Listen to an audio recording of the essay or read it, below. See Roger's portrait at the end of the essay.
Roger is my stranger for the Two Cents Photo Series today. (Sort-of-a-stranger is more accurate.) We hadn’t met in person before yesterday, sitting across from one another at Laziz Kitchen, but we had communicated a couple of times via email and once on a phone call last week. They were pretty amped communications, especially from my vantage point.
His last email communication made me weep. And yesterday, I knew I was going to have to face him.
I started my Work in 2013. It’s called the Red Fred Project. I work with children living in extraordinary circumstances and ask them this question: If you could write a book for the entire world to read, what would it be about?
Red Fred Project was funded by many of you and hundreds of strangers (1,428+ to be exact) via Kickstarter—a crowd-funding platform. And as silver-lined and star-dusted as it is, there are parts of it that are…less attractive to look at. Oh, they aren’t horrible—the less attractive parts—but they certainly aren’t the dazzling faces of the 10 kids I’ve worked with so far—those faces and 20 eyes that have shoved so much sunlight into my chest that I hardly have room for my own heart anymore.
And even as genuinely awesome as it has been, Red Fred Project still has to do fabulously detailed, everyday things. Things like…paying taxes. NBD, right?
Our Kickstarter campaign raised $86K (and some change). An absolutely miraculous feet, again (and especially) from my vantage point. That $86K was taxed, just like your annual income is taxed. And even though we felt confident in our cause, crossed all the T-s and dotted all the I-s, we hired a snappy CPA anyway because, well, you just can’t be too sure with taxes, can you?
So, we filed our taxes, just like you, and saw nothing but possibility and potential ahead. We met the kids! We made their books! We read their stories! And things were, for a big-pie-piece-portion, going splendidly until…we got hit with a communication from the IRS at the beginning of the year: You’ve been audited. You owe the Internal Revenue Service $41K (and some change) for 2013 taxes.
Shot to the heart. Quite literally.
I’m not going to get into details about the sickening despair I felt at that moment, but I promise: the pendulum emotion of that day was as dark in its pitch as the joy was gold the day our Kickstarter was funded.
With my forehead in my hands, I begged my CPA: How did this happen?? What do we do??
“We hire the best tax attorney we know of, that’s what we do.”
My mother-hen-wings and guard-dog-hackles spread in the same second. “Okay,” I said. “Whatever it takes.”
So, we hired the attorney. I gulped when I saw his rate, but my only solace was knowing it was less than we owed the IRS.* I could get my mind around that figure. Then, the tax attorney’s team put us in touch with their accountant: a tall, white-haired, retired, 67 year-old man whose mannerisms were more aligned with Santa Claus than TurboTax or H&R Block. He worked from his home office and I bet you he wears plaid shirts and khaki pants 327 days out of the year. How would I know that? Well, you see, I just had lunch with him yesterday.
Roger strolled into Laziz Kitchen, in a plaid, red shirt and the simplicity and clarity of someone who has lived 67 years. No fluff. No pretense for presence. Just a glorious, bald crown surrounded by clouding-white hair just above the ears. Oh, and a very big smile.
You see, last week was the first and only time we had talked on the phone. He had emailed me some news and I wept when I read it. I called him immediately. His voice was kind and gentle. After he shared the particulars of his email, he said, “Dallas, I’d really like to meet you. After all I’ve read about these kids and this project, I’m really curious if you would like to meet me for lunch.” A bit overwhelmed, I agreed. So we met yesterday.
“Tell me about your project,” was how he started lunch. I didn’t hold back. I let it all out. I spoke of the kids, spoke of my hopes for this year, spoke of the power I’m seeing in people all around me as they continue to show up supporting this project. I spoke about time and togetherness and “why should we wait?” kind of ideas. He listened, nodded, occasionally asking questions, but all the while his gentle eyes burned with intent.
“What about you?” I asked him after I reached a cul-de-sac of thought.
“Dallas. I’m retired. I retired years ago. I’m not artistic, like you, but I absolutely love what I’ve learned about this project. When I was preparing my response to the IRS on your behalf—when it came to that deadline date of our final appeal to the tax court—I did something… and I think it was artistic. I researched as much as I could about each of your kids. I wrote up one-page briefs about each of them and their books. I scoured any and everything you’d shared about them, online, and I extrapolated every pertinent detail I felt was relevant about the Red Fred Project and that $86K (and some change) that was raised through Kickstarter. Dallas, I think your Troop helped me.”
My throat was constricting in knots at this point and I started to blink, very quickly. “Why do you say that?” I asked, my voice audibly shaky.
“I’m good at accounting, Dallas—like you’re good with birds. And in all the time I’ve been an accountant (40+ years), I have never seen, nor expected, the response we received from the IRS regarding the $41K (and some change). Usually, there is a going back and forth, jousting to get a settlement price in the range of the one being audited. It can take months of negotiations. But this time it was different. I sent them everything they required and then I sent them those one-page briefs about each of the kids and their books and told them ‘THIS is where that $86K (and some change) went.’ The auditor called me within a couple of weeks from the day I mailed them the information and said, “Hello, Roger. We want you to know we’ve approved your appeal.”
(More blinks. More throat-knots. Now, add a runny nose.)
“I wish you could see my office, Dallas. On my bookshelf, I have a 4”x4” picture frame with your “Thank you” email in it. In the corner, I have a piece of paper: “Saved them $41K (and some change).”
(I’m fully crying at this point.)
“I just wish I could GIVE you that $41K instead of just saving you from paying it. In fact, I wish I could give you $410K and more to get you from 4 books a year to 702 books a year!”
The wait staff brought the bill and Roger reached for it but I pulled it away.
“You don’t have any money, Mr Graham,” Roger smiled.
“I’m as wealthy as a king,” I countered.
As we walked out the front door, Roger pulled on his coat and I pulled out my camera. I told him about the Two Cents Photo Series and asked if he’d be my stranger for the day. (Sort-of-a-stranger is more accurate.) He hmmm-hawed but just for a few moments.
“Two words?” he asked.
I handed him the white-board and he penned his cents.
“Why these words, Roger?”
“Because if I CAN, Dallas, I MUST; if we CAN do something to help someone else, we MUST.”
And I’m here to say:
*The attorney surprised me by charging a fraction of the quoted cost for services.