Last August Jörg came down with his adorable Scottish boyfriend, Nathan, to join Nikolas and me on the island. They brought along their friend Emil, a tall blond marketing executive from New Zealand who arrived with the tan I wanted to leave the island with and a suitcase that seemed to contain nothing other than size-too-small Abercrombie & Fitch gear and enough après-soleil for a platoon of guys (in the end we all wound up borrowing glugs of providential Emil’s lotions).
None of us knew everyone, and we hadn’t all vacationed together, so I was anxious about how we’d fit. But in the end it was effortless. Part of it was Jörg’s talent for discretely organizing us and remembering we had run out of olives or were headed for the wrong beach given the northerly wind. Part of it was Nathan’s infectious good mood and rapid-fire wit. And then there was Nikolas, who’s such a brilliant conversationalist anyway and impossible not to like and who remained calm in the midst of the minor adversities that befall such vacations, as when I sliced off half my nail with Jörg’s Japanese chef’s-knife while helping prepare dinner and promptly fainted.
Things were arranged effortlessly, including how to cover expenses. We decided for a common till that Emil, who was intrigued by the iconoclasm of being the youngest in the role of “paying” for the rest of us, would manage.
I was embarrassed to tell them about the receipts. I saw myself as a cost-conscious 1960s housewife collecting trading stamps. Cheap. Needy. But in the end it was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to remain unexploited.
I told the non-natives that I had to collect receipts to claim my deductible on this year’s tax return. Receipts from when we’d go to restaurants, or shop at the grocery or refill the tank at the gas station or (especially) when we renewed our stocks of gin and wine at the liquor store. I explained how the measure was introduced as a way for the State, whose tax-collection system is so hopelessly inefficient, antiquated or corrupt that the black market economy is still at 30% of GNP, to oblige citizens to request receipts from the doctors, glaziers, gardeners, house-painters, taxi-drivers and, yes, accountants, and dozens of others who, throughout the year, provide them with services but who never pay a cent of tax on the money receive for doing so. It was diabolical, actually. If you didn’t amass enough receipts to cover your deductible, you lost it and were taxed as if you hadn’t really paid to have you pulled rhomboid treated or your will changed or the roaches annihilated. Not only were you turned into a tax-collector but you were fined if you didn’t do a good job.
Emil and Nathan and Jörg thought it peculiar and vaguely Eastern, this idea of impressing the citizen into doing the work of the government, and they were baffled by the very idea of systematic tax evasion. They were good-natured about it all, and took to the chase of the receipt with the same enthusiasm they evinced in sampling sea urchin salad and rakomelo, the warm cardamom-spiced honey-laced raki we were served at the village’s only bar. They saw it as a bit of game—who could collect the most receipts or the one with the highest or lowest value (Nathan proudly delivered one for a €1.15 can of Coke).
I warned them off from asking the taxi drivers. There were only six on the entire island, and I was afraid word would quickly get around that this quintet of “foreigners” (though only three were from abroad) was asking for receipts, and we’d up the proverbial shit’s creek the next time we called to arrange a ride back from an out-if-the-way beach 15 km from home. It was the same reason I never asked for a receipt from my plumber. You don’t want your guy hemming and hawing on the phone when you’re in the bathroom looking at the literal shit’s creek.
I’m ashamed of not asking. Of the shortsightedness of discounting for a short-term convenience the long-term benefit of an equitable society in which everyone contributes his or her fair share.
I despair at the absence of this sense of civil duty that seems second nature to the English and the Germans, of which a “taxation conscience” is just one facet. We don’t have the conviction here that you pay taxes because that’s the right thing to do. Instead, many see the state as something externally imposed, antagonistic if not hostile force. There’s this sense that the “state”, grossly inefficient and prone to corruption, doesn’t deserve our tax money. As if we are not the state. As if the imperfect state of the schools and hospitals meant you didn’t have to pay for them at all.
Maybe this has to do with a long history of subjugation to an occupying power in which the state was literally foreign. But that was so long ago. It has long ceased being an excuse for the calculus of blind self-interest in which the individual decides which laws to obey and when (a recent and strikingly visual reminder of this being the debacle of the ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and cafés, which was re-introduced, with even stricter regulations but even less enforcement, after the debacle of its initial implementation. The only change the new law brought about was the disappearance of the ubiquitous ashtrays and the appearance in their place of small plastic cups containing a jigger or two of tap water.)
There are exceptions, of course. Like the atenistas, “an open community of citizens” who have taken initiatives to clean up beaches, reclaim parks from neglect and crime, and organize food drives for the homeless. But they remain exceptions.
Perhaps the receipts will make a difference. I noticed that the fishmonger at the farmer’s market now has a portable cash register that issues receipts, which is a step forward, even if he still continues to pawn off his fish-farmed sea bass as wild catch. And all the taxis are outfitted with a machine that generates receipts, even if in nearly all cases—judging from my admittedly minute sample of direct encounters—you need to ask for it.
Without the receipts gathered on our summer stay on the island I probably wouldn’t have been able to fulfill my quota and earn the deductible. And I was one of the more diligent collectors among my friends. I had even kept receipts from Starbuck’s, of all places. But the receipt for a grande latte was worth keeping, considering that receipts for a lot of the bigger-ticket items like airplane and train tickets, all utility bills and anything bought abroad didn’t count toward your total. But even with those restrictions, I seemed to accumulate lots and lots of receipts. Although I was fairly conscientious about emptying my pockets and stashing the day’s haul in a hallway drawer when I got home from work, I’d keep finding slips of paper in all sorts of places—stuck within the pages of a paperback novel, lying at the bottom of my gym bag, crumpled at the back of the vegetable bin in the refrigerator. And of course in the wash. Receipt fuzz, I called it, these miniscule balls of paper that I’d dig out of the pockets of shorts and shirts.
The paper on which the evidence of my transactions with the body economic came in all shapes and sizes, from the flimsy slips from the kiosk, no wider than the breadth of two fingers, to the generous laser-print A4 receipts from the music store, with their watermarked lute-player and elegant Sabon typeface.
Last April I counted out the 1023 receipts I had collected over the course year and stacked them into five separate bundles of more or less similar value, and brought them to my accountant so that he could prepare my tax return (for which service, incidentally, he did not offer to provide a receipt nor, I unhappily admit, did I ask for one, my lame and self-serving justification being that this was a man I definitely wanted on my side in the event of a misunderstanding with the Tax Office.)
I don’t know if before filing the return online he had someone in his office double-check the tallies I had provided on an accompanying Excel worksheet. I doubt it. The firm was savvy and large enough that in the unlikely event I would be called to account for my deductible and he determined I was short on receipts and needed to make up the shortfall, he could easily borrow from the stacks of receipts his other clients had delivered to his office.
The accountant for which my friend Lena worked for was different. A one-man show with an IT-challenged clientele who didn’t even bother totaling the receipts. It was his job, or ratherLena’s, to do it for them.
Lena is not an accountant, or even comfortable with numbers for that matter. The job, which would last only a month or so during the peak tax-filing session, was nonetheless a godsend for Lena, who had been fired from her previous job and had been looking unsuccessfully for a position—almost any position—for three months.
Her job was simple: check that the receipts were valid and tally them up. That’s what she did eight hours a day. Add up receipts.
Lena did more than count, though. She is too bright and curious about the world about her to endure eight hours of mindless routine.Lenaquickly became fascinated with this archive of countless slips of flimsy paper, intrigued by the view if afforded her into the lives of other people.
It was all there in the bundles of receipts that people brought to office, the secrets they delivered up to her without even realizing it. Snippets of papers on which were recorded the details of their daily lives. What the government had not accomplished out of ineptitude or fear of public outcry or the censure of civil rights organization in the country and beyond, namely, the linking of data in registries maintained by organizations as diverse as the health care system, insurance companies, online warehouses and the DMV was, even if in the most primitive and sketchiest of form, already a fact—and lying in Lena’s hand.
At first she was content to simply note what struck her as peculiar. A pair of shoes for more than half of what she’d get paid in the month. A ticket stub for the same performance of the James Taylor Quartet she had been.
Until she ran across a butcher’s receipt for exactly €1. It pricked her curiosity. What could you buy for only a euro in a butcher’s shop? It was just enough for a dieter’s hamburger. Maybe it was a small sausage. She combed through the rest of receipts and discovered that whoever this was bought just one thing once a week from the butcher’s. On its own, meaningless. She herself as a half-hearted vegetarian bought even less meat. But interleaved with the receipts for single shots of Greek coffee, canned sardines, generic washing powder, and the absence of receipts from restaurants and taxicabs and drycleaners, the one-euro receipt was a piece in a puzzle she would put together, a chip in the mosaic of a man who she concluded was either a pensioner on an mercilessly tight budget (the age she guessed from the hypertension medication and interdental brushes listed on his pharmacy receipts) or a notorious skinflint.
Lena began to compose what she called her receipt portraits, character sketches of the persons she encountered only through the traces they left of the things and services they bought.
She said the receipts shared the indexicality of photographs in the way they captured reality and revealed their subject, however faintly and imperfectly. Taken as a whole the receipts were rich in information. And considering the final destination of the receipts, she added, they were, just like police photographs and street-level closed-circuit TV cameras, an apt example of what Sontag had called bureaucratic cataloguing.
“You know, of course, that nobody in the Ministry of Finance actually checks these receipts. They just dump in the bin when they open the envelope.” I said. “And besides, wasn’t it Sontag who said that the camera always hides more than it discloses?”
I was suspicious. The measure of a person is not the sum of the individual’s purchases. How could she discern character from consumption?
“But you can. Well, at least you can get a better idea of the person than you can from his Facebook page or his dating-site profile. Because the receipts don’t have the problem that a profile does or even photos do sometimes, you know the posing, how the subject will change behavior ever so slightly when they’re aware that a photograph is being taken.
She was talking about Fred. Or the guy she called Fred because of his apparent predilection for Fred Perry clothing. A man she knew only through his receipts but who she was convinced was a much better match for her than the string of guys she had gone out with in the last couple of years.
“What do you actually know about Fred?”
“I know he shops organic and takes care of his teeth and sends flowers now and then. And I know what music he listens to and what books he reads and what wine he drinks.”
“Those are just things,” I insisted. “You know what books he buys but you don’t know how carefully he reads them or if he was anything to say about them when he finishes reading them, if he finishes. You know what wine he drinks but not how he drinks, whether it’s a bottle a night alone at home or at dinner with friends. You know what a marketer wants to know, not a lover does.”
But Lena was a better reader of receipts than I was, or more inventive. She managed to discern all sorts of character traits from her stacks of slips. Fred took care of things; there were repair bills for things most people would ordinarily have thrown away and bought new ones. She saw loyalty in the fact that he frequented the same set of shops, even when a few weren’t in his immediate neighborhood and orderliness by the way he had arranged the receipts according to size, all the small ones in one packet, the large sheets in another.
John Szarkwoski, in his seminal 1967 work The Photographer’s Eye, wrote that “our faith in the truth of a photograph rests on our belief that the lens is impartial, and will draw the subject as it is, neither nobler nor meaner.” Lena’s faith in what these receipts told her about her subjects, their objectivity and lack of posing, their ability to reveal and explain, overlooked her own important hermeneutical role.Lena’s “receipt portraits” were interesting precisely because of her own narrative, the way she wove these strands of data into an image of what we would recognize as a person: an entity of desires, habits, tastes, symptoms, and predilections. On their own the receipts were just a collection of strands of discrete measurements, some of them perhaps richly evocative, but it was Lena who called them into life.
They reminded me of an exhibition of works by Athanasios Argianas that Lena and I had gone to last spring at the Breeder. Long graceful strips of brass lay limp on a construction of thin steel rods set at right angles to one another. They looked like strands from the necklace of a titan queen or the closely guarded hieratic standards of an ancient culture. The strips were etched with odd yet evocative measurements: the width of a coral snake unfolded, the wingspan of a finch, the length of a strand of your hair, of your arms unfolded. These measurements seemed at once arbitrary (but in the end perhaps no more so than the cubit or the span) and highly suggestive. They lay there in the stillness of an empty gallery, waiting to be deployed.
Lena wants to meet Fred. I told her that the image of the man she wanted to meet was one that she herself had largely put together. The receipts, I said, yielded no information on other, and more important, vitals of character: whether he was affectionate or aloof, courageous or fearful, forgiving or resentful, nothing that could provide a measure of decisiveness, goodwill, humility or a dozen other traits.
“But you never know those things in the beginning anyway, do you?” she said.
Image: Athanasios Argianas, Song Machine 16 (the length of a strand of your hair of the width of your arms, unfolded…), 2011