A Drinking-Man's Poor Tax

| 17 Feb 2015 | 02:19

    As usual, I went to get my taxes done early this year. I just like getting them out of the way so I can forget about them until next year. So one Wednesday afternoon in late February, I stopped into Joe's Taxes in Brooklyn.

    I started going to Joe's seven or eight years ago. At first it was the name that attracted me. How can you resist a place with a big sign out front that reads "Joe's Taxes"? But I've been going back ever since for the simple reason that they're just so gosh-darned nice in there. At heart it's a family operation. When I walk in, Joe's wife gives me a big hug, and the other folks who work there help me get around in the ever-expanding office. They do everything they can for me short of writing the checks in the end. It's as painless as getting your taxes done can be.

    But when Joe told me how much I owed this year, a thin, piercing shriek rose in my throat. I didn't let him hear it, though-I played it cool. It was my own fault. Every year he bugs me and bugs me about deductions, but as he always jokes, you can't deduct coffee, cigarettes and beer. Without those, I'm pretty well screwed.

    I went home, sat down with the finished forms and pulled out the checkbook. I wrote out two checks and stuffed everything into the envelopes. Then I looked at the balance I had left. Just to be on the safe side, I wrote out the check for next month's rent. Then I looked at the balance again.

    After getting all those things out of the way, and not counting the cash I had in my pocket, I was left with two bucks. Two George Washingtons. Two smackeroos were all I had left in the bank.

    I went into the other room, put on a Roy Orbison record (it seemed appropriate), and started singing along with his backup singers. I know full well that I can't begin to approach those high notes of his-that it would just be humiliating to try-so I just stick with the backup singers.

    Dum dum dum dumby doo-waaahh

    I sat back down and considered the situation. It had been a good long time since I'd been destitute-though Lord knows I'd been there.

    I can't say for sure exactly how this happened. I don't squander my money. But I've just quietly watched it drain away over the past few years. Guess life just got more expensive.

    Two things came to mind. Back in 1993, I think it was, I was out of work-and had been out of work for a while. My then-wife had moved out, and I had (again, if I remember correctly) 57 cents to my name. But the rent was paid, so at least I had a place to live for the next month.

    My friend Larry stopped by that night with a bottle, and we sat down at that same kitchen table.

    Larry'd been there, too, and he said to me, "Jim, getting by on 57 cents is easy. It's five bucks that's hard."

    He made a good point, Larry did. And sure enough, I got by. Problem was now, though, I wasn't in my 20s anymore. I no longer had that kind of energy. And if 57 cents is easy and $5 is hard, two bucks, being right in the middle there, is at least troublesome.

    Bum?sha la la?doobie-wah?bum bum bum-yup! yup!

    I was also reminded of an old "Willy 'n Ethel" strip. I guess Joe Martin's "Willy 'n Ethel" still runs daily in some places, but I haven't seen it since the mid-'80s. Back then at least, it was one of my favorite comic strips. In the one that came to mind now, the lumpy husband and wife were at their kitchen table facing a pile of bills, bemoaning their dire financial situation.

    "I saw Clark Gable in a movie once," Ethel says. "At the end, he only has a few cents left in his pocket, but he takes them all and throws them out the window of his speeding car."

    "Aww, Ethel," Willy replies. "Millions of people saw that movie. Believe me, that money's long gone."

    Yes, well. I've never worried myself too much about money, never went scrambling after it. It seemed like a pretty useless undertaking. Life's just easier when you don't have it-and you realize then that there are a hell of a lot of other things worth worrying about.

    Not that being in my 40s and having $2 to my name wasn't cause for some concern. It was. But at least this time around, I had a job, and the next paycheck would be coming along shortly. And the second half of the advance for the next book, too. Not much, but something.

    Still, though, I had to stretch that $2 out until then.

    I looked around. The grocery situation seemed OK. When the beer ran out, I could switch to all that wine I had stashed away. And when the wine ran out, well, there were all those bottles of whiskey I'd been given over the years. I had cat food and cereal and soup. For now.

    Dum-be-dum-de-dum oohh yeah yeah

    I shrugged, put the checkbook away and opened a beer. Then I sat back down at the table and lit a smoke. I had a sneaking suspicion that I'd be okay again. It would just be a couple of very interesting months, is all.