Wednesday, March 3, 2004

A Tale of Two Bureaucracies

Most IRS forms are available on-line. Some are not. Today I needed some of the latter. I work downtown, a few blocks from the Federal Building, so I walked over.

It was raining and Cincinnati was draped in black because Marge Schott died yesterday.

At the Federal Building, I had to go through a security setup exactly like at the airport. Everything got wet as I juggled my dripping umbrella and the contents of my pockets. My shoes and belt set off the metal detector, but they let me keep them on and just wanded me. (How long ago was it that "they wanded me" would be interpreted only as an encounter with witchcraft?)

The IRS office was just past the sign saying "employees must wash hands after apprehending terrorists." To get waited on there, they have a high-tech procedure where you get a number, but you don't pull it out of one of those deli-counter number dispensers. The number is spit out by a computer. When it was my turn, a disembodied, computer-generated voice, like the lady that tells the time over the phone, said "Number - 121 - is now being served at window - 4."
The number 121 appeared on a large digital readout screen mounted near the ceiling.

I looked at the windows. Over each one was taped a piece of paper with a hand-scrawled number. Apparently the high-tech budget ran out before they got to numbering the windows.

Or to the filing system. I needed two different form numbers, a W dash 2 small c and a 1099 dash capital DIV. I told this to the woman at window - 4 - , who turned and, with a painful limp, went away.

For the next few minutes I listened to the conversation at window - 3 .
A guy who had changed his name at some point, had IRS records under two names. He apparently had been there before and talked to window - 2. The women at 2 and 3 and the man went on about how his name had been Sanders, but he changed it to Tubbs because, he said, "my mama and daddy were never married." The women said, "um hmm."

The women explained to him that he can't just change his name on his own. Not pejoratively, just conversationally, they explained that now he had records under Sanders, under Tubbs and under Sanders-Tubbs. The three people, at great length and with much repetition of facts, discussed all aspects of his problem but one: how to fix it.

I kept hoping they'd get there, but before they did, window-4-lady came back with only the 1099 DIV. "They don't have no more W-2c forms back there." They who? Isn't she one of them? Anyway, I said I would just order it to be delivered by mail (that takes 10 days). So she said, "Well, I could go check in the back."

Now I felt like I was in an old General Store. We had regressed from the 21st century line control system to the 19th century stock room system. "Clem, we got any W-2c forms in the back?". "No, the stage ain't due until Thursdee." I didn't want to make her limp all the way into "the back", so I said, "That's okay ---", but off she went.

Meanwhile I wondered, "where had she gone before, if not 'in the back'? In the middle?"

At the same time I listened to window-3-man saying once again, "I used to live under the name of Sanders, but I changed it to Tubbs because my mama and daddy were never married, you see." And the women said, "um, hmmm". Then window-4-lady returned with my other form and I left.

Finished with the government (I thought) and back to my office, I had some more forms to fill out for a brokerage account I was setting up. The first form informed me that, under the Patriot Act, they needed certain information to help protect against terrorists setting up accounts and laundering money. (What's the best detergent for that?)

Speaking only of this aspect of the Patriot Act, I guess it's the same as the security scanner. It's a necessary protection these days. But, if my form sets off the metal detectors at the brokerage, will they come to my office and wand my assets?