“What at first was plunder assumed the softer name of revenue.” Thomas Paine
A mile inland from Highway One, the Comptche-Ukiah Road becomes a two-mile straightaway traversing rolling hills of pine and huckleberry and manzanita. There are no speed limit signs on this straightaway, no reminders of the legal maximum, and this absence of warnings combined with the sudden end to constrictive curves at either end of the straightaway tempts many a driver to go really fast.
The house we rent is set back a hundred yards from the straightaway, the sounds of passing cars and motorcycles muffled by intervening trees, with traffic after midnight rare. Of late, the California Highway Patrol has been a daily presence on the straightaway, the rise and fall of the road over hill and dale creating a perfect spot mid-straightaway for a CHP vehicle to sit by the side of the road and snag the unwary zoomster. This turnout is invisible from either direction until just before you come upon the gravel outlay, and by then there is simply no denying how fast you’re going.
I have lived on the straightaway for five years now, and this is the first time in my residency that the state gendarmes have roosted here so frequently. Whatever for? “The primary mission of the California Highway Patrol is the management and regulation of traffic to achieve safe, lawful, and efficient use of the highway transportation system.” Oh, really? Then why post one and sometimes two officers and their expensive chariots day after day on this lightly traveled country road far from the madding crowd? Surely these centurions are needed more desperately elsewhere? Isn’t the state bankrupt? Aren’t services being cut and curtailed everywhere? What’s all the fuss about a road that carries almost no one anywhere? I’ll tell you what’s the fuss: revenue.
When I lived in Sacramento, I had a neighbor who worked for the California Highway Patrol. He did not drive a patrol car, but toiled in the hive of the vast bureaucracy supporting the army of thousands of road warriors employed in managing the aftermaths of collisions, assisting folks lost and stranded on our highways, and bringing in boatloads of revenue to feed the ravenous coffers of the state.
My neighbor, a forklift operator in a CHP warehouse, arrived home from his job every day at 5:19, save for Fridays when he would stop for drinks at a local bar favored by patrolmen and their ilk. I know this because I was often in my garden when my neighbor emerged from his battered Volkswagen, gazed fondly at his faux Rolex, and Monday through Thursday proclaimed, “5:19 on the nose.” We would exchange pleasantries, and he would sometimes say, “Watch your speed this weekend. Big quota increase came down this morning.” Translation: patrolmen have been ordered to greatly increase the number of speeding tickets they issue.
Thus I imagine the current generals of the CHP receiving the orders from their desperate higher ups to command their buccaneers to go forth and bag whatever galleons come their way, and make no mistake about it, bagging speeders is the only reason the CHP is lurking on the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway. Drivers beware.
“The only difference between a taxman and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.” Mark Twain
These daily sightings of black and white pursuit vehicles put me in mind of those other government revenooers, the valiant auditors of the Internal Revenue Service. I have been audited twice in the course of my long and genteel pauperdom, both audits triggered by dramatic (a relative term) spikes in my income resulting from movie options of now ancient novels, spikes that lifted me for shimmering moments into a realm where my government gleefully claimed half my earnings, as opposed to this more familiar realm I occupy where I barely make enough to tax at any rate.
I suffered through my first audit in 1981, a series of meetings with people in frightening little cubicles, people who honestly didn’t know what they were doing. Having for the first time in my life earned more than a few thousand dollars in a year, I knew perfectly well I had done nothing wrong, yet I was made to feel suspect for achieving a modest success. Never mind the clearly documented reasons for the sudden influx of dollars, the revenooers smelled a rat, and they deduced I was that rat. Happily, the audit resulted in the startling discovery that the government owed me money, plus a little interest, but I still felt mistreated.
The second audit took place seventeen years after the first and involved an investigator coming to my house to go through every scrap of paper I had relating to my income for the year in question, 1995, and the years immediately before and after that questionable year. I was on crutches at the time, having blown out my knee. I had long since spent the money earned in that halcyon year subject to audit, I was lonely and pissed off and approaching the muddy bottom of a veritable Grand Canyon of a depression, and so was not at all in a good mood.
The poor Internal Revenue Service agent had just come in the door when I barked, “Look, I’m afraid of you, though I haven’t done anything wrong. So tell me in plain English why I’m being audited.”
A stout lad of twenty-five with a full black beard, the agent set his portable computer (pre-laptop) on my kitchen table, opened his briefcase, withdrew a manila folder, opened the folder, scowled at the top page, and said, “Abnormal income spike and you issued seventeen 1099’s.”
“I sold a novel and somebody optioned the movie rights to another novel. The multiple 1099’s were issued to people I was long overdue rewarding for helping me with my work through thick and thin, mostly thin.”
“I have no problem with that,” he said sincerely. “Please don’t be afraid of me.”
Seven hours later he said, “Well, my boss is not going to be happy. A whole day spent for nothing.” He shrugged. “He was guessing drug dealer.”
“Oh, right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “A drug dealer is going to report a big upswing in his income and issue 1099’s to his cronies? Puh-leez.”
“Good point,” said the young man. “Even so, ninety-nine days out of a hundred I bring in considerably more than my salary.”
“So why not go after the real crooks? The corporations. The rich people with phony shelters and Ponzi scheme hedge scams? Why waste your time going after self-employed artists making peanuts?”
He smiled a knowing smile. “The corporations and rich people have the best accountants and tax attorneys money can buy. Their tax returns are hermetic masterpieces. You artists fill out your own ledgers. By hand. Do it yourselfers. You’re…vulnerable.”
“There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart.” Celia Thaxter
In the company of poor people and rich people and everybody in between, I have heard it said a thousand times, “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes if the money was spent on something I believed in. But most of our tax dollars go for bombs and guns and corporate tax breaks and paying interest on the national debt to people who already have all the money and seem hell bent on ruining the world as fast as they possibly can.” Or words to that effect.
Well, I’ve got good news about where some of our tax dollars are being spent. On my way home from the village yesterday, the sun broke through the fog at Big River beach for the first time in weeks, so I drove down there to stroll the sand and count the unleashed dogs and get my feet wet. And lo, the big portable handicapped accessible lavatory was back where it never should have not been, full to the brim with public piss and poo, the powers that be seeing fit to give a little something back to the huddled masses. I’m guessing at least through Labor Day. Amen.
(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2010)
Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com