Drive Your Own Red Whale

red-whale-copyTake good and extra precautions when wiring money from Jakarta, Indonesia to New York. Ensure everything is signed off, declared, stamped. Pressure Javanese officers for assurance and make telephone calls from one Batavian landline to another that will be picked up when the phone rings in Manhattan. Make the phone ring in Manhattan.

Take a look at yourself in the mirror when it is done and night has fallen and you are brushing your teeth—“Did I make any mistakes?” you might ask your wet reflection. “Was there anything else I should have done? Any further guidance I needed? Some additional rule with which I have not yet complied?” Consider these questions closely and give yourself a long time to work it out with more paste across the back molars if you have to. America is the real thing and major international transfers of money do not go unnoticed so hire everyone you can. Hire people you will never see again and whose services you have no intention of using. Engage the liminal pull between transparency and cover. Contemplate one last time a large suitcase that could be your carry on and then, finally and fully, discredit that plan.

But reject also this: A clean and simple wire transfer to America, a nominal fee, a little paper slip of assurance that yes, the money has arrived, yes, be on your way. All I had to do now was get from here to there. But I had it on good assurance, the assurance of this little yellow slip, see, that it had all been wired. I remember thanking the officer with a deep bow and together we ceremoniously cut my old Standard Chartered bankcard in half. He wished me well. We bowed more and shook hands and assured each other of all the good things to come.

A quick check online, the telephone call, and I had it on good information that the money had, indeed, been received in America. That all was well. That bon voyage. My flight left the next day and I was on it.

The thing one must keep in mind when one is in the business of wiring truckloads of cash halfway around the world from a point of origin the United States regularly identifies as a safe haven for multiple terrorist organizations is that you are not alone in the close and careful observation of that money. The whole pecuniary world might as well have been on that plane with me. What I had done was so glaring and obvious it was like I had painted a dead whale red, hauled it up onto the back of a semi (the fins and blubber ground-dragging) and then hauled-ass across country. I was driving the red, dead whale as fast as I could, tail-smeared and wormy. I was wrong. I reiterate here only that the twenties are a murky and beguiling time and we must take those who pass through successfully for the finally-billeted soldiers that they are.

It happened like this: Two years later I got up, went to work, came home, inserted my key into the front door, opened it, inserted a second key into my mailbox lock but the thing wouldn’t budge even fraction of a centimeter. I twisted and pulled, coaxed till it yielded, finally, a world of paper. There was nothing else in there, nothing else could possibly fit.

Still standing gape-jawed and groceried in the vestibule, I leafed through the massive file. I couldn’t make sense of the thing. It was Soviet in its totality and Herculean in its demands. I flipped to the back, read some cursory concluding remarks and my eyes landed on the main point: I owed the United States Government $59,543.

When one receives a message like this from the United States Government (really any sort of direct, personal communication from the United States Government, but chiefly a message of this size and scale) there is a sense of “there has been some mistake” coupled with “can’t we talk about this” topped off with “no fucking way.” Many panicked phone called ensued. Many emergency walks in the nearby park. Several muttered meetings with equally tax-baffled friends. A few fleeting thoughts of running, of returning to Indonesia or anywhere, really, abroad. Slipping out the back door somehow, passport-clutching and undetected.

An accountant friend agreed to “take a look” and I bundled all three inches of that paper file and mailed it out to him, straight away. He agreed, having taken that look, that the situation was pretty bad but not insurmountable and that he’d work on it but that he wasn’t an international tax guy. That it was a job for him. I had created work for someone. Again—the twenties. It is a matter of negotiating the twenties and then, somehow, a way out of the twenties and I maintain that there are many who yet incur fines and injury well in excess of $59,543.

There’s a very thin line between boldness and stupidity. And being open to both while learning to sense the difference can yield important life lessons: declare your assets and pay your taxes being just one. Yet “growing out” of being bold and stupid, both, as we tend to in our thirties and beyond, can mean shortchanging ourselves of some of the best, worst and most heart-stopping moments. And what more could we want of life but to stop our own still-beating, baffled hearts?

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