I fell off the face of the earth for the first time in late 2009.
Up until then, I’d been a pretty good worker bee. I worked full-time jobs for most of my adult life. Even when I decided to work only part-time, I went through a temp agency. I filled out a tax return every year. I was in the system.
In 2010, I filed a tax return for the prior year and had my refund deposited to a debit card I bought at a supermarket.
I didn’t work a job in 2010 or 2011.
In late 2011, I ran away from my not very nice boyfriend. I lived with a family member in a major city, and I tried to find a job. I thought the only way to survive was to get back in the system.
In the spring of 2012, I had a job scoring student responses to standardized test prompts. I spent eight mind-numbing hours a day reading essays written by high school students and assigning each essay a score based on a rubric provided by the state where the students were tested.
When that job was over, I fell off the face of the earth again. I was back on the streets, estranged from my family. I didn’t have a job for a long time.
In 2015 I had a van and was in contact with my family again. I was broke and remembered the job I’d worked in 2012. Taxes had been taken from my check. I’d probably overpaid. I’d probably get a refund if I filed a return.
I had to download the forms from the IRS website and print them out. I was able to get my W-2 online too, through my employer’s payroll system. I filled out the forms. Sure enough, the government owed me a refund. I mailed the forms to Texas and waited.
I’d asked the IRS to deposit my refund directly into my bank account. I checked my balance regularly, but nothing was added to it. Then the letter came.
The letter explained the IRS couldn’t verify my identity. I guess that’s what happens when a gal falls off the face of the earth for several years. Because the IRS couldn’t verify my identity, my funds would not be deposited into my checking account. The letter included a phone number to call so I could speak to someone about proving I was who I said I was.
I called the number immediately. I listened to a recording say all representatives were busy and no one could talk to me. The recording suggested I try again later; then the call was disconnected. I was not invited to remain on the line for the next available representative. I was told no lies about my call being important to the IRS. I was not thanked for my patience. Basically, I could call back later when the workers weren’t so busy, or I could go to hell as far as the IRS cared.
In the next few days, I called the IRS number multiple times. The only answer I ever received was the recording.
One morning, I decided to call the number as soon as the line opened, which was before normal business hours, at 7am, I think. Miracle of miracles, I was connected with a real live human person!
The IRS representative asked me many questions I couldn’t answer. What was my address when I lived in a collage town in the Midwest? What was my address when I lived in a big city in the Pacific Northwest? What was my address the last time I filed a tax return? The answers to those questions were at least five years and thousands of miles behind me. I’d quit thinking about those places long ago.
Because I couldn’t answer the questions to the IRS representative’s satisfaction, she said she couldn’t release my funds. She said I’d have to go to an IRS office and speak to someone in person. I asked her specifically what documents I’d need when I went into the office, and she listed them for me.
Luckily, I was in a major city with an IRS office downtown. I gathered my documents and my courage and headed to the office as soon as I could.
My first problem was parking. The building housing the IRS office had a parking garage, by my van was too tall to fit inside. I tried to nudge the van in, but I had to back up when my roof hit the bar demonstrating the height limit.
I drove around the block a couple of times until I found an empty line of metered spaces on the back side of the high-rise housing the IRS office. I had to turn around to get the van facing the proper direction, but finally I was parked. I was glad to find coins in my bag so I could feed the parking meter.
After walking around the building, I found the proper entrance. I walked through the door and was met by a guard and a metal detector. Nothing untoward was detected on my person, and I was allowed to proceed into the IRS office.
I walked into a small room with a counter. I was instructed (by sign or spoken word, I don’t remember) to get in line to take a number. I went to the end of a line stretching into a larger second room.
The second room was what I’d imagined an IRS office would look like. The walls were drab and unadorned, save for signs demanding all cell phones be turned OFF. The middle of the large room was filled with the sort of uncomfortable plastic chairs one finds in waiting rooms from doctors’ offices to the DMV. Cubicles lined the perimeter of the room; each had a sliding door in front in order to offer taxpayers the illusion of privacy.
The floor and the chairs were littered with yellow cards. I realized later they were survey cards. The IRS claimed to want to know if we were pleased with our visit, but we were all too suspicious to share our thoughts. What if the IRS didn’t like what we had to say and used our honesty against us? Most people there, it seemed, thought it better to leave the survey cards unanswered.
I got in line to take a number. While I waited, I turned off my cell phone.
Eight or ten people stood in the queue in front of me. One by one, they shifted to the front of the line where a woman behind the counter checked paperwork before issuing numbers.
Finally, it was my turn to step up. I fanned my paperwork out on the counter in front of the woman.
Where’s your W-2? she barked.
The woman I spoke to on the phone didn’t say I needed to bring my W-2, I said, panic setting in. What if the woman sent me away to get my W-2? Would all my time driving and parking and standing in line to take a number be wasted? Was my W-2 in the van? Would I have to drive all the way back to the house to get it? Why hadn’t the woman on the phone said to bring my W-2 when I specifically asked her what I’d need?
The woman at the counter said with disgust, I don’t know why people come here without their W-2s, but she handed me a number and one of those yellow survey cards.
I went back to the waiting area and sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair. I’d forgotten to bring a book, and my phone was off, as instructed, so I sat nervous and bored until my number was called.
Upon hearing my number announced, I stepped into one of the cubicles on the perimeter of the large room and slid the door closed behind me. I sat in a slightly less uncomfortable chair. The IRS worker behind the desk was a decade or so older than I am and was dressed in clothes as drab as the walls. Her demeanor was no-nonsense, but she didn’t seem unkind or grouchy like the woman behind the front counter.
She looked at my driver’s license and social security card, then back at her computer screen. She clicked her mouse a time or two. She asked me questions, which I answered as best I could. She clicked my answers into her computer. Her attitude was neither discouraging nor encouraging. This woman was a master of neutrality.
Once she asked all her questions and entered my answers into her computer, she dismissed me. My case would be reviewed, she told me. I’d receive a letter…
I left feeling dejected. I thought this woman was authorized to make a decision about my case. I thought she would decide I was who I said I was and tell me my refund was on its way. Sadly, I’d have to wait for someone else to decide.
In a week or two, I received a letter from the IRS. They weren’t able to verify my identity to the extent they were able to deposit my refund directly into my bank account. However, they believed in me enough to issue a check for the amount of my refund.
That was good enough for me.