The River

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Thanks for coming out

You know how singers often give a little background, a little commentary before they play a song? That’s what this is.

And speaking of that, I went out last Friday night to see a rock-n-roll band, The Cash Brothers. Two Canadian (Toronto) singer-songwriter brothers who craft the kind of tight, pop/rock literate songs I’ve always liked. My friend Billy Ray Joe Bob Joe Willie Jones was supposed to meet me, or he said he might, but he didn’t. So it was me, by myself, at a 50s era formica-topped table in the back, with a tea light in a clear glass holder. The room was about the size of a large class room. A collection of mismatched tables, simple chairs, low lights with candles at most tables. A listening room, and that’s what the “crowd” of 30 or so people did.

A young singer, whose name I didn’t catch, was on stage with his acoustic guitar when I entered. His dark, near-shoulder-length hair fell across his eyes, and he strummed and sang earnest, mid-tempo songs about love and relationships and confusion. The room was quiet, save for this outpouring of music and words and pain and longing. The singer stayed within himself, rarely addressing the audience, except for the time he said with amazement and appreciation that he had never played to such an attentive group.

The Cash Brothers were a different story. One, wearing a maroon suit of some sort of suede material, suggested a mix of early Elvis Costello and Blonde on Blonde era Dylan. The other was reminiscent of Don Johnson during his Miami Vice days, if he’d let himself go a bit to seed. I don’t know their names, so I’ll call them Elvis and Don. Elvis played the lead, electric guitar, Don the acoustic rhythm. They’d brought along an electric bass player and a drummer. Classic four-piece. I felt like Mickey Rourke in Diner; if anybody asked, I’d say “I’m just here because I appreciate the fine music.”

And the music was fine, taut, crisp, loud, and I wasn’t the only connoisseur, apparently. The audience was again quite attentive. Elvis, who provided witty commentary between songs, joked about how in Canada he’d have to talk over the general chaos. He introduced one of his rockin numbers as "about those times when you're sitting in traffic and wondering how it all got like this."

But I digress. The piece below first appeared on July 17, 2002, on a blog called High Water, of which I was the sole proprietor. I’ve switched blogs in an attempt to mask my identity, however futile that may prove to be. In fact, when I’d first started blogging, in March of that year, I masked my identity in another way. I played it safe. That was until the company I worked for became one of the big corporate scandal enterprises, much like Enron, Global Crossing and Tyco. Worrying about whether I should be blogging in such a way as to reveal a whole person full of faults and communal as opposed to capitalistic ideals seemed trivial.

(he pauses to strum/tune his electric guitar)

So I began to post some original stuff. You know, writing. Like we all do. And I’d recently added the comment function. So I got some positive feedback. Yeah, it’s like heroin. What can I write for the people next? I wondered. And the ideas came. This one in particular came while I was soaking in the tub. As soon as I was out and dry I grabbed a pad and a pen and jotted down my idea, writing the first third and making a few notes on where it was supposed to go. Then I went to sleep. Driving in to work the next day, as I listened to a song off of One Step Up/ Two Steps Back, The Streets of Philadelphia, as sung by Richie Havens, I knew it would work in the finished piece. I wrote it all out as soon as I got to work.

But enough about me, this is about Richard.

At Tuesday Night’s Meeting of Corporate Workers of America Anonymous

Hi, my name is Richard (Hi Richard!) ….and…and…uh….I work for a large corporation. I’m 45, and this is my first time at one of these things….but I’m at my wits’ end.

I started working corporate right out of college. Some of my friends thought I should wait, that I was too young, but I didn’t listen. I thought I could handle it. My dad was an accountant, and he had a good life. He had it under control.

I started out, just, you know, adding up numbers, looking for ways to...cough…increase revenue. I really didn’t have a problem at this point. My PowerPoint presentations were clear and methodical and, I think, well received. My e-mails were crisp. I kept my nose clean. It’s not like I was a spineless yes-man. I even corrected my boss’s figures once.

Then I got promoted (murmur) . The pressure increased, but so did the pay. I bought a ten-bedroom house way up on the hill over town. Some of my friends mockingly called it a starter-mansion, but I put that down to jealousy. Besides, I rarely saw them. The mortgage payments were huge, but I felt certain a promotion and a big pay raise were coming. My boss kept praising my “creativity.”

Sure enough, I got promoted. I was VP of finance, reporting directly to the CFO (gasp). I’ll never forget that day. He handed me a cigar and the keys to a well-appointed office. I had Alice rearrange the furniture that very night. Of course, she hung my photo of President Bush on Air Force One crookedly, and I told her to go home to her apartment and three kids that morning.

"First you get the money, then you get the power..."

I hired a new secretary at half the pay the next day. And speaking of pay, mine was, well…ample. Our stock just kept going up, my stock options were priced extremely low….well, when all was said and done, I had enough to redo the bathrooms in my primary residence in solid gold and the best Italian marble.

Some were beginning to wonder at my behavior, but my boss called me a miracle worker, which is pretty much what Wall Street kept saying about the company when they saw our numbers.

Then this young VP of sales said we needed to meet. He seemed like a nice guy. I couldn’t figure out how he got to be VP. The sales force loved him though. He told me that his reps were finding it harder and harder to close deals. That companies were putting off buying decisions. In short, demand was softening. In fact, it had been for some time. Then he hit me with a tough question. Did I know what I was doing? Why were the company’s revenue numbers still so high? Then he asked the killer: what was my total compensation for the previous year?

He was so nice, and concerned, that I let him get away with the insubordination. That night, laying in bed, I thought…was that a business meeting, or an intervention?

By the next morning I was too busy preparing the target numbers for our planned…downsizing (grumble) to give it much thought. What did that VP know, anyway, we were addressing the problem in…uhm…a variety of ways.

The day of the layoffs wasn't pleasant, but a few minutes behind the wheel of the Jag helped. I paid attention to the superior ride, the sporty handling, the fact that it said “Jaguar” in gold script on the dash, just above the burled Walnut trim. I still need to get that trim waxed. Just doesn’t glow like it used to….

Uh…oh yeah. Actually, nothing was glowing like it used to. That’s when I knew I had a problem. It looked increasingly like I, and the company, had hit a wall. I kept running through investment schemes in my mind. I could get Fred’s company to buy us, and cash out. Then, instead of a yacht, I would buy my own shipyard. Maybe I could get into manufacturing in the Philippines or Mexico or China or even Burma. There were lots of ways to keep this going.

But that’s when we received the letter from the SEC. They were onto us. I…we, were screwed.

That night, I was watching CNN, or FOX or CNBC. I was such a heavy user of all of them that they started to blend together. The talking heads all morphed into one terrifyingly bland face with one droning voice…numbers were down today….Greenspan said….Ford and Mack Truck to merge, plan new SUV…

I started sweating and shaking, I had to get out of there.

I got in the Jag, slammed the door and was out on the streets. ZZTOP came on the radio and I thought about how simple it used to be. How good music, a good woman and a summer night were all I needed. Thank god for Classic-rock-formatted radio. Then the Streets of Philadelphia came on….I used to love Springsteen, and I remember when he won the Oscar for that song. Always wondered how much he got paid for it. I recognized it right away. Then Bruce’s singing caught me like a whisper in my ear. And it wasn’t just the premium package stereo.

I couldn’t say it any better, so I brought along this CD player. (Hits play…walks back to chair and sits down).

I was bruised and battered and I couldn't tell
what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
Saw my reflection in a window
I didn't know my own face

Oh brother are you gonna leave me
wasting away
On the streets of Philadelphia

I walked the avenue till my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Just as black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia

Ain't no angel gonna greet me
It's just you and I my friend
And my clothes don't fit me no more
I walked a thousand miles
just to slip this skin

The night has fallen, I'm lyin' awake
I can feel myself fading away
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss
or will we leave each other alone like this
On the streets of Philadelphia

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