This is an interview with a friend of mine from Houston. I’ve changed the name, but other than that 100% accurate. Not a socialist, but an honest man, “all-American” sort of guy – short hair, goes to Church, works out at the YMCA. But his whole world has been turned upside down in the last few years – from a confident, satisfied kind of guy, to one totally disillusioned with the system.
Comradely, Harry, October 2004
My name is Pete. I live and work in Houston, Texas in the oil business – the only business in town. I do programming and software support for oil exploration.
I moved to Houston a single guy, looking for work, about 25 years ago. Houston was new and go ahead. The edge of the city, West Houston, where I’ve always lived, was 10 miles closer to the city center. When I started work, the office was surrounded by just a few apartment blocks, a couple of strip malls and not much else. Now it’s offices, more apartments, hotels, shops. We just keep building in this part of the world, spreading out across the Texas plain.
Work was OK back then. The company I was with was expanding and management were investing. You had the time to do the job right – build a piece of software that would last a while, test it, make sure people could use it. OK, management could be tough. I remember the downturn in the business in the mid-1980s. 40% of the people in the company got laid off over a few months – maybe a 1000 people. One day you’d be in someone’s office working with them, you’d go back the next day and they weren’t there – “Oh, yeah, Mike got laid off this morning”. I was lucky. Always worked hard and did my job. The hours I gave that place!
Things changed during the 90’s. The company got sold to a bigger outfit. The management – who’d been telling us for years how they wanted employees who were committed to the company – just took their $10million packages and left. The new outfit asset stripped – sold off equipment then leased it back cheap. Lots of nonsense – never time to do it right, always time to do it over. All sorts of crazy games, cover ups when things went wrong. The enjoyment went right out of the job. But I was married by then with two kids. Kept my head down, did my job. Reckoned if I did my job right maybe I’d last a bit longer. But always knew they’d get me in the end. You get older, you cost more money, you leave work early to pick up the kids, you’re trouble.
They laid me off beginning of last year. 23 years I’d been with them. Gave me 25 minutes to get out of the building. I’d got half way down the corridor saying goodbye, the security guard came round with my boss, said I’d had enough time and I’d got to go. They wheeled my cardboard box out of the building on a chair to the parking lot and I’m gone. Screwed me around over the severance package, but some dumb lawyer I went to started screwing me around as well and I just left it.
My wife works and we reckoned we’d be OK. And it was good being at home with the kids – never had spent that much time with them before. They enjoyed it too. Got depressed at times but had lots of jobs to do around the house and in the yard.
My eldest started having some health problems towards the end of last year. Shortness of breath, sometimes some strange types of things she’d do. We went round the doctors, the child psychiatrists. We’ve got medical insurance but the bills just keep coming. Crazy things – a ride to the emergency room in an ambulance and a few minutes treatment that cost $8,000 dollars! How do they work that out?
OK, I got a job beginning of this year, similar type of work to what I’ve done before. Smaller outfit and don’t know what might happen – told my wife I could get laid off any time. My eldest’s health isn’t getting much better but it’s stable. The youngest has started having a few problems too but we think we can handle that.
What do I think about Houston and the oil business now? Well, if you drive into Houston from outside of town you hit the city limit sign and just about then you can smell it – the pollution from the refineries on the ship canal. That’s Houston. They don’t build for the future anymore, they just asset strip. The corruption starts at the bottom when you ignore that problem because your boss doesn’t want to know, then it goes all the way to the top and comes all the way back down again. The town is ugly, polluted, inhuman. The management are brutal.
And it goes all the way back to Washington and right to the top. Of course we went in to Iraq for the oil. What else? They lie, they cheat, they just make money for themselves, they never do anything for ordinary people. What do they know about my life?