I was twenty four and it was early Spring.
Copyright-free image from i.pining.com
I’d left California once again and came back East by bus with the last of my money to a tourist town where I had family and a free place to stay.
I was broke and needed a job. My first order of business was a haircut after a year of growth. My second was the want ads. There was a position for a night auditor at a large hotel, midnight to eight. I had no idea what that involved but I took the interview and was accepted. I dressed well and my trim looks and polite conversation must have impressed the middle-aged man.
Five years of university study in liberal arts and a comprehensive knowledge of the English language and Lit allows for such fluency and ease in the face of any examination, with no need of a resume. The one strange test I was put to, at the end of this dialogue, was to solve a few impromptu multiplication questions, with simple one and two digit factors, which I easily performed in my head and answered without a pause. This seemed to delight the man and he hired me on the spot. I still had no idea what I was walking into. But on a higher level, I didn’t care.
I’ll skip over my first weeks of training for now. They’re only pertinent in explaining my actions, my progression through this ten week long career to its end. The important thing is the ‘kiss’, the one meaningful reward that befell me, the one memory that makes this brief episode worth recording, the one poetic splash of color in a gray world, and the unforgettable beauty that gave it.
First I’ll need to describe the setting of this incident, and the details. My title was night auditor. My post was behind the reception desk of a luxurious eight story hotel. There were two restaurants and two lounges in this complex, one large restaurant/lounge filling the second floor, with fine dining and a huge wrap-around patio overlooking the steep, main street and the Falls, with live music booming out and beckoning in all meandering tourists. Then a quieter one adjoining the lobby, for a family dinner by night or morning breakfast, and finally an equally quiet, dark, cozy lounge at penthouse level, with very expensive drinks, for the more amorous, serious, late-night trysts.
And so there were five hostesses, nicely dressed, Maitre D’s, all of them closing around two a.m and coming to the counting room behind my desk with their tills. There they’d sit at a long table and tally up their cash receipts, place that amount with the tapes and receipts into a large, brown envelope, seal and sign it and drop it into the slot above the vault. They’d then slide their till into its appropriate slot on the same wall, turn their personal key to lock it, and their day was done. They’d collect their coats, smile at me as they went by my counter seat and then out into the night. As the last of them left, I’d dim the lobby lights, resume my chair, tilt back, place my shoes on the desk and enjoy the silence, the solitude and the grand lobby all to myself, free to do whatever in the next four hours, undisturbed.
This part of my job I enjoyed. I was the one man in charge through these eight hours. I held the keys to the V.P.’s office behind me, all the emergency and alarm boxes and even his personal home number, never to be used except in the most dire event, like some out of control fire.
I never asked for this responsibility, but I enjoyed the prestige, from the bell-hops, valets and especially the pretty cashiers.
My first duty was to accommodate all the late night arrivals, rent them rooms, receive payment and hand them their keys. That was easy. My tasks as auditor involved filling in large sheets called hotel and restaurant reconciliations, adding up all the income for the day, the totals from every shift of every venue for the accountants to check over each morning. But because it was still mid-Spring and the hotel half-vacant, I could dispatch this work in a few hours, usually put off to just before dawn, leaving the dead of night all my own.
What bothered me in this position of command, this luxurious setting, was my low pay, minimum wage, and my barren till, which contained one hundred dollars for the purpose of change.
Some nights I would collect three or four room rentals in cash, close to five hundred dollars. But that amount was supposed to be deposited each morning, and was the first few nights, until I cleverly adjusted the system. After that my till slowly blossomed, soon holding many hundreds of dollars, complementing my regal status in all other respects, and correcting my weekly salary at my whim. I had the only key to it, so no one else knew, for many weeks.
Of all the pretty, perfumed, well dressed cashiers who paraded by me each night to finish up their tallies, one stood out, the youngest and loveliest of them all. Besides her stunning good looks, which turned all heads wherever she passed, she dressed to the hilt, more carefully and thoughtfully than all the others. This was her first job. She was only nineteen and wanted to impress. And she did.
The only dress requirement for her position as hostess was a tight red vest, her uniform. Whatever she wore in conjunction with that was her own choice, as long as it was elegant, and variety was encouraged to please the patrons.
As we both were new at our jobs, starting the same day, I took this bond as a pretext to engage her in brief conversations when I could, asking her how she liked her work, or if she needed any help in her paperwork and deposits, which she sometimes did. Then I’d lean over her shoulder at the table and help organize her paperwork, double check her tallies and reassure her that all was in order. She was the slowest in this task and usually last to leave.
It was all polite attention, which she reciprocated with sweet looks and ‘thanks’. I didn’t press myself on her. She had a boyfriend. He would pick her up each night, never coming in but parking his car right outside the front doors, as everyone else had left, sitting there, reving the engine, till she came out to him.
She had one outfit that was absolutely striking. It was a frilly, white, long-sleeved blouse over which went the red vest. She complimented that with a mid-length skirt that exactly matched its color. Then stockings and red high-heel shoes. To enhance this elegance even more she’d wear bright red lipstick, with a hint of rouge on her white cheeks, with long black eyelashes and manicured, painted eyebrows to match her lovely dark auburn hair that framed her face and flowed and played in curls a few inches on both sides of her shoulders. She must have spent an hour before work each day at her vanity, with tweezers and brushes and palettes of colors.
I could imagine a table lined with lipsticks and vials, perfumes and nail polishes, standing in glass rows like so many toy soldiers a boy would set up on a floor. Yet such beauty deserved such attention. The final touch to this perfection was a string of tiny, white pearls, not hanging but tight around her slender neck, like a collar.
The first time I saw her in this outfit crossing the lobby towards me as she finished her shift, I was amazed. I had one more fine view of her backside, equally ravishing in its curves, as she passed me on her way out. I dimmed the lights that night more than usual, leaned back and with closed eyes pondered her image for a long while, letting my imagination run wild.
It brought to mind this poem.
My Love in her attire does show her wit, It does so well become her; For every season she has dresses fit, For Winter, Spring and Summer. No beauty doth she miss When all her clothes are on: But Beauty’s self she is When all her robes are gone.
I still haven’t got to the ‘kiss’. But then one night it happened.
I was about eight weeks into this job when I heard a sad, quiet sobbing coming from the counting room. I’d been busy checking in a guest and all the other cashiers had finished and left. I went back and found her sitting there alone in her lovely, red dress, staring at her receipts and frantically shuffling them around on the table with her pretty hands, trying to lay each one beside the match from her register tape, rolled out right down the middle of the long table, trying to place them in order but evermore in a panic, the tears smearing her make-up, a pitiable sight.
Somehow her till was more than four hundred dollars short of the receipts, well over a week’s pay, and she couldn’t make her deposit, couldn't even come close with all her tips and the spare hundred. She was only nineteen and had an almost trembling fear of losing her first job. I sat down beside her and poured over her receipts and the tape and cash, all the while trying to console her with kind words, but soon enough I realized someone must have pilfered her open drawer when she wasn’t looking, grabbing a handful of larger bills on their way out, leaving some behind in each bay so she wouldn’t notice.
I asked her if anything unusual had happened and she told me that one man, towards the end of shift when almost everyone was gone, had somehow fumbled and dropped his wallet behind her cash wrap and then leaned over it to help her find it as she bent down to pick it up. That was the obvious rip-off.
I told her not to mention this to anyone, as her managers might think her incompetent. But I also told her not to worry, that I could easily fix it and she wouldn’t lose her job.
The perfume, the imploring eyes and face, looking down at the papers then to me as I tried to help, her tears melting her mascara, ever lovelier in her distress, had its full effect and pierced my heart, like a Cupid’s arrow.
When Phoebe formed a wanton smile,
My soul! it reached not here!
Strange that thy peace, though trembler, flies
Before a rising tear.
From midst the drops my love is born
That over those eyelids rove;
Thus issued from a teeming wave
The fabled queen of love.
We counted her till and figured out the exact amount she was short. She seemed embarrassed at the large figure. I walked over to my till and collected that sum and put it in her hand. She looked up into my eyes as if a miracle had just happened, but said nothing, a bit shocked, not knowing what to say. But I made her take it and make her deposit.
She gathered her jacket and purse in a hurry and was about to leave, still confused. She must have thought I was management or a relative of the owners. I stood leaning by the doorway, just watching her, proud of my good deed. I even stepped aside so she might pass. And she was about to but suddenly stopped, turned and looked me in the face. Then she pounced on me, threw her arms around my neck, pulled my face to her’s, and gave me one tight kiss on the lips, a long one, as if glued to me.
Then she let go and walked off, even more flustered, either wondering who I was or embarrassed over the impromptu kiss and perhaps its impropriety.
I know this unusual and noble deed didn’t go unmentioned among the other cashiers, whispered in their change rooms. I saw it in the smiles I received from them in the following days. The story spread even further, as valets and bellhops whose names I didn’t know started befriending me.
I knew it would soon reach the ears of management and that my days were numbered. But I was ready to leave and two weeks later I quit, to travel back to California once again with a pocket full of money, back to my artist friends and the bohemian life, far away from this miserable, dead-end, degrading job, counting pennies for millionaires.
I left them scratching their heads, wondering how I had the money and the character for such rich generosity. They never did unravel the mystery. But I won’t leave you wondering. This is what happened:
When I was first hired, much to my surprise, I was sent to a nearby luxury hotel to be trained for two weeks by an expert night auditor, who’d been at that post for over forty years. He was old and dignified, soft-spoken, comfortable in his chair as if it were a throne, almost majestic, the ruler of the house after midnight, able to calmly handle all contingencies.
He seemed full of wisdom, patiently teaching me all aspects of this job, the duties involved, the sheets to be filled out, the register and till, the room cards, and the courtesy to be shown to guests. He should have been retired as he was in his seventies, in poor health and he smoked constantly. He was overweight to the point of barely being able to rise up with both arms from his rolling chair behind the counter. But he rarely had to.
The cash register, his till, cards and keys were all at hand. Guests could barely see his bald head behind the reception desk as they entered. But when they walked up all business was smoothly transacted. He completed his work at that desk and with the phone at hand he answered all queries. A night janitor, almost his age, managed and shared his coffee machine, emptied his ashtrays and did any little task that required walking.
I was transferred to a similar setup in the larger hotel the day it opened. To complete my education they sent down an accountant from Toronto for one week. This man, in his cheap suit and tie, in his early thirties, already paunchy from his sedentary job, was discontent and clearly unhappy with his life. He was surly and short-tempered, but in his task to educate me he quickly found a close and sympathetic listener for venting his personal griefs. He was also a would-be thief, constantly scheming for some way to get ahead in this business he hated and wished to escape.
So he revealed his secret plan and all the tricks he’d developed in how to steal from any large hotel with an N.C.R. 4600. This was the one, top of the line, infallible unit that kept track of all money transactions, with twenty categories of services, each with its own button, and able to total each one at the end of shift on a single tape. The machine was three feet wide and two high, all metal, impossible to lift, the last of the dinosaurs before the computer age.
The year was 1978.
He showed me that you could take the tape tray out, clear the subtotals, then roll the tape back in to just the right line, slide the tray back in and print out a lesser subtotal after a long column of hundreds of numbers. The difference would be yours to pocket from your till, a fantastic, steady stream of wealth which no accountant would ever find, as the machine didn’t make addition errors.
He told me there was only one hitch to this scheme, which he couldn’t solve. You turned a key to total up the columns and simultaneously release the tape tray. This moved an odometer on the machine up by one, and the day accountants kept careful track of this number, recording it on their daily reports, making sure it only went up by one each day, when tape was finalized, around seven a.m., and all the totals tallied, printed and automatically reset to zero. That tape was rolled up and handed over to them and another huge, blank roll reinserted and locked in for another fine day of capitalism.
My mentor taught me all he could and skulked back to Toronto, discontent as ever. I was now on my own and by two-thirty the only one there, after the restaurants and bars closed and the cashiers came down and sat in the counting room behind my post, the front desk. They did their tallies and deposited their receipts and tapes and fat envelopes of cash into a slot in the vault. The bellhops had all gone home and the lobby was deserted.
So I was left alone in pure silence, in a meditative state, sitting on my counter-high chair, the machine right in front of me, starring back, almost begging me to resolve this riddle. It was still early Spring and few tourists came in after midnight to rent a room, so I dispatched my night’s work in a few hours. What if, (I surmised a few nights later), I slipped an unfolded paper clip through the front plate of the machine and jammed the odometer?
With the slightest prying of a penknife it fit into one side of the cover and with a little, sharp hook on its end and a twist, held the wheel from motion. ‘Voila’ as they say in French, or ‘Eureka’ as Archimedes said. The odometer was placed only inches from this edge, big mistake.
Now I could change any subtotal or total where hundreds of numbers were added up, to match my numbers. A day’s tape was over twenty feet long. I filled out a balance sheet of all the money deposited by each day clerk and my own at the end of the night, and handed it and the tape over to the accountants as my shift ended and the sun rose. They checked its totals against the room slips and the money deposited. If they all matched their work was done. They never imagined that a machine, an N.C.R. could tally up several hundred numbers and come out with a wrong subtotal.
With the first check-outs, the correct number of room cards mysteriously disappeared into my back pocket. The keys were back on the board behind me as if never rented. Only the housekeeper’s clipboard of rooms to be cleaned needed slight alterations. It was never cross-checked and lay conveniently in a drawer beside me. So all the cash from these after-midnight guests went straight into my till. I rang it up, right in front of them, but the subtotals for those floors miraculously changed.
Clever in this one trick, (which they never did catch) I was rather cavalier in all peripheral money matters. For instance, the average night auditor would balance his work maybe once a week (as they told me), because of so many numbers. Whatever his tallies were, he turned them over to a team of four accountants at eight a.m. When he most often didn’t, their job was to find the discrepancies, down to the last penny, no easy chore. They had to pour over hundreds of cards containing the charges for each service by room number, hordes of scribbled figures, and find some charge misrecorded or not punched in, all this against the infallible N.C.R. subtotals.
My balancing trick saved them hours of time. At first they were delighted, amazed at my work, full of praises. Ten weeks later, when I quit, there were no more compliments, only suspicious glances at me as I announced another perfect tally, depositing my armful of paperwork on the first accountant’s desk. He sat with the others in a miserable trailer in the back parking lot. The bright sun would blaze into their sad den as I opened the door.
That was their office, a narrow, ugly, tin box with four desks in a row, temporary, you’d think, but permanent for them, hot in summer, cold in winter. This was just another example of management’s treatment of all underlings. Maid, valet, janitor, desk clerk, or accountant, we were all beneath notice, treated as cheap as our paychecks. There were several, richly appointed, private meeting rooms, (along with a banquet room) on the main floor with fine, long, conference tables. You’d think they’d turn the smallest of these into an accounts center. But they didn’t. Those were for the guests, the rich clients, and almost always empty.
These poor, misled fools worked a boring job for a miserable salary. If they complained they were quickly replaced. The local colleges churned out hordes of accountants. I heard from one of them it was one of the lowest paid professions of all, (along with insurance brokers) with no chance of advancement. But the students signing up for such a career were never told this. They thought that a job in a suit and tie and your own desk meant money. They found out the hard way, after years wasted. The few smarter ones jumped careers in their thirties. The unlucky ones were now bogged down by mortgages, with wives and children to support, barely scraping by, resigned and chained to it.
Any job in the hospitality industry sucks. You might be given a fancy uniform, but you bow and smile for scraps. You’re a dressed up modern day lackey serving tourists and managed like one with a whip, so you retain a bowed humility with a painted smile. I saw this in many of the hotel employees and it made me sick and angry enough to break rules. I knew I could never continue there long and acted accordingly, almost arrogant with the accountants, impossibly balancing each night, puzzling management, and so popular with my co-workers something was definitely amiss. If I hadn’t precipitously quit I would have been fired within days. But they never did discover my trick.
It was too perfect a scheme not to try out. It was placed almost complete in my lap without my asking. The small amount I purloined was never even noticed amidst the millions the millionaire owners constantly raked in. And it culminated in a kiss which I shall never forget and was far more valuable to me than anything that any luxury hotel could possibly offer.
It was a spontaneous kiss, as inexplicable and unasked for as was my helping her out of her dilemma that night. It may very well have been the purest kiss, from the deepest and most heartfelt well of emotion that she gave in her whole life, and she gave it to me.
I’m carried away by such chance gestures. They engage all my powers of description, tax my vault of words, empty its treasury so to speak, calling forth all my faculties to depict feelings so complex and subtle and moving that words fail to explain that brief, overpowering gesture, that kiss, with its fleeting hints, perplexing the mind, doubly so because it was unexpected, uncalled for on both sides, the giver and receiver, awkward and beyond the realm of daily life, a spontaneous act we can hardly fathom.
To capture and contemplate it is possibly a steppingstone into some better universe. I might seem to wax poetic here but I’m not the only one, (John Lennon, imagine).
Jenny kissed me when we met
Leaping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief, who likes to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that wealth and health have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
As long as we can manipulate technology we can enjoy it. We'll know when we can't. That's when our existence gets ugly.