My Taxes, My Personal Almanac

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Tax accountant Jack Willow teaches his clients that taxes aren't just about money. For one woman in particular, taxes are about life in general: her divorce, her cancer and her alcoholism. Taxes are intimate and revealing — and human. And that's not all bad.


Everyone is getting a little two-day extension on their taxes this year. Because of a local holiday in Washington, D.C., the deadline has been moved to April 17th, and that's just one week away. Procrastinators, and there are a lot of them, are going to wait until the last minute to get everything done. Not commentator Heather King. She actually looks forward to her annual appointment with her accountant.

HEATHER KING: Tax time is coming. Once again, I've driven an hour to see Jack Willow. Jack doesn't just do my taxes. He's helped me see that money is a tool to take better care of ourselves and each other. The first thing I learned when I came to Jack is that he spends way more time and charges way less money than you could possibly think. The second is that he could moonlight as a Vegas comic/shrink.

Hey, Jack.

Mr. JACK WILLOW (Accountant): How are you?

KING: Okay.

Jack lives in a double-wide, manufactured home, way out in the hills of the West Valley with his new Pomeranian puppy. I ring the bell, nervously clutching my papers, but the minute I'm in his office, I relax.

Mr. WILLOW: For most people, going to a tax guy is like when I go to a dentist. I'm petrified. So I do everything I can do to make people feel at ease, comfortable.

KING: As I hand over my stuff and he lights up yet another Marlboro, I know I'm in good hands.

Mr. WILLOW: I help people through marriage problems, through relationships, their kids, and depression. Yeah, everything.

KING: It's kind of like a hairdresser. People feel they can open up.

Mr. WILLOW: Or a bartender.

KING: Though I never thought of it before I came to Jack, taxes are a window onto life. Each receipt has a back-story. Every line on a 1040 is a year's worth of intimate details reduced to a number. We're all vulnerable around money, and living and working alone I feel more vulnerable still.

In the course of detailing my expenses, I'm surprised to find myself comfortable enough with Jack to tell him about my divorce, my alcoholism, my brush with breast cancer. Jack questions, listens, gently advises. After getting a picture of my situation, he's urged me to buy a cell phone, partial business write-off; get health insurance, which I did; and let go of a small-claims case I had against my former shyster boss, not worth the emotional-psychic toll.

I'm not the only one Jack has a repoire with. People drive all the way from Orange County and San Diego. Clients fly in from Oregon and Indiana, and Jack puts them up at his place for the night.

Mr. WILLOW: Everything goes very smooth. (Unintelligible), I give them my pillow. Then they pass out a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KING: Jack's full of lame gags, but anything to sweeten the process for his clients, and humor makes it go easier for him, too.

Mr. WILLOW: I'm basically very shy. If I'm behind my desk, I can sit there and tell jokes and talk. If I go to a club or a bar, I'll stand at the bar and look very cool, but I don't move. I get out of my shell behind my desk. Once I walk around the desk, I can't talk.

KING: Jack has taken something we all dread and fear and made it human, an opportunity to connect, an occasion to trust. I never knew doing my taxes could be so intimate and revealing, and I wouldn't have thought it possible, but this year I'm actually kind of looking forward to paying my taxes.

NORRIS: Heather King lives in Los Angeles. She's the author of "Parched: A Memoir."

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