I WAS A CRACK ADDING MACHINE OPERATOR
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
From Accounts Payable – My Life Past Due
Sam Giancana said I was a good kid who talked too much to be a member of the Outfit when I applied to him for a job running numbers. He told me to see a man he knew at an employment agency downtown in the Loop for work. The man told me that if I learned how to operate a ten-key adding machine, I would always be able to get a job.
I soon became a crack ten-key adding machine operator, but I was really not the numbers man some people thought I was. I was really the writer, actor, singer, and dancer hiding behind the slews of numbers. In fine, I was an artiste, and not the calculating worm in the back office behind the restrooms. I fulfilled the role of an uncertified private accountant rather well. I handled the accounts, balanced the books, and affected a penchant for organization and overt obedience to generally accepted accounting principles. Still, I always felt like an imposter. In fact, I always knew I was not really an accountant, nor was I a mediocre organization man. Most of all, I was not cut out to be a lowly bookkeeper. Please! I would ask, do not introduce me as the so-called bookkeeper! At least call me an “accountant,” and not “my accountant,” for I imagined that I was independent. Incidentally, my creative streak and the absence of certification sometimes made me more useful to private enterprise than to the democratic republic.
No, ma’am, I was definitely not the accounting type of person at heart. I was a creative type, and the CPAs knew it, especially after I invited them to watch me prance across stages in tights or to listen to me sing my renditions of ‘I Fall To Pieces’, ‘The Lady in Black’, ‘Purple Rain’, and other songs from my extensive repertoire. The outside auditors sometimes joked around and called me a “recreational accountant.”
A certain attitude is required of those who count other people’s money. Notwithstanding my radical political profusions, I was loyal enough to vested interests. On balance I strove to strike a balance between right and left. As a matter of fact, I am a welfare-capitalist at heart. I believe in the principle that a few of our founding slaveholders adhered to, that it is quite profitable to treat people well. I even wrote a little Blue’s song in that vein, one that I liked to sing on payday: “People who treat me right are righteous, they’re all right, because they treat me right…” By the way, Rap music accompanies monotonous posting best, and Beethoven is best for cranking financials.
As for creative accounting in the ordinary sense of the phrase, I did not cook the books or keep two or three sets of them with different totals, nor did I help executives plunder corporations. Indeed, I perceived myself as the Lord High Chancellor or King’s Conscience; someone who would not put up with any sort of unethical business, such as the fudging of numbers and capitalization of expenses and taking of bribes.
Yes, I know, Lord High Chancellor Francis Bacon was impeached, but what we call bribes today were merely fees back then; King James asked what else people expected of his officials given the fact that he did not pay salaries. But my present sympathies are with the English Revolution. If I were a bookkeeper instead of an accountant, I would be an English bookkeeper, for the ethics of English bookkeepers were once far superior to the scruples of certified American accountants! Why, even Mary Shelley mentioned the “noble bookkeeper” in her Frankenstein, the bookkeeper for whom there was no higher art than bookkeeping – who needs the liberal arts when you have the business bible at hand? In any case, there is no hypocrisy in double-entries as long as the books are perfected balanced!
Lowly worm that I was, I warranted being closeted somewhere out of the way, the farther away from the front offices the better. The executives of several firms gave me either a back office or one way down the hall, to protect themselves from their financial statements and my jeremiads thereupon. I liked the back offices. I felt as snug as a bug in a rug in the last such office: I loved its privacy, its distance from authority, its proximity to the men’s room, and the dirty window that provided me with a Midtown perspective on the grimy city. I used to gaze upon the street below, and imagine people fleeing the buildings like rats as IRS squad cars marked “Form 1099 Independent Contractor Enforcement Division” arrived.
I left my door open when I was in an expansive mood, for the proximity of my office to the little dining room pleased me greatly. I enjoyed chatting with the workers of the world when I was not counting the boss’s money. I shan’t forget the young fellow who ate a turkey sandwich in the dining room one day, yawned, and said to me, “We people are lazy,” meaning, of course, black folk. “Nonsense,” I said, “we white people laid that on you. You ain’t lazy, my boy, you just ate yourself some turkey, and it’s two in the afternoon.” I was astonished that he would say such a thing given the history of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X and the fact that he preached the Bible in a Harlem storefront. Incidentally, like many other accountants for smaller firms, I was also the human resources department; I fancied myself as a humane socialist in that capacity; I was definitely not a slave driver.
Some of my bosses were pretty smart when it came to knowing people and using them accordingly. They said I was “much more than a bookkeeper.” They wanted me up front, conferring on strategies, hanging out in meetings, flying about the country troubleshooting and the like, at least until I lost my some front teeth and refused to replace them. But my accounting duties were best done when I was left alone in the back offices where I could concentrate on the books and analyze the numbers.
Sometimes I felt like a financial desert prophet. All too often I delivered the financials to the executives with dire predictions. Financial disaster was inevitable, I pronounced, unless certain steps were immediately taken to increase revenue and conserve resources; curb theft and curtail expenses; acquire loans and obtain investments; and the like. And live as if you are in poverty during prosperous times, I said, and you shall do well in bad times. Deficit spending was a mortal sin in my conservative black book of accrued balances. If a corporation could not employ resources so as to minimize expenses to its customers while paying labor decent wages and providing a fair return to investors and owners, I figured it ought to be dissolved instead of being allowed to run up bills everywhere.
As for my personal budget, which was puny indeed, my sole objective was to save up enough money to buy the leisure time to retire to libraries where I would naturally read and write books. All the while I sincerely believed that I would become one of the greatest writers the world would ever or never know. I successfully pretended to be a bookkeeper, accountant and corporate comptroller, but I was in reality a natural born creative thinker and literary artist at heart. I avoided getting stepped on by the lords of land and business. I saved up for years and years, and then one day I up and quit my job and took up writing.
One might say that I badly blundered, risking my life’s savings on such a vain enterprise at my age, just as Social Security was going down the tubes because neoconservatives needed more wealth for themselves and their heirs. As a matter of fact, I thought I had made a terrible mistake at the time, but I insisted on persisting in my vanity against my will to survive. Lo and Behold, I was offered the accounting position of my dreams shortly thereafter – some say the Devil was afoot. By virtue of an incredible act of virtual suicide, I then turned down power aplenty along with two paid vacations annually to anywhere in the world; a substantial salary invisible to the IRS, exemption from foreign taxes by special dispensation of the prime minister; pilot’s training and access to a small plane; and access to tax avoiders from all over the world. What especially alarmed me about the deal was all those goodies were to be had with a tourist visa and the naked promise of a prime minister. I headed west to pursue my ideal career, to be a bookworm instead of a glorified bookkeeper in a banana republic. After all, I told myself, I was conditioned to be a man of many words, not a numbers man. Moreover, according to an occupational preferences test I took, my preferences would be fulfilled as an author, professor, lawyer, bookstore manager, public relations director, or hairdresser. Crunching numbers was dead last on my preference list: you will find me with the artistic types at preferential cocktail parties.
I originally took up full charge bookkeeping in Hawaii simply because I was flat broke. Fate does not always cooperate with personal destiny. I did what I had to do to survive in paradise, lest I be kicked out of it by the lord of the land. I used my ten-key adding machine skills to add up and balance the night transcript at one of Roy Kelley’s Surf hotels. That took me no more than six hours each evening, leaving me two hours to goof off. After I left that job, I liked to walk by late at night to see my replacement struggling to balance the transcript, sometimes having to work overtime to get the job done.
I took my cash savings and ventured to the Mainland with the idea of marrying a tourist I had met. I got cold feet and returned to Waikiki, checking into the hotel where I would be robbed that night, putting me onto the street with a quarter to my name the next morning. Jim and Mary Ann Sewell from New Zealand took me in two days later, Mary Ann, when she found out I was a crack ten-key adding machine operator, said I could make a decent living if I learned how to be a full charge bookkeeper, and she hired me to handle accounts payable at B&G Sightseeing, where she was controller. I rose rapidly from accounts payable to keeping the general ledger and cranking out financials and performing other duties associated with being a bookkeeper, accounting manager, and corporate controller.
Now here I am at the beginning of the end, millions of numbers and words later, writing my swan song at the edge of the very grave I dug for myself. I do not have faith in the Vanity of vanity, of rising from the dead to eternal life, but I do crave verbal immortality. After my years as a faithful button-pusher and key-banger on the ten-key adding machine, typewriter keys and computer keyboards in order to invest the proceeds in literature, I dread more than ever the idea that my beloved work might be discarded by society after I am gone. The Hindus say the body is just a coat to be discarded. My ideal body is my corpus, and the thought that it might be tossed aside after my physical body disintegrates disturbs me to no end. And that gives me further cause for hope; history is a series of mistakes we would avoid if we could. I might bloom late if that be my fate, and enlighten some small part of the world with brilliant essays and novellas.
David Arthur Walters