Josna Rege

225. Audit Alert!

In 1970s, 1990s, Britain, Family, Food, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, Stories, United States on August 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Working on taxes is guaranteed to drive one to distraction. As I struggle vainly to focus on the figures swimming before my eyes, my thoughts stray instead into the green groves of memory, a Big Rock Candy Mountain where the refunds grow on bushes and auditors have rubber teeth (see the real lyrics here).

imagesOne Hallowe’en during the 1990’s when Nikhil was about fourteen, almost too old to go out trick-or-treating, he decided to dress up as an Internal Revenue Service auditor. At the local Salvation Army thrift store he found a grey Brooks Brothers suit that was just a little too big, making him look forbiddingly gaunt and cavernous, accessorized it with black shoes and a nondescript tie, and tucked a briefcase under his arm. Finally, lest people should fail to identify him, he made a badge for his breast pocket. I’m not sure how children reacted, though I suspect that they might have mistaken him for an adult or older brother accompanying younger trick-or-treaters; but he certainly got a response from the parents! Shuddering noticeably, they backed away from the open door as if the bogeyman had just loomed into their field of vision. Then they hurried forward a little too eagerly and, as if to placate, urged him to take extra handfuls of candy. He came home that night with quite a haul. (Incidentally, he grew into the suit and used for years afterward, wearing it to job interviews, bar mitzvahs, and all manner of functions that required formal attire.)



Perhaps the idea for that costume occurred to Nikhil because back in my 20s, around 1977, I had actually been subjected to an IRS audit and survived to tell the tale. I must have done something to raise a red flag, and it certainly wasn’t making outrageous amounts of money. I had worked for a nearly a year at my first fulltime job after college, and must have claimed some deductions that the federal government deemed questionable. At the time I was living in the wealthy town of Concord, so perhaps they suspected that I was in fact making a lot more money than I had claimed on my tax return. Either that or, early in my taxpaying career, they just wanted to teach me a lesson I wouldn’t soon forget. A forbidding-looking letter arrived in the mail with a time and place for my audit, advising me to bring all my receipts and other documentation of my income and expenses for the previous year. To say that my receipts were all stuffed into a shoebox would be putting too positive a spin on the condition of my accounts, so I went into a whirlwind of activity, pulling together my records of income and paid bills, even if they had been paid in cash and scrawled on scraps of paper, as many of them were.

It was a slight, serious young man who greeted me tentatively as I made an entry with an obvious attitude. How dare the IRS audit me, an honest and upstanding citizen! (Well, honest, at any rate; never mind that I wasn’t a citizen, and wasn’t going to be one for another 30 years or more.) He ushered me into a little booth and invited me to lay out my paperwork for his review. Did I ever! I must have felt it was my personal mission to subject this federal agent, this representative of the Man, to my philosophy of life, demonstrating to him the many virtues of sustainable living, home gardening, and food cooperative membership. I don’t think the poor fellow managed to get more than a few words in edgewise, while I delivered my presentation as if I were standing at a podium before a crowd of thousands.

I do remember his asking me a couple of timid questions. One of them was, how could we have eaten enough to survive on just $25 a week? Easy, I said triumphantly: All our vegetables were home-grown in the summer and canned for the winter; and for all the food we couldn’t grow ourselves, West Concord Food and Friendship Cooperative, our pre-order food co-op, cut out the middleman and—I felt the need to score a point—the profit as well. The other question was how our electricity bills could be so incredibly low. Easy, I boasted again: energy conservation, supplemented with wood and solar power.  Andrew had made his own woodburning stove out of a 55-gallon drum and the construction was so tight that there were still embers glowing in it when we woke in the mornings, making it just a matter of minutes before it was roaring merrily and heating the whole superbly-insulated cabin. Then too, Andrew had built a solar greenhouse on one side of the house, buffering it from the winter winds and additionally allowing us to grow greens all year round. Did he need anything more from me—plans for the greenhouse, perhaps, the brilliant design of the stove, a membership brochure for the food co-op?

Looking back, I feel rather sorry for the young auditor. This might have been his first job after college as well. Perhaps he was struggling to support a family or climb out from under a mountain of debt. It was not long before he pronounced himself satisfied and me free to go. As he helped me gather up my pile of papers and hastened to show me out, he actually apologized on behalf of his agency for having audited me. But when I asked if this meant that I was safe from being audited again in the future, he said he was afraid not. If my return raised similar alerts in the future, well then, I could expect to receive an audit notice again. But as long as I continued to keep such good records, he added, I had nothing to fear.

In the 1990s one of my favorite programs on PBS featured another awkward young income tax auditor, and in the improbable role of male romantic  lead. It was the British series, The Darling Buds of May, based on the 1958 H. E. Bates novel of the same name, with his counterpart played by a very young and stunningly beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones as the farmer’s eldest daughter Mariette. The timid Cedric (aka Charley) had been sent by the Department to audit the flamboyant “farmer” Pop Larkin, who was living suspiciously high on the hog. Needless to say, the Larkin family was more than a match for poor Charley—perhaps not so poor, after all (say no more, wink wink).

Of course, The Darling Buds of May was nothing but the stuff of dreams, a Big Rock Candy Mountain for the nostalgic Nineties. In the real world, one can’t just feast, seduce, or marry the auditor. But wait—isn’t that exactly how it’s done?

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  1. Josna, your post was wonderful to read. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during that interview with the young tax auditor. I must confess that as I read your description of it something inside me was saying – Yes – Yes -put that in your pipe and smoke it. I sincerely hope you’ve not been audited again.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Don. I might have got a bit carried away with a somewhat exaggerated telling of my audit experience. I suppose I needed a little comic relief while doing my taxes (which I’m still doing–ugh). I probably went into the audit interview with a lot more trepidation than I let on, either to the auditor or to the readers of TMA! But I do remember his asking me those questions, incredulous that anyone could live so cheaply, and the smug feeling my reply gave me.

  2. I enjoyed the Darling Buds of May so much, I found the book. Funny, I remember the mother as the female lead. Guess that was because I identified with her. Good for you on your audit 😀

    • Kristin, I too found the show so enjoyable, and it always made me laugh.I had been thinking the same thing as I wrote; the two young ‘uns were the romantic leads (though Pop and Maw gave them a run for their money) but the older couple were the emotional centre of the series. So I’ve revised the wording. I loved the mother, too, though I couldn’t identify with her as you must have with six children! She was beautiful, calm & centered, non-judgmental, and full of the joy of life.

  3. Plenty of passion and individuality there Josna! And a very funny and powerful account of your slaying of the IRS inspector. Brilliant. E

  4. Apparently you brought the ‘dazzling’ approach to a new level of brightness, Josna. Doesn’t surprise me, Josna. But it does make me smile.


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