Is Gerald telling that story again, about that business at American Silver? The Great Sex Scandal? Gerald, why don't you let me tell that story for a change. After all, I was there too. And let's see if we can get another round of drinks over here. My glass has been empty for half an hour.
Okay, the story. All this all took place ten years ago. I had just joined the prestigious, upscale firm of Barton & Ames, management consultants, with my newly minted MBA degree. American Silver Company was my first assignment, and it turned out to be the worst assignment in the world.
American Silver Company. Amsil, they called themselves. They were in a real profit squeeze, and their President called in Barton & Ames to help them identify cost cutting opportunities. Barton & Ames sold Amsil two consulting studies, one for clerical cost reduction and one for scrap metal reduction. Gerald and I were assigned to the clerical cost reduction study. In fact, that's how I met Gerald, on that job.
It's funny about expectations. Every year Barton & Ames goes through this hiring frenzy, putting on these rushing parties for the top MBA candidates from Harvard and Wharton and Columbia. A lot of people are impressed with the New York office, which is full of fake Chippendale, sweeping staircases, English hunting prints — that whole number. Of course, the day you're hired you're handed an airline ticket and you almost never see that office again. And you can also wind up in some truly lesser known places, like we did on the Amsil job.
Amsil's corporate headquarters were in New York, but most of the company's facilities were located in East Danville, Ohio, a town of about 4,000 souls that all the consultants called East Dingbat. To get there, you flew to Pittsburgh and then drove four hours through West Virginia, then across the Ohio River, and then another hour on the Ohio side. The Barton & Ames consultants were staying at the Red Rooster Inn which was the finest as well as the only motel in town. Frisch's Big Boy was the best restaurant within 30 miles. I mean, we're talking remote.
The Red Rooster was a string of attached one story units built in a U around a scummy swimming pool, and featured these little packets of instant coffee in the rooms that you could whip up with hot tap water. That first night at the Red Rooster I met Gerald, who was going to work with me, and also Big Jim Thomas who was assigned to the scrap metal reduction project.
Big Jim was a Southerner, older than Gerald and I, a large man whose slow movements and talk masked a fine intelligence. He and Gerald were both out of the Chicago office, and already good friends. Jim had helped Gerald learn the ropes when he joined Barton & Ames the year before, and Gerald looked on him as something of a mentor. The two of them made an interesting contrast. Jim was slow, deliberate, and logical, while Gerald, at least in his youth, was quick, mercurial, and brash. Gerald was a good creative thinker, brimming with ideas that were often useless, but sometimes brilliant, as I was to learn.
Big Jim's job was to come up with ways for the company to recover more silver from the waste products of its manufacturing processes. It was essentially a technical analysis with little impact on the factory personnel. Gerald and I, however, discovered that our job was to provide an objective basis for firing literally hundreds of clerical personnel — it turned out that's what "clerical cost reduction" meant. Neither of us had ever done anything like this before, so the partner-in-charge agreed to show up in East Danville in person for three days to train us in work measurement studies and techniques.
The partner-in-charge told us almost all organizations of any size tended to develop festering pockets of inefficiency which, if unchecked, would finally overwhelm the company like so many cancers. Our job — Gerald's and mine — was to identify and root out these festering pockets. At Amsil, the goal was to cut the clerical work force by about 30 percent.
The partner-in-charge explained that we were to sample and measure the clerical work performed in the various departments and develop standards for each task. To oversimplify somewhat, the idea was that if most people could process ten widgets an hour, or whatever the task was, then that could be established as the department standard. But since not everybody could process ten an hour, that left room to improve efficiency, which was a polite phrase for reducing the total staff required for the same amount of work.
To aid us in the work measurement process, we were told we would be using "time ladders," which were special forms with hundreds of narrow, ruled lines corresponding to the hours and minutes in the working day. The technique required each worker to post a code to a time ladder form identifying the specific task being worked on every three minutes of the working day for a period of about three weeks. The partner-in-charge was something of a zealot about these time ladders. You could sense his enthusiasm as he described methods of insuring that the clerical personnel complied with the stringent coding requirements.
Whatever the business justification, whatever the presumed "scientific" basis, the job came down to this: Gerald and I were there to assist in the firing of about 200 people, mostly middle aged women, in a one-company town with almost no other employment opportunities. Daughters followed mothers into Amsil's clerical ranks just as inevitably as sons followed fathers into the manufacturing plants. Most of these women had never worked anywhere else. Our job was an ugly piece of business, and the clerical personnel understood what we were up to pretty quickly.
But not for the first two weeks or so, not before we started them on those time ladders. Early on, there was a brief honeymoon while Gerald and I scrambled to master the work measurement techniques and complete a series of courtesy interviews with department managers. During this time, the Amsil clerical personnel were pretty friendly, especially the women, and that's how the trouble started.
You could see it coming. I mean, here we were, these high priced consultants thundering in from New York and Chicago on some mysterious mission, meeting behind closed doors with all the managers. I suppose we were fairly romantic figures to at least some of these small town women. Anyway, a few of them took to casting looks our way in the company cafeteria, and Gerald and Jim Thomas began chatting up two of the more attractive secretaries on their lunch hour. Gerald did most of the talking, all silver tongued blather and Irish charm, but Jim, who should have known better, was clearly interested too. Jim was recently divorced after 15 years of an amicable marriage, and he had that air of rumpled, distracted loneliness that some men develop when they're suddenly on their own after living happily with a woman for a long time.
I didn't join in. In addition to being newly married, my introductory lunch with old Mr. Ames was still vivid in memory. One of the firm's founding partners, he was a doddering patriarch given to memory lapses who was referred to by the junior partners as "Old Ameless." In the midst of a spirited defense of Social Darwinism he had paused, seemingly confused, and then leaned toward me, gripping my knee with his knotty hand.
"Son," he said, "keep your pecker out of the client's payroll or you'll screw yourself out of a job."
So I was on good behavior, but Gerald and Jim were not, and in short order they had arranged a double date with two of the Amsil secretaries for the following Thursday night.
But it was not to be, because on Wednesday we started the first clerical departments on time ladders. Within a short time our task was clearly understood and wildly unpopular. To explain the purpose of the time ladders, we used euphemisms like "identify streamlining opportunities" and "reduce paper flows," but none of these sensible women were fooled, and on Thursday morning Gerald and Jim's double date was abruptly canceled.
To his credit, Gerald was philosophical about the cancellation, putting it down to poor timing. Gerald had tried to schedule the time ladders to begin the following week, but the partner-in-charge insisted on starting Wednesday so he could be there to personally observe the impact on the clerical personnel, something which obviously gave him intense visceral satisfaction.
But Jim Thomas didn't give up so easily. Big Jim was clearly smitten with his selection, a wicked little redhead with no visible panty line named Lureen, and I had to admit she was a heart stopper. Jim combined his engineer's logic with the stupidity that deep lust can engender in a middle aged man and came to a remarkably poor conclusion. He figured that Lureen was still a real possibility for him since he was working on the scrap reduction project and personally had nothing to do with the clerical cost reduction project or the hated time ladders. He figured it was a simple case of guilt by association that he could clear up in a few minutes conversation with Lureen.
Now, Big Jim's judgment was clearly impaired by his terrible need, and he didn't consider that Lureen might not feel like drawing fine distinctions between the projects and goals of the various Barton & Ames consultants. Exactly what was said will probably never be known. Jim said he merely told her he had nothing to do with the time ladder studies, and asked if she would reconsider about the date. He said Lureen batted her eyes and said she'd think about it. Of course, it's possible that Jim just seemed intimidating to Lureen. He was 6'3'' and 250 pounds and obviously more comfortable talking to production foremen and factory workers than attractive young women.
In any case, what Lureen did was this. As soon as Jim left, she marched into her boss who was the company controller and said that Jim was hitting on her and pressuring her to have sex with him and threatening to get her on the list to be fired if she didn't give in. Lureen was reported to have said that the situation was particularly upsetting in light of her recent engagement to one of the Amsil factory foremen.
This tale was not particularly plausible. First, Lureen was a private secretary whose work wasn't even being measured — she was in no danger from our studies. And Jim had gone to see her with the expressed purpose of reassuring her that he wasn't in a position to get anyone fired. And Jim also swore that Lureen never mentioned any engagement to him.
There's also my judgment. From what I observed over those few weeks, Jim was unfailingly gentle and courtly around women. It was difficult for me to imagine him being nasty or threatening.
But Lureen's boss, the controller, didn't figure it was his job to evaluate the situation in detail. He never questioned Jim. He took it straight to the Amsil President in New York.
The Amsil President had been drinking buddies with Old Ameless at the Union League Club for years, which was how we got the job in the first place. He got on the honk with Old Ameless who in turn called in the partner-in-charge. Old Ameless must have really been on a tear that day. The next thing we knew, the partner-in-charge arrived in East Danville in a flaming snit, collared Jim and Gerald and me in a room at the Red Rooster, and began to unload on us in a manner I can only describe as highly emotional.
You know that party game where you whisper something in someone's ear, and it goes around the room, and it always winds up being wildly different when the last person repeats it? Well, it seemed that by the time the story got from Lureen to the controller to the President to Old Ameless to the partner-in-charge, they had all of us making obscene advances to various Amsil women, and they practically had old Jim in the saddle with Lureen on the conference room table.
Now Jim figured he might have been guilty of some poor judgment somewhere along the line, but from his perspective he had yet to have so much as an ice cream sundae with Lureen. He was not about to sit still for this line of hysterical bullshit and he eventually rose to his full height to so inform the partner-in-charge, who was a scrappy little prick about 5'6" or so. The partner-in-charge practically threw his neck out staring straight up at Jim, and told him to sit down and shut up.
Jim looked down at the top of this guy's balding head and said, real slow, "I'd tell you where to stuff this job but I don't think it would fit. Appears to me you got an asshole about the size of a rat's." Then he turned around and walked slowly out of the room. The partner-in-charge screamed "You're fired," at Jim's back but he didn't look back or break stride.
So that was it for Big Jim. The partner-in-charge got another guy from the Cleveland office to replace him within a week. Gerald got a written reprimand in his personnel file, which he knew would affect his raise and promotional opportunities with the firm. I was exonerated completely. What Big Jim had derisively labeled "The Great Sex Scandal" was over.
I guess some Amsil people felt good seeing Jim fired. I know Lureen became a minor heroine for "standing up to the consultants," and she really played it up, coming on like some quasi rape victim. But I missed old Jim and his slow, courtly ways, and I agreed with Gerald that the firm had more or less served him up as a sacrifice to appease the client. I know Gerald felt bad about his role in the whole fiasco.
"I got him going," he told me after Jim left. "I introduced old Jim to Lureen. He wouldn't have started up with her on his own."
"Jim's a grown man," I responded. "He didn't have to start up with her. You're not responsible for his actions."
Unfortunately, Jim's firing didn't take the heat off Gerald and me, or make what we were doing any more popular. We soon discovered that the time ladder measurement technique had a perverse inner logic. Most people figured the way to beat the game, the way to look good and keep their jobs, was to work like electrified rabbits during the study period. This turned out to be a self-defeating assumption, since the faster pace ultimately resulted in the establishment of higher standards permitting even deeper personnel cuts. And, said the partner-in-charge on one of his infrequent visits, if we had to fudge the data occasionally to get the staff reduction results we knew in our guts were achievable, why so be it! We weren't paid to be bleeding hearts.
By the time the project reached the two month mark, Gerald and I were truly under siege. People were deflating the tires of our rented car and no one wanted to wait on us at Frisch's Big Boy. The alternative to the Big Boy Restaurant was the local Supermarket, which stocked Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip, Slim Jims and beer — as Gerald said, something from each of the four basic food groups.
Then the evening phone calls started. Direct, simple talk in flat, local accents about broken arms and legs. Gerald and I laughed about it, but in fact it scared the bejesus out of us. Half the guys in that town carried shotguns in their pickups and as far as they were concerned we were after a big chunk of their meal ticket.
Despite Amsil's assurances that this was all the work of harmless cranks, Gerald and I began to retreat whenever possible to the sanctity of the Red Rooster, where we still had some clout, being the only steady customers beside the lone hooker who ran a failing business out of unit #3. We would hole up around the scummy pool in the afternoons with our time ladders and calculators, swilling gin and talking body counts, like:
"What's the kill ratio in the Credit Department?"
"I got five out of twenty-three so far, old buddy."
"Can you blast a couple more outta there?"
"Hey, no problem! Just lemme recalculate the modal intervals."
This may sound callous, but by then booze and humor were the only things keeping us sane. Every evening I would place a long, desperately lonely phone call to my new wife, which always seemed to end the same way.
"But how can you stand it? How can you do it?" she would ask.
"I hate it. But it's not like we're out to get anyone. There's nothing personal involved."
"Why don't you just quit?"
"It's only my first assignment. I can't believe this is typical. There are lots of other kinds of consulting projects."
"Those women. What will they do?"
"Look, maybe we're keeping Amsil from going under. Maybe we're actually saving the rest of the jobs by making the company profitable again."
"Do you really believe that?" she would ask.
And I couldn't say yes. I didn't really know. And I certainly didn't trust the assurances of the partner-in-charge, who would have fired his own wife and children if they couldn't perform to standards, quite independent of any questions of profitability.
After the phone call, I would meet Gerald for more drinks in the Red Rooster Lounge. As we sat and drank in this empty roadhouse in the middle of nowhere, we would reminisce about the receptions where Barton & Ames recruited us, about the bone china cups and deep pile burgundy carpeting, about the 35MM slide presentations showing young consultants helping top executives in major corporations develop visionary strategies for the future. We would describe the scenes to each other, laughing while we tried to remember the exact language of the sales pitches, and most evenings we would get drunk enough to forget for a little while where we were and how much the town hated us and what we were supposed to do the next day and the day after that.
The days passed. The job got done. Although we worked closely with each other, Gerald and I had early on divided the clerical departments between us in terms of study responsibilities. My last two departments were Payroll and Shipping. But when I interviewed the manager of the Payroll Department, he was so openly hostile that I really dreaded trying to run the time ladders on his people. I talked to Gerald about it, and told him I was inclined to skip the Payroll Department entirely, given the manager's attitude, and try to get the remaining body count I needed in the Shipping Department.
Gerald asked to see my notes and working papers on the Payroll Department. He said he'd think about the problem overnight and see if he could come up with any ideas.
The next day, Gerald pointed out a unit of eight people in the Payroll Department, a unit responsible for handling payroll taxes. He mentioned that there was a large Corporate Tax Department at Amsil headquarters in New York which also handled payroll taxes, probably using the same computer software. And he suggested that the headquarters department could probably absorb the local payroll tax work with little extra effort.
I immediately saw the implications. If I could sell the idea to the Amsil Corporate guys in New York, it meant that the whole local tax unit — all six people — could be canned without running any time ladders, without, in fact, doing any work measurement in the department at all.
And that little trick could knock up to two weeks off our completion schedule.
The next day I did the numbers and structured the proposal. The day after that, I drove to Pittsburgh and flew to New York to meet with the manager of the Amsil Corporate Tax Department, who agreed that the idea was sound and the transfer of work was feasible.
But when I returned to discuss it with the local Payroll Manager, he dug in his heels. He said he didn't think the local work could be done effectively by the Corporate Tax people, and he simply wouldn't agree to it. At this point I called the Amsil President in New York, which we had been told to do if any of the local managers demonstrated insufficient zeal for cost cutting.
The idea to consolidate the payroll tax work was indeed reasonable, if not to say ingenious. I explained it to the Amsil President, including the fact that it had the backing of the Corporate Tax Department, and I appealed for his help in convincing the Payroll Manager of the plan's obvious merits.
The President was another Teddy Roosevelt holdover like Old Ameless. He checked out my story, then called back and told me to try the Payroll Manager the next day. In the meantime, said the President, he would personally kick the Payroll Manager's ass up around his shoulder blades and teach him to walk on his elbows.
The next morning, the Payroll Manager gave me the six people without any argument. Without any discussion, in fact.
"That's it," I said to Gerald when I returned from the meeting. "This place, this job, is history, and so is the tax unit."
I put the Payroll Department folder with the termination list on my desk. I glanced idly at the list.
"Gerald," I said, "what was Lureen's last name?"
"Benstock," he said. "Why?"
"Didn't Jim say Lureen's mother worked at Amsil? And her sister?"
"Look at this list."
"Jesus," Gerald said, "I don't believe it."
"Gerald," I said, "I just fired Lureen's mother and sister. They're both in that tax unit."
We looked at each other. Finally, Gerald cracked a smile.
"Well," he said, "I guess it was meant to be. I guess it was fated. Like a Greek play, or something."
That night, the partner-in-charge called to personally congratulate me for the tax unit coup. He was tickled pink at the prospect of firing six people with no requirement to study the department's work, and the positive impact this would have on our job schedule and budget. He told me that if I kept up the good work, I was guaranteed a bright future with the firm.
Now, I sincerely hated the partner-in-charge. I hated the job and intended never to do another like it again. But I was young and hungry for praise and recognition and success, and I must confess that I fell right into his game, like a puppy when its ears are scratched. I found myself, to my disgust, responding with all the hard nosed, enthusiastic business clichés favored by the Barton & Ames partners. And although I mentioned casually that Gerald had certainly helped me with the concept, I must further confess that I never really gave Gerald the credit he deserved. In retrospect, I look upon that phone call as one of the lowest points of my professional career.
Gerald and I spent the next day closing down operations. We were in the lobby of The Red Rooster settling up our bill when a call came in for Gerald. It was Lureen. He motioned for me to pick up the extension.
"You sonofabitch," said Lureen, real low and whispery.
"Ah, darling," said Gerald, "will you forgive me for neglecting you? I've been meaning to call and offer my felicitations on your pending nuptials. And may you and your fine young man pound salt for eternity."
"What is this, this salt thing?" asked Lureen. "Is this some smart mouth consulting thing? I'm talkin' about my sister and my Momma! My Momma's crackin' up!"
"Caveat emptor," said Gerald. "Semper fidelis, darling."
"You better cut it out !" Lureen screamed.
"Ah, Darling," said Gerald, "we're driving East with the sun at our backs and the wind in our faces, but our thoughts will return often to the good, simple people of East Dingbat and the many friends we've made here".
"Oh you shit. You little shit. Just shut up," Lureen whispered.
Ten minutes later Gerald and I were on the highway heading for the Pittsburgh airport.
Three months later, after a performance review that questioned his judgment, Gerald quit Barton & Ames for good. I lasted about one more year, but I never did another job anything like Amsil.
Now that's the end of the story as Gerald tells it, but it turns out there's a little more to it. There's a part Gerald leaves out when he tells it, and by the way, he doesn't know I know this, so he's hearing it along with you for the first time tonight.
Two months ago, and mind you this is ten years after the Amsil job, I ran into Big Jim Thomas between planes at LAX and we had a few drinks and talked. I don't remember how it came up after all this time, but it turns out, according to Jim, that Gerald checked the payroll records right after Jim was fired specifically to find out where Lureen's mother and sister worked. He was after them, no question about it. He analyzed the Payroll Department on his own, and came up with the idea of eliminating the tax unit by the transfer to Corporate. Then he waited for the right moment to casually drop the idea in my lap, and sat back to watch the game play itself out. Pretty clever, eh?
Now, I've been Gerald's friend for ten years, and I've heard him tell this story a dozen times, and I guess my question is this. Why do you think Gerald doesn't tell the whole truth? Why does he change the last part of the story?
Do you think maybe the Amsil job kind of bent Gerald more that he likes to let on? Or do you think maybe he feels funny about setting me up to do his hatchet job for him?
Or do you think the story the way he tells it, which ends on a note of ironic, almost cosmic, retribution, is more effective, more satisfying, than the true story of coolly plotted revenge?
Of course, it's also possible that Gerald tells two versions of the story, one when I'm around, and a second when I'm not.
I mean, before we hear from Gerald, I'd really be interested to know what you guys think.