It’s the small details that tip you off when things are starting to go to hell.
You think Bernie Ebbers woke up one morning and said “I think I’ll cook the books about eleven billion dollars’ worth today”? That’s not how it happens. Little things go wrong, and get covered up. An investment that looked like a sure thing suddenly turns into a big loser. What’s wrong with hiding that loss from Wall Street? After all, everyone is making money. Who cares if some of it disappears down a hole?
But when greed and arrogance and stupidity and corruption all get in the tub with you, get ready to take the bath of your life.
Every coverup involves someone else, a “friend,” an accomplice, and then another and another, and pretty soon there are so many employees spinning plates in the air, trying to keep the show going and the plates from crashing to the floor that no one is there to take care of the details, like putting toilet paper in the rest rooms.
I got a copy of the email when The Corporation fired the maintenance company for our building. It was crude, blunt, almost cruel. It listed at least a dozen locations where The Corporation was “making a change,” bringing in a new janitorial service, including at the place where I work. They must have found someone who’d do it cheaper. Just like that, 20 or 30 janitors are out of work, maybe their whole company is out of business.
The corporate structure allows for one and only one goal. Like a shark that must keep swimming ahead to keep eating, The Corporation must keep improving the bottom line. All the workers want raises, the managers need to demonstrate their skills (and get raises), the officers and the board have those pesky yacht and Maserati payments to make and the stockholders want growth or else they’ll take their money and go home.
So all of them – us – spend our days cranking out more product and peddling it to whomever we can. The supplier corporations, the transportation corporations, the auditing and accounting corporations, the lawyers, the doctors, the consultants, the technicians, the advertising system – print, radio, TV, direct, web – they are all trying to beat each other and sell something to my corporation, while at the same time swimming like sharks and eating everything in their paths, making more and more money every quarter. It is a magnificent sight to behold.
Until a corner starts to crumble. Until someone hires a cheaper janitorial service and sends triumphant copies of the email to everyone who could remotely care about the cost-cutting involved. Until the old janitorial service packs up it’s vacuums, mops and brooms and walks out with the keys to all the towel and toilet paper dispensers. Until the new janitorial service thinks it’s someone else’s job to refill those dispensers. Hey, if it were their job they’d have the keys, right?
In a few days, all the dispensers were empty. I don’t know what everyone was doing with their wet hands and their stinky anuses. Maybe they were bringing stuff from home and keeping it in their desks. Wet hands you can wipe on your shirt, but the other…
I really did try to find a key. Why would you lock up toilet paper in the first place? OK, of course I know. Think of it as a Socratic question. I asked everyone on the staff, and I ransacked the storeroom and the broom closets, but the keys to the dispensers were gone. I got paper towels and toilet paper out of the storeroom myself, and placed them strategically around in the restrooms, the lunchroom, in locations where they might do some good. But the rolls kept ending up in puddles of water on the lunchroom counter, or puddles of urine on the rest room floor. Our facilities were starting to look like those of a bankrupt gas station on California State Route 99, a desolate and dilapidated stretch of highway that runs north and south through the great central valley, forgotten since the interstate went through thirty years ago. In other words they looked like the fall of civilization, the crashing of plates to the floor, the beginning of the end.
My theory, and the reason I did what I did, was that if I could stop this little detail from crumbling, if I could somehow keep up the appearance that whoever was in charge had his/her lights on, then maybe the whole place wouldn’t start down that road to hell.
So what I did was, I got a big screwdriver and, emulating the 13-year-old kid who’d stolen my car a few years ago, I jammed it in the keyhole of the nearest towel dispenser and punched out the lock. Then I pried the door open and loaded the dispenser. Then I went into the stall and did the same thing with the toilet paper dispenser. I made no effort to conceal my activities. I was proud of them. Sure, the towels and tissues were no longer secure, but, goddammit, they were available. Also, the doors to these dispensers were now a little bent and flappy.
I had a little free time, so I did all the rest of the rest rooms in my end of the building, and I fixed the towel dispenser in the lunchroom, too. I was, literally, on a roll.
But now I have a meeting with the General Manager, at which I will have to explain my actions. It turns out that my helpful team-playing might also be seen as vandalism and malicious mischief, or perhaps a precursor to going postal. I’m sure he’ll understand if I just tell him that I was trying to avoid the collapse of civilization.