I knew I was at the right address when I encountered a gun and handcuffs.
There, at the door, stood a sleepy police officer, complete with law enforcement accoutrements. I caught his eye and said quietly, “I have an appointment.” He gave me the once-over and allowed me to step inside, leading me to a small counter where I was instructed to put my things.
Two hours on the meter. That’s what I’d paid ahead of time at the parking garage, for the privilege of having my bag now searched, for walking through a metal detector (it detected metal; I went free after removing my shoes), for eventually sitting more than three hours to wait for Mr. L. to stop taking the walk-ins ahead of the appointments.
At about 2.25 hours in, that’s when my Artist Date officially began, though looking back now I realize I could have envisioned it that way right from the start, if only I’d been more attuned.
Of course, I’d brought a book and my new issue of Poetry magazine. The book, with what I’d eventually understand as irony, was This is Where You Belong, and it is partly about how to make yourself at home in your community. As it turned out, the IRS office was my mini-community for the day. And a woman named Katie helped make it that way.
Katie and her husband were walk-ins, so at first I was wary. Not more people! And they look so nice I’m sure they’ll be helped before me. No, no, no, no, no. So went my thinking as I watched a soft-spoken, genteel older woman and her husband (he was using a rolling walker) make their way slowly to the counter. I buried myself deeper into This is Where You Belong and felt my pulse rate increase even more than it had been in the past two hours, as I watched person after person be served because they were making payments on-the-spot, and I was just trying to make a payment in a more circuitous way by having the IRS confirm that I hadn’t stolen my identity (and thus they could go ahead and process my return, filed months ago).
The older couple was told to sit and wait—that it might be hours before they’d be seen. I felt a small relief. A glance at the clock, though, told me I hadn’t paid for enough parking time. I’d get a ticket. And that would add insult to the boring injury of this day.
“How many books have you read while you’re waiting?”
The older woman had sat two rows ahead of me, her husband now at her side, clutching an old orange-red-covered book. I held up my own new orange-red-covered library book and laughed. “Just three chapters.” She smiled. I thought to go back to reading. But it was not to be.
She told me her name and their story. He sat smiling sheepishly. The regrettable tale was about losing track of a life-long task of doing one’s own taxes. So now they were in arrears and hoping to make good. She’d driven very far to get to this grey, dull place. It had been arduous, and they’d gotten lost. It had been a long walk for her husband from the parking garage.
I closed my book and put it in my bag. My pulse settled down. We talked about chair yoga, exercise, the brain, longevity in Costa Rica (“Do they blame the wine?” Katie asked. “No, it’s actually about the power of social connection, ” I revealed, noting the small irony of that, too, as I sat here being invited to socially connect in the least likely of places.) I looked more closely at the book in the man’s hand. Old English Poetry, in translation.
“You like poetry?” I asked.
He smiled. I heard more stories. About a stint at seminary that spurred an interest in old languages, about the ownership of a rare Erasmus book, about how life feels like it’s now getting short and the books have become a burden that the children don’t want. “There are just too many books, ” she explained. “I’m getting rid of them, ” he said. “Or rather, they are getting rid of me.”
We talked about the feeling this couple has, that time is short. He’s 85 and retired from the reinsurance business. I don’t know how old she is. “You look fit, ” she told me, and assured me, when I revealed my age, that I might have another good forty years.
“I run a popular poetry site, ” I told them at some point, and I handed the man my new issue of Poetry. He ran his hands over the pages, scanned some of the poems. This is love, I thought.
Mr. L. finally called me to the desk. I produced my proof of identity (passport and driver’s license). He opened my file and began comparing it to a printed tax return I provided. Another walk-in came with a check in hand. “Just a minute, ” Mr. L. told me.
I turned to the older couple. “Let me read you a poem from your book.”
And so I stood and read, dramatically, the tale of a seafarer who was weary, hungry, and full of woe. I remarked that this was surely apt for a day at the IRS office. Behind me, at the desk, Mr. L’s demeanor lightened. I could hear his tone shift as he worked with the walk-in. About halfway through the poem (it was long), I stopped and said perhaps that was enough for today. Katie’s husband clapped and exclaimed, “What a wonderful reading!” For her part, Katie mused, “That was very good. I might need to read poetry.”
There was something imperceptible that grew between the older couple and me in those moments. Along the way, I’d torn the title page from Poetry (sorry, Poetry!) and written our website name on it. “What’s your name?” Katie had asked. I wrote that, too. Both my pen name and my day-to-day name.
When I turned back to the desk as Mr. L. was finishing up with the walk-in, Katie’s husband was about to rip the title page from his book of Old English poetry. “You don’t have to do that, ” Katie said. “Take a piece…”
I saw her pointing to the Poetry title page and I sat down and ripped a clean strip off the bottom. “Here, write on this.” I put the torn strip into his life-worn hand.
“What we’re doing here is making sure your identity wasn’t stolen, ” Mr. L. told me. I listened patiently and glanced back at the couple. While Mr. L. began typing more numbers into his computer, a slip of paper became mine. Katie and Tom H— was written on it, in a shaky hand. Beneath it, a phone number, an address.
“Looks like he gave you all our information.” Katie smiled. “Now I guess you’ll have to write us an Easter card.”
Back at the desk, Mr. L. looked up and smiled. “You’re fine, ” he assured me.
I thanked him, put my materials away, and turned to go. But first I stopped in front of the couple I’d initially wished had not come here as walk-ins.
“I believe I came here today to meet you, Tom…” (I shook his hand.) “…and you, Katie.” (I shook her hand). They beamed.
“I hope you don’t get a ticket, ” said Katie.
“If I do, it’s just the price I paid to meet you both.” I smiled, and I meant it. This was where I’d belonged.
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