by Nancy Orans Eder
Alan is a heavy set man in his early 70s who most likely walks unnoticed on the streets of New York. Nothing about his appearance glaringly draws attention or provides distinctive identification as he enters a room. A touch of sadness casts a shadow over his paunch. Alan carries the gravity of the butler of Downton Abbey with a kindness and gentleness that is endearing.
Over his large frame accentuated by a prominent belted waistline, his shirt is blue and a bit blousy; he doesn’t wear a tie. The trousers might have been purchased at Barney’s ten years ago. They are pleated in front perhaps in an attempt to hide his extra pounds. In fact, the pleating draws attention to his roundness. When I arrive on time for our date, he ambles slowly into the reception area with a slight smile of greeting like a large slow-moving brown bear extending his warm paw to shake hands.
Alan and I have been ‘going steady’ for the past sixteen years. We never went out on Friday nights to the movies or held hands walking through Central Park. We haven’t sipped wine over candlelit dinners or taken a holiday together. Our time as a ‘couple’ was specific in terms of day and time and clearly by appointment at his convenience. The date was set up by his secretary for a particular hour of the afternoon.
The subdued colored landscapes covering the office walls are his own paintings. When he has rare free time he paints in a studio and visits art galleries in his Chelsea neighborhood. The overgrown plants in dusty clay pots need water as much as he himself needs a bit of tending. I imagine him as a loving grandfather, though I was saddened to find out that he was going through a divorce and had no children.
But I share much more with him than he does with me. It is an unequal relationship by mutual consent. He knows my income and my health record especially with regard to surgery expenses, my investments and savings. He knows the city museums to which I make contributions, the courses I labored over at NYU, and on occasion hears about the vacations on which I lavish my savings on my own paint and paper. I, too, am a landscape painter. We have that in common.
We have a regular date for me to reveal all of my yearly issues. Once a year right around March 15th we meet underneath his oil paintings to discuss my tax returns. Alan is my tax man and he knows personal things about me to which even my closest friends are not privy.
Our meetings are brief. I bring in all my receipts and forms and he dutifully, slowly and carefully enters the numbers on to the computer asking questions as they arise. The whole time together is no more than a half hour for each session.
I look forward to checking in with Alan each year and to rid myself of my tax obligations, but increasingly the costs have been rising disproportionately to the service I require. I asked Alan about the fees given that I’m a senior, on a fixed income and a longstanding customer. “I’m not in charge of the prices,” he explained. This I knew because he works at H&R Block.
“Please let me know if the fees are going to increase this year,” I implore via email. I receive no response. Last year’s cost for service had gone up to $565. Considering that I have a fairly simple and straightforward bank account and savings program, I was feeling pinched, squeezed and cheated. No, not by my dear partner, Alan, but by his company. I called the office and spoke to his receptionist and was told that each year, yes, the prices rise. That was the answer. Fees for service like everything else in life go up, explained the recently hired and officious receptionist. She couldn’t care less.
“Yes, but, I’m a senior. I live on a fixed income. I’ve been a client here for many, many years.” I whined as if my concerns were being shared with an equal. She reiterated the same shpeel: “Yes, the prices do increase each year, but we don’t determine the fees in this office.”
How could I continue with trusted Alan, the taxman who knew my finances so well? But how could I leave him? He knew me. I trusted him and felt so comfortable in his care. He had my devotion and confidence though this past year we had a slight run in over a tax matter which required him to contact the IRS on my behalf. The letter he wrote to rectify the error and explanation of my tax problem was ineffectual. I spent a considerable amount of time rewriting his required forms and subsequent letters on my behalf before he signed and sent them to the IRS. Ultimately it took many months to get my $1,069.56 back, but my trust in Alan’s knowledge and capabilities was being chipped away. Maybe Alan wasn’t as capable as I had thought.
Right after tax season last year and reeling at the high cost, a close friend recommended her accountant of many years, but I wasn’t ready for a break up. I couldn’t leave Alan. He was as trusted as my gynecologist who died a few months ago. Two losses in one year. I couldn’t deal with the indecision and conflict. Some things require loyalty. But another year of taxes was quickly approaching.
A few weeks ago, I checked under the letter “S” in my rolodex. Steve’s name and phone number popped out. How can I switch? Why was I so tormented about this change? The heck with it. I will just call him.
Steve would come to my apartment from his office in Long Island. He was approximately the same age and girth as Alan and not too communicative. Perhaps people in this field sit too long and don’t eat properly. No idle chatter ensued. Steve was interested in getting down to business which was fine with me. While I rustled around making tea, he asked only a couple of pertinent questions and within a half hour completed my tax forms by hand.
Steve pointed out that I was being ripped off by H&R Block in more ways than one: double charged for each form that was sent to the federal government and the state government, I was being charged twice for the same information as well as being overcharged year after year. The inflated cost of having my taxes done finally trumped trust in Taxman Alan. Steve’s fee was less than half of H&R Block.
Alan and I are no longer a couple. A new man has come into my life. But who knows if we two will be going steady. My son has reassured me that for thirty dollars I could do my own taxes using some straightforward and user-friendly forms on line with a website called Turbotax.
Turbotax doesn’t have the cache of Alan or Steve, but then again, the price is right. Too late for this year. But if it’s as easy as I think, Steve and I might not be dating by next April.