San Francisco, California (March 8, 2011)
“Do you have another card? This one won’t go through.”
“That’s odd …” I took my Bank of America debit card from Keisha and pressed my tongue against my teeth to keep from saying, There must be some mistake – the universal declined cardholder phrase that was universally disbelieved.
Instead, I reached into my wallet and gave her my other Bank of America debit card, along with my Tully’s coffee card. “Did I tell you I’m moving to Chile?”
“No! Really?” She swiped the card.
“Yeah. This’ll be my last week coming in. I gave my notice last week.” I couldn’t help the note of excitement that wiggled its way into my voice. I was leaving my consulting gig to go live in a country I knew nothing about, do a job I’d never done before, and make 92% less money.
At 47, I was finally pursuing a 30-year old dream.
“Uh … Do you have another card? This one won’t go through, either.”
Heat zoomed to my face. Daily, for the past nine months, Keisha had been taking my money and giving me coffee bucks. This had never happened before. So I had to say it. “There must be some mistake.”
Mouth dry, breath held, stomach clenched, I handed her my Capital One credit card.
It went through.
I grabbed my double tall, no whip, rice milk, cinnamon-and-nutmeg-topped latte and rushed out.
Standing in the courtyard between two 20+ story office buildings in the middle of San Francisco’s financial district, I whipped out my Smartphone. I punched in the number for Bank of America, then punched in a dozen more numbers to get through the automated attendant. “Hello,” I said after I was finally greeted by a live person. “My identity has been stolen twice in the past two years and I think it’s happened again. I just tried to use my debit cards at Tully’s and they were declined.”
“I’d be happy to help you with that,” she said, sounding not the least bit happy. We went through the various security questions to assure her that I was who I said I was. “It appears that there’s a lien against your accounts from the United States Department of Treasury.”
“What! For how much?”
“Let’s see …” I heard the muted sound of keystrokes. “There’s a pending withdrawal on your personal checking account, leaving you a balance of $0.18. In your business checking, there’s a pending withdrawal as well, leaving you a balance of $0.05. And in your savings…”
More clicking of keys.
“… there’s a negative balance of $246.54.”
“A negative balance! How can they take money I don’t even have!”
“It appears that an electronic payment of $211.54 was processed after their hold and a $35.00 insufficient funds charge was charged to your account to process the electronic payment.”
“Why would you process …” I took a deep breath and massaged my temple. “There must be some mistake.”
“You need to call the Department of Treasury.”
So I called the Department of Treasury, a.k.a. the IRS.
After navigating another set of automated options, my call was answered by Mr. Jones, Agent 759-034-382-21KT-658338-44322-12Z-X453215.
“I need to ask you some security questions before we can begin.”
I gave him my social security number, my prior address, my current address, my phone number, the name of my employer, the name of—
“Why are you asking me all of these questions?”
“You’ve been forwarded to collections.”
“Collections! For what?”
“Once you answer these questions then we can talk about that.”
He continued, asking me the address of my employer then the name of my bank.
His tone was the verbal definition of boredom and disinterest.
My tone was the verbal definition of suppressed hysteria. “Mr. Jones, it appears that you already know who I am and the name of my bank, since you have taken every dollar I have!!”
I took another deep breath.
“I’m sorry.” I tried again. “Look, there’s obviously been a mistake.”
“There’s no mistake. You owe $11,362.29 on your 2005 taxes—”
“Which I’ve been paying off monthly on an approved installment agreement.”
“Your installment agreement expired two years ago.”
“And this is your way of telling me?”
“I’m sure we sent you a notice. Our records also show that we’re missing your 2007 tax returns.”
“I hand-delivered another copy to your San Francisco office.”
“Well it’s not in the system. Ms. Henry, you are in collections—”
“Mr. Jones, I shouldn’t be in collections. I’ve been doing everything that I’ve been asked in order to resolve my debt!” My voice wavered. My vision blurred. “And now, I’ve got no money—”
“Are you homeless?”
“If this results in your being homeless, you can submit Form…”
I hung up in middle of the instructions to request a financial audit to prove that I was destitute. Slowly, my focus turned outward.
I felt the sun on my face. I heard the hum of random conversations, the burst of occasional laughter, the click of high-heels on the concrete, the angry blare of a car horn. I saw a man and woman in matching we-are-hotshots navy suits eye me warily, as if my tears, dazed eyes, and immobility identified me out as another unpredictable, un-medicated crazy in San Francisco’s financial district.
But I wasn’t crazy. And despite Mr. Jones’s attitude, I wasn’t a deadbeat, either.
I was like a venture capitalist or a day trader or a professional gambler who invested in risky ventures. Only in my case, my risky venture was me. Which in this case had been my “brilliant” idea to borrow the money I owed the IRS and live off of it while I finished my first 2-book contract; then pay a PR agency $10,000 for efforts that would land me on the bestsellers list, thereby enabling me to repay the IRS before they even noticed.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned. Hence my installment payments to the IRS.
In instances like the aforementioned, my belief in myself sometimes led to financial ruin or – more positively spun – a negative return on investment (ROI). But I considered these mishaps like mini-MBAs, teaching me what not to do and reaffirming my Dad’s teachings that I could accomplish anything I wanted if I continued to learn, work hard, sacrifice, play fair, and put my mind to it.
And I wanted to move to South America. No, I needed to move to South America.
Before it was too late.