I will usually write about very serious and important things on here. Seriously important things like why Parker Posey, Dave Grohl and the Hurricane completely and totally rock. I will most likely never write about politics, the economy or Kabbalah. I will definitely not write about math problems.
But, that said, in breaking predicted and promised tradition, I want to write about Ken Lay… which is weird and out of character because I don’t typically like to talk or type about things that are THAT brand of serious. And Ken Lay is really serious today, because he died this morning.
The news of his death, just made the whole Enron plot even more tangled, or final, or personal or something. But really the whole Enron complexity has been pretty personal here in Houston for a long time.
I know a lot of people who aren’t in Houston take it personally too, because I’ve listened to their accounts and opinions. Over the last five years I’ve heard people from all over the country speak about it as if they were discussing anything from Nazi Germany to the Good Ship Lollipop. We’ve heard it dramatized by made-for-TV movies and newscasters. We’ve heard it demonized by angry professors and politicians. I even heard a guy rap about it onstage in Def Poetry Jam. And really, everyone from motivational speakers to late-night comedians has gotten in on the act.
I can’t tell you how many times it’s been name dropped by hopeful interviewees, straight out of school, citing it as the reason they were joining the workforce, “…to bring integrity of communication and reporting back to the American workplace, integrity that was stolen, stolen!, by Enron.” Huh?
Okay, let’s just take a breather right here.
For starters, I’m pretty sure my integrity has not, nor has anyone else’s I’ve actually encountered, been stolen by Enron. I want to tell them this, but I hate to interrupt them in the midst of a memorized speech. Because it’s tough to memorize things, and they should get credit for trying. Even if they are spouting nonsense. However one time, I did interrupt. I stopped the guy mid-sentence and asked him if he even knew what he was talking about. Specifically. I asked him if he knew what Enron did. I mean, what it did pre-2001 besides cook some books. He didn’t know. He didn’t know at all. He thought it was “a telecommunications company.” “Or something. Or whatever. The point is…” Well, the point is, it seems it was and is something different to everyone, whatever they do and wherever they live. But it seems especially so here in town.
I’m good friends with a lot of people who were personally involved and affected by Enron. People who knew a lot about it way before 2001. Two of my favorite friends were very close to it. One was instrumental in lending Enron a lot of money and was pulled into the whole courtroom ripple effect and undertow. Another lost her non-profit fundraising job because Enron was hands-down their largest donor. The whistleblower went to church with me. One friend’s mom worked there and lost her retirement savings because she invested it all in Enron. Another friend’s mom worked there and invested little to nothing in Enron. They both made way above what they would have made doing the exact same thing elsewhere. We thought one was so set and one was so crazy. Turned out we were thinking incorrectly. The crazy one is doing just fine.
In the late 1990s, tons of Enron employees, mainly hot shot guys with lots of promise and cash, lived at the Rice downtown when I did. Right down the hall. We all used to go to this great bar at the bottom of our little high-rise loft collection. It had a 1920s feel, and it was roaring. These guys worked hard and played harder. They gloated and spent to the envy and annoyance of most of the rest of us. They would talk about Enron and our eyes and brains would glaze over. Who cared? They did. Definitely. Now we’d say they were drinking the Kool-aid. At the time it seemed they were drinking the Cristal. And sometimes they’d buy a round of it for all of us. It was a crazy time, a wonderful time. Even now the fantastic bizarreness of it thrills and delights me. But then the consensus was, these Enronites, as we called them, were brilliant players, insanely hard workers, smarter than most and arrogant as hell.
But everything was different then. The vantage point was different. Seriously. Enron wasn’t a household word. A college essay example. A resume equivalence to concentration camp guard. It was just a big company. A big company that most people had never heard of. A company that did pipeline stuff. Or energy trading stuff. Or bad-ass IT stuff. Or all of the above. It was a place for MBA hot shots to make some serious cash, doing serious stuff. It was a place to make a really good living as a secretary or administrative assistant. It was a place to get the funding you needed for your cancer research or for a hospital wing for burned or abused children. It was a lot of things. It was a lot of things to a lot of people. And everyone who was touched by it personally has a valid point of view.
Including Ken Lay.
No matter how you see him, as villain or as victim, the man was a man. He had his brilliance and his demons. Like we all do. In this case, the deadly sin of greed became a literal one. And since death is the great equalizer, I think today, we should remember that he meant the whole world to a very few people who knew him best. His wife, his children, his grandchildren. Whatever his story, whatever truths or falsehoods there are in his story, it was his story. He lived it. And if he was anything like his protégées at the Rice, you’d probably really like him, and hate him, and be jealous of him, and be annoyed by him, and want to kick his ass, and want to drink with him, and probably actually laugh with him in spite of yourself and in spite of it all.