Party chit-chat can be a problem when you're an agent of the Internal Revenue Service. When people find out what you do, they tend to develop an urgent need to cross to the other side of the room and sample the guacamole.
But in time, many return with a nagging question. After all, tax problems are a fundamental aspect (some would say irritant) of American life, like traffic jams or slow clerks at the grocery check-out.
"Being an IRS agent is not unlike being a doctor or an auto mechanic," says Dominick LaPonzina, public affairs officer at the IRS office in Baltimore. "If you're a mechanic, people want to talk about this ping in the engine. If you're a tax accountant, people ask, 'Well, what do I do to get more deductions?' "
Working for an agency that is reviled by much of the public and continually blasted by officialdom can be, well, taxing. But many IRS workers see themselves as dedicated public servants whose mission is to help perplexed citizens decipher America's intricate tax code.
Tonight, as the 1996 income-tax season ends for most Americans, the crunch is just starting for the 100,000 workers at the IRS. In coming weeks, agents will process more than 120 million individual income-tax returns, 17 million of them received electronically. Millions of Americans will receive refunds, the average refund being $1,327. A smaller group, 1.5 million, will be visited by an auditor.
To an outsider, a career in tax collection might seem to rank down there with politics, journalism, and armed robbery. Indeed, shunning tax collectors is as old as the Bible. But the accountants and auditors who work at the IRS see things differently.
"I don't think people realize how far we go to help people," says Pat Brummer, an IRS customer-service officer in Indianapolis. "Today I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a man, going line-by-line over his tax form. We're here to help people comply with the law."