Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Bain of My Existence

When I returned to America after spending time in Austria and Hong Kong (where I did manage to keep my twenty-something self afloat by playing and teaching), I found myself smack in the middle of the "Great Recession." Knowing how dead Boston was in the summer musically (and it was back in the 80s) I spent the summer in New York, which was equally bleak. I got one or two jobs, and taught a couple of students, but almost every "day" job mentioned in the newspaper (that I could do) required typing, and I had never learned to type without looking at my fingers. I recall that there were also lots of jobs for escort services (for women who couldn't type, I suppose).

I went back to Boston, where I stayed with my father, his new wife, and my two-year-old half brother. There wasn't much on the horizon flute-wise or teaching-wise in Boston, so I swallowed my pride and decided to go to typing school. My classmates were mostly products of "Reaganomics." Proposition 2 1/2 (in the 1980s people didn't use decimal points the way they do now) made severe cuts in education, so at least half of them were out-of-work teachers. Most of them had college degrees, some had advanced degrees, and some were multi-lingual.

I learned to run an IBM selectric, and once I hit 40 words per minute, I went to the temporary agencies in town, and got "hired." Being "hired" meant that you waited by the phone to get called for temporary typing jobs. One agency had just gotten an IBM displaywriter, and were interested in filling calls for "operators," so the manager asked me if I would like to learn to use it. I did a couple of tutorials, and was then "sold" as an expert.

My first full time displaywriter job was at Bain and Company. I was hired there as a long-term "temp," and because of the size of the workload, my temporary position became permanent. The company was structured traditionally. There was the professional staff:

Vice Presidents
Research Associates

The "professional" support staff

1 Office Manager
1 Computer person
Half a dozen accountants
Secretary to the President
2 or 3 Secretaries to the Vice Presidents
4 or 5 Secretaries to the Managers
5 or 6 Production Assistants (they made celluloid pie charts for the Consultants and answered phones)

The "unprofessional" support staff

3 or 5 Receptionists (they answered calls and took messages for the Consultants and the Research Associates)
2 Mail room workers
A cleaning crew
1 Word Processor Operator, before I arrived. And then there were 2.

Aside from the people in the accounting department, the mail room, the cleaning crew (who I never saw), and the computer person, every member of the support staff, at the time I arrived, was female. Bain promoted a male mail room worker to the level of PA when they got their very first computer-graphics equipment (which was also THE very first computer graphics equipment available). I don't think he could type.

Even though there was no opportunity for any kind of advancement for me, I actually enjoyed my job for a while. Consultants and Research Associates gave me things to type, and I typed them. I invented all sorts of nifty ways of organizing files, I could listen to my Walkman cassette player with headphones while I typed.

I kind of liked the way people responded to me when I mentioned I worked at Bain. One realtor rented me and Michael a very nice apartment in Brookline because he was impressed by the fact that I worked at Bain. I had good health care, something that I was unable to get as a temporary worker, paid vacation, and I got to work in a nice office with (mostly) highly-educated people. All of the RAs were Ivy League graduates (mostly Harvard), and if I recall correctly, they were on their way to Harvard Business School. They all worked extremely hard for little pay, but they knew that eventually they would work hard for lots of pay. The consultants were all Harvard Business School graduates. I had little to talk about with most of the people who worked at Bain because very few of them were interested in music (you know, the "classical" kind), literature, or culture. When I heard the expression "Bain Culture," I got a little excited at first, but I soon found that the word "culture" means different things to different groups of people. I did get invited to the apartment of one RA who confided to me that she and her husband were active in Oxfam America, and that she felt very out of place at Bain & Company.

I typed and I typed. I typed reports that introduced the concept of "downsizing." There were efficiency studies, and proposed ways of speeding up production in order for companies to save money. My only exposure to this type of thing before my time at Bain & Company was in The Pajama Game (the song begins at 37 seconds--you can save time by scrolling right to it).

There were discussions concerning what we now know as "outsourcing." These people "crunched" numbers (I had never heard that term before working at Bain), and flew all over the world to help their clients run "leaner" companies and make more money.

Somebody once mentioned that Bill Bain, the president of the company, could be the president of the United States. I couldn't see a connection between the job of being president of the United States and being president of a company that made money by showing other companies how to save money by downsizing and automating. I always thought that the best kind of president was the kind who understood the law, and cared about fairness and the well being of people. I also, in my naive way, thought that it might someday be possible to live in a country where someone with my background (a degree from Juilliard) could find a way to be self supporting and lead a good life. People like me were not important to people at Bain & Company, except for the fact that people like me happened to be consumers like everyone else.

I started to have serious ethical qualms about the things I was typing. I had issues with some of the companies that were clients of Bain & Company, and it started to really get to me. I found another displaywriter job at another company, and I left Bain.

I believe I left at a good time. The secretaries were all getting IBM personal computers, with a "Displaywrite 2" program, so I knew that my displaywriting days there were going to come to an end anyway. I doubt that I would ever have gotten promoted to the level of secretary or PA, and I assumed that my job would be the first to be downsized. I have no regrets about leaving.

Every time I see Mitt Romney, the "company" in Bain & Company, on the television, I am reminded of my days at Bain. I am reminded of the great divide between those that "have" and those that do not have. Mitt Romney sees the world through Bain-colored glasses. I always got the impression, from the reports I typed, that his view of the world was like a person's view of the landscape from an airplane. Or a Ferris wheel.

1 comment:

peregrine said...

Well, I read this when you posted it in August, and it was interesting.

Now I came back to re-read it, and I read it very differently.