Linus the Lunatic Tax Guy

April 15, 2003

When there’s just no accounting for taxes

CHAPEL HILL–Springtime is also tax time, and this is just plain cruel. Flowers and budding life on the one hand; 1040s and abject terror on the other. 
But I’d like to share a cautionary tale that may help you feel better about your situation, whatever it is. Because there was a time in my life — one dark and terrible year — when I spent much of the tax season curled into a trembling fetal ball, breathing very quickly, and fending off stark madness.

All because of Linus the Lunatic Tax Guy.

This was five years ago, when my wife and I were living in lovely San Francisco — “The City By The Bay That No One Can Possibly Afford, Except That Some People Evidently Can, Because Someone’s Living In All These $5 Million Homes, And Just Where Are They Getting All That Money?”

I had been somehow able to make a living for the previous few years writing for local magazines. Keep in mind that this was in 1998, when the Internet bubble was still inflating and money wasn’t really money at all. A fellow free lancer (we like to call ourselves free lancers because it sounds like maybe we joust for a living) suggested getting an income tax specialist.

“See, there’s this guy that specializes in self-employed types,” my friend said. “Last year, I was about to hand over $5,000 to the IRS. When he got done with my books, I got a $1,500 return! He hates the IRS and he’ll do anything to get them!”

I decided to get in touch, and we met at a diner downtown. Linus came in wearing neon-orange coveralls and a fedora. He sat down and brusquely ordered two coffees. (Later I came to learn that Linus always drank two cups at a time — one main coffee, and one “emergency back-up” coffee.) He went over my paperwork by holding each document about two inches from his face and scanning back and forth with his entire head, like some sort of rogue humanoid flatbed scanner.

(It should be noted here that I was a relatively new but very diligent San Franciscan. I prided myself on my tolerant and urbane approach to weirdness. So the idea of hiring a half-blind urban druid to do my taxes seemed perfectly reasonable.)

Fast-forward eight months. Three quarterly deadlines had been completely missed, and communication with our accountant was now intermittent at best. I had long since given up any hope of breaking even, never mind the savvy deductions.

Linus had clearly passed beyond the ken of outlaw accounting and into some purely notional plane of numbers. When we could get him on the phone, he just whispered about extensions, exemptions and the occluded knowledge that was buried deep in the U.S. Tax Code. He promised that when he was through, not only would we be in perfect standing with the Internal Revenue Service, we would be set up with a moderate supplemental income for the rest of our days.

The last time I spoke with him, Linus was muttering darkly about how chaos theory and numerology could be used to subvert the entire economic paradigm of federal taxation. He just needed more time, you see. He concluded by saying that, given the complexity of the number-logic structure he had erected for us, getting our original receipts and papers back was now flatly impossible.

That’s when we jumped ship. My wife contacted the IRS directly and we ended up on a structured payment program that got us out of immediate trouble. By the time it all shook out, we were long gone — having moved to the gentle South, where the summers are long and affordable housing is within reach.

For all I know, Linus may very well have solved the Great Riddle of the U.S. Tax Code. Perhaps, had we the faith to stick with him to the glorious end, we would be in early retirement somewhere. Maybe in the tropical tax havens of the Caribbean, living off fat checks that would keep rolling in forever — somehow inexhaustible, somehow totally legal.

More likely, we would have flared out like a little domestic Enron. Me, I’m just glad that it’s April and my taxes are done. My idea of perfect heaven is a 15-percent flat tax and a government that will leave me the heck alone for the rest of the year.

Fortune be with you and your crazy mission, Linus the Tax Guy! Godspeed and good luck! Where are my damn receipts?

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