The Ultimate Cashflow (AKA “The Sound of Money”) late 1970s

This story was a milestone on my path to making a living as a writer. In the 1970s I worked a series of dayjobs — typist, file clerk, babysitter, warehouse worker, temporary office worker — while writing query letters to magazines, hoping to land an assignment or sell an article I had written on spec. I was getting up before dawn and taking BART to Oakland to work in a light steel manufacturing company when I received a letter from California Living, when the San Francisco Chronicle was a real newspaper, publishing a real Sunday supplement. They offered me $450 for this article. Rent on a one-bedroom flat in the Mission was $175, so this was enough for me to quit my dayjob and write full time until the money ran out. A week after it was published, I got a call from the PR director of Bank of America, who told me that he had something like 15 people working for him and none of them could think of anything interesting to say about Bank of America. So he gave me carte-blanche to wander through the office and find people doing interesting things. I wrote articles; he placed them. This gig inspired me to lobby for and eventually land a similar assignment at Xerox PARC, which led me into the technology-forecasting writing that I did for a few decades.

Billions of dollars used to pass through my hands every day. Frankly, I enjoyed it.

I liked my job so much that I sometimes arrived early in order to admire the building where I did my business. That black marble monument to money, the Bank of America world headquarters in San Francisco, is probably the most widely disdained structure in town. I can’t think of a single friend or acquaintance who doesn’t have a few derogatory opinions to express about my former office. A few bold locals might cop to a grudging fondness for the Transamerica period, but natives agree that the monolith is, in essence, a rude gesture. One friend explained his feelings: “Those guys at the top aren’t concerned about our view. They put fifty stories of stone up there without bothering to consult you or me because they hold the cards and we don’t.”

Perhaps he is right, but I still find a cool, inhuman beauty in the place. A.P. Giannini Plaza is also mocked as a quarter-block concrete concession to the humans who inhabit the neighborhood. There is a tiny plot of grass, a great square of brick, flowers in enormous stone bowls that only a madman in a cargo helicopter could steal. There is also a sculpture in the plaza, a chunk of polished rock even blacker than the mother structure above it. Sharp-edged, as massive and immobile as the giant planters, it is widely known as “Banker’s Heart.” I’m growing fond of it as well.

Once or twice a week I sat near the monstrous flower bowls to watch the people and the buildings. I still stop there whenever I’m in the neighborhood. The shadows of the monolith sometimes create a ziggurat against the fog; on sunny days, its silhouette slices a serrated chunk of black from the blue sky.

Banker’s Heart is only forty-five seconds away from my former battle station on the eleventh floor. The moment I stepped through the door of my office I journeyed into the center of a sensory storm. In a large, fluorescent-irradiated chamber, forty-odd people moved efficiently among business machines and file cabinets. Visitors adjusted quickly to the harsh, shadowless lighting, but it was impossible to escape the sound, the incredible din of money on the move.

Technology has encroached upon financial acoustics since my tenure in the wire room, but the sound of money when I worked there was one that most people would find vaguely familiar. It wasn’t the crisp riffling of fresh currency of the happy ringing of cash registers. Next time you watch the news on television, pay attention to the teletype sound in the background before it fades into the face of the newscaster. Most newsrooms have silent terminals rather than clattering teletypes nowadays, but that mechanical din is still used as a reminder of the way journalism used to sound. That clatter, multiplied a hundredfold, is the sound money makes in those parts of the banking world that haven’t computerized their wire-rooms yet.

In teletype rooms from Bombay to Indianapolis, money still comes chattering off the wires at 210 words per minute, spewing out fanfold of wide white printout paper and curling mountains of narrow yellow punched tape.

In 1976, I was a teletype operator at Central Telegraph, an obsolescent human bottleneck in the financial intercourse of nations. Teletype operators were replaced at the Bank of America by sleek consoles full of silicon and circuitry, so my coworkers and I were the last of the human money-movers. To a teletype operator of the old school, money is nothing more nor less than a message, a message one banker sends to another. That part hasn’t changed — only the communication technology is different.

Teletype was the most economical way to transmit written messages, until low-cost computers came along, and banking tends to generate a lot of written messages, twenty- four hours a day in a dozen languages, to and from every country that rates a place on the map. Teletype machines are archaic looking and rather loud. Stock tickers are their more muted cousins. Think of those old movies where tuxedoed tycoons stared out the windows of their penthouses, idly fingering the tape as it emerged from the glass-housed ticker to coil politely into a tasteful wastebasket. Bankwire machines are much more hefty items, about the size of a small desk, and when you are in the same room with a hundred of them, the sound level is like an eternal replay of a million knitting needles falling onto a tin roof.

While my colleagues and I processed paper, hour by hour, we couldn’t help reading the messages as we marked, folded, coiled, stapled, and filed. The messages processed in a typical shift might include a $150 million bank syndication financing Mexico’s sugar crop; $900,000 in the form of potatoes, a transaction requiring sixteen documents certifying the absence of specific insects and fungi, and an affidavit from the captain confirming that they were shipped at a temperature of four to six degrees Celsius and humidity of 85 percent; bank transfers between Reykjavik and Gambia, Beijing and Toronto, Phoenix and Minneapolis; messages about messages, inquiring if last night’s wire said $6000 or $6 million (potatoes, armaments, tractors, pantyhose); arrangements for the movement of bank personnel bearing exotic names to and from exotic places; $162 million communication satellite systems for Indonesia; two executive jets for the Bangladesh government; $150 to Janie Doe in Pago Pago, “write soon, love, Mom.”

The executive jets for Bangladesh struck me as rather incongruous, I remember, since it is probably the poorest country in the world. They are so poor that they receive foreign aid from India — and it can’t be more than a day’s train ride across the entire country. The transactions involving the People’s Republic of China, or Poland, or the Soviet Union also threw me a bit at first. I had always envisioned a state of economic warfare between capitalist and socialist nations, but come think of it, there must be some kind of banking involved when Russia buys U.S. grain or when China buys farm machinery from Canada. Bankers move money beyond, around, or despite boundaries of nationality or ideology. Those aren’t tons of dollar bills or rubles or yen being bandied about by all the feverish communicating — those are tons of food, clothing, medicine, and armaments.

A teletype operator must monitor a hundred minor details of method and machinery, but the process quickly becomes semiautomatic. Money moves in cycles, pulsing between trickle and torrent as shifts change and banks open around the world; at peak traffic hours it took two fast operators to keep the incoming paper from burying the receiving machines, and a dozen more to retransmit. The tape constantly piled up and snaked across the floor, to be processed and sent out again, creating rivers of paper tape for the operators at the other ends of the lines. Tapes and paper rolls were changed rapidly, like pit stops on an endless road race. After a while, I caught the feel of gigantic economic tempos, literally sensing the pulse of international trade through my fingertips.

The names at the bottom of the wires reveal a lot about the business of international banking. There is a consistent matching of names to territory. If there is a banking problem in Saudi Arabia, then the name of the person in charge of solving it is something like Khaled Gebesh. Jose Bejarano handles South American troubleshooting. Lu for Asia, Feldman for Israel, Haramoto for Japan. It’s more hardboiled than equal opportunity hiring; the whole business illustrates something about the true nature of multinational corporations, about the subordination of personal and national loyalty to the sheer celebration of transaction, the ritual transference of wealth from one place to another and back again.

Charisma has gone the way of pocket watches and sleeve garters. The entire ambiance of banking has changed. A friend of mine who washes windows outside highrise offices told me that window washers refer to the people inside the buildings as “drones.” There is, indeed, a distinct flavor of hive life in the new buildings, from the illogically hexagonal offices to the identical carpeted hallways. In the old days, banks weren’t hives — they were temples.

From the east side of the monolith one can look down on the roof of the old headquarters on Montgomery Street. There is a peculiar structure on the roof, one that probably wasn’t built to be gazed on from above. There is an actual temple up there, hardly visible from the street, with fluted white marble pillars and carved lintels, and a tiny second temple on top, domed, the corroded green of ancient copper: a monument to the era when money moved at a more gentlemanly pace. I think those temples are maintained as a haven for the restless spirits of old bankers, those archaic creatures who dealt in gold and handwritten drafts, who handled wealth that could be touched and lifted and kept in vaults.

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