Friday, October 19, 2012
An Election Reflection, or How I Went from Cruel to Just Plain Bitch
See, it’s like this, I just don’t think the fact that one has been a successful businessman is a reason to think one will be an excellent president. Equating a country with a corporation makes me uneasy, having been a citizen of both. I consider my experiences in the corporate world successful. I left of my own accord and not because I suddenly decided that the corporate world was a bad place. It simply was not the right place for me. I blame the Jesuits for that, for they drilled into me this notion of social justice and public service. And for six years I tried to convince myself that I was “serving” through my work in the financial sector, first with Merrill Lynch and then with Charles Schwab (which, back in the 80s, in San Francisco, was a corporation with a much different ethos than Merrill. Chuck--and yes, I knew him and yes that’s what we called him--was the San Francisco/Financial Industry equivalent to his Silicon Valley pals who were concurrently changing the world of … well, everything.) But I wasn’t serving, at least not in the sense impressed upon me at Georgetown.
I have no interest in big-corporation bashing. Do I think there needs to be reform? Of course. Are corporate profits excessive? Yes. Are executive salaries reprehensible? I think so. But I gained much from my experience in that world. Shit, my Dad was a banker, and the easy nature of my childhood and adolescence is thanks in part to his career in the financial sector. (As an aside, he was prescient in knowing that my choice to accept a position at Merrill would not reward me in ways other than the monetary.) However, there were moments, vivid in my memory, during my years as part of that world, when I would LITERALLY stand before the sink, look into the mirror, and wonder about what I was “making,” whom I was “serving,” how I was somehow bettering the world into which I had been born—and which had served me so well and generously. And I would tell myself that Merrill employed hundreds of people. And the companies, whose paper we bought and sold, made things and employed hundreds of people. And those hundreds of people bought and sold stuff that allowed shops to thrive. There were factory workers who benefitted because of what I did. There were local “mom and pop” joints with their doors opened because of what I did. Innovation, modernization, growth … all a function of the capitalist machine in which I was a part: a small part, but a part nonetheless. And one day I realized that was not so. That all those things were less a function of what a corporation did and more a function of the people who ran the machines in factories, who unlocked the doors to their stores at 5AM, who every day put one foot in front of the other.
One of my responsibilities during my training, as part of a cryptically named “Development Group,” was to spend months in Merrill’s Legal Transfer Department. I was, ostensibly, crafting procedures. I sat with clerks who spent their days stamping stock certificates—yes, back when securities were paper not transactions in ether. They would insert as many 10 different stamps between the fingers of both hands and deftly press them into ink pads and then apply them to the certificates in a myriad of combinations that I could never fathom much less master. “Where do they come from before they get here?” I would ask. The Legal Transfer clerks could not tell me. “Where do they go when you finish?” And she would point—or motion with her crowed fingers--to a wire basket on the corner of her desk. Millions and millions of shares of stock worth millions and millions of dollars in a pile on the corner of a ratty old steel desk on one of the lower floors of One Liberty Plaza. Across from the World Trade Center, in 1981. And in the center of the Department, in a glass enclosed room, where smoking was allowed, where fire was not so much a hazard, sat old men with school-bag brief cases waiting to deliver the certificates to broker dealers across lower Manhattan. That was long ago. Neither exist any longer. Actual certificates are as much a dinosaur as were those old men in black shoes and white socks three decades ago. My grandparents would give me shares of General Motors on my birthday. They were stamped by some nameless clerk with some confounding composition of stamps and carried in some battered briefcase by a nameless and very poorly-titled runner. And when I sold them quite some time ago, they fetched me a tidy sum.
I must tell you that when I was assigned to the Legal Transfer Department my heart sunk. It was headed, I knew, by a man, shorter than I, who, for reasons I don’t know and never learned, had lost the bottom half of his face. The deformation was jarring. And on those too frequent occasions when I rode the elevator with him (which, we all know, is what happens when you deliberately seek to avoid someone), he was cheerful. But he had a really hard to understand voice. And I did the smile and nod. (I can be bitchy now, but I think I was a cruel bitch back then.) Assigned to his department, I did my best to avoid him. And I got pretty good at it.
True story: One Friday, while waiting at the information booth in the concourse of Grand Central Station for my pal Felipa Proper (her real name), I was doing the NYT crossword puzzle. Suddenly, a camera crew approached. There had been a “scandal” in the news, the New York Times was, it was reported, recycling old puzzles. As an apparent puzzle-doer, they interviewed me about my thoughts on the matter. I can’t remember what I said, but it was smart enough that I guess it made the 11 PM news (WABC-TV New York). I never saw it. There were no VHS recorders back then.
That Monday, I went to my office on the upper floors of OLP before heading down to Legal Transfer. I chatted it up with my colleagues. I chatted it up with my boss. I braced myself for Legal Transfer, and armed with my yellow pad, headed once more into the breach. But with none of the enthusiasm of Hal’s troops. And at about 4PM headed back upstairs—to the world of mahogany desks and big windows and carpet and secretaries and Brooks Brothers. At the elevator, the man without the jaw approached me, and in his barely comprehensible voice said, “I think you were very funny on the news.” I had completely forgotten. I hadn’t seen it. I don’t know if anyone else had. Then he said something else about the paper. He, too, did the puzzle. And then I went upstairs.
I swear this is true. And I swear that after that encounter I actually would go to his office and talk about his department. Not a lot. But more than I had. He was really funny. And he was really really smart. And then I transferred to San Francisco. I left my notes and my suggestions for Legal Transfer behind. My colleagues had a party for me at Smith and Wollensky’s. I never went to say goodbye to the people in Legal Transfer. And even as I write this and wrack my brain, I can’t come up with his name, or the names of any of the clerks I sat with for hours and hours. But, in a bow to the synecdoche, I can picture the hand of one of the women I watched, because despite the stamps that turned her hands into claws, she still wore like seven rings—her wedding rings and a bunch of really crappy fake jeweled things. As I say, a cruel bitch.
I was sent to Legal Transfer to document procedures. It was part of familiarizing the “JETS”—the new crop of “Junior Executive Trainees, of which I was one—with the “operations” side of the business. The bulk of the floors in the towering OLP were devoted to “the back of the house” (only now, as a student and teacher of literature and theory, does that notion—back of—resonate), and we were expected to know the back and the front. I spent my day watching and noting what seemed superfluous, what could be cut, how positions could be eliminated. Because in reality, I was trying to streamline the “back of the house.” Streamline means get rid of people. Bain Capital got rid of people, and I don’t care what euphemism they use to obfuscate that ultimate aim, it is what they did. And maybe the jobs the people did were superfluous. But the people were not. But you have to see the people. They don’t. Neither did I. If, in the world of big capital, you see the people, then that world becomes untenable. I ran to San Francisco. I ran to a kinder-gentler Charles Schwab. And, finally, I had to run from.
I am not saying we don’t need corporations. But I am thinking that we need to focus a little more on the people. And that is not what corporations do. It’s not their job to worry about Nick in Golden with his café (Nick’s Café, fabulous!) where his wife is the only server and he is the only cook. It’s not their job to care about the gal on the line at a factory who needs day care or elder care or an alternator in her car. They don’t care about the old men with school-book brief cases or the lady with too many rings. And I don’t even know if they should be thinking about such things. Maybe, maybe not. But that’s not their aim. They are driven by a bottom line that is measured by dollars. And, yes, I realize that the government and its spending is also a matter of dollars and cents. But the difference is, as important as is the economics, the government must think about the people. It has to. And, I think, it has to think about them first. Running a corporation makes one especially unfit for that responsibility.
I left the corporate world and turned my attention to the public sphere. Mitt Romney could argue the same thing. But the difference is this: I am ashamed sometimes not at what I did, but at what I didn’t do or see or realize about the people affected—in so many near and far ways—by the corporate world. Mitt Romney wants to take what he did and saw and realized and apply it to the public sphere. That scares me.