Fine with me. I’d found the courses in Creative Writing both helped and interfered with my writing, so I dropped out, found the Apartment from Hell, and located a job as part-time night auditor at the Westbury Hotel, downtown just off Union Square.
Thirty stories of steel and glass above us, and in the lobby late at night I’d think, “What if the earthquake comes now?”
Showing me the audit, was the regular night auditor, Henry So.
He had a peculiar habit.
Realize that the night auditor works at the front desk. In all but the largest hotels, he’s the cashier who takes your money when you check out early in the morning before 7 am.
And what he does all night is to put the charges for the rooms on all the bills, and then to balance all the charges for guest accounts from the day. That is, the restaurant on the 30th floor has sent down the checks that guests signed, and those go on the bill. Perhaps the guest has sent clothing out for laundry, or for dry-cleaning which is for some reason called valet. Or perhaps the guest has charges from the one bar or the other bar, or from the coffee shop.
Each of these departments, for example the “laundry” department, sends their records to the front desk. The night auditor makes sure that the amount that housekeeping thinks was charged to “laundry” was really and truly charged to the guest accounts as laundry.
After that’s done, and the last bar is closed, then the night auditor makes sure that the total of charges on all the guest accounts equal the total of charges made today plus the amount that they owed us from yesterday.
If anything doesn’t balance, you figure out what it is and fix it. A proud night auditor will generally brag that he balances to the penny. I generally did. So did So, that is, so did Henry So, the regular night auditor.
He was fron Hong Kong, thin and angular, taciturn, always wearing a charcoal suit with vest, smoked Bensen & Hedges cigarettes which he considered a sign of great sophistication, and lit them with a gold Dunhill lighter from his vest pocket.
After he had balanced the night’s books, the last chore is to bundle up the long printed paper tape from the bookkeeping machine, which is a glorified cash register. Most auditors roll it up and snap a rubber band around it, but Henry So had a special routine.
Once the books were balanced, and only the tape was left, he’d pull a stool up to the counter, get his ashtray and light a Benson & Hedges with his Dunhill lighter. Then he’d set the cigarette in the ashtray and patiently he would fold the tape.
He’d make the first fold perhaps eight inches long, then the next fold exactly the same, and then each subsequent fold was lined up precisely with the last, so that when he was through, the tape looked as if folded by a machine.
I asked him about his background. I asked him why he folded the tape like that. Here’s what he told me:
“I learn night audit in Hong Kong,” he said. “Everyone speak English and French. I got to school, and I am very strong student. I say I am going to be night auditor, and so when I get job, first job, for two weeks only all I am allowed to do is fold tape.” He paused. I nodded.
“My teacher,” he continued, “he very strong night auditor. I wish to be strong night auditor. He say I must learn night audit just right. He say when I can fold tape, then I can learn night audit. So two week, all I do is fold tape. First night, I fold tape all any way, like you. He say I cannot be strong night auditor if I fold tape like you. So I fold tape. I fold tape just so. Finally, he teach me night auditor. Now I am strong night auditor.”
I asked him whether they used the same machine in Hong Kong as we did, in this case an NCR bookkeeping machine, model 4200. He said they did. He said he would like to work at Sir Francis Drake but that they used confuter. “I can not work Sir Francis Drake,” he said. “I don’t know confuter.”
Once I had learned the audit, since I was only the replacement night auditor, on two other nights I filled in as front desk clerk on the same shift, and so I worked those nights with Henry So.
We took turns taking breaks in Zim’s restaurant, the coffee shop in the corner of the lobby, where a repeating crew of regulars assembled every night. There was a lucid and intelligent fellow who held forth every night on politics and current events, and the regular waitresses, Henry, myself, Lonesome Chuck or Mr. Slocum the security guys, Earnest the janitor, and another handful of night-time eccentrics.
One was a woman who had no actual home. She spent every night in the Zims, and during the days she went to the Main Library, and spent the days there. (We know because one of our crew followed her one day to see where she went.)
It was on that night shift that I launched my bookkeeping business. Then I left the night audit to run the postering company, and then the answering service, and my road led to other adventures, and then one day in my boots and motorcycle helmet, I was walking across the street beside the Westbury, and was surprised to find Henry So, in his charcoal suit with vest, walking beside me.
“Hello!” I cried out. He was surprised as well, and we stood on the far corner, blocking pedestrians and catching up on our news of the last few years.
“I’ll never forget,” I said, preparing to leave, “I’ll never forget how you used to fold that tape, and how you told me how your teacher made you fold it for two weeks before he would show you the night audit.”
Henry So stared at me blankly. “What?” he said.
I told him again, how I remembered the way he folded the tape and how his teacher in the first hotel in Hong Kong had insisted that he fold the tape just so for two weeks.
Henry’s face cracked a big grin. “I told you that?” he asked.
I said yes.
Standing on the corner in his charcoal suit and vest, he laughed and laughed and laughed.