Fact Check

Bookkeeper in a Brothel

A workingman's illiteracy contributes to his stunning success as a businessman.

Published Jun 10, 2001

Claim:   The drawback of a laborer's illiteracy frees him to become a success in another field.


Example:   [Brunvand, 1993]

My grandfather used to tell about a country lad who went to the big city to seek his fortune, but had no luck finding a job. One day, wandering through the red light district, he spotted a Help Wanted sign in a window.

They were looking for a bookkeeper, but after the madam quizzed the boy about his education and discovered that he could neither read or write, she turned him away.

Feeling sorry for him, she gave him two big red apples as he left. A few blocks down the street, he placed the apples on top of a garbage can while tying his shoe, and a stranger came along and offered to buy them.

The boy took the money to a produce market and bought a dozen more apples,which he sold quickly. Eventually he parlayed his fruit sales into a grocery store, then a string of supermarkets. Eventually he became the wealthiest man in the state.

Finally he was named Man of the Year, and during an interview a journalist discovered that his subject could neither read or write.

"Good Lord, Sir," he said. "What do you suppose you would have become if you had ever learned to read and write?"

"Well," he answered, "I guess I would have been a bookkeeper in a whorehouse."1


Origins:   According to folklorist Jan Brunvand, after writer Somerset Maugham was accused of stealing the plot of his 1929 short story "The Verger," he explained that he'd heard the tale from a friend and that it was a well known bit of Jewish folklore. Maugham's claim is supported by this find, harvested from a 1923 joke book:

Some fifteen years ago there landed in New York a friendless and almost penniless Russian immigrant who found lodgings on the East Side and at once, with racial perseverance and energy, set out to earn a living.

He was of a likeable disposition, and speedily made acquaintances who sought to aid him in his ambition. One of them sponsored him for the vacant post of janitor, or shammos, to use the common Hebraic word, of a little synagogue on a side street. But when the officers of the congregation found out the applicant was

entirely illiterate they reluctantly denied him employment, inasmuch as a shammos must keep certain records. The greenhorn quickly rallied from his disappointment. He got a job somewhere. He prospered. Presently he became a dabbler in real estate.

Within ten years he was one of the largest independent operators in East Side tenement-house property and popularly rated as a millionaire. An occasion arose when he needed a large amount of money to swing what promised to be a profitable deal. Finding himself for the moment short of cash, he went to the East Side branch of one of the large banks.

It was the first time in his entire business career that he had found it necessary to borrow extensively. He explained his position to the manager, who knew of his success, and asked for a loan of fifty thousand dollars.

"I'll be very glad to accommodate you, Mr. Rabin," said the banker. "Just sit down there at that desk and make out a note for the amount."

The caller smiled an embarrassed smile.

"If you please," he said, "you should be so good as to make out the note and then I should sign it."

"What's the idea?" inquired the bank manager, puzzled.

"Vell, you see," he confessed, "I haf to tell you somethings: Myself, I cannot read and write. My vife, she has taught me how to make my own name on paper, but otherwise, with me, reading and writing is nix."

In amazement, the banker stared at him.

"Well, well, well!" he murmured admiringly. "And yet, handicapped as you've been, inside of a few years you have become a rich man! I wonder what you'd have been by now if only you had been able to read and write?"

"A shammos," said Mr. Rabin modestly.2

Some like to question the legend's basis on the grounds that if the work-seeker couldn't read, he couldn't have made out what the sign in the window said. "Illiterate" is often mistakenly interpreted as "incapable of making head or tail out of so much as one written word." In real life, any number of folks who cannot read and thus have no hope of making sense of a printed page have learned to recognize by sight a goodly number of key words and phrases, including "help wanted." The illiterate among us manage to catch the right buses, "read" road signs, and order off menus, all by way of having memorized what certain words look like. They exist in mainstream society undetected for years, sometimes fooling even their immediate families.

A good story never goes out of style, as this example shows:

[Collected on the Internet, 2001]

An unemployed man goes to apply for a job with Microsoft as a janitor. The manager there arranges for him to take an aptitude test — (Floors, sweeping and cleaning).

After the test, the manager says, "You will be employed at minimum wage, $5.15 an hour. Let me have your e-mail address, so that I can send you a form to complete and tell you where to report for
work on your first day.

Taken aback, the man protests that he has neither a computer nor an e-mail address. To this the MS manager replies, "Well, then, that means that you virtually don't exist and can therefore hardly
expect to be employed.

Stunned, the man leaves. Not knowing where to turn and having only $10 in his wallet, he decides to buy a 25 lb. flat of tomatoes at the supermarket.

Within less than 2 hours, he sells all the tomatoes individually at 100% profit. Repeating the process several times more that day, he ends up with almost $100 before going to sleep that night. And thus it dawns on him that he could quite easily make a living selling tomatoes. Getting up early every day and going to bed late, he multiplies his profits quickly.

After a short time he acquires a cart to transport several dozen boxes of tomatoes, only to have to trade it in again so that he can buy a pickup truck to support his expanding business. By the end of the second year, he is the owner of a fleet of pickup trucks and manages a staff of a hundred former unemployed people, all selling tomatoes.

Planning for the future of his wife and children, he decides to buy some life insurance. Consulting with an insurance adviser, he picks an insurance plan to fit his new circumstances. At the end of the telephone conversation, the adviser asks him for his e-mail address to send the final documents electronically.

When the man replies that he has no e-mail, the adviser is stunned, "What, you don't have e-mail? How on earth have you managed to amass such wealth without the Internet, e-mail and e-commerce? Just imagine where you would be now, if you had been connected to the internet from the very start!"

After a moment of thought, the tomato millionaire replied, "Why, of course! I would be a floor cleaner at Microsoft!"

Moral of this story:

1. The Internet, e-mail and e-commerce do not need to rule your life.

2. If you don't have e-mail, but work hard, you can still become a millionaire.

3. Since you got this story via e-mail, you're probably closer to becoming a janitor than you are to becoming a millionaire.

4. If you do have a computer and e-mail, you probably have already been taken to the cleaners by Microsoft.


Cartoon of the legend

legend's message is twofold: that sometimes seeming adversity is actually the Hand of God arranging future events in our favor, and that often the most momentous decisions we make swing on little more than the expediency of the moment. Taking the second point first, we observe that if the young farm boy in the first example had been able to read and write, he would have gained the job he sought, that of a bookkeeper in a brothel, and thus would never have become the grocery tycoon he ultimately turned out to be. As to what led him to seek the bookkeeping position, he quite by happenstance chose to walk down a particular street, coincidentally on a day when a "Help Wanted" sign was posted in one of the windows. On another day, that sign wouldn't have been there, or he would already have had a job somewhere else.

It is ever thus — the directions of lives change depending upon which ad is answered, which interview is given, even which bus is taken. A chance encounter can lead to a marriage and the begetting of children, and just as certainly the slightly different choice of ad or bus can result in those two people's never meeting. Career direction is likewise up for grabs.

As much as we like to feel we're masters of our fate, often we're the very last factor to have much influence on unfolding events, even within the confines of our own lives.

But there's another message to this legend, one of the power of divine intervention and why it doesn't pay to second-guess God. Today's disappointment can be a necessary, though momentarily painful, ingredient in tomorrow's success, as the snubbed bookkeeper or janitor finds out. Children of the moment that we are, we tend to forget this truth when caught up in sorrow over not getting what we'd set our hearts on, and tend only to remember it again when things ultimately turn out far better than they would have if we'd gotten our shortsighted way.

Barbara "father of the chide" Mikkelson

Sightings:   In Somerset Maugham's 1929 short story "The Verger," an illiterate church caretaker is fired by the vicar when his lack of education comes to light. The ousted verger goes on to become a tobacconist, eventually owning a string of shops in London.

Last updated:   20 April 2011


    1.   Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 155-156).

    2.   Cobb, Irvin S.   A Laugh a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.

    New York: Garden City Publishing, 1923   (pp. 190-191).

Also told in:

    Asimov, Isaac.   Asimov Laughs Again.

    New York: Harper-Collins, 1992.   ISBN 0-06-016826-9   (p. 255).

    Botkin, B.A.   Sidewalks of America.

    Indianapolis-New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1954   (pp. 430-431).

The Big Book of Urban Legends

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 196).