The Tax Man

by

03/31/2019

Neighborhood: Bowery, Upper West Side

 

It was tax time, April 1989, the cold and merciless spring a further insult to what had been a turbulent year for me. I’d been struggling with sobriety and was trying to bounce back from a failed romance. Some days, I felt like I walked through the world with my skin turned inside out, raw as a newborn. On better days, everything clicked, and I finessed my way through the city, tough as a New York cabbie. Still, after far too many years spending my working hours in a secure but calcifying job, I had taken the first steps toward a foothold in a field that would eventually become a career.

I had begun this new employment journey by freelancing as a medical proofreader for a number of different agencies. The many 1099 forms required by the IRS for independent contractors flooded my mailbox during January, and of course I had ignored them. I had always filed my own taxes, a simple matter with just one on-the-books job. But when I finally sat down at my kitchen table and opened the pile of envelopes, I burst into tears. I had no idea how to deal with all those notifications, and, even worse, it soon became clear that since no monies had been withheld for taxes and social security, I would have to write the government a very large check.

I put all the scraps of paper in a manila envelope, and buried it under a pile of newspapers. On April 14, however, I forced myself to take my envelope and walk over to 6th Avenue just north of Bleecker, where I had noticed that a seasonal storefront office for H&R Block had opened. I walked in, added my name to the sign-up sheet, and took a seat in the row of folding chairs. There were quite a few of us sitting-down procrastinators, and a steady stream of people coming and going from a back room where I could see a number of desks and a work force that seemed to be handling the flow well. In less than an hour, I was summoned and directed toward a man at a desk with an empty chair facing him. I sat down, pulled out my packet, and gave it to him. He handed me an H&R Block business card and pronounced his name for me carefully, Ed Sukman, making his last name rhyme with Bookman instead of how it looked written down.

Something about his ink-stained pocket protector, hardcore New York accent, and awkward name deflated my anxiety. He opened the envelope, lined up the tax notifications in tidy rows, and then proceeded to ask me questions as he filled out a form. One of my responses animated him, and he jumped up and went over to a bookcase that was jam-packed with volumes on federal and state tax rules. He scurried back to his desk with one of the books, his face transformed by a eureka! expression, and  said, “Wow—I think we got it! Oh boy, this is great. I’m gonna save you a bundle. We’re all set. I’ll write this up. Come back tomorrow morning when we open, and I’ll have it ready for you. Then head over to the post office and mail it.”

Ed had figured out that because I lived alone in an apartment with my son, who spent five days a week with me, even though I received financial assistance for his care from his father, I was entitled to a large head-of-household deduction. With skills surely equal to those of Penn & Teller, Ed saved my neck and helped me escape a disastrous tax situation with minimal damage.

The next year, having learned my lesson, I showed up at the H&R Block storefront in early April. My attention was drawn to a disturbance going on in the back room where the accountants worked. Soon, a disheveled guy carrying a briefcase, jacket, and a handful of file folders emerged, escorted by two men with the unmistakable air of cops for hire. They steered the protesting man through the front doors as he struggled into his jacket, and hustled him down the sidewalk.

Shortly after this, my name was called. I asked the woman at the reception counter if Ed Sukman was there, and told her that I had worked with him the previous year and would like to have him again. She went out back to check, and then returned, saying, “Just a minute, he’s busy, but if you don’t mind waiting, he said he’ll be happy to help you.” I sat down again. Almost immediately, Ed appeared at the counter. I walked over, and he said, “Listen, they just fired a friend of mine. The people here treat the workers like dirt. I’m quitting in solidarity, so I hate to tell you this, but I cannot do your taxes.” I said, “That’s terrible, Ed; I am sorry for your friend. But, I’m wondering, do you work out of your home? Could I call you?” He looked around nervously, as though the FBI were taping our conversation, and said, “I’m not supposed to do this, but yeah, I don’t give a shit about their rule. Give me a call.” He scribbled his number on a piece of paper, slipped it to me, and turned away. I left the storefront, and phoned him at home that evening and made an appointment.

For almost 20 years, when the forsythia began to bloom, I traveled to Ed Sukman’s apartment on the Upper West Side. No matter where I lived, even after I moved to Massachusetts, I made the trip to drop off my tax forms. In our annual meetings, Ed shepherded me through tricky financial terrain and in the process, we got to know each other and formed an oddly intimate relationship.

One of the first snippets of personal information that I learned about Ed was that he had a doctorate in chemistry. I would not have discovered this had I not had to use the bathroom on my initial visit. Ed lived high up in a once-elegant brick building on West End Avenue near 92nd Street. As I recall, the apartment was a studio, one large room with a kitchenette tucked back-to-back with a bathroom. The room was not messy but overly full with functional furnishings—table, chair, computer and desk, a fold-up couch that must have served as his bed—and a lifetime of accumulations. His books and record albums covered all available wall space from floor to ceiling, and the diploma from City College attesting to his PhD was attached to the inside of the door to the bathroom, only noticeable from a sitting-on-the-toilet position.

Ed Sukman was bright and engaged in the world, but my impression was that he may have preferred working for himself because of his awkward social skills. He seemed to be a fair representation of a geek of his generation, about 20 years older than me. He was not a particularly attractive man, and I think he was lonely, happy to chat for hours with me, telling me political jokes and showing me editorial cartoons on his computer. He was an old-school progressive, a fervent enemy of the Republican Party, and he became even more infuriated with the Washington status quo during the reign of Bush and Cheney and their cronies.

At first, Ed’s enthusiasm when I showed up at the appointed time to do my taxes put me on guard, but he never crossed the line, never attempted to make our relationship anything more than what it was. He definitely liked my company, and often accompanied me to the elevator in his worn slippers when I left, regaling me with anecdotes of the conspiratorial horrors taking place in the White House. I was pleased, however, when Ed developed a passion for bicycling. When he let me into his apartment that year, I immediately noticed a change in décor: somehow, he had managed to rearrange the bookshelves along the walls so that there was room to screw large hooks into the ceiling, from which now hung a shiny racing bike. He was excited about his contoured muscles—he rolled up his pants to show me his legs—and new friends with whom he explored biking trails.

His leftist politics and antipathy to those in power was not what I would have expected of a man who made his living preparing tax returns. But given his views, Ed’s vocation, which involved preventing the government from taking people’s money, actually made perfect sense. I called him occasionally with money questions, and his help was always valuable. He knew how to deposit a windfall of cash that I had received from my landlord when he bought me out of my apartment, so that it would not attract attention from the IRS. When my mother died, he somehow helped me avoid paying any inheritance taxes at all. And later on, when I sold my house in Massachusetts, he researched the laws regarding capital gains and helped me preserve the lion’s share of the real estate sale. I didn’t feel one bit guilty about any of these tax dodges. They were all absolutely legal, but unless I had someone like Ed watching my back, I would never have known about them. 

On a visit in the mid-1990s, I found Ed energized by a new adventure—this time, as a silent partner, a financial backer in a bar a friend of his had opened on the Lower East Side to serve as a community rendezvous and performance space for poets and other writers. The funky space, on the second floor of a centuries-old building on East Fourth Street, was the previous domain of the Ukrainian Labor Home. “You’ll love this,” said Ed, and his nose and cheeks flushed as he paced his next line with the timing of a Borscht Belt comedian: “My friend named it the KGB Bar!” Ed told me how delighted he was to hang out at the bar, even though he was not its active owner. I imagined him sitting in the lowlights, enjoying the hubbub. KGB Bar became hugely popular. Even now, more than 20 years later, it’s still one of the coolest literary venues in the city.

My first tax-time trip back to New York in 1996 since I’d moved to Massachusetts turned out to be a rough time for Ed. He was outraged; just a week earlier, Abe Lebewohl, the owner of the Second Avenue Deli in the East Village had been murdered. It was horrible and tragic, but for Ed it was more than just another lousy crime story. While he sat at his computer, looking at my paperwork, he kept turning to me: “I can’t believe it. The man was a saint; a Jewish saint. Did you know he survived the Holocaust? He came from Poland with nothing on his back.” He returned to the computer, but spun around minutes later: “You’ve had his chicken soup, right? The best in the city—the matzo balls were like little pillows. Feather pillows.” Of course I’d had his chicken soup. Abe Lebewohl was a legend in the East Village, a sweetheart of a man, built like a Russian bear. He ran the restaurant and the sandwich counter with open arms, a style of neighborhood generosity that was no longer fashionable, feeding the homeless as well as politicians and movie stars whose limos purred outside, double-parked. For Ed, the shooting of the deli guy struck a deep chord, and I was reminded of the time when I’d first met him, and how furious he was when H&R Block fired his friend. He hated any rupture in his absolute sense of rightness and decency. And like any New Yorker, he mourned change.

During our Spring 2002 visit, Ed was eager to talk about the attack on the twin towers that had occurred the previous September. The shocking destruction in downtown Manhattan was painful to all my city friends, but Ed, not surprisingly, had his own idiosyncratic—and, as it turned out, highly accurate—spin on the disaster. His couch was piled high with academic journals and textbooks, stuff he’d had squirreled away from his years as a chemist. He could barely contain himself, and with arm-waving intensity explained at length, and far beyond my scope of understanding, exactly what kind of damage the particles from the fallen buildings were sure to cause. He detailed the different cancers that would likely show up in rescue workers as the years went by. And not surprisingly, given his innate distrust of all government oversight, he was convinced that a cover-up was already in place.

I saw Ed for the last time in 2006. He did my taxes as usual, but when my husband and I visited, he said he hadn’t been feeling well and was only working with me and a few other longtime clients. I didn’t think too much of it; after all, he must have been at least 75, and it was reasonable for him to want to slow down. Still, I was surprised and saddened to get an e-mailed note from him in the late fall that year, saying he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and was too exhausted from the chemotherapy to continue his tax preparation business. I wrote back that I was sorry to hear about his illness, but trusted that he would get better and that I was glad he was getting treatment. In the next year or so, my own life became difficult and complicated, messy and sad. My husband and I separated and then divorced. I moved back to New York City.

Tax time rolled around, but since I’d heard nothing from Ed, I took him at his word that he was no longer working as an accountant. In truth, I was scared to call him, scared to find out that he was still very sick. And so, I found someone else to do my taxes. It was just a business transaction, after all, and we hadn’t really been friends. That’s what I told myself. It was only later, at least another full year gone by, that I became curious enough to overcome my fears of what might have happened, and searched for his name online. Ed Sukman died in October 2008. The death notice, printed in the New York Times, was followed by a message in the guest book on the website. Someone—I wish it had been me—had written: “Sweet friend, original spirit, loved by so many.”

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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§ One Response to “The Tax Man”

  • Beda Knight says:

    I am a fan of Susan Landry. This piece of memoir reflects her honesty in self assessment and self portrayal. I think that Ed Sukman deserved to have S. L. write a compassionate yet straight forward sketch of him, even though he will never read it.

§ Leave a Reply

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