It was June 1936, in the midst of the worst depression with 30 percent unemployment and I had just graduated from Seward Park High School in Manhattan. I had applied to Columbia University, New York University and City College of New York -- all three admitted me. Columbia charged $6 per credit, NYU charged $4 per credit and City College of New York was tuition-free. I chose CCNY.
My father and I had been talking about a business career and he said, "I would like you to be a CPA when you grow up." I replied, "Dad, you ended your sentence with a preposition." My father smiled and said, "I would like you to be a CPA when up you grow."
That summer my father told friends and relatives about his son's aspirations to become an accountant. Mr. Miller, my father's accountant, paid his quarterly visit and said to me, "Don't forget, the debit side is the side toward the window, giggle giggle giggle." My uncle Herman, who distributed footballs, baseball gloves and Louisville Sluggers, phoned me: "Eli, don't forget, the debit side is the side toward the window. Ha! Ha! Ha!" That summer all I heard was, "Don't forget, the debit side is the side toward the window."
Finally, the day arrived: I went to that legendary building at the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue, the site to which Bernard Baruch trudged five miles through 10-foot snowdrifts during the blizzard of 1888 (now known as Baruch College). I took the elevator to the fourth floor, walked down the corridor to the room with the sign "Accountancy 101." I walked into the room about 10 feet, broke out into a cold sweat and my hands began to tremble -- it was a room without windows, no windows -- no windows, no debit side -- no debit side. I turned around to leave and bumped into a six-foot blond coed who asked, "Where are you going dearie?" I blurted out, "No windows. No windows, no debit side. No debit side!"
In a calm voice she said, "I understand, give me your hand and we'll hold hands during the class."
Years later, a new musical play, What Makes Sammy Run, arrived on Broadway, starring Steve Lawrence. A friend gave me house seats, sixth row center. The play was quite good, Steve Lawrence had a pleasant voice. Just before the close of the first act, Lawrence came front stage and, staring directly into my eyes, began to sing A Room Without Windows.
I began to sweat, my hands trembled, no windows -- no debit side. I turned to my wife, "Let's leave, I'm getting sick!" As we walked up the aisle, an usher came down and asked, "Is your husband ill?" "No," my wife said, "he's just crazy."
The instructor was Professor Tunick, a bright individual, author of several books on accounting and taxation with a reputation for sarcasm to students. It was an interesting course dealing with consolidation of subsidiaries with parent companies.
One day Professor Tunick said to the class, "You will be lucky if you earn $10 per week when you graduate." Then he turned around to write on the blackboard. In a calm voice, I said, "It's the fault of the professors." He spun around, "Who said that?" I had a baby face, my eyes were turned up to the ceiling -- I was mum.
Years later, when I was president of the New York State Society of CPAs, I presided at a dinner meeting and Professor Tunick, who was seated at my table, said to me, "Eli, in my class years ago, someone said it's the fault of the professors -- was it you?" I still had a baby face, looked up to the ceiling and remained mum.
It was September 1938; the class was on the 14th floor facing west when Professor Emanuel Saxe walked in. He was big vertically, big horizontally and with a bald head to match. He had the largest Phi Beta Kappa key resting on a crease in his vest. The rays of the sun bounced off the facets of his Phi Beta Kappa key directly into my eyes and I was hypnotized, mesmerized and Saxeonized. I never heard Professor Saxe or saw the blackboard until October, when the sun set earlier in the day.
One afternoon, Professor Saxe stared directly at me -- "Oh, my God, he's going to call on me." I was seated in the last row and ducked behind the chair in front of me. "Where did that little guy go?" Professor Saxe murmured.
Years later when we were close friends, Mannie Saxe said to me, "I wanted to call on you but I couldn't find you."
Recently, I returned to my office and heard clicking from Sharon Sullivan's room. I had hired Sharon about 15 years ago. She was a well-qualified and personable CPA. I asked, "Sharon, when was the last time you used a 13-column worksheet?" She smiled and said, "Before computers."
I continued, "Do you use computers to perform an audit?"
"Of course -- I use electronic spreadsheets and computerized statistical sampling."
Somewhat hesitantly, I asked, "Sharon, do you remember the debit side is the side toward the window?"
She laughed, "Mr. Mason, that was before my time."
The debit side -- the side toward the window -- has disappeared, like those jazzy Studebakers.
Eli Mason, CPA, is a past president of the New York State Society of CPAs, a past chairman of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, and a past vice president of the American Institute of CPAs.
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