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In Praise Of Auto Mechanics, Baristas And Other Minor Characters In Our Lives

(Jazmin Quaynor/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
(Jazmin Quaynor/Unsplash)

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When I called H&R Block recently to set up an appointment with my tax preparer, the receptionist hesitated. In the silence that followed, I felt a sudden chill.

“I’m afraid that Murray has retired,” she said at last. “He’s fine,” she added quickly, before I had time to ask. “He just decided it was time to stop.”

I can’t remember the exact year Murray became my tax preparer. My guess would be that it is longer than 12 years ago but less than 15. My twins had barely started middle school when I first saw him, and now they've been out of college for nearly three years. Like spring crocuses and fall foliage, Murray had become part of the rhythm of my year.

I first sought the help of a tax preparer after starting a private psychotherapy practice in the late 1990s. It didn’t take more than a glance at the self-employment tax forms for me to realize I was well out of my depth. For several years, I saw a series of nondescript tax professionals who did a perfectly adequate job but left no impression. The appointments always seemed awkward and interminable, and I dreaded them each year.

And then, by some serendipitous blip in the universe, I found Murray.

A short, gnome-like man, Murray looks like the epitome of a grandfather. There is a glint in his eye that communicates both a deep intelligence and a sense of ironic amusement. When he smiles, you would think the sun had just come out from behind a threatening cloud. He is the opposite of nondescript.

There are people who may seem like minor characters in our stories: the dry cleaner, the barista, the librarian, the bank teller and the auto mechanic ...

For the first couple of years I saw him, our relationship remained somewhat formal. But as the years went by, something shifted and we began to share more about our lives and ourselves. I learned, for example, that Murray had studied electrical engineering in college and worked for 35 years at IBM, where he was part of the team that developed the bar code. I also discovered that it was only after he retired from IBM that he trained to become a tax consultant.

In turn, I shared stories of my children’s developmental milestones and talked about the challenges of working as a psychotherapist, both at a college counseling center and in private practice. Although I had clicked with Murray from the start, our rapport grew over the years and our intimacy deepened.

When I look back at our meetings, it is probably the shared laughter I will miss the most. Murray delighted in telling me about a client who actually accepted the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' offer to send in more money than he owed in taxes as a contribution to the state. And we always chuckled over the line in the federal tax form that sternly reminds Americans to report all income they have gained from criminal activities. As we got to know each other better, we also found humor in the foibles of politicians and the state of the nation. I always left my appointments with Murray smiling.

If the story of our lives is like a movie, it is clear who fills the central roles: parents, siblings, significant others, close friends, children. Yet everyone who loves the movies remembers a moment where a gifted character actor appears unexpectedly for a few minutes and steals the scene.

As with movies, so, too, in life. There are people who may seem like minor characters in our stories: the dry cleaner, the barista, the librarian, the bank teller and the auto mechanic, to name a few. Yet as we interact with these people regularly over months, years and even decades, they gradually become part of the fabric of our lives, adding color and warmth and connection. And when these supporting players disappear, as they inevitably do, the loss is no less real.

Is it possible to feel bereft at the loss of one’s tax preparer? That may seem like an odd notion, but I suspect that getting my taxes done this year will once again feel like a mundane task of the unpleasant sort — like getting a tooth filled. Without Murray’s smile and that old glint in his eye to greet me, the office where he once worked — and my world — will seem like colder, emptier places.

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Peter Guthrie Cognoscenti contributor
Peter Guthrie, LICSW, is a writer and psychotherapist in private practice. An English teacher in a former life, he also worked for many years in college counseling.

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