Fathers and Sons: The Invisible Ladder
By James Petras
Setting: Restaurant, where four middle-age friends, who have known each other since their university days in the early 1970’s, meet for lunch.
Professor: Should we share a bottle of wine?
Lawyer: Why not! There’s no time clock, clients or deadlines.
Social Worker: (smiles). We can afford it!
Doctor: No doubt … we’re drawing pensions, Social Security, and annuities. Medicare covers our medical bills. Mortgages are paid up.
Professor: Someone e-mailed me an announcement about a half-century anniversary of the student strike… back then and when.
Lawyer: Is it that long ago? Seems like only yesterday we were rabble rousing and doing all-nighters running off leaflets.
Doctor: For some folks that was the biggest moment of their lives. They’re frozen in a time warp.
Social Worker: You’d be surprised how many activists stayed and made a career out of celebrating their past.
Lawyer: Yeah, past thirty they got seedy. Didn’t know when to move on to the real world.
Professor: Best advice I ever got was from my dissertation director, who told me to ice the polemical stuff and publish in the premier journals and presses. First, get in the big league … “After you make it,” he advised, “you can do whatever you want … your endorsement of good causes will be sought and valued.” He was right!
Lawyer: (cynical smile) Course after you climb the ladder, there’s no looking back … (quickly adds) but I still take pro-bono clients once in a while.
Social Worker: That’s good insurance if you ever run into one of those losers who went full-time and landed on their backsides when the big lay-offs hit in the early 1980’s. Now they’re full of envy and resentment of those of us that didn’t burn our bridges.
Lawyer: I never run into the ‘losers’. Not at work, not in my neighborhood, or not hanging around my summerhouse.
Professor: I used to see some of them. The smart ones made it on the lecture circuit and cashed in for a while. But who knows what happened to them after that?
Doctor: By the way, can I interest you guys in signing a petition for single payer national health care? It’s been circulating on the Internet.
Lawyer: Send it to me. I’ll look it over. It must be for the next generation to worry about. My medical needs are covered across the board.
Social Worker: Lots of uncertainty out there. My kid resents paying Social Security. He claims it won’t be around when it’s time for him to collect.
Professor: He’s got a point there but he‘s stretching it a bit (pause) Times are changing though… When I graduated, I had a dozen offers and I was still active in the Movement. The Viet Nam war was still on and the blacks were rioting in the cities. But I kept away from the crazies… the ones carrying the Vietcong flag and provoking the cops with taunts. I published in the right journals, crunched the numbers the right way and I got the grants. And promotions.
Lawyer: (yawns discreetly covering his mouth). It was all a question of hooking up with the right people. I got an offer from a top law firm and worked round the clock and won my cases. I made senior partner in five years. Paid my mortgage in ten. And bought my beach house when I was lead lawyer in the big Holocaust lawsuit against the Swiss…
Doctor: It seems like there is no way going back or coming down, even when the protestors disappeared and the right-wing came back to power.
Social Worker: I disagree. Some things changed for the worst. I mean social budgets have been cut. Iraq was invaded. Yugoslavia bombed. Public employee salaries were frozen and benefits costs skyrocketed.
Professor: Yeah. Times are changing for the worst. They hired three part-timers to fill my line when I retired – they’ll have no benefits, no chance at tenure and the university saves a bundle.
Lawyer: I would agree … it’s more competitive if you’re starting out now. But once you make it to the top – it’s never been better!
(Addresses social worker) Can you pour me a little more of that Rioja?
Doctor: My kids are making it. One’s a financial adviser and the other finished his residency and became a partner in a private medical group.
Professor: (somewhat riled by the Doctor’s boasting.) Didn’t you make substantial annual contributions to your medical school alumni fund before he was admitted?
Doctor: (very dismissive, waves him off) It was his grades and great letters of recommendations… but a little grease never hurt.
Social Worker: (snickers) No one gets ahead just on talent these days … (Pause. Tension around the table … friendly faces start to fade. Professor looks for a way to bridge the differences).
Professor: Oh by the way. I’m taking my sailboat out next month. If anybody’s game let me know.
Lawyer: (casually non-committal) I might take you up on that. I’m shelving my tennis racket … since my knee operation.
Doctor: (Looks at his watch). Should we finish up with a cognac?
Social Workers: I’ll pass.
Lawyer: Make mine a Metaxa.
Professor: I’ll have a double espresso.
Act Two Scenes 1
(Cramped cubicle where the social worker’s son is hunched over a computer ‘talking’ to a screen)
Voice: I’m listening. It’s all I can do to catch up with the backlog and the new programs and the extra assignments.
Read: You’re further behind on the new assignments!
Voice: (distraught). What… extra assignments?
Read: Remember the new contract, you’re on call 24/7 and responsible for any breakdown. Sign up or sign out!
Voice: (anguish, ambiguous) I’m on my way.
(The screen goes blank)
(Social worker’s son walks through the office; half the cubicles are empty; dull-looking employees walking in, out and around. Some are bent over their computer terminals, others are packing brief cases. Everything is chaotic and dreary.)
(Inner Voice) ‘Costs are down. Restructuring moves ahead. Employment is a revolving door…’
New Employee: Hi
Old Employee: Good bye
Replacement: Are you coming in or going out?
Social Worker’s Son: I’ve been working here five years …
Replacement: Are you sure?
Son: No. I mean yes…. (Looks uncertain).
(He walks to the Human Resources office, knocks and enters)
HR: (looks up) Yes?
Son: I have some questions about the new hours and the added assignments
HR: Did you read the memo?
Son: I have some questions about the new hours and added assignments.
HR: Sign in or sign out
Son: (anguished voice). What’s this all about? I put in a lot of time expanding our program…
HR (interrupts him). The CEO doesn’t think you’re doing enough. We are cutting costs. Raising productivity. We need to show better numbers. (looks at watch and shuffles papers). You really should be back at your desk … or out in the street.
(Son walks out. He looks across the office noticing several new faces. Only one face is familiar: the receptionist. One of her hands is holding the phone, the other tapping on the keyboard, her head bobbing signals to a messenger, and a loose finger tweaking something like ‘good bye’. Son walks over to the desk of the CEO’s secretary. She is on the phone.)
Secretary: He will be away at Hilton Head for the long weekend. Yes, he’s busy. Yes, he’s gotten his bonus – stock options…but don’t call back. He’ll call you. (She hangs up. She looks up at the son with a scowl.) You still around?
Son: I would like to discuss my new contract with the CEO?
Secretary: Nothing to discuss. It’s a done deal.
Son: You could be next.
Secretary: I’ll take my chances (phone rings). Yes. You’re from Bloomberg’s? We understand you want an interview … now?… The CEO is flying back tonight … you want to talk now? Yes, indeed. I will locate him and have him get in touch with you right away. I am terribly sorry to keep you waiting. He’s on a conference call … working on the reorganization. Hold it. I’ll put him on.
(Dials CEO’s cell phone).
Sir, Bloomberg’s on the line. They want a meeting this morning.
CEO’ voice: (panic). Send the driver to the airport right away. Stall the guy, tell Bloomberg… I’m sorry for the delay but I will be there in fifty minutes.
(Lawyer and son having lunch in an upscale restaurant)
Lawyer: Environmental law can be a lucrative field…if you don’t get in bed with the tree huggers and owl lovers.
Son: C’mon dad, you were doing pro-bono work for the homeless in Santa Monica a while back.
Lawyer: But that was after I was established and had a lucrative clientele. Anyway my work with the homeless attracted rich liberals.
Son: I am not sure we are on the same wavelength … (pause). The fish we are having for lunch might come out of the water pre-cooked and radiated, after the Japanese nuclear disaster.
Lawyer: Well you got a point there. (Pause.) Anyway environmental law is a two-edged sword. One of my partners started out with Greenpeace and learned the ropes. Then she made a pile representing BP in the Gulf.
Son: She switched sides?
Lawyer: You can’t afford to do pro-bono if you don’t have some cash cows to pay the bills. How do you think you got through law school without debt?
Son: (defensive). And how did you graduate without debt?
Lawyer: Well…back then we didn’t have tuition …we just paid student activity fees.
Son: And that’s when you had all those protests on campus?
Lawyer: Why not? The better the times the bigger the protests! (Laughs.)
Son: …I see… Fewer jobs, higher tuition and smaller protests?
Lawyer: (triumphant). That’s why you should combine environmental and corporate law!
Son: Thanks for lunch. Waiter the bill.
Lawyer: (grabbing the bill) I got it.
Act 3 Scenes 2
Professor: (On the phone). Hi Dave, haven’t seen or heard from you for a while …
Son: Been working on some big corporate accounts. I’m coming up for senior partner.
Professor: I hope we can at least have lunch sometime.
Son: Look Dad, an investment banker’s hours are not the same as a professor’s. I’m in by seven and out by eleven – at night.
Professor: What kind of life is that? You live to work.
Son: (snarls). Cut the crap dad! Why don’t you join those ‘Occupy’ bums hanging out in front of our office? You can watch me crossing the picket line.
Professor: We once walked picket lines together…
Son: I remember being dragged along when I was a little kid … but look I’m in the middle of preparing a brief for a big merger. We’ll talk later. Bye.
Professor: (talks into a dead phone) (soliloquy). I can’t get through. Something went wrong or maybe it’s just the changing times. Same energy level but chasing trades rather than backing blacks.
Act 3 Scenes 3
(Doctor and son seated on a bench in a park)
Doctor: How’s your practice?
Son: So-so. We are forced to double up on procedures to make-up for Medicare’s cuts in payment.
Doctor: How are the kids?
Son: Studying, basketball, video games … texting.
Doctor: Taking any time off?
Son: Going to Washington for the AIPAC conference. It’s all about Iran. We shake up the clowns in Congress and then hand them our agenda for war against Teheran.
Doctor: So you have a political passion for Israel?
Son: What else?
Doctor: We got problems in this country.
Son: Let them take care of themselves. Trouble with you dad is you never looked after your own people. You never listened to grandpa … remember… “What’s in it for the Jews?”
Doctor: (defensive) Look, I’m for Israel as much as anybody … but not ‘right or wrong.’ Take those illegal settlements…
Son: (bursts out and cuts him off). We’ll take them and keep them! All of them! Only Arabs and the anti-Semites say they’re “illegal”. Not our courts. Nor our judges!
Doctor: You mean the Supreme Court?
Son: Yes sir… (spells it out). The Israeli Supreme Court!
Doctor: Ever thought of emigrating to Israel?
Son: They got too many doctors there already. Anyway, they tell us to stay here. We are more valuable pushing the agenda in Washington.
Doctor: You know… when I was active back in the 1960’s we had big fights with the Communists for toeing the Soviet line! They said…Russian bomb tests were progressive while the US’s were a crime. Who would have thought I would have a son lining up with ‘Israel, right or wrong’?
Son: They were Stalinists… I’m a Zionist.
Doctor: Tell me the difference?
Son: (furious, in a bully mode shouting). You know if you weren’t my father, I would say you sound like an anti-Semite.
Doctor: (speechless, stares at son without recognition).
Son: (standing up facing father with contempt). Better keep your ideas to yourself. Watch out for your medical colleagues, especially those on the Medical Executive Committee.
Act 3 Scenes 4
(Social Worker walks into a cluttered bedroom where his son is hunched over his computer.)
Social Worker: How goes the job search?
Son: (looking straight ahead). Don’t ask.
Social Worker: (pause) No luck?
Son: (Looks back, stares, angry) Entry level, short-term contracts, on call … overtime without pay (turns back to computer).
(Social Worker drifts out of the room).
Social Worker Soliloquy: I was going to invite him to take a break. I forgot what it’s like to be unemployed. I never considered what happened to the health sector workers who got laid-off … or to the teachers… Well, I can’t worry about their issues … there are problems here and now, in this house.
Son: (looking at the screen and clicking the keyboard)
Son’s Soliloquy: Two hundred and fifty-one CVs circulating out there … ten responses. All entry level or part-time contracts. When did they install the revolving door? Who plans the restructuring? It doesn’t matter… I still can’t figure out what happened to my unit. We were so productive… Now they’re gone … who knows where? Everyone for himself … free-lance … free-fall … flexible labor…drop your pants, bend over here comes the CEO … all pain – no gain … more hours, complain and berate … I’m going…
(Shuts down the computer: glances at blank screen. Rises and slowly walks out. Enters a sunny room and notices his father reading a newspaper. No quip. No comment.)
Social Worker: (looking up) How about lunch?
Son: (stares, tentative) Why not?
Act 3 Scene 5
(Lunch in a café, Social Worker and son at table).
Son: When I walked out of the office, it felt like I was walking out of a prison … a big load lifted … the buzz of the boss’s whiney voice was still in my head … until I cleared the building… Nobody looked up at me. No good byes. The new Indian guy (loudmouth graduate of ‘IIT-Bangalore’ and my cheap replacement) smirked as if he would do it right. He’s got a moat in his eye.
Social Worker: You did the right thing. Your health comes first. Stress kills.
Son: Yeah, Dad, stay healthy … because there’s no health plan.
Social Worker: Let’s pack it up for now
Son: Shop-talk spoils the appetite doesn’t it? I mean thinking about the work situation. Friends I had, you know, at work, they come and go.
Social Worker: You ever see them?
Son : Who? Where?
Social Worker: (Pensive. Soliloquy): No lunches over a bottle of wine.
(They finish eating and walk out. Father’s hand on son’s shoulder)
Senior investment banker of hedge fund, relaxing with wife and small child in a beach house in Martha’s Vineyard.
Hedge Fund banker: This was a great idea buying this place on the Island.
Wife: Well, I researched it: weather, airport, wind, currents, sun, temperature … and price.
Banker: My bonus for the acquisition and restructuring of the health industry … came in handy.
Wife: You did well. Should we go for a walk? I love to hear the waves crashing on the breakers.
Banker: Give me five minutes. I got to send a message to headquarters. We are preparing a public offering and we are getting rid of this jerk of a CEO who’s been screwing up a whole string of hospitals. Bloomberg just put them in negative – sell.
Wife: See you. Me and Rachel will wait for you at the landing by the boat.