropped, curly blonde hair and wore tiny, steel-rimmed eyeglasses. He came to our house, accepted all our tax information, asked us a few questions in his most businesslike manner, and then we didn’t see or hear from him again for a month and a half, dangerously close to the filing deadline. We received money back that year, but my wife, who has a nose for money, instinctively knew we could have done better.
A friend of ours recommended a woman she had used for a number of years, so we gave her a try the next time. On the day of our appointment, we loaded both the kids into our station wagon and drove to her house, which was not particularly easy to find. The woman, whose name was Nora, lived in a two-family house with her young son and husband, the latter a Russian immigrant. I rang the bell and immediately heard the vicious barking of a large dog. The door opened and a gigantic german shepherd with glaring, satanic eyes leapt onto the glass of the storm door a perfect picture of rage, its face pressed against the pane in profile, snarling murder and slavering all over the glass. Presently a rotund, bespectacled woman in her thirties grabbed the beast by its collar and dragged it growling and snapping away from the door. From somewhere within we heard a door slam and Nora returned to admit us into her house.
Nora was a genial person. She had the four of us sit in a row on the couch in her living room while she mannishly plopped herself down on the coffee table in front of us, legs apart and forearms resting on thighs like a coach giving a low-key locker room talk to his team. We gave her all our documents and she went through everything on the spot, asking us questions and afterward handing back what she didn’t need. Nora had a bustling air but was in no apparent hurry to usher us out; she liked to talk and kept us there chatting for quite a while. I particularly remember a large aquarium nearby filled with beautiful tropical fish that constantly drew my attention and made it hard for me to focus on what she said. In the end, we decided we liked her and used her for some eight or nine years.
One year, the missus and I arrived for our appointment and, after going through the usual preliminaries with the german shepherd (a different, younger one, but just as menacing; the old one had died), we sat down with Nora in our accustomed way, with us on the couch and her on the coffee table. However, this year was different: she quickly informed us that her husband had left her, leaving her alone with her son and baby daughter. Now, we had seen Nora every year during tax time and had struck an easy friendship with her, but we were by no means intimate and never intended to be. However, despite this footing of light familiarity, she took us through the whole thing, how he had evidently married her only to secure his legal status in this country and had secretly taken up with a female office coworker; how he had practically disowned his children and, in the months leading up to his desertion, rarely had sex with her. It was uncomfortable in a rather juicy way, and the missus and I made all the correct disapproving sounds at the right times. Our tax consultation was more incidental than anything else during that meeting, and we eventually left with our minds reeling over this bizarre intelligence.
A couple of weeks later Nora mailed to us our tax forms. For the first time ever, we actually owed the government money.
We paid her bill, and then the missus tried another accountant recommended by the same friend who had put us on to Nora (this friend had given Nora up the year before). Just my wife went — I didn’t have a chance to attend this meeting. Incredibly, using the same facts and figures Nora had, the new guy managed to make it all work out so we received money back — I think it had something to do with repairs done to our gutters and a little known tax loophole. Whatever the case, we were naturally quite pleased, and were understandably disappointed the following year when we learned he had given up doing taxes altogether.
Another friend of my wife’s told us about her accountant whom she absolutely swore by: Bob. The missus made the appointment and we went to meet Bob at his house one chilly, clear Sunday morning.
Bob, who is white, lived, as he does now, in a rundown, gritty, minority section of Boston. It is an area of the city that makes a caucasian visitor keenly aware of the paleness of his skin, and forces on him the unaccustomed sensation of being a minority himself. His apartment occupied the bottom floor of a triple-decker whose exterior sported dirty vinyl siding of indeterminate color and blistering paint on its trim. To the right of the door were three mailboxes for each of the units with corresponding buzzer buttons below each one. Taped to Bob’s mailbox was his business card, which informed the reader that Bob was an attorney-at-law, a tax consultant, and justice of the peace.
After repeatedly pressing the buzzer and hammering at the door for several minutes, Bob appeared. Small in stature, gnomish in face, dressed in a navy V-necked sweater with white shirt collar and tie, along with brown slacks a quarter-inch too short and sneakers, Bob was one of those people who could be any age. Convincing arguments could be made for him being thirty or fifty. His style of hair, clothing and eyeglasses suited 1983 just as well as 2003. He welcomed us in, conducted us through a small hallway choked with piles of cardboard boxes that climbed the walls at either side, and had us sit in his waiting room while he returned to a client in the room next door.
The waiting room was furnished with unmatched armchairs and a sofa possibly rescued from the curb on trash day; there were a couple of battered, gunmetal grey filing cabinets on one wall, and a small black and white portable TV played a morning news program at a volume several decibels higher than what is comfortable. There were out-of-date magazines spread on a low table bearing mailing labels not addressed to him. The room hadn’t been vacuumed or dusted for a long time. We seated ourselves and patiently watched TV.
Finally Bob was ready for us. He led us into his office which had, in every available corner and nook, more stacks of cardboard boxes crammed with documents. Although not trained as an archaeologist, I nevertheless made the natural assumption that the ones nearest to the top were the most recent, and those boxes at bottom that provided the foundation for these freeform structures which rambled throughout his apartment represented another era. Conceivably, Jimmy Hoffa could have been segmented out into several of those bottom boxes, or perhaps an early draft of the Mayflower Compact was in one. Bob bade us sit in two low chairs placed before a monstrous, battered, ancient oak desk. He stepped around this desk and seated himself in a high-backed office armchair that made him look even more diminutive than he already was. Before him sat an enormous, putty-colored computer monitor. The surface of his desk was a wilderness of clutter: stacks of papers, sorting trays, paperweights, a lamp, a stapler, a three-hole punch and so on. The only clear area was the part immediately around his mouse pad.
There are some people who can, either through sheer force of their personalities or by the way they carry themselves, improve things without altering. They can make cheap, commonplace gadgets seem like fine instruments in their hands, or can impart dignity to squalor with the healing essence of their being. They can appear stately while wearing a rough burlap sack with three holes poked out for two arms and a head, and an old rope tied around their waists for a belt. They can look commanding while seated in a broken-down old buggy drawn by a broken-down old donkey. These rare people can rise above their situations; or, more accurately, they can raise up their situations through their mere presence. Bob was such a person. In his hands, the antique computer became a machine of infinite capacity, and his desk a veritable command center. Bob’s chair was a throne and Bob himself a sultan, ruler of all he surveyed. We instantly knew without being told that when Bob was silent we shouldn’t speak, and when Bob asked questions in his staccato way, we needed to look sharp and answer those questions directly. He was bossy, yet not off-putting. Everything he said was said with conviction and a true note of authority. Here was an accountant, we saw. Here was a man.
Bob’s style was to actually fill out the various tax forms on his computer while we sat there, so we were asked many questions while he tapped away at the keyboard and were required to produce more documents than we had; in the end, a second visit was necessitated to provide him with what was missing. Here were his rules for contacting him: the best times to call were roughly from 3:00 in the afternoon until 5:30, but there was no guarantee he’d pick up the phone if he was busy with a client . . . and it made no sense to leave a voicemail because he wouldn’t listen to it; voicemail was only there to let people know he was still breathing. We shouldn’t send him a fax either, because chances were good he’d never get around to reading it or processing it. Mailing him was even riskier than faxing. You had to actually catch him and hand things to him personally. No other way worked.
So from that day to this I have been in the habit of going directly to Bob’s house to transact any business with him, because whenever I call him, he never picks up the phone. Never. And I will tell you from where the patience to do this springs: Bob delivers. Big time. In the last four years we have had him prepare our taxes, Bob has gotten us oodles of money back. He finds the right forms, he keys in the right numbers, and we enjoy the largesse of the United States government. Last year in particular we got a bundle back from Uncle Sam. So Bob is our man.
Last Saturday I cycled over to Bob’s house to make our appointment for this Sunday morning. He looks the same as ever, just as I suspect he will twenty years from now. We’ll endure the clutter, the loud TV and his sometimes abrasive manner, because we know he will come through. There’s God, there’s family, there’s country, and then there’s Bob. God bless Bob.