Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Street Accounting

The first week that I did street accounting down by Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, it did not go well.  The problem was my location, or, really, the location of the juggler who deposited himself beside me. 

I arrived just after dawn on a Monday morning when the chill of the fog enveloped the wharf and when the seafood and sourdough vendors were just setting up.

In a sunny spot I set up a black metal card table and folding chair.  I put a solar powered calculator on the table and laid a fedora, gray with a black band, upside down next to it.

A Chinese man, setting out trays of ice, which would later hold rows of crab, came over and said, “You are too early.  No tourists come by now.”

“I need time to warm up,” I said, spreading my payments and flexing my annuities.  Before, when I did office accounting, I was always early.  Street accounting deserves the same dedication.

I sat and listened to the gulls cry and the water lap against the piers and the fog horns bleat.  I smelled the ocean salt and seaweed.  I watched the fish being laid on ice, their scales shimmering and balanced.

An hour later the other performers started to show up: a few mimes, a human jukebox, a magician, a contortion attorney.  I don’t know if the juggler picked the spot right next to me as a challenge or because he always set up there or because it was shady.

The juggler set up an eye-catching red table.  I took this as a negative sign.  I extended some friendly terms and he ignored me.

The tourists got out of bed, had breakfasts and began to tour around; some bundled against the chill air, some went about in shirtsleeves.  I felt comfortable in my charcoal suit with a starched white shirt and gray tie with black stripes.

The juggler wore seersucker slacks and a loud purple shirt. 

Families, couples, and groups stopped and surveyed the clam chowder, crab salad, grilled fillets being offered.  Some bought snacks, some bought loaves of sourdough, some pondered what they would come back for later.

People stopped and watched the entertainment.  They threw money in guitar cases, hats or cardboard boxes for the ones they enjoyed.  The juggler had put out an antique cash register that was filling up with bills.

My fedora remained empty.

I did not let it stop me.   I balanced books and ledgers left and right, debit and credit, asset and liability.  I gracefully cascaded numbers from the gross receipts to the bottom line.  No one looked. 

Everyone is drawn to the juggler because juggling books is illusion and fantasy.  The juggler took 10 liabilities and 1 asset and made them appear to balance.  He produced impossibly large and heavy bottom lines that were unsupported by sub ledgers.

People applauded and filled the juggler’s till.  It went on like that the whole first week.  On the third day, when I showed up at dawn with my folding table, chair, calculator and fedora, the Chinese man walked over once more.

“Why do you stay?  You don’t get money.”

I took a string of numbers and fashioned a pair of loopholes, trapping my index fingers as in Chinese handcuffs.  “Karma brings equity,” I said.

Saturday and Sunday were busier and the people covered the wharf.  There was such a crowd watching the juggler that some people were forced to the margin and could see only my ordinary street accounting. 

I amortized a loan and made balloon payment animals.  A child begged her mother to give me a dollar and the women did with a scowl as she edged toward the juggler.  The child’s eyes glowed; her mother’s were vacant.  The juggler made some debts seem to disappear.

On Monday the police came; they cuffed and arrested the juggler for fraud.  They asked if I would make a statement and I produced a quarterly report. 

The Chinese man came over and shouted to the tourists, “This is a true street accountant.”  A woman looked over and then brought me her checkbook.  I balanced it effortlessly.  Her face shone as she settled a dollar in my fedora.  More tourists followed. 

There was equity.

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