Wednesday, December 7, 2011
cover art: watercolor inks: Edwin Forrest Ward
A Magic Marker Mystery
One summer I worked for a start-up stock brokerage firm in Philadelphia, filling in for employees on vacation. A personal assistant or receptionist one week, a margin or mail clerk the next, the actor in me embraced and enjoyed it all, the high speed elevator downtown skyscraper 9 to 5. Near the end of my summer employment, before I was to resume teaching, there was a week with no scheduled vacations; consequently, my boss suggested I take on what he represented as “most likely a fruitless task.” Investigate and figure out what happened to some actual hard copy, paper stock certificates that had gone missing. The missing papers represented a considerable sum of real money, money that business insurance would cover – but only with the added cost of greatly increased future insurance premiums. Stock certificates are simply not supposed to go missing. Ever. Especially when they are part of an initial public offering involving many of the firm’s brokers.
My assignment had been characterized as “most likely a fruitless task” because already, a gaggle of in- and out-of-house accountants, the manager of “The Cage,” himself, the repository where stock certificates were housed and handled, and a Securities & Exchange Commission auditor had spent weeks trying to locate the actual stock certificates, all without success. My boss, with whom I was socially connected on a black market level, told me in an aside: “A stoner and artist might see ledgers differently than accountants and auditors.”
Now this story unfolds in the early Seventies’ days of typewriters, mimeographing and carbon copies. Xerox machines are just coming on line. The human hand and mind are of major importance when it comes to financial record keeping and the commerce of securities and stocks, as are pencils, pens and IBM typewriters. Computers run on key punch cards. Fingers key the punch. Accounting is done by hand. Calculators are mechanical and cumbersome and math is in the accountant’s mind. The pages of ledgers are hand turned and generally full of tears, erasures and carbon fingerprints. For archival purposes, records are photographed on microfilm, and so, the hand-crank of a microfilm viewer is where my search for the missing certificates begins and, within two days, ends, in a magic moment.
The missing stock certificates represented shares in a new company that is now a household name: Magic Marker. It’s hard to imagine a Twentieth Century world without Magic Markers, but in the 60s, ballpoint pens required pressure. The felt tip pens and markers of Magic Marker were first a novelty whose use would become ubiquitous. Although the Magic Marker IPO had been quite successful, our firm’s loss of printed shares might cloud Magic Markers future prospects, making shady the circumstances of the initial offering.
Well, after a day of studying the microfilmed records of transactions involving Magic Marker, I had nothing, and no idea of where to investigate next. Because looking at thousands of pieces of paper was mind numbing, I frequented the stairwell often for a toke of weed. I doubted that anyone had stolen the certificates as their size and number precluded an easy smuggle past the scrutiny of the uber observant Cage Boss whose job it was to secure and track each certificate. The apparent loss of the paper stock was on him and it would be his head that rolled once the SEC finalized its investigation. Somewhat ironically, he was the only employee with whom I had not gotten along during my summer’s employment. He was as straight and arrogant and square as I was inexperienced and pot-headed, and he was over-the-top dismissive of me in my role as investigator, so much so that he did not want me in his Cage when I asked if I could see the steps involved in logging in and recording the handling of the certificates. When he spoke to our mutual boss, however, he was told to let me have unfettered access to the Cage, its protocols, and its employees, a directive which really pissed him off as he could not imagine anyone – especially a long-haired twenty-something vacation temp - figuring anything out, since he, himself, had not been able to.
Now every stock certificate passing in or through the cage creates a transaction form in carbon duplicate, documenting its time in house. Every time a stock certificate changed hands its movement from one account to another account and its actual physical location were recorded and dated. Generally stock certificates were either sent to their owners or warehoused by the brokerage in the Cage. Whenever physical stock certificates were given to owners, the in-Cage transaction form was tic marked in a check box: SENT TO OWNER. None of the missing Magic Marker stock had been so marked. All of what was missing was supposed to be here, in the Cage, according to the microfilm. The protocol for tracking the stock certificates was black and white, simple and straightforward.
It’s at this point that I notice a pencil holder full of colorful plastic pens on a desk by the Cage door, a collection of early production prototypes of Magic Marker pens. When the brokerage had been chosen to help launch the IPO, the manufacturer had sent dozens of boxes of promotional pens, demos of all types, all bearing the name Magic Marker. I liked the bold colors of the pens and helped myself to an assortment as I left the Cage to return to the microfilm viewer for another go-round of hopeless squinting and examination.
Now I’ve always been a doodler and I’m no sooner back at the microfilm viewer – after a stairwell’s toke of ganga - convinced I’m on a lost cause, when I absentmindedly begin exploring the uses of these Magic Markers rather than scanning the microfilm. I like the color richness of the line produced when compared to the line of a fountain pen or a regular ballpoint pen, and I fill a half-dozen sheets of paper with colorful abstract mindlessness. The smooth flow of the ink lends itself to creativity, and because there is no need to press the pen point to paper, the stroke is more flowing, artistic, and less graphic. For an hour or so, in the style I will later call squigglism – a cousin of pointillism – I doodle, and then Eureka! – out of nowhere – comes the question: What happens when someone uses a Magic Marker on a two-page carbon copy?
I return to the Cage and retrieve a blank stock transaction sheet. I fill it out and - no surprise here - on Page Two, the brokerage carbon copy, there is nothing. Because the Magic Marker pen writes effortlessly without pressure, the carbon doesn’t transfer to the second page of the form. I return to the microfilm viewer and go over the records again, paying especial attention to the line where is noted the date a piece of stock was handled and I discover that in the middle of May there was a stint of transactions that bore no date, something that would happen if the recorder of the transaction had used a Magic Marker when filling out the form. There was no date and, similarly, no tic mark indicating that the certificates had been SENT TO OWNER. I added up the number of shares represented by the forms missing their recording date, and voila! - their sum equaled the amount of lost stock. The missing stock certificates were not missing at all. They had been sent to their owners. Just the carbon imprint of a check mark was missing. Like magic, it had come to me, the answer, while doodling with Magic Markers.
My boss, my Cheba Cheba client, was so overjoyed that he took me out to lunch, said I was on paid administrative leave for the rest of the week, and handed me the first serious tip of my stoner life: ten crisp Ben Franklins and a case of Magic Marker pens. I never did get a thank you from the Cage Boss whose job I saved, but I did prove right my boss’s guess: art sometimes is better at solving mystery than math.