Monday, April 12, 2010

"If there's time to lean," or, What better time to think about the workplace than when you've taken a week of vacation to sit at home and read?

In Sam Lipsyte's coruscating, acid-tongued, and hilarious novel The Ask (2010), narrator Milo Burke describes his position in the ecology of the college development office in which he works like this:
I'd become one of those mistakes you sometimes find in an office, a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence, bobbing along on the energy tides of others, a walking reminder of somebody's error in judgment.
Since Jean Edward Smith's Grant (2001) has had me thinking about Ulysses Grant's many good qualities as a boss, I started imagining what Grant would do with that sort of employee. If his approach to the slackness he found in the Army of the Potomac on taking over as general in chief in 1864 is any indication, Milo may want to commence worrying:
Virtually half the soldiers in Federal service were holding down rear-area jobs, guarding supply lines, providing garrisons for cities and forts in occupied areas, and were not available for battlefield duty. . . . Grant instructed Halleck to forward all new recruits to the field immediately, and to strip each department "to the lowest number of men necessary for the duty to be performed." By summer, Grant had cleaned out the rear areas and had reduced the ratio of garrison to combat troops by half, an accomplishment no previous general in chief had considered possible.
That change seems to have pleased the frontline troops immensely, impressing them immediately with Grant's seriousness and fairness. As for the folks ejected from their relatively cushy rear-area jobs, I expect enthusiasm was a bit more tempered.

Maybe Milo Burke should just go into retail . . . or, at least, retail like it used to be, the independent sort, before the chains and changes of habit forced even the most idiosyncratic of locally owned stores to hire employees who actually, you know, work. One of the many quiet pleasures in James Hynes's stunning new novel Next (2010) is this brief glimpse of the back-in-the-day retail life, record store phylum:
"The sixties were very, very good to Mick," the manager told Kevin once, when they were taking a break in the alley behind the store. Though the circumstances of the observation strike Kevin as ironic now--they had been sharing a joint at the time--the disjunction between the remark and its context went unnoted back then. In a hip, regionally famous, independent record store in Ann Arbor in the late seventies--long gone now, of course, strangled by the chains and the Internet and iTunes--reliability and even competence weren't necessarily the first things you looked for in an employee. Entertainment value counted for a lot, and McNulty had entertainment value to burn. During the long reaches of slow, midweek midsummer days when Big Star was nearly empty, Kevin would stand with McNulty behind the counter or in the back of the store by the jazz section, and McNulty would smoke and slouch and, from the depths of a heavy-lidded midafternoon coma, relate fantastic stories from his youth.
All of which, really, is just an excuse to share two of my favorite retail stories, neither of which is from my own experience.

The first comes from baseball blogger Craig Calcaterra (whose pithy daily rundown of baseball results for NBC sports's Hardball Talk should be part of every baseball fan's morning). Soon after Calcaterra was hired as a full-time blogger last fall, he wrote a post for his personal blog, "Jobs I've left: an inventory," that, in the midst of descriptions of fast-food jobs and office jobs, all of it worth reading, told of his time at the Ohio State University Bookstore, where he worked with a character who will be familiar, at least in outline, to any retail veteran:
Office supplies counter: I had this job for the balance of college. It was about half student employees, half-lifers. The lifers were a bit scary. One of them said that the worst thing that could ever happen to him would be for him to win a lottery when the jackpot was below $20 million. Why? "Because there are certain things I'll need to do if I win, and I'll need all of that money." His expression when he said that was serious, approaching dire.
And finally, there's my friend Jim, whom I've known since back in my own days as a bookseller, who said he once had a bookstore coworker from Russia who said to him, more than once,
The question you have to ask yourself is, "Which Karamazov am I?" We are all one of the Karamazovs, all of us. Only, which one are you? Which one are you?
I'm willing to assume that his expression at that moment was, to borrow from Craig Calcaterra, "serious, approaching dire."

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