Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Paying the Man


Every year, we've got to pay The Man. The Tax Man, I mean. The government. April 15, time to pay for all that stuff they do that we don't even know about until it's too late. Not that there aren't good uses for tax dollars. But this is not a political blog. It's a memory. I am in Chicago at the age of twenty-five. I had just left a job with a PR agency to test my hand at something more editorial, and while waiting to land a salaried job I started doing a little freelance work. I had not done it before, so this was a first lesson in entrepreneurship. It was scary, but exhilarating. I did a couple of projects that were passed along to me by a writing teacher who developed a lot of texts for a healthcare-related organization. He landed the jobs, then subcontracted to have me help with certain chapters, usually to do with management tools or patient education in hospital settings. The work was interesting enough, and the pay was okay, though nothing to live on. I kept up my job searching activities—it hadn't required much to see that I was not quite ready to freelance full time—and a few months later I was offered a job with the Chicago Sun-Times. Fast forward to April of the following year. Tax time. I remember that I was dreadfully sick the week of the fifteenth. I had not had time to deal with taxes yet because I'd been working a lot of long, crazy hours, and suddenly I was paying the price for letting myself get run down. I almost never called in sick, but this was a rare exception. Although I was sick, I realized that I really needed to do the taxes, and I was afraid that if I waited until my illness passed, then I'd just be back at work and unable to spare the time. I'd left this task until the last minute, but it was always easy for me to write up the numbers, do some simple math and (usually) wait for a refund. Because I'd waited to even obtain the forms, though, I had some trouble locating them. I remember dragging my achy body to a couple of post offices, which were all out. A trip down the block became a schlep farther afield, and then eventually I went all the way downtown to the Harold Washington Library Center, where I grabbed the 1040EZ-Form (two copies, just in case), then headed back toward home. Sitting on the El, I remember feeling dizzy and nauseated. I thought I was going to pass out at one point, although thankfully I didn't. I had chills, then sweats. I made it back to my apartment and curled up under the covers to take a nap. When I sat down later to look at the form, I realized that things weren't adding up. I had always done the EZ-Form, done it myself with no trouble. The thought of anything more complicated was beyond me, as was the notion of paying someone else to prepare my returns. I tried to convince myself that, if I could only think straight, then I could figure out what to do with my one and only 1099, issued by my writing teacher for the subcontracted work I'd done during the past year (at least I don't think it was the client organization that issued it), where on the form it would go. Well, the answer of course is that a 1099 doesn't go anywhere on the EZ-Form. Nowhere. No can do. Maybe I was just unusually ignorant of tax matters, but really, how was I supposed to know if no one had told me ahead of time? After reviewing and re-reviewing the EZ instructions through a fog of decongestants, trying to figure out what the hell . . . It became apparent that my days of EZ-Forms were over. I needed something else. Could I use the 1040A, or did I need the plain old 1040? It was too much to deal with. I remembered an H&R Block down the street. Did I go that same day, or did I have a day to spare, another sick day? Anyway, it was last-minute, I didn't feel well, and I wasn't the only one: H&R Block was full of anxious people waiting their turn with a CPA. The place had the feel of a deli counter—that kind of turnover—but I'd take salami over tax prep any day. When it was my turn, a youngish man, whose name I have no hope of or desire to remember, asked me some basic questions, began tapping things into a computer, and then we came to the 1099. You're self-employed? he asked. I told him that I was, although I was working one full-time job now. Let me ask: if you do two very small and not-very-lucrative projects during a couple months out of one year, should you really be counted as self employed for the year? Anyway, I was summarily told that I should've paid self-employment tax, estimated quarterly payments. Plus that there was a penalty for not doing so. Huh? I don't think I itemized any kinds of deductions to offset any of this, and the money I'd made truly wasn't worth it; I don't think it even covered the cost of the penalty. Sitting there, still miserable and knowing I had no time to figure out any other alternative—knowing that I had run out of time and that this was the only way it was going to get done—my stomach flipped as the seasonal accountant churned out my standard forms and fees. I don't remember what I paid him to do the returns. Don't remember what money I had to pay the Feds or the State of Illinois. It was too much, anyway. But the numbers were there, black on white. I paid H&R Block. And after that, all there was left to do was say thanks, toss in some irony for good measure, and head home to write another couple of checks. It was a rite of passage: one more jolt of growing up, another year gone. You know what they say about death and taxes. Well, death has never been an easy subject. And now, taxes were EZ no more.

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