No longer friends

At the office this morning, maintenance workers were climbing ladders and tweaking knobs, restoring the Muzak to an inescapable volume. The first speakers they turned on were right over my desk, so I put on my headphones, cranked up the volume to drown out the Muzak, and the office will never again see me without headphones.

Next time the building is on fire, when they announce it over the public-address system instead of sounding the fire alarm, I hope a co-worker will tap me on the shoulder and let me know.

♦ ♦ ♦

It’s been only a week since the last lying e-mail from management promised that no layoffs were being considered, and today there was another round of layoffs. There was no announcement to employees. We heard it from the news on the radio, at about noon.

The company is shuttering one of its subsidiary chains of department stores. 13 locations will be closed, and about 2,000 people will be “let go.” It won’t affect anyone in the building where I work, but it strikes close to home — the largest store in the soon-to-be dead chain is next door to the store where I work, overlooking San Francisco's Union Square.

The announcement didn’t even come from my employer, the company that owns the stores that are closing. Nope, according to the news, the announcement came from the company that’s buying/merging with my employer. The merger is still “pending before the FTC,” but while it’s pending, the company that’s not legally running things is running things. 

The news report said they'd rebuffed a buyout offer for the chain that’s being closed. The new management felt it would be "more profitable to liquidate the assets.” There’s your true meaning of Christmas, Scrooge-America: Two thousand people are out of work, because there’s more profit in selling the real estate, than in selling handbags, umbrellas, and ladies’ coats, or than selling the company itself.

It’s wrong, it’s cruel, and it ought to be illegal. And even from a capitalist perspective, it’s stupid. I don’t have an MBA or a BMW, but check the calendar: It’s November.  It’s moronic to slash prices and have a frenzied going-out-of-business sale now, just as the Christmas shopping season is starting. Until December 24, any store that doesn’t physically slap customers in the face will make triple its normal profits. 

Even if those stores must be closed (which obviously isn’t true — they’re not losing money, just not making as much profit as the company wants — and there was a buyer!), wouldn’t it make more sense to have a normal Christmas shopping season, and then announce the going-out-of-business sale on December 26? 

These are the brilliant minds running the corporation that’s buying the bankrupt corporation where, for now, I work.

♦ ♦ ♦

What with the merger, the fire, and now the announcement of stores closing, the name of the company that employs me must be obvious to anyone who reads a newspaper. Yeah, that’s right. We’re the huge balloons parading down the streets of Manhattan every Thanksgiving Day.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Here’s an object lesson about friendships, and why I don’t have many. For months, since Beatrice was transferred out of the department where I work, she and I have chatted via e-mail, trading complaints about the company and whatever else is on our minds — within limits, of course. You always have to be careful at work, not to accidentally reveal an opinion about something that matters, because that could piss people off.

On Wednesday, Beatrice and I were ‘chatting’ via e-mail, and the newspaper strike came up. I typed to her what I’d said in the zine on Tuesday: “Don’t mess with the Teamsters.”

Well, that was too political or too subversive or just too much for Beatrice. She wrote back, “The ends never justify the means, Doug, and strikers who vandalize company property ought to be penalized to the full extend of the law. I hope you don’t *really* believe violence is ever justified.”

I’ve known Beatrice for a year, we’ve even had beers together, so I rolled the dice and gave her an honest opinion:

“Yeah, I meant it. I have no sympathy for a company that treats employees so shitty they're forced to strike. You do what you have to do. If a Teamster took a sledgehammer to one of the paper's printing presses, I understand it and forgive it.”

She replied, “Right is right and wrong is wrong, and vandalism or breaking the law is wrong.”

Having rolled the dice and lost, I went double or nothing. The whole friendship, riding on this next bet:

“If we had a union and walked out, I’d throw a brick through the window here. It wouldn’t bother my conscience. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ depends on how strongly you believe what you believe. No worries, though — we don’t have a union, and I don’t have a brick handy. So tell me, Beatrice, is all this getting too political for friendly interoffice chit-chat?”

It was two hours before she replied, and she said, “Yes, it’s too political,” and changed the subject to the fire. She hasn’t replied to the two e-mails I sent since then, one yesterday and one this morning, so it seems that with a few words of honesty, I have one less friend.

Que sera sera. If we can’t be honest, if she can’t handle a difference of opinion, or isn’t able to discuss it, then we weren't friends anyway.

♦ ♦ ♦

I wasted six bucks at the Castro tonight, not even including the popcorn, for what sounded like an intriguing noir double feature. Checking my old movie guidebooks, The Spiral Staircase (1946) was supposed to be a “superb Hitchcock-like thriller,” but there were no thrills. From the opening logo to The End, you’d need strong, black coffee to stay awake.

Then came Gaslight (1944), starring the incandescent Ingrid Bergman, but even she’s not enough to salvage this paint-by-numbers drama. Half an hour into it, with plot points the rest of the way laid out plain as a AAA map, I grabbed my backpack and came home. Both these movies combined aren’t as interesting as my job, which ain’t interesting at all.

Or, maybe they’re both masterpieces, pinnacle achievements of cinema. Between the fire, and the fire alarm that didn’t sound, and today’s layoffs, and getting scolded by Darla and Babs, and losing my friendship with Beatrice, maybe my mindset wasn’t right for a night at the movies.

From Pathetic Life #6
Friday, November 18, 1994

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

Addendum, 2021: I Magnin (pronounced Eye Magnin) was the chain of department stores that was ended with a wimpy press release on this day in 1994, and I can't let it pass, even in retrospect, without a moment of remembrance.

I Magnin was unlike any other store I've seen. I couldn't afford to shop there and never worked there, but I'd been inside their flagship store in San Francisco, sometimes delivering paperwork or reports, since my employer owned the place. Sometimes I walked in just to gawk.

Nicknamed the White Marble Lady, I Magnin was almost literally a shrine to capitalism and opulence. The exterior walls were marble — genuine marble, not a facade. Inside, the first floor shopping area was what I'd call the sanctuary — it was two stories tall, perhaps three, with handmade display cases, beautiful murals behind glass on the walls, and enormous crystal chandeliers hanging from the gold-plated (or solid gold, for all I know) ceilings.

If you're lucky enough to know what an old-style movie palace was like, I Magnin was like that. Their San Francisco store was designed by Timothy Pflueger, who also built the Castro Theater, and the Paramount in Oakland, and many of the area's most physically beautiful buildings — the Pacific Telephone Building, the San Francisco Stock Exchange, the Mayan mansion called simply 450 Sutter Street, and the world's swankiest bar, the Top of the Mark.

I would conservatively estimate that I've stood to urinate at least half a million times in my life, and I Magnin was the finest place I ever peed. The restrooms had art deco pedestal sinks and other extravagant features, and everything was maintained in its original decadence. The urinal might have been mere porcelain, but it was fancy porcelain, older than me but pristine and unstained, and a sheet of marble protected my penis from view and my neighbor from my splatters. Even the tile on the floor was shiny, green, and clean. All the facilities had the same splendor as the day it was built.

I Magnin was the store where Scrooge McDuck would've shopped. It was undoubtedly evil and a phenomenon we wouldn't want to bring back. It was the opposite of egalitarian — an awe-inspiring structure where the world's wealthiest people were given (literally) white glove treatment, and people like you and me were tolerated at best — but damn, it was a beautiful place.

Trivia: I Magnin was founded by Mary Ann Magnin in 1876, selling upscale baby clothes she made by hand. She also sold wood carvings made by her husband, Isaac, and named the store after him because shoppers and suppliers felt more comfortable when she said she was working for her husband.

I Magnin was sold to Bullock's Department Stores in 1944, and Bullocks was sold to Federated Department Stores in 1964, and to Macy's in 1988. Federated Department Stores bought Macy's in 1994, and I Magnin was closed on January 8, 1995.

In a final indignity, Macy's, located next door, knocked door-holes through the marble walls, dismantled and removed whatever architectural features could be unbolted and sold, and expanded its mundane store into the former I Magnin space.

Macy's has since moved out, retreating to its older building next door. The former I Magnin building was sold in 2019, and in its next life it'll be a bunch of lawyer's offices underneath overpriced condominiums.

Pathetic Life 

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