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Tax Man on Jefferson Avenue

Joe, the Bus driver strode into the H & R Block Tax office.  He was a young muscular handsome black man in a blue/green transit uniform.  He wore the transit hat well, tipped to one side. When he smiled he had a toothpaste smile.  Joe had worked many overtime hours for the Detroit Department of Transportation and had made a lot of money.  His wife, Tina trailing behind him was small, thin and more than two feet shorter than Joe.

You would think Tina was timid until she opened her mouth.  When she spoke her eyes lit up and her movements were animated.  Tina had worked a part-time job long enough to have $240 federal taxes withheld from her pay.  She pulled the wrinkled  W-2 from her purse.  She wanted the $240 back.   A neighbor told Tina that if she filed separately she would get it all back.  This was true.  However Joe, her husband,  would have to pay several thousand dollars more if he filed separately instead of jointly with his wife.   The tax rate was much higher filing separately.   On Joe’s income he would owe a lot of money.

Joe who had walked into the office so confidently was almost reduced to tears trying to reason with his wife Tina.  The more he pleaded the more set she became.  Joe said he would give his wife Tina $240 of his refund.  Tina shook her head, no deal.  When I suggested that he double the amount he would give her, $500, she was still not satisfied.  Joe, lowered his head, spoke with both hands exasperated he said “Oh baby, Oh baby, Oh .  .  .  baby!!  Tina was still, she didn’t move.   I quietly reminded Joe that Tina had to sign a joint return.  Joe left the office head down, Tina following.  I  told them both that they could pick up the tax forms in three days and that I would figure the tax both ways, jointly and separately.

I had seen the advertisement for Income Tax training by H & R Block and Tax jobs  in the Campus newspaper “The South End” at Wayne State University in Detroit.  The training class began in December 1977.  I was unemployed and with little thought signed up for the class.  There were thirty people in the class on that first night.  Fewer came to class each week until there were fewer than fifteen regular students in late January 1978.

In the class most students were older than me.  I was twenty nine years old.  The class met in an office with old long scarred folding tables and much used folding chairs.  The radiators near the front windows made noise and radiator liquid ran from them onto the terrazzo floor, a wet spot, then leaving brown spots in places when it dried.

The Tax Workbook we were given, was a loose packet of papers.  There were two teachers each night, Ron and Bob.  Bob owned the H & R franchise.  Bob was big around the belly, cigarette stains on his fingers, and he had an occasional tic, (his head jerked to one side at times) His lessons were very repetitive.  Ron did most of the teaching.  Ron really looked the part, in costume, of the shifty car salesman.  He wore a black shirt with a white tie one evening, patent leather shoes.  The class met twice a week from seven to nine thirty P.M..  The work book had homework to do between classes.  Toward the end of the class it was obvious that some students in the class would be getting a job.  Some students were very competitive, getting the job was important.

I began work on the first week of February.  The pay was “by the form”, for tax work completed and purchased.  My work was reviewed by Bob and then returned to the Tax office before sale to the clients.  The first week saw few customers.  I was not the best student, but I had earned a spot at the Jefferson Avenue office with mostly blue collar returns, a Goodyear tire factory and Chrysler Auto assembly plant was nearby on Jefferson Ave.

One challenge I quickly encountered was explaining the income tax concept to foreign workers from Saudi Arabia.  The Chrysler assembly  plant was satisfying the minority hiring goals by hiring foreign workers.  Unfortunately, I was the messenger and the I. R. S. and the Treasury Department was not good news for these men.

“No you can’t count your dependents back home as dependents on the tax form.”

Doing a few returns I learned there were often several men at the same address, sharing a house. Sometimes even a bed was shared and most of the money earned went back home to the extended family.  The Chrysler paycheck was a godsend for these men and their families.

Many of these men had listed multiple dependents, when filing papers at the time of employment, dependents overseas who they could not use when taxes were calculated.  They owed money to an entity they had never encountered at home and had difficulty understanding.  Some men grabbed their W-2’s from my fingers and left when they got the bad news.  The tax form I had completed went into the “dead” file.

Being the junior tax preparer in the office also had a cost I learned quickly.  The office was first come first served.  I saw the pattern after only a few days.  My co-worker, the senior guy Jack, would occasionally disappear, into the bathroom or outside for a smoke when he saw who was next.  Late one morning when he had disappeared again and I saw the older black gentleman lumbered to my desk,  I just had a feeling that I was set for a Tax Preparers adventure.  I had been had.   I got the man’s name and brought the thick file from previous tax return years back to my desk.  The gentleman had grey whiskers prominent on his face, a couple of days growth and he shuffled as he walked.  Before he sat down he emptied a brown paper bag on my desk, the papers were flying, like confetti..  When he sat down a sound came from deep within him, through his throat leaving no doubt it was a relief to sit down..

The loose papers dumped on my desk first got sorted by size, from tiny, not more than an inch square to larger than a sheet of paper and then they were sorted by date.  The gentleman owned an apartment complex.  The papers were his expense receipts for the year.

My job was to make some sense of these receipts on my desk, his apartment expenses, calculate the correct depreciation for his apartments, and then arrive at a refund figure.  He patiently watched me, the calculator the only sound between us.  I cautiously glanced at my co-worker trying to hide my fear and to see if there was any chance for help however he was working on the next customer.

I make a guess on the refund to the client low balling a figure, based on last year’s return.  I felt the stress sweat on my neck, my shoulders were tight.  The old man nodded, picked up the empty paper bag and slowly walked to the door and left the office.  I gathered the receipts and folded them into the file.  The next customer was approaching my desk, I wiped the moisture off my forehead.

Timidly, a short black woman, grey skin color came to my desk.  I guessed she was about fifty years old. She had tiny round black eyes that didn’t look at me directly even when I tried to make eye contact.  She sat in the chair next to my desk, but she seemed to be turned away from me.  She couldn’t look me in the eye.  She handed me the W-2’s without a word.

The tax training had a standard interview script to begin; name, address, single, married?  This part was filled out with the client on the spot.  The W-2 was from Chrysler, the plant just a few blocks from the tax office.  The tax form was for her son Melvin who had worked at the plant.

She said Melvin had been so happy, overjoyed, to get a job working on the line at Chrysler.  Her son’s story came slowly from the woman and I stopped writing.  This was going to be the short form, no special deductions I thought to myself.  Then the woman’s words came haltingly.  Her son was eighteen years old.  He had never before made the good money he was able to make at Chrysler on the line.

She paused, another woman, her friend came to my desk.   The friend stood next to the woman seated speaking to me.  She put her hand on the woman’s shoulder consoling her.  The woman seated looked down and spoke slowly, one word hanging. “It only took him a couple of checks, Melvin had enough money for his dream.  There was no stopping him.  He  owned the motorcycle for just a few days before the fatal accident on the Edsel Freeway.  The woman sat silently next to my desk while her friend rubbed her shoulders with her hand.  I looked down at the tax form in front of me not knowing what to say.  I was still and acknowledged her words with a nod.  I too sat silently for a while.

It was clear from the W-2 that Melvin had only worked at Chrysler for a couple of months.  All of the money withheld out was coming back as a refund.  I softly spoke the dollar refund and told the woman and her friend when they could return for the finished return.  After they left the officeI left for a smoke and walked down and around the block before returning to my desk.

The tax office was quiet around 11 AM one morning when a city bus stopped in front of the office.  This was noted because there was no bus stop outside the tax office.  But there it was, the bus filled with people looking out the windows of the bus into the Tax office.  I felt like I was in a fishbowl while I watched Joe the bus driver come through the front door.  I  watched him walk up to my desk.  Joe had a broad smile on his face, those white teeth like I said like a toothpaste commercial.

Joe said, “I want the Joint return my man.”  I went in the back office to get his return glancing over my shoulder at the bus passengers starring in the windows of the tax office.  The bus was full of people.  I explained to Joe where Tina was to sign and he handed me cash to pay for the tax return.  I had to go again to the back office to get change, and again I looked at the people in the bus staring into the tax office.  When I handed him the change, Joe, still with the big smile, winked at me, shook my hand, and tucked the tax file under his arm.  A moment later the bus pulled away.