Monday, February 16, 2009

It's Not Business, It's Personal

When I hit The Cycle this morning (because, as I always say, somebody has to read this stuff), my Google-spam was one giant ad from a department store chain with stores in Iowa (I tell you this because I don't know if everyone sees the same ads or if they're hunting me off my IP address).

Funny thing is, I used to work for that department store. In fact, it was my first "grown-up" job, the one that brought me back to Iowa. I wrote ad copy for them -- or more accurately, transcribed sale prices into shouting newspaper ads -- but it was the first time someone actually exchanged money for my ability to put words in order, so it was a pretty heady rush. At the time, it was an Iowa company, headquartered in downtown Des Moines (although it was owned by a bigger company elsewhere) with its corporate offices sitting on top of an actual retail store. It had been there since the dawn of time, and -- the old-timers assured the punk kids -- it would provide us with jobs for as long as we wanted them.

Anyone living in today's economy is already hearing the hoofbeats of the horsemen on the horizon, right? Because one fateful day, the entire corporate office was called in to the TEAM Room (Together Everyone Achieves More -- gag, right?) for a meeting. And in that meeting, the president of our little company let us all know that our corporate overlords had decided to fold our office into another chain, closing us down and laying off all 250 of us. Even said president was going to have to clean his desk after he dropped the bomb.

Years later, with a new job I like much more than that silly copywriting gig, I've since gotten over my bitterness, that sense of being just a number on a balance sheet, an expendable expense, a drag on the stock price. But I can't help feeling deja vu as I watch people around me -- good people, talented people, smart people, people who have given up nights and weekends for their corporate overlords -- being "displaced." That's the euphemism. Displaced. So gentle, so kind. Totally hides the fact that a real flesh-and-blood person is now on the outside looking in, wondering just how to make that next mortgage payment.

My last bike shop gig was in a small family-run Schwinn shop -- my boss sold bikes out of one end of the building while his dad sold mowers and chainsaws out of the other end, and his mom did the books for both. We did a brisk business through December, since a lot of bikes went under Christmas trees. But come January and February, things got brutally slow. We ran a pool on how many people would set off the door buzzer on any given eight-hour shift, and some days, the winning number could be counted on one hand. Without the occasional sale of a Schwinn Airdyne (and the "house calls" doing repairs on same for the local health clubs), the cash register wouldn't have made a peep.

Through all that, Bill kept me on. I couldn't have been generating enough income to justify my salary, but he kept paying it, and told me many times that he wished he could pay me more. We played darts, made mountain bike obstacle courses around the shop, plotted dream bike builds, read from his collection of old catalogs, shot the breeze, and some days I just watched the place while he bowhunted deer from his tree stand out back. I even asked him point-blank why he kept me around during the slow months, but he always brushed it off with the same old joke: "Know how to make a million bucks in the bike business? Start with two million."

I wish I could deliver the happy ending here, but that shop is long gone now, out of business, and last I heard, Bill had a desk job for a corporate overlord of his own. Meanwhile, the guys who created our current economic mess will hang on to their jobs, and maybe if they can "displace" a few more thousand salaries from the balance sheet, they might take home an obscene bonus along the way. If there's a happy ending there, I'm not seeing it.

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