The Comic and the Nigerian Tax Man
By Katie Love
© Copyright 2008
The only time a thick envelope is good news is when it’s blank on the outside and handed to you in a dark alley. So when the bulging envelope arrived from the I.R.S., I took my time opening it.
The audit was for the 2005 return. It seemed I had some ‘splaining to do about “non-reimbursed expenses.” My first question was, as a freelance writer/comedian, who’s supposed to reimburse me, my audience? “ I’m sorry sir, but it cost me $37.00 to drive here, park on Sunset and buy myself a drink, so I’m going to need a bigger laugh from you, or you’re going to have to reimburse me. Do we understand each other?”
The audit was scheduled for three weeks away, plenty of time to organize my records and read “Taxes for Dummies” and maybe a few Suze Orman books just for good measure. “No, I won’t be bringing a tax attorney,” I told the examiner. “I doubt it’s going to get that complicated.” Just lil’ ol’ me and my bag o’ records. How complicated could it be?
“It is your right, if you choose it. Please follow the instructions on the letter and bring all your receipts,” he instructed in his thick, exotic accent.
“Love the accent! Where are you from?” I asked.
“Nigeria,” he answered.
Nigeria. I’d never been to Nigeria, so my imagination took me to a village nestled next to a river where exuberant families planted gardens together and lived off the land in perfect harmony. Children laughing and skipping rocks…drum circles with ancient, tribal dancers…a bonfire…villagers playing curious flutes made out of animal parts. In the middle of the celebration, a mother looks up to find her eldest son huddled in the corner, clutching a pile of papers, a far-away smile on his face.
“What are you doing there, my son?” she asks.
“I am adding up receipts! When I grow up, I will go to America and be an auditor! Everyone will know me! I will be the Nigerian Tax Man! I will make them pay!”
The flutes and accompanying drumbeat came to a screeching halt. The dancing stopped and the fire died. I hung up the phone.
Three weeks sure does go by fast. It was the day before the audit. I sat in my office and stared at the box in the closet marked in angry black sharpie, “TAX RECORDS.” It might as well have read, “YOU’RE SCREWED, FUNNY GIRL! YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN!”
I called a bunch of my friends and told them I was preparing for an audit. A collective gasp. Then we talked about much more pressing issues like how cereal should really be considered a desert.
Finally, in the early afternoon, I opened up the tax box. A creepy, baby spider rushed across my hand. That had to mean Mama Spider wasn’t far behind. I would just have to call Nigerian Tax Man and explain that a family of poisonous spiders had eaten my tax records and I would have to pass on the audit, but thanks anyway.
I shook the box and gingerly looked through it. No sign of insect life. I took out an envelope stuffed so full of receipts, there was no place for me to hold on to. The envelope literally jumped out of my hands, and on to the floor, where it spilled hundreds of tiny, picky pieces of paper called “substantiating proof.” As if choreographed by a dark, evil force, the fan then picked up the receipts and blew them into the far corners of the room. A little switch went off in my brain then and the fence that keeps sanity and insanity corralled was compromised. “We have a breach!” yelled Sanity. But it was too late. I was already throwing the remainder of the box’s contents around the office. It was an Insanity confetti party, and it was a long time coming. There was just no stopping it.
After my outburst, I sat down and looked around at the paper trail of 2005. It had been a great year, lots of laughs. Surely, some good could come out of this task! It didn’t have to be painful- it could be like following a roadmap that led right to the present- right here, right now! These seemingly transparent papers would stand as a testament to the fact that I had persevered through a lot of Hollywood ridiculousness, that I had crossed over three years, and I was still here, damn it! I beamed with metaphoric pride.
Six hours later, I still had half the box to go through. I was so bored I prayed for a lurking spider to sink its fangs into me. I was hungry and agitated. I had eyestrain, my back hurt, and all I had in the house was a bag of peanuts. My metaphysical pride had morphed into something far more primal.
An hour later, covered in peanut shells, my hair still uncombed, looking very much like a ward of the state, I remembered that my friend Denny from Nevada had called earlier. “Just checking in,” he said. “Call me and tell me some fun Hollywood stories!”
Denny is one of those people that never have anything to worry about. His life just runs smoothly, day in and day out. Sure, he has goals and obstacles to those goals just like the rest of us, but really, nothing is ever hard for Denny. There is no suffering. I decided it was high time for Denny to suffer, so I called him…at work. I picked a rogue peanut shell out of my bra as he answered. He sounded happy to hear from me.
“You want to know how I am?” I said, my tone edgy and foreign to my ear. “ I AM BEING AUDITED, THAT’S HOW I AM!”
Silence. Then we laughed. There was simply no one to blame, though Denny seemed such an easy target. I described my surroundings: endless receipts, peanut shells, fear of failure. Denny tried to say he was having a bad day too, but we both knew he wasn’t. We both knew I had chosen my unorganized receipt path to hell, and I would have to walk that path with Nigerian Tax Man, and that was that.
The temperature borders on Minnesota freezing inside the I.R.S. building. The air conditioning hisses a warning through every vent that says, “Don’t even THINK about losing your cool in here!”
Nigerian Tax Man had a nice smile and escorted me into the examination room: a compact room with white walls, no windows, a metal desk with two chairs, a laptop and the oldest calculator I had ever seen.
“I’ll bet that calculator has seen a thing or two,” I joked, the cliché burning on my tongue.
Somehow I’d pictured something much more elaborate to process our tax dollars. I figured they would have calculators so advanced; they hadn’t even been released to the general public yet. These calculators would categorize and read information faster than an Evelyn Wood alumni. The answers would spit out on an overhead screen as “CONFIRMED” or “DISALLOWED” or “HANDCUFF TAXPAYER.”
Nigerian Tax Man began his oral review, asking me banal questions to verify my taxpayer information. Name. Address. Phone. Bla. Bla. Bla. I was anxious! When were we going to get to the good stuff? Was I going to owe more money? He calmly explained all my rights and how the audit selection process works, which sounds a lot like the name of a cocktail: Random with a Twist. It was random, but the twist was, I ran my business out of my home and I had a lot of expenses without a lot of income.
“Well, that’s show business,” I answered, suddenly feeling like I should be wearing double knit polyester and smoking a cigar.
“We must determine if this business is hobby,” he said in his lovely accent.
“It’s not a hobby,” I snapped. “Making people laugh is hard work!”
“Yes, but laughter might not be tax deductible,” he said. “We will see.”
Oh, he’ll see all right, I thought as I proudly unloaded eighteen envelopes of receipts, their category titles scrawled across the front: “Costume. Make-up and Hair. Trade books. Psycho-therapy.” The list went on and on.
As he began the arduous task of organizing receipts by date, I picked up the US Weekly that I had brought with me as a sample of a trade magazine used in my business. “See, I’m doing a joke about this section here where they try to say that stars are just like us-how they eat pizza and get parking tickets. So I keep buying these to get more material, so I can do a run-on joke about it. You know what I mean? Because they’re so NOT just like us! I mean, is Angelie Jolie at the I.R.S. right now? Of course not! Is George Clooney home right now, covered in peanut shells, asking himself why he’s being audited and why he can’t hire a tax attorney to do this for him? No, he’s not. He’s relaxing in his Italian villa. He’s not just like us. He’s really not. Don’t you think that’s funny? Because I think that’s really funny.”
Nigerian Tax Man did not see the funny. He looked up and said, “They are just like us, believe me. You just do not see them here right now. But they are just like us.”
He looked down again. There was a long pause. The temperature dropped even further.
“This is not my job, you know,” he said, holding the receipts as if they were a contagious disease. “ I do not have to add all these receipts.”
“But you’re the auditor. Auditors want receipts. They want receipts so they can add them up, right? I mean, what else do you want to do with them?”
A peanut shell fell from his hand.
“Look,” I said nervously, “It says it right here in your letter- bring receipts.”
I tried to hand him the letter. He didn’t reach for the letter and never broke eye contact. Suddenly we were two warriors on ancient battleground, with only one tired calculator as a weapon. I was a little bit scared, so I did what I always do when I’m nervous. I laughed.
“You should have spread sheet with you. You should be organized. Next year, you will make spread sheet.”
I stopped laughing and nodded. “Yes. Spreadsheet. I will make.”
Hours passed as he checked my receipts against my return and then we came to the red flag section: “Home-based business.”
“You must be prepared to offer tour of your home so that I may verify home is used for business,” he said.
“That’s going to be a tough one,” I chortled. “ I had to move from that place. They tore it down to build condos! Can you believe that? This entire city is turning into condo land! And there was this tree…this really great tree. It had to be two hundred years old. They pulled it right out of the earth! Poof! Gone! I was sick about it! Man…that was a great tree. I even attended this tree revival meeting to try and save it. All the neighbors signed a petition, but it wasn’t endangered, so they got away with it. I used to hug that tree sometimes. It was so solid and you know… real. You don’t get that kind of real in Hollywood. I’m serious! I really miss that tree.”
The tiniest of laughs escaped him from him and he said, “You are KOE-MEDIAN. This I know. No hobby.”
“No”, I said. “No hobby.”
Later, as I thawed out in my car, I wondered what Nigerian Tax Man would say about me that night to his family.
“Today, I meet strange koe-median who talk about missing tree. That it is only real thing in Hollywood. I think funny. You think this is funny?”
I think about him sending a letter home to his mother about me and how the whole village laughs about the missing tree story and how I go on tour to Nigeria to do the koe-medy. I think about what a huge write-off that would be and shudder with excitement.