Some years back, I found a letter in my mailbox at The Sun addressed to Jeanne Moreau, the iconic French actress of the 1950s and '60s, in Paris — a rather glamorous and mysterious missive, given that the bulk of my correspondence tends to come from PR people or prisoners.
But the international intrigue was short-lived. It was just a returned letter, popped by the mail guy into my slot (only in the newsroom is Jean Marbella the closest thing to Jeanne Moreau) rather than into the slot of the person who actually sent the letter.
That person would have been the one and only Alice Steinbach. Because who else at The Sun would be in contact with French movie stars?
Alice, as the many fans of her writing have learned, died this week after a lifetime of beautifully wrought words and voracious travels. Overlapping with her here at the paper ranks as one of the delights of my working life; she was the kind of colleague you could count on for wry observations about everything from the state of the presidential campaign to her latest find just off Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Other people's workplaces intrigue me, probably because except for the usual, and horrible, high school jobs, I've only worked in newsrooms. Somehow, I think I'm spoiled. For all the stresses of any workplace, plus a few unique to the industry — deadlines, competition and the fact that if you're doing it right, someone somewhere is probably mad at you — they are a whole lot of fun because of people like Alice.
I was thinking about this as I avidly followed the drama of the Goldman Sachs exec who quit via a New York Times op-ed piece this week. It was quite the exit, sort of a Wall Street version of that flight attendant who gave his hasta la vista by sliding down the emergency chute of his plane, a beer in each hand.
Workplace dramas are almost better than any other kind, because who hasn't just been made crazy by bosses, customers or co-workers at some point, if not daily?
This time, the bridge burner was Greg Smith, who had joined the legendary investment bank as a college intern close to 12 years ago and risen to head of its U.S. equity derivatives business in London, the Mideast and Africa — whatever the heck that means — but now found the company culture too "toxic and destructive" to stay. The company put profit over clients, he wrote, to the point that staff was encouraged to unload undesirable stocks on them and to take advantage of their "muppet"-like lack of sophistication.
Pretty amazing stuff — although I must say the whole "muppets" put-down of gullible clients is almost endearing at this point, some eight years after we heard the tapes of those Enron boys yukking it up about "Grandma Millie" and the other pensioners they were ripping off by manipulating the energy market. Still, what Smith had to say was worth hearing, given the outsized role that Goldman Sachs plays in the economy.
To me, the reaction to Smith's essay was even more fascinating than the piece itself. Almost immediately, there was a backlash of sorts, with people speculating that it was sour grapes — maybe over a lack of promotion or the size of his annual bonus — rather than high-minded ideals that prompted him to go all poison-pen on his now-previous employer.
There was something so familiar about all that. Think about the last time someone was promoted at work or left for another job — the congratulations are barely out before the alternate theories about What's Really Going On make their way through the various company grapevines.
It's human nature, I suppose, and depending on your workplace, mostly harmless in a venting, water-cooler-gossip, bonding kind of way. Of course, given the speed at which stories like this flare up these days, it seemed to cycle through pretty quickly, from the initial buzz to serious discussion to Internet meme and now the inevitable endpoint of meh.
But I'm not done with the story yet, although I guess I'm going to have to get used to feeling this way, because I don't know what Alice would have had to say about it.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun