Between a Rock and a Hard Place | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Want heartache? Try explaining life on the road to the IRS.

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On the day of our audit, my wife and I stop at a strip mall a few blocks from the IRS office in the northwest suburbs to get lunch. The particular European country being degraded here is Italy. Glassy-eyed office drones, potbellied bozos with pagers on their Dockers, anhedonic single moms, and desperate pink-collar climbers are grazing on semolina tubes clotted with quasi cream and quasi cheese and talking about people they know either from working with them or watching them on Survivor. Donna and I will have our sandwiches to go.

Once through the glass door marked "IRS, Office Hours 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM Mon.-Fri." in the multiplex office park down the street, we are in a tiny vestibule with a bulletin board on the wall in front of us and a locked door and intercom on the wall to our right. "IRS Cleared of Wrongdoing," asserts the headline on a 1998 newspaper clipping in the center of the board; "Congressional Inquiry Finds No Substantiating Evidence of Inappropriate Tactics." We press the button on the intercom a few times and no one comes, so I bang heavily on the door. Donna likes this one, so I bang more and harder. Then we spot another bulletin, advising visitors to ring 6441 on a phone hanging beside the board. She picks up the receiver and dials 6441, but a screen above the Touch Tone pad simultaneously registers "6461." She hangs up and dials the number again, with the same result. We stand stupidly for 30 seconds. Then the magic door opens and out steps a thin young black man dressed in that Pier One translation of natural-fiber folk-art multiculti chic. "I just had a feeling you would be here!" he exclaims.

First thought, the instinctive reaction, I guess, of a man steeped from youth in the protocols of liberal reverse racism is: He's a brother. Everything will be all right. I flash my wife a little smile of confidence. This man will not use the U.S. tax code to bully a pair of free-spirited innocents; he will not be so rock-ribbed or steel-hearted as to pursue some hairsplitting perversion of justice, unleavened by sympathetic understanding, in the course of setting aright whatever trivial infractions he happens to uncover on our 1998 return; he will not plow us over with penalties. The habit of attributing nobility to ethnic minorities runs perniciously deep. But my reflections are momentary. Within an hour I will feel like smashing this gentleman's head apart on his desk.

If I had come in here less blithely the day might have gone differently. But you see, we have been audited before, and despite the horror the A-word is almost singular in provoking (almost, that is, until the words "prostatectomy" and "SheDaisy" disappear from use), I've not been worried this time around. "You know," I said to my wife the night before as we tallied up the last subgroup of receipts ("Promotional"), "I'm almost looking forward to this. It's like a crucible, a big test, and we're as well prepared as we could be. In going back over the 1998 calendar so painstakingly I've gotten to relive a lot of wonderful memories. And look how many errors we've found that are in our favor--we might actually get some money from them!"

"We're not going to call any attention to any errors, no matter who they seem to favor," said my wife, who does not quite share my all-encompassing love of life.

"All right, but just remember, nothing can really happen to us. A couple hundred, a thousand bucks, but we've done nothing seriously wrong and we're not going to jail or anything." My wife has been on thin emotional ice during the preparations and so I try to help her look on the bright side, or skate on the thick patches, or whatever.

The auditor's name is Cole Huffman. His cubicle abounds with humanizing artifacts, predominantly watercolors of stoic Africans, including one man with sizzling raindrops in a band around the middle of his head and ghastly white seed pods over both his eyes. There are also ribbons from two AIDS walks; a framed inspirational message of about 150 words, mainly "I," "try," "can," and "anything"; and--a puzzling touch--a single chain of little plastic Mardi Gras beads. Between two paintings hangs an unframed eight-by-ten sheet of beige paper bearing an octagonal silver seal with an eagle. "1993 / This is to recognize / COLE HUFFMAN / for Five Years of service in the U.S. government." Five Years, capitalized. Beside that, an identical certificate from 1998 marking Ten Years. The overall effect of this office is, like its occupant, reassuring. Here is an auditor--"tax technician," according to the business card nestled in the pelvis of a reclining black iron stick figure--unafraid to wear a human face. Here is a man apart from the mediocrities down the street sipping marinara though straws, a man who recognizes that millennia before civilization, before language, and yes, before the U.S. tax code, our forebears transmuted their inchoate longings and sense of apartness from the beasts around them in crude etchings on cave walls. How fortunate that this adept of the fine arts has been charged with deconstructing our 1040, for my wife and I see ourselves as artists, after a fashion.

But first we have to explain exactly what we do and how we earn money, and this is a tricky matter requiring masterful exegetical technique. Donna does voice-overs for commercials, and she begins by explaining how it is that her robust ream of W2s comes from companies she has never been to or worked for. The companies are paymasters who compute her income based on how often commercials featuring her voice are played, at what time, and in which markets. The payments are made to her agent, who deposits the checks and pays Donna, who then pays back a commission. As a wrinkle, for reasons unknown to us, one of her payments in 1998 was reported on a 1099 instead of a W2. Cole Huffman is fixing his intelligence on this anomaly.

"So your business income for 1998 was actually $850; that is the amount that should be entered on your Schedule C."

"No, that's just a payment for one job which for some reason was reported on a 1099," says my wife. "If that were the only income entered on my Schedule C, I would be reporting a business loss of over $10,000, whereas I actually earned a net income of $44,000."

"You should tell these companies who send out your checks they should be issuing you 1099s instead of W2s. Then you can properly report them as self-employed business income."

"Hmm." We are both thinking of the tens of thousands of voice-over actors and actresses who file W2s from paymasters each year and wishing we had a snappy answer. It would be a shame to have to begin reporting giant losses that we didn't really incur. "There must be some other way..."

"Are any of these companies who issue you W2s your employer? Do they, for instance, tell you to be at work at eight and leave at five?"

This would seem to be a rhetorical question, since my wife has already detailed the irregular pattern of auditions and short jobs that constitute her workaday life. But she dutifully says, "No."

"Then," says Cole Huffman with a triumphant flourish, "they are not actually your employers and these W2s should never have been issued."

This certainly is a setback for us, but the audit is only beginning and there is plenty of time for improvement. The accounting methods of the ad industry have been exposed as fraudulent, and though this is surely thrilling in itself, we are preoccupied with the hazards ahead, such as my wife's mileage log, which she has lost.

"We moved last year and I just. Don't. Know. Where it went." Being an actress, she sometimes does that for effect. Cole Huffman's eyes are wide and full of fellowship, and I detect a malign aftereffect of that 1998 congressional inquiry: human relations training.

"That's really not good," he says.

"I know. And look, here's the thing. The 4,300 miles that are on there, that I drove from my house to Chicago in doing all my work that year--well, obviously I did it. I made the money from the commercials--in fact, I brought the contracts to show you--basically, I can demonstrate, I mean it's undeniable, that I did all this work. Which, logically, you agree I did it, since you're taxing the money I made from it. So if I did it, I had to have gotten there. Obviously, right?"

Cole Huffman is shaking his head with great sadness.

"Could I get some fraction of that 4,300?"

"No."

"I can't have any mileage at all?"

Cole Huffman pauses magisterially. "Let's see how generous I'm feeling by the end of this," he says.

Well, I for one didn't really expect to win that one. But this audit is not getting off to a good start. Our last audit was an hour and a half long and was conducted by a nice lady who tried to understand our occupations and proceed from there. At one point she singled out on my performance calendar a date where I had opened for Dave Alvin. "You went to Cleveland," she said. "Between personnel, motel, gas, and sundries you spent $900, and you made only $100. What were you trying to do?" I remember staring at her without quite knowing what to say. "Pass out business cards?" she suggested, trying to help me. "Make contacts?"

Good Lord, come to think of it, what on earth was I trying to do? My long, dogged pursuit of music business goals both childishly delusory (a major-label deal) and pathetically modest (a sustainable wage) suddenly seemed, in the light of What-are-you-trying-to-do, like a transparently absurd endeavor that I had kept afloat year after year only by suspending my entire capacity for sober self-examination. I might have dissolved in a pool of tears if my wife hadn't whisked a copy of my recent major-label release out of her pocketbook with a triumphant air, placed it before the audit lady, and announced: "This! This is what we have been spending all this money and time waiting for! This is it--the eventuality every struggling musician dreams of and prays for, this! The end of the rainbow! Our countless sacrifices vindicated by the endorsement of a giant corporation!" It was as though she had been polishing this Brechtian outburst for days. But her point was taken by the auditrix, and for the remainder of the session there were no inquiries into the hundreds of dollars daily disappearing into the voracious maw of my career during fiscal year 1996, the eventual sinking of hundreds of thousands of dollars into that very maw by a real record company having lent some legitimacy if not respectability to the boondoggle. (In an ironic footnote to this story, that company has now disappeared. I am still here.)

But this year's auditor is interested in succinct data to fill each field on the computerized form. "In this business you operate as a self-employed musician, where do you go to play music?"

"Um"--how to put it?--"bars."

"No, what I mean is, your engagements, do they take place primarily in and around Chicago?"

"No, they take place all over. Mainly in the United States."

"And who comes to hear you play?"

Again I am not sure what to say.

"For instance, do you play primarily for children?" Tax examiners always keep helpful mind-jogging instances at hand.

"No, primarily for adults. I put out records and theoretically people develop an interest in attending one of my shows after having heard a record."

"I see." He types the word "general" in the field and moves on to the next. "Who handles sales and production, would that be you?"

"You mean of the records? The records are produced, I guess you would say, by the record label. I sell some myself from the stage but most of the sales take place in stores where people go to buy records"--I am still trying to find a suitable diction for this weird discourse--"and are accounted for by the record label."

He types "lable" after the prompt "Sales" and "label" after the prompt "Production," and after comparing the effects, corrects the first. I am wondering how to get this on track. That no one outside of one's profession has a clear understanding of what one does or how one does it, much less why; that one is condemned by one's occupational culture to exile from ordinary society; that one is, with one's casual attire, slouched posture, and stammering difficulty in answering a few generic questions, naturally ridiculous in the eyes of decent citizens--one must accept these symptoms of an ordered society with forbearance. But one also becomes inured to a special status that is usually easy to invoke when necessary. Look: I make records! I travel around entertaining people--not a lot of people, to be sure, but they are spread all over 48 states! I am written about in magazines! I'm even on the electric TV!

"Now, let's look at some of your Schedule C deductions. First, you reported $9,091 in travel expenses. What were those?"

I produce four thick manila folders full of tour receipts and income/expense breakdowns by month.

"That's for hotels. Here are the receipts."

"These are hotels for..."

"For when we go to play our shows, which are attended by adults, and which occur mainly outside of Chicago. Afterward we sleep in hotels."

"'We' is who? You and your band?"

"Yes."

Another sorrowful shake of the head. "The only allowable travel-related deductions are for yourself."

"I'm sorry?"

"You can't deduct others' expenses, unless they're your employees. The law is very clear on that point. Are these people your employees?"

The sickening sound is my all-encompassing love of life collapsing into a slough of despond. My wife steps in.

"These people are not our employees. Let me present a clear picture of our operation for you. We are not the Rolling Stones here. We are a small family business. We cannot afford to pay the people Robbie takes on the road medicare or social security, nor do they expect us to. They are indispensable to my husband's career. He releases records featuring group performances, and so he needs to tour with a group."

"Then the group needs to pay their own way and claim their own expenses on their own returns."

"Musicians are not going to cover their own travel expenses! That's just not how! It! Is!"

"Well, I suggest you try looking for some different musicians. I'm sorry, but it's very clear." He reads a passage from a book that says what he just said, that travel deductions must be one's own or one's employees'.

"Look," says my wife, trying a different and more fruitless tack, "this is what everyone does. And we ourselves have done this for years. Our travel expenses for Robbie's band passed our last audit, and passed two different experienced tax preparers."

"I can't speak for what happened at your last audit, or what you have done in the past. Sometimes," he confides, "low-budget tax preparers are unreliable."

"This is absolutely insane," I suggest. "First of all, Geffen reimbursed me for all these expenses, and their reimbursements are reported here as income, so under your scenario I'm taxed on the reimbursement but can't claim the original expenses I paid out of pocket. Second, this tax law is plainly meant to cover pager-wearing schmucks who go to Cleveland for a seminar, not rock bands. It's not business-related travel, my whole business IS the travel. I have tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for my band, going back for years--not just hotels but airfares, cabs, drumheads, and a dozen other things." Maybe I shouldn't be saying all this.

"And none of that is allowed," Cole Huffman says with a smile. "You can't deduct other people's expenses. It's just absolutely clear. After all, how do I know that your band isn't claiming these same expenses on their returns?"

"What do you mean?" I pull from a folder a few pages of meticulously Scotch-taped hotel receipts. "I have the receipts! Here they are! Anyone else that claims these two rooms at the Red Roof Inn on August 9, 1998, in Trenton is clearly incorrect!" I am kicking at his desk impatiently and gesturing heatedly.

"Do not get angry at me, Mr. Fulks. I did not write the law. Talk to your congressman."

Neither of us can think of any other line of reasoning, and we can see little profit in continuing to object to something so clear.

"I'll ask my supervisor to confirm the law if you like." We nod mutely, and are left alone all of a sudden, Donna and I. There was, as Dorothy Parker put it, a long silence with things going on in it. After a minute I mumbled timidly, "Are these car-dealer-type stunts or what? First the how-generous-I'm-feeling bit and now this. If he comes back saying, 'Well, this is really your lucky day,' I'll asphyxiate him with my long form." (Tax jokes are usually a bit labored.)

But he returns without any developments to report, and informs us that it is time to move on to my mileage claim, which is 41,394.

"Were all these miles on one vehicle?"

"Yes."

"Did you use that vehicle for any non-work-related driving?"

"No."

"Did you keep a mileage log?"

"Yes."

"Let's take a look."

I recorded my mileage in my calendar book. At the end of every trip, on the page with the date on which I got home, I wrote down the miles driven with a box around the figure. Two-hour trip, number in a box; monthlong trip, number in a box. There are perhaps 60 numbers in boxes. I read each one to Cole Huffman, slowly and deliberately, while turning 365 datebook pages slowly and deliberately. He runs an adding machine tape. The miles come up about 1,000 short.

"Well, that's odd," I say. "Maybe I missed one. Shall we double-check our work?"

He sighs, runs another tape, and I read through the book a second time, not much faster, and the number doesn't change. The return is adjusted accordingly. Cole Huffman's patience is being strained, and you can see some cracks, just barely, in his helpful facade. As for me, I'm not even here anymore. I am mildly interested in what magic sum will be declared at the end, but, despair having set like cement in my head, I would like to amuse myself for whatever time remains by playing daft and throwing spanners. When he turns to the meals deduction, which is based on the number of days out of town, I ask Donna whether she brought that sheet where I tallied my travel days. No, she didn't, and we go back to the datebook and count out 196 days, page by page, at the speed of mammal evolution. A couple times I lose the count--"47, no, wait, did I already say 47?"--but Cole Huffman sticks doggedly with me as he runs the tape. After this exercise he asks for the 1099s I filed for my band. "Um, did you bring those?" I ask Donna. Cole Huffman doesn't wait for the answer. He goes away again. I turn to Donna.

"What were we thinking? We should never have come here without bringing someone to speak for us, someone to speak to this man in his own tongue and find whatever fucking hidden clause it is that lets us earn a living the way we earn it and keeps the fucking IRS off our backs. We're over our heads and out of our element. And that sandwich is making me sick. Something was wrong with it."

"If he's right about your deductions, what are we going to do?" Donna says. "You can't go out on the road anymore if you can't claim most of the expenses."

"He's not right, and I can claim them, and what we're going to do is research case law, consult a half-dozen different tax lawyers and accountants, talk to other bandleaders who've been audited, and then appeal. We're going to spend half our productive time for the next month on this horseshit. We can't come back to this on our third audit." Almost everyone we know who has been audited once has been audited twice more.

Cole Huffman walks back in and sits down, and right away the tempo ratchets up. He skims merrily past a half-dozen figures we had dreaded discussing. He's just too eager to get this over with. "I" and "try" and "can" and "anything" have turned to "very" and "tired" and "go" and "home." This is not the sympathetic, soul-of-Job, post-congressional-hearings Cole Huffman of three and a half hours back. This Cole Huffman stretches his arms languidly and sighs continually. Presently his phone rings. He tells the caller suggestively, "I'll call you back in three minutes."

"Are we through in three minutes?" Donna pipes up.

"I was using a turn of phrase," Cole Huffman glowers. But we are done in 15. The bill is $966.

We ride home through rush hour traffic. As we pull into our driveway a girl from the neighborhood, a pretty 14-year-old with a somewhat confrontational style, is hanging around our lawn on her bike.

"I just wrote two songs," she tells me.

"I didn't know you were a songwriter. What are they called?"

"One's called 'Country Hillbilly' and one's called 'Down Town South.'"

"That's funny."

"I've got a lot of songs," she says. "Not all of them are finished."

"Stay out of the business," I advise her.

The name "Cole Huffman" is a whimsical fabrication designed to shield Robbie Fulks and his family from dire consequences.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.

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