“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk …”
Beginning of First Stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale”
– John Keats
Senior year in high school and the public speaking contest was two days away. My English teacher encouraged me to participate and I agreed. The only problem was that I hadn’t selected a piece for recitation. In my (limp) defense, during the three weeks prior to the actual competition I had considered a number of pieces but had, for various reasons, rejected all of them. And now the deadline was looming and my only defense for my lack of preparation was that I had been working on the third movement of the Mendelssohn First Piano concerto.
I browsed through the books in the family library and happened to pull out a volume of John Keats’ works. I came across “Ode to a Nightingale” and was fascinated by the beauty of his imagery in the poem. I decided, “This is it. This is the piece for which I was looking.” So I set about memorizing it.
As it turned out, I lost the competition, coming in second. My rendition of Keats was defeated by a soliloquy from “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” I chalked this up to the fact that Eugene O’Neill was in vogue – although I must admit that the chap who delivered this oration was nothing short of captivating. Only for a fleeting moment did the thought that if I had spent a bit more time in preparation, I might have carried the day for John Keats. Responsibility – what a burden.
This poem came to mind yesterday. I opened my mail and saw that I had received a letter from the California Franchise Tax Board. They are apparently the people who collect California Income Tax as I learned when I perused the letter. In it they claimed that I had an unpaid balance due them in the amount of $891.00, plus penalties and interest all of which totaled $961.65. All of this was for the tax year 2013. I thought that was rather strange since I have never lived in California, haven’t visited the state for about thirty years and certainly had no earned income which derived from any employment in that state. Rather than procrastinate as I had with my public speaking project (I am trainable), I decided to have a cup of coffee and take the bull (or if you prefer the bully) by the horns – and call the toll free number listed on the form letter.
The opening line of this notice began as follows:
“Our records show you owe a balance. We previously billed you for the balance, which remains unpaid.” Since I had received no such previous notification, I presumed this was merely step one in the “intimidation” process that most tax agencies normally consider the way to conduct business. This was confirmed as I read the notice’s second paragraph.
If we do not receive your balance payment in full within 30 days from the notice date, we may take collection action against you, such as file and record a Notice of State Tax Lien against your property and garnish a portion of your wages.” Warmer words were never penned by poet laureate or bulbous bureaucrat.
I sighed as I dialed the number. It was not a question of how difficult it would be to speak to a live person but how many hurdles I would have to leap to do so. It appears that whoever designed the California FTB’s automated answering system holds an advanced degree in telephonic obfuscation. There was no option given to dial “0” for operator or anyone resembling anything human. “Perhaps they, like their federal counterparts at the FCC are too absorbed looking at pornography to deal with the tax paying public,” I thought.
Having found that selecting option “1” for individual taxpayers and that led me to a circular recitation of the five options available to me, I decided to try option “2” which is reserved for tax preparers and professionals. Interspersed with my time on hold, a total of twenty two minutes, were various veiled threats about what this agency could do in terms of seizure of property if the deadbeat on the phone didn’t pay up. As I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t know if this same threat was repeated in that language. For all I know they were telling the Hispanic caller a great recipe for a taco salad – or how to sign up for California’s various generous welfare programs.
Finally, I was connected to a soft spoken man with an Indian sub-continent accent, making our exchange all the more challenging. He identified himself by name, Mear and I off-handedly asked if I were speaking with him in Sacramento. He assured me that, rather than New Delhi was where he was located. I was going to speak the one phrase of Hindi that I know, “Opka bagicha bahooth sundar hai,” but I couldn’t find a way to work telling him that “You have a lovely garden” into the conversation.
I explained that this notice, contrary to its statement that it was a follow up was my first such notice. I further explained that since I had never derived any income from or in the state of California, this notice was obviously intended for someone else. Mear immediately and without hesitation said, “You are obviously the victim of ‘identity theft.’” (They have a form to resolve this sort of problem – so I suspect, particularly in light of yesterday’s announcement that Russia has been able to hack into nearly two billion user names and passwords – that this happens all the time.)
In addition to completing FTB 3552 (Identity Theft Form), Mear explained that I needed to make out a police report, make a copy of my Social Security card as well as copy my Driver’s License or other state issued ID. When I had all that information gathered, I was to call back and they would give me the FAX number to which that all should be sent.
It naturally occurred to me that once upon a time, Social Security cards were issued with the inscription, “Not for Identification Purposes.” Apparently they are adequate for identity fraud and may be used for that purpose. And with all the brouhaha about Voter Identification, you can’t even speak with a tax collection agency until you have verified that you are who you claim you are by presenting a valid form of government issued picture identification, but in many states can vote.
Being a curious person I wondered why someone would file a phony tax return using someone else’s social, name and address if the return showed that there was a liability due. I asked Mear how much income I had purportedly reported on this return – and I expressed my confusion about why someone would file such a return if they were not receiving a refund. Of course, dutifully protecting my sensitive financial information, Mear said he could not give me any information until after they had received my fax. In fact, he wouldn’t even give me the fax number until I had assembled the required documents. I have to call back in order to get that number – but now at least I know how to beat their system.
My guess is that someone in California probably used this information to get some kind of government benefit during year 2013. That is, of course, just a guess, but I can think of no other reasonable alternative. Hopefully when I get all the required documents together later today and after the California FTB has had an appropriate amount of time to shuffle those around, I will get an answer – although I think the likelihood of this is about fifty/fifty.
In the meantime, I can console myself with a recitation of Keats’, “Ode to a Nightingale.” The good news is that in my fervent effort to memorize that poem for the public speaking contest, I still remember all eight stanzas.
“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.”
Keats and the tax man. Given a choice, I’ll stick with the poet.