ACCOUNTS PAYABLE – MY LIFE PAST DUE
DAVID ARTHUR WATLERS
MY EARLY INHERITANCE
I don’t care much for the bestselling things and striking events of our times, but I do enjoy old books and the symbolic activities presented therein. I inherited my love for literature and a high tolerance for long lectures from my father at a very young age. Thanks to him, wonderful stories and academic discourses are my favorite things.
My father gave up journalism and became a dedicated ‘Made in the USA’ union man with the IBEW after the Great Depression and war. I disliked stripping the copper wire he brought home for extra cash, and I certainly did not want to become an electrician like him, but his love for the written word rubbed off on me. Wherefore I fancied myself as a proletarian writer at first, ever willing like Nelsen Algren to ride the rails to get a realistic gutter story if need be; Algren was so dedicated to his calling that he stole a typewriter and shipped it to Chicago before hopping a freight train back north; apprehended in transit, he did his jail time conjuring up the likes of Walk On The Wild Side.
Although I knew my dad for a very short period of time before I ran away from home for good, I was somewhat influenced by his delusions of grandeur and persecution, wherefore I am occasionally amazed by the grandeur of my own insignificance, as if I were at once both god and worm, and I don’t mind saying so at considerable length. His family was impoverished by the Great Depression. He joined the Army, an institution that was, he claimed, “a refuge for outcasts and riffraff, and was just like having a father and a mother in those days, when a man didn’t have any way of making a living.” He was a cavalry and artillery man during the war, and a student of journalism, real estate, and the law thereafter. He met my mother towards the end of the war. After her death at age 21, he married another woman, and then another – in the interims I was a foster child.
My father was forced to take up a hard-hat trade to survive. An electrician by trade, he was a pipe-bending poet who wired, amongst other facilities, the Midwestern missile bases. He was an alienated union man in the good old days when long hours bending electrical pipe instead of the law could make one as much money as a lawyer – mostly immigrants want the construction jobs nowadays, and they fare slightly better than dishwashers. He carried a red-plastic-covered copy of The Sayings of Chairman Mao in his back pocket for some time. He also had a big wad of money close at hand, and hid quite a bit more between the pages of books. Moreover, he stashed gold contraband in the walls, so much that he forgot where he put it all –somebody is going to be pleasantly surprised when they tear down that place down.
His stash, he said, was for his escape from his circumstances. I assumed that included me, and most of all my stepmother, who hated me, so I wanted to escape before he did. He used to disappear until the wee hours of the morning, but he didn’t a run for it until I was long gone, and he was virtually run out of town. A responsible family man, he just had to stay put through hell and high water. He liked to tell the story about the man who longed for many years to leave town, then went to the train station one day and died of a heart attack just as the train pulled in – sometimes people who enjoy suffering really do not want their ideals to be fully realized.
Now my dad, like me, was already balding in his teens. He was fond of saying that he had two personalities: hat on, hat off. But that was not all: he was also cross-dressing. Who would have known? He was a stern, tough-looking construction worker, a champion boxer in the Army, gung ho to go to the front line. He did not hesitate to knock a man out cold on Main Street one day, nor did he hesitate to shoot the neighbor’s barking dog in the middle of night, after repeatedly warning its owner to shut it up – he said dogs should be canned and sent to feed poor Asians.
Hard as my father worked to support his last family and to make sure his wife never had to work and thus meet the competition, and as tough as he appeared to be, he was a sentimental romantic who cried over silly poems. Maybe that was because his mother dressed him up as a girl when he was a child; his bartending father came home and beat him for the confusion. Today he is a hapless Romantic who suffers from the Orpheus Complex: sixty years after her death, he still edits his poems to my mother, as if that would retrieve her from Death. At one point in his cross-dressing career, he took her name as his own. He said he was my surrogate mother for a short period after her death, and that he became convinced that the dresses his mother had clothed him as a child accorded with the real woman within.
Some time after he turned 85, he gave away his jewelry, bought two pairs of trousers, made washrags out of his fine dresses, and moved into a senior citizen’s apartment on the grounds of a historic, gold-domed Catholic church. Keeping up the role of a woman was just too much for him at his age, he said. But he still looked a bit like a little old lady – it annoys him when complete strangers call him sweetie and dearie. Well versed in scripture, he refers to a messiah. One day, as he watched old folks creep from his apartment building into the side door of the church for Mass, he claimed that given the dissatisfactions of human nature, there is always a better place than our current residence, no matter where we are at the moment, and that the last resting place is what funereal preachers call the Better Place. His current flame is a lesbian nun, or rather a trans-sexual nun who says she is a lesbian bride of Christ.
There is some truth in the maxim: Like father like son. I am not inclined to wear dresses or to go overboard with my illusion into delusion. I have almost managed to rid my self of the romantic pathos. But my father and I share our love for literature – it is our favorite escape from the brutal reality of realists who are subject to the illusions of realism. Today we identify a man with what he does to make a living, and not with the essence of his life. My father was a poet who happened to be an electrician. Some make good their escape and that is their living. Perhaps I shall differ from him in that respect. We shall see.
I SHAN’T FORGET THE HOLOCAUST
Ne Obliviscaris, Never Forget, is the motto of my Campbell clan, the Clan of the Wild Boar. I shan’t forget the Holocaust films of corpse-filled trenches they showed us kids at grammar school. Come to speak of it, my school chums and I were persecuted often enough. We were thrown up against the wall and had our ears boxed red for good measure, or we were ordered to the principal’s office and smacked with a paddle with a hole in it when we were very bad. Jim Norton, my Mormon friend who wound up married to two women at the same time, got the worst of it; I’ll never forget how he buried his head in his hands at his desk while the teacher thrashed him with a pointer stick.
We deserved every bit of it and more. Maybe corporeal punishment should be restored to private homes and public schools with a vengeance, considering how good we turned out as a consequence – Martin Luther was beaten several times a day everywhere he went, which got us our fine Protestant religion. Our crimes against humanity at grammar school were serious enough for our age. I got six resounding whacks for poking Anne Chandler in the wrong place while she was hanging upside down in the jungle gym. I made it up to her later, and kissed her in the alley on the way home. And Jim and I and Clifford Taylor, the only black boy in the school, peed in the finger-paint pots during recess, just before the finger-painting session; we could not help laughing our heads off as our peers smeared the paint. The teacher made a pointed inquiry: Clifford confessed, and we were roundly thrashed. But that was not the worst infraction at school: the janitor at our school was very mean to kids, as if he hated them for their opportunities; every morning he shined the old school bell mounted on a concrete pedestal at the entrance, so we defecated on it one night.
Not that I was all bad. One teacher knew that wayward boys need certain responsibilities besides taking out the trash at home, so he had me get the kindergarteners lined up and march them around the block for exercise. I also was frequently assigned to walk one slightly retarded boy home when he got to smelling badly because he pooped his pants. And I was favored by my sixth grade teacher because when it came to reading and writing I was first in the class – I wrote my first brilliant story in sixth grade, about diving deeply into the water and finding a device that would save humankind. Yes, I liked reading and writing very much. I remember the little comic strips that came with Bazooka bubble gum. As for arithmetic, the multiplication tables were a pain to learn but I did my duty.
Of course sex was the most important subject in the fifth and sixth grades. I already knew something about the subject; my foster brother in Oklahoma got me started with the little girl next door when I was eight years old; consequently, and despite my grandmother’s prohibition against touching it when going to the bathroom, I did not think there was anything dirty about sex at all provided it was between members of the opposite sex.
Anyhow, we learned to dance the Hop and the Stroll in grammar school. Furthermore, a voluptuous farmer’s daughter with large breasts and broad hips was impregnated and married off to a third cousin. We were shown films on venereal disease, and one film discussed the health benefits of circumcision. Even more interesting, considering that some of us had just started smoking, was the film on reefer madness; we did not know what marijuana was until we saw that film, and then we wanted to try it. Yes, I remember those films very well. Ever so often the film would break and go flap, flap, flap, so we would have to wait and occupy ourselves with chitchat, or use our hands to make silhouettes on the white screen, until the teacher got it spliced and up and running again.
After we saw the film on the Holocaust, someone asked about communists; he said his dad had claimed that it was “better to be dead than Red.” The teacher said communists were “Jewish intellectuals.” We learned a good deal more about communism from a F.B.I. propaganda pamphlet in the library, and more than one boy decided to be a communist after reading it. The propaganda was confusing to me, for the teacher had told us that Jews were always counting money and hoarding it, so how could they be communists if communists wanted to take private property away?
Some of us grammar school boys were not only smoking but boozing before we went on to junior high school. Unfortunately for our local Episcopalian church, we walked the alleys to school and back: we found a crate of booze in someone’s garage, got drunk regularly, and almost burned the church down one evening. We had slipped out of the Boy Scout meeting to buy Cokes from the machine in the hall, to mix the booze with, of course. We went upstairs to party and were soon in a drunken stupor. We played with matches and wantonly smoked cigarettes. The fire that destroyed part of the roof after we left the premises was unintended, its source being a smoldering cigarette. One otherwise nice boy, a Christian kid who thought he was Jewish because they were reading the Old Testament a lot in his Sunday School, had taken a dump by the organ; that evidence was dwelled on at length by the police department’s psychologist. Pressed to confession, the imaginative anal expulsive boy claimed that the church was the burning bush from whence comes the voice of the Lord. He was suspected therefore of arson; he took the suggestion to heart and eventually became a church arsonist – he lost his life several years later, in a fire he had set in St. Louis.
The empty pint bottles left at the scene of our youthful indiscretion convinced the authorities that we were alcoholic juvenile delinquents. We were consigned to four weeks confinement in a juvenile detention center, where we would hopefully be rehabilitated. We were allowed to smoke two Pall Mall’s at the dinner table every evening. Ironically, I was released a week later on account of my heroism under fire. An unruly girl had set her mattress afire and the fire spread to two rooms. The husband and wife who ran the place were across the street, at the saloon. By the time the firemen arrived, I had already put out the fire with fire extinguishers. I was called a hero on the front page; my name was not mentioned because of my young age, much to my chagrin.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I believed I was a good boy. I did not know why my pals and I became alley cats. Each set of parents blamed our leather-jacketed, duck-tailed waywardness on “keeping bad company,” as if they and their kids were really better than the others. Mind you that we were by no means as mean as the Chicago and New York juvenile gangs we liked to read about in the books our parents took away from us, and in the movies they did not want us to see – so we snuck in the side entrance. In fact I was regularly accused of doing things I had not done, like stealing another kid’s skivvies at the swimming pool, which sometimes gave me the notion to commit the deed I was accused of or even worse, out of spite for my accuser. I had sufficient reason to believe I was being persecuted not only by the authorities at school but by homely authority as well. Indeed, my father told me I was cursed with what he called “a conflict with authority.” I remember his frequent references to his own persecution, by “the low-browed people,” presumably the authorities who were in charge of small towns. After seeing the film about the Holocaust, I imagined my kind would eventually be gassed and thrown into pits.
I MIGHT BE MOSES
I managed to trade my blue collar for a white collar once and for all. My office career saved me from having to actually produce or sell things. I studied primers on management and discovered that managers are not supposed to actually do the dirty work but should get others to do it. Yet I was not fully committed to management given my inherited proletarian disposition. Mind you that my kind of proletariat had just learned to read and write; he likes to protest and does not plan on seizing the factories quite yet.
If only I had lived the life of the most middling bourgeois, steadily advancing to a middle management position while investing a portion of my income in a diversified portfolio, I would now be comfortably retired, free to write to my heart’s content, or to go sailing instead. Yes, I might have a boat in my driveway, or perchance, by virtue of the Dot.com mania, a modest yacht in the harbor. Even a career in the military and the right Fidelity funds would have made me a more substantial man today in terms of waistline and wealth.
But I really did not want anything, not even that yacht some men would die for. Indeed, I saw such a man and yacht shortly after I took up double-entry bookkeeping in Honolulu. The gentleman had apparently retired to live his golden years in Hawaii. He was heading his craft towards Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in heavy seas, and the waves heaved the vessel into the boulders alongside Magic Island. He jumped overboard between the boulders and his vessel and tried to push it off the rocks; each wave threatened to pin him against the rocks. We kept yelling for him to climb out of there, offering him one end of a pole, but he persisted and was crushed by his beloved hulk. I did not admire his heroic effort at the time: I simply thought he was a foolish man, and observed a pair of large frigate birds circling overhead as if they were a sign of something or the other..
In retrospect that frustrated sailor has my deepest sympathy. I was indubitably a fool myself, perhaps even more foolish than he. Everyone must have something to live for besides life in itself; that is to say, they must have a way of living or living is for naught, and that way is of course limited to something or the other. That my thing is metaphysical and his thing was physical does not make me a better man than he nor any the wiser. Those of us who are so fond of the profound depth of our inner lives as we worship the vanities of our vanity should pause to consider the contents and reaches of the universe, in respect to which our inner profundity is exceedingly shallow or vapid.
Still, my favorite things are of the mind. I write therefore I exist, and I exist all the more when I write stories about myself, such as this one. I lived well below my means no matter how much I earned at a job, and for good reason: I wanted to buy time to write stories. Yes, I have perused and enjoyed the ocean-going literature, but I have never coveted a real yacht nor have I sailed let alone been on one. Suffice it to say that I wanted an ideal, a golden ark, if you please, that would carry soulful seeds for the implantation and evolution of my most grandiose dream – nothing less than the mental salvation of humankind, in which kind I mercifully included scribbling myself. I even wrote of writing myself to death to that altruistic end. Wherefore I did not cast my lot with the greedy bourgeoisie, whose mechanical institutions were efficiently and effectively grinding human beings to dust, leaving them to eat pig-ear sandwiches while their masters lived high off the hog – may Sacred Scripture forever forbid it with a pox on the swinish bourgeois if not an Armageddon!
Only bookworms can live on books alone. Today’s books are poisoned for preservation, the caretakers caring not for the Worm in their urge for property. Unable to live on the pages I read and wrote, I stooped to keeping books of account to support my spiritual calling. Yes, I confess: I was a lowly bookkeeper for my miserable keep. I mean I counted other people’s filthy lucre. Yet I was redeemed because I never really wanted their burdens. It simply was not my calling to grimace at a desk under florescent lights, as they habitually do in the infernal commercial quarry where they are crushed daily by the virtual rocks in their heads – Sisyphus never had it so badly in Hades. But whatever my calling is, an office job has been my lot.
Ironically, I have a knack for business, providing that I do not own it. I might have been Pharaoh’s scribe in a previous life, rising in the ranks from superintendent of tomb construction to chief keeper of seals. If the legendary Moses actually lived in Egypt, he might have been an ancestor of mine. I might be him reincarnated, ordained to become the greatest lawgiver the world will ever know if not a bestselling author. Shall I memorize the Decalogue and grow a long beard? Oh, no, it is too difficult to remember ten things and perchance divine why the injunction against murder is sixth on the list when one is distracted by the wonders of this wide world of ours. Ah, who knows how I will turn out? That my beard turns gray is no doing of mine!
MACHINES AND ME
Someone once said that a thief is a capitalist without capital, but I was too square to steal the means of production: I occasionally worked the lathes, drill presses, punch presses, and grinders, but I did not stoop to steal one. Several bouts of unemployment along the random course of my youth had given me cause to take any kind of job I could get, so after washing dishes I landed in machine shops for a spell. I drilled countless holes and even turned out thousands upon thousands of left-handed screws besides right-handed ones; and, among other things, I put the wooden handles on tile knives and sharpened barrels and barrels of them on the grinder.
I shan’t forget the poor man I worked with at a Minneapolis machine shop. He was overcome by fumes from the degreasing tank as he leaned over it to wash a basket of oily parts: he fell into the degreaser tank and drowned. As if that were not enough to ruin the day, I had ignorantly placed my liverwurst sandwich on the housing of a idle machine, where it grew so rancid from the heat after the machine was turned on and until noon that my stomach violently turned just after I gobbled down a big bite to comfort myself after the ambulance had left with drowned man’s body. Several of us got drunk at the corner pub in our fallen comrade’s honor. I am ashamed to say that we inadvertently sideswiped a few parked cars on the way home, but never mind. I stumbled into my girlfriend’s apartment, collapsed on the floor and vomited up a pink solution of beer and sloe gin on her white rug before I passed out.
Although I did not know what I was doing, my girlfriend married me because I loved her and that is what girls do. Life was tough and bitter cold in The Cities, so we moved to Topeka, where I had family; as if that would do us any good, since I had ran away from that family years before because it was not good for me, and I hardly needed a daily reminder of my youthful indiscretions as a frustrated juvenile delinquent – mind you that I was basically a good boy who was wrongly accused of being bad, hence I took the suggestions in one way or the other and got even.
I understand that ‘topeka’ is a Native American term for “a good place to dig potatoes.’ But it was especially difficult for a young paleface to get a job in Topeka; not to mention the impoverished Indians nor the poor Mexicans who lived in tarpaper shacks near the railroad tracks. I declined an offer to climb into fuel storage tanks, newly fabricated for filling stations, and to weld the seams together; or rather, I accepted the job but quit before I showed up. Instead, I took a job at a machine shop; its main customer was Goodyear. Two months later, the union steward got me fired on the pretext that I was incompetent. I had been unwittingly stamping out nearly twice the quota of parts on one of the punch presses, which had aroused the ire of the journeymen. Wherefore the shop steward gave me a task far beyond my competence as a barely experienced apprentice: to dismount a large motor from a huge upright lathe used to turn out tire molds, and mount it on a different type of machine. After I was fired, I resolved never to work at a machine shop again, and I swore I would stay away from rednecks who chew tobacco and have an unseemly habit of grabbing the crotches of their coveralls every ten minutes or so.
I found a night job cleaning the potato chip machine at Frito Lay. The chip machine was laid out along the length of the building to convey and process the potatoes dumped into the hopper at one end. The spuds were scrubbed; the stones dug up and shipped with them sank to the bottom; and then the washed potatoes were dropped into a rapidly spinning cuff; thanks to centrifugal force, they were sliced into chips by the razor sharp knives in its sleeve. The chips were conveyed by a series of paddles along a long cooker full of oil, from which they arose along an incline, dripping off much of the oil, under a huge salt shaker at the top of the incline, and then dropped onto a shaking table which rid them of excess salt and oil. Part of my job was to climb up to the salt shaker with 50 lb bags of salt and load it for the morning shift.
But for one other man, the fellow who ran the cheese-puff machine, I had the plant to myself at night. The puffs were made by forcing flour mixed with other ingredients through a hot collar with holes in it. Although he let me operate the machine during his breaks, and told me about the guy at the saloon who found a thumb in his potato chip bag, I did not like him very much, as he was a spitter and was wont to spit into the large cardboard boxes as they filled with puffs.
Cleaning the chip machine was not a bad job; I worked well without supervision. After washing the machine I spread lye on the concrete floor and hosed it down. I could literally hear the rot oozing from the crates late at night: somewhat rotten potatoes were cheaper and made good chips, with delicious brown rings in them. My job climaxed every morning when I started up the machine: I turned on the gas jets and leaned my upper body into the huge oven, using a burning broom as a match to fire it up so the oil would be heated for the early shift.
I lost the job when Pepsi took over; the main topic of conversation had been the virtue of buying stock before the buyout, but I had nothing to spare on my lowly pay. My wife was pregnant, and now I was out a job, strapped with car payments. I asked the bank to repossess and sell the car, a chrome-laden white Impala convertible with red interior. I was car crazy in those days, and had purchased it with a settlement my wife had received for a car accident. I suppose we were better off without it, as it was always breaking down: it broke down on its new owner just after he bought it at the auction, and sat alongside the highway for several weeks.
Things were not going very well in Topeka, to say the least, and we were reduced to eating mostly potatoes. Almost flat broke, I filled out an application for welfare. The lady from welfare visited us just as the car was being towed away. She was so rude and contemptuous that I ordered her out of the house and resolved that I would never accept welfare as long as I lived. I told my wife that I would rather steal food from grocery stores and rob banks than be a welfare recipient. Two hours later the police came to the door, arrested me for nonpayment of five one-dollar parking tickets, and threw me in the cooler with a bunch of drunks.
Fortunately for the future of my young family my father paid the tickets and the fine; I did not have the thirty dollars, and I would have had to serve thirty days in jail to work it off. As luck comes in streaks, I found a job the very next day, fabricating aluminum window frames for a company whose main customer, Holiday Inn, was expanding. Our pay included one silver dollar every week. It was good to have another job: I bought another car, a tornado hit the capitol building a block from our apartment, and President Kennedy was assassinated.
We see hollow aluminum framing everywhere we go, usually in store fronts. Truckloads of aluminum extrusions came in from Georgia. A journeyman cut them into the right lengths with a circular saw – one man cut his hand off on purpose. I drilled holes and riveted brackets onto the ends of the hollow aluminum lengths so they could be assembled in the field and glass installed in the frames. One day I forgot that my hand was inside the end of a length of aluminum extrusion as I was drilling a hole in it, so I drilled a hole clean through my hand. That hurt badly but did not do much damage as the drill slipped off the bone and glided through the muscles. On the way to the hospital I resolved that someday soon I would get away from laboring on dirty and dangerous machines, and return to the typewriters and adding machines I had had some small experience with earlier on.
I WAS A CRACK ADDING MACHINE OPERATOR
I was 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. The absence of certification sometimes made me more useful to private business than to the socialist 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 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 “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 took up bookkeeping simply because I was flat broke. Fate may not 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. Mary Ann said I would always make a living if I learned how to do the books, and she hired me to prove it. 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, 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 a brilliant novella, perhaps entitled, Accounts Payable, My Life Past Due.
MY RECONCILIATION OF ACCOUNTS
It is said that we should be careful lest what we wish for comes true . Well, I wished for a million of dollars on at least a thousand days, and I have no regrets since I am at least a billion in the hole today. Yet I have not abandoned my faith in the power of wishful thinking. I would not be altogether surprised if a few millions fell into my lap any day now.
I accept the fact that my destiny is not what I might wish it to be but is simply what it is. It is finally dawning on me that I was right all along: I was fated to be a bookkeeping author because that is what I am. It was no accident that the world afforded me the opportunity to pursue the art of writing for so long during this life of mine. I owe the world a better account of that life. Whatever I might be, I am an account payable. Only when my debt to society is paid with interest shall I feel reconciled with the world and be able to depart with the slate wiped clean.
“If you have always been an author,” the reader might ask, “how do you explain all those years keeping books for businesses instead of writing books for readers? There is quite a difference between writing books and keep books of account.”
I can explain, for that is part of what I do, explain things. I have managed to reconcile the two occupations according to the generally accepted principle of evolutionary accounting. You see, there was really no conflict between the occupations, for the writing of accounts had its origin in the keeping of accounts. Writing was simply a bookkeeping tool for many centuries before scribes started writing down their thoughts and became Egyptian literati, Jewish rabbis, Chinese scholars, Greek and Roman intellectuals, Byzantine kritoi and sekritoi, and the like- practical-minded, barbarian Anglo-Saxons are the late bloomers of the intellectual world. As long as scribes were comfortably ensconced in bureaucracies of stable countries, they naturally sided with the ruling class, whose treasure they accounted for and whose workforce they supervised.
The accounting profession became an avenue for commoners to move up in the world and to at least count the fabulous fortunes they did not own. And when the supply of intellectual workers exceeded demand during troubled times, they were thrown out of work or did not get their usual share of the treasure, intellectuals turned to the masses for employment as prophets, sages, and teachers. Literacy increases the ability of revolutionaries to communicate grievances and diffuse dissension, to bemoan the loss of golden eggs and advocate their reclamation or a cultivation of a new paradise. We see literature arise during troubled times: in Egypt with the breakdown of the Old Kingdom around 3,000 B.C.E.; in Sumer after the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur about 2,000 B.C.E.; in Greece at the decline of the Mycenaean Age; in China during the Warring Period around 600 B.C.E.
Unemployed intellectuals have rightfully been feared and hated by barbarian-minded arch-conservatives throughout history. We are fortunate that so many intellectuals have been retiring types instead of activists with dictatorial aspirations. Mo Ti, a militarist who preached a doctrine of loving people afar as a practical policy of self-defense, remarked that the ruling classes of Chi and Chu “lost their empire and their lives because they would not employ their scholars.” We should be careful with the knife lest we cut off too much fat from our seemingly absurd, gigantic make-work bureaucracies, particularly those that thrive on complex codes and modes for conflict resolution.
The experiences of the Hebrews in Egypt and Israelites in Babylonia, and the development of writing in general gave me cause to conclude that my bookkeeping experience was not wasted and that it may result in bestselling books. Verbal language, after all, evolved from counting or the mathematical recording of accounts; cuento followed cuenta. The earliest writing constituted accounting records. Primitive people could hardly count beyond three. The concept of number was a great leap forward in abstract thinking; for instance, that a man who had 3 goats, 1 pig, and 1 horse had, in sum, 5 animals, was bound to lead further, to broader written generalizations. The Hebrews wrote some of the earliest history books. One reason Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews were counted as an ambitious, land-grabbing, greedy lot is the fact that they accounted for their economic and other social exchanges early on in writing. We find a great deal of politics in the ancient texts; politics of course appertains to the distribution of power, one form of which is relative material wealth, the number of things a person has. Given the intense struggle for survival in those days, the ancient texts are naturally filled with matters of economic concern.
Wherefore there must not be any fundamental difference between the bookkeeping and book writing occupations. A bookkeeper may quite naturally become a writer of distinction, and, for that matter, a dancer and king. The lowly worm evolves into a godly authority. My underlying aspiration to be an author may have been my saving grace all along, and not the sponsor of the awful fate that seemingly impends at this juncture. In truth, I may be on the verge of the greatest breakthrough of my life, thanks to the fact that I quit that high-paying part-time account job I had in order to study and write full time. As if against my will, I was moved to invest my life’s savings in speculation. Somehow I knew I had to make a complete break of it, no matter how financially painful that might be. Chinese historian Ssu Ma suffered involuntary castration in order to complete his histories. For once in my life I wanted to bring the drama to a fitting end instead of stopping short of the wings.
My account however remains payable. I danced full circle around the stage, and have taken another part-time accounting job, at half the pay, in order to write my swan song. I could have done all this ten years ago and in a comfortable lifestyle if I had kept the job I quit, but I did not know that at the time. The risk is much greater now, but the confusion less, for I have reconciled the old conflict in integrity - the integration of keeping business accounts and giving accounts of things real and imaginary.
I WAS A FRUSTRATED NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST
A prime minister of Imperial China started his career on the bottom rung of the ladder to success, cleaning the public outhouse. He observed the behavior of the rats – the fattest ones dared to make their way to the granary nearby, while the lean ones stayed put. He followed the fat rats’ lead, improved his circumstances, and eventually made his way to the top.
“Why wait?” I asked myself shortly after I blew into Miami on the heels of Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, nearly flat broke and with no intention of taking up bookkeeping again to make a living. No, I was no longer a bookkeeper: I no longer kept accounts: I gave them. “Why not start at the top instead of the bottom? Why not land a column at top publication in town, The Miami Herald? I'll hit up the top man there for a column,” I resolved to my alter ego, “and be the outstanding columnist that I am! Theodore Dreiser could barely finish a sentence when he pestered an editor into hiring him. Why not follow his lead? With my talent and skills, how can I not succeed?”
I whipped off an email to Tom Fiedler, the Herald’s executive editor, purportedly one of the most reputable people in the newspaper business. I asked him to take a look at my work and to give me the break I deserved. I could obviously write up a storm about all sorts of things, the very activity that kept editors employed. I said I was well aware of the steps one is supposed to climb nowadays to become a newspaper columnist, but I felt obliged to skip them because I was a late bloomer who had insufficient time for the process. Besides, the steps were too slippery with decades of bullshit. Most importantly, I was already able to write the best column around – my work speaks for itself. Therefore I wanted him, one of the most admired editors in town if not this great nation of ours, to take me on at the Herald, so that I could enhance its prestige.
Mr. Fiedler responded at once – he did not bother to read the samples of the work I had attached to my email. Of course I was delighted that he responded at all, for few esteemed executive editors deign to personally answer email from nobodies in want of a work – perhaps my verbal kowtowing favorably impressed him. He said he admired my determination, and would not bother to parrot those who already have a high perch and are therefore wont to talk about the necessary rungs to climb before reaching a slot as a columnist at a major newspaper like his. Instead, he informed me, in his words, that a complex calculus comes into play in choosing columnists for the newspaper, a calculation that goes beyond the ability to write well; to wit: market need, experience, reputation, credibility in a subject, demographic profile – race, gender and ethnicity. He said some excellent writers simply never get a column because they're in the unfortunate position of not being the right something-or-other to suit the paper's needs at the time when an opening occurs. In other words, he said, he could not alleviate my frustration, although he wishes me the best.
Would I take a polite “no” for an answer? Hell no, I would not! An honest panhandler would surely curse anyone who turned him down, and a serious candidate for a newspaper column would put up an honest fight for the job. I confess that I resent rejection so much that I thrive on it, doing everything in my power to elevate my high opinion of myself over the opinions of those who fail to subserve mine. Of course my supererogation gives them further cause to reject me with nary a word in response for fear that, as the courts are wont to hold from time to time, verbal consideration of my species of argument might dignify frivolity or lend it the color of merit. Naturally, silence is no deterrence to my likes, and in fact provokes me to produce interminable screeds and rants, wherein no doubt there is some merit worthy of judicious notice by the more patient and impartial arbitrator. Just as there is some truth in good humor, truth can be found as well in ill humor provoked by wounded pride. Of course all hell would break loose if everyone spoke their minds truthfully, for there is nothing as insulting as the god’s truth about our selves; that is precisely why the gentry prefer to ignore it if not make jokes of it. The vulgar likes of me, raised in alleys where no holds are barred, would rather rake muck for amusement than hunt foxes or otherwise join like packs of peers in noble pursuits.
Notwithstanding its local virtues, The Miami Herald has its vices in common with other Establishment papers. They constitute a national propaganda organ for a single party, a party-paper we might as well call so-called Truth. Their differences are as superficial as the differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties. I mulled over Mr. Fiedler's courteous rejection for two minutes. In the interest of striking a blow against America’s version of Pravda, I hastily keyed the following Reply and clicked on Send before I had a chance to edit it:
Dear Tom Fiedler:
Correct me if I am mistaken, but according your guidelines, it appears that the "credibility" you have identified depends on the gullibility of the public; i.e., the "market need", as assessed by those who have an interest in manipulating that market for personal and political gain.
As you know very well, many of today's "reputable" columnists cut their teeth not as reporters but as political hack writers; for instance, the right-wing ideologue Charles Krauthammer, whose reputation depends on his ability to perpetuate the divisive agenda of his fraction. And on the ideologically "liberal" side we have, for example, a "reputable" syndicated columnist with the New York Times, a divisive political-economist whose prejudice and downright personal hatred of so-called conservatives blinds him to any merits voiced on "the other side" as he is wont to define it.
As if there were only two sides to a solid issue. To take one of the sides, all a fool has to do is read up on the difference between conservative and liberal and how to be one or the other.
Neither side is “reputable” to the other; overall, both sides are disreputable to the public. In fact the newspapers are filled with political hack writers who "think in the box" and who perpetuate the continuous fragmentation of the moral (mental) integrity of their audience. The most irrational statements are made and passed off as reasonable to the unwitting. The like can be said of certain unnamed editors who write editorial opinions foolishly quoted by campaigning political candidates as oracles of truth: "Candidate Joe Blow's plan would sink every ship in the harbor." (The Miami Herald)
Today there exists a great "market need" for reasonable discourse that at least attempts to arrive at the truth of a subject from time to time no matter where that might land, instead of deliberately dividing the public and pandering to partisan prejudices which, when carefully examined, reveal how rotten the heart of corporate America has become.
The recent jingoistic conduct of the mainstream media in respect to the pre-emptive attack on the people of Iraq disgraced "this great nation of ours", and everyone of sound mind knows it. Although the rhetorical formalities were maintained, the differences between news, analysis, and opinion were substantially ignored,. In effect, news, analysis, and opinion, despite the formalities of style, amounted to advertising belligerent propaganda.
To justify the selling out of America by shifting the blame to the public is reprehensible in my opinion. The establishment's media does not really pander to the "market need" or the base credulity of the general public, but manipulates it while prostituting itself to the forces of darkness governing corporate board tribalism.
The Miami Herald needs a writer who thinks out of the box because he has never been in one. Don't you agree? That writer is me. Give me a call.
David Arthur Walters
Although I followed up on many occasions, I never heard from Tom Fiedler again. Given the delusions of grandeur inherited from my father, I like to think that some of the provocations I sent to the Herald from time to time helped inspire the paper’s muckraking department – its muckraking has been ‘stellar’ since the paper changed hands.
September 2, 2006