Wednesday, March 21, 2007


THE bell rang furiously and, when Miss Parker went to the tube, a furious voice called out in a piercing North of Ireland accent:
"Send Farrington here!"

Miss Parker returned to her machine, saying to a man who was writing at a desk: "Mr. Alleyne wants you upstairs."

The man muttered "Blast him!" under his breath and pushed back his chair to stand up. When he stood up he was tall and of great bulk. He had a hanging face, dark wine-coloured, with fair eyebrows and moustache: his eyes bulged forward slightly and the whites of them were dirty. He lifted up the counter and, passing by the clients, went out of the office with a heavy step.

—“Counterparts” by James Joyce

There is a man being fired from his job, just three tables away from me at the Starbucks.

It took a while for the conversation of the two men, one facing me, the other with his back to me, to penetrate the general hum of the place, but that is what is happening.

Their body language tells the story: the man facing me is dressed like a mid-level manager—not sharp, not sloppy. His shoulders are hunched over; he has a hanging face, blank yet grim; and his hands are clasped together between his knees.

His counterpart, though I can’t see his face, is dressed like a man with power—his jacket is off, he’s wearing a crisp white shirt with French cuffs, and he is speaking quietly but forcefully.

The peculiar acoustics of this room are just enough to allow the rest of us working nearby to hear what none of us wants to hear.

We can hear about forms that are going to have to be filled out; about the two weeks’ severance the man will be receiving; and about the health insurance coverage he is eligible for while he is, as the euphemism goes, “between opportunities.”

Worse, for it seems as if the man is not to be trusted, we can hear a question about the status of his computer, and any other office equipment belonging to the company which he has not turned in. And whether he has keys to any of the company offices around the state.

It turns out he still has a key to one office.

“That will have to be turned in,” says the man doing the firing.

Everybody in this room—it is a big room, with hard floors and echoing walls—can hear about the key, and what comes next.

The man pushes back his chair. “I’ll get you that key,” he says, then he leaves, quickly.

His counterpart sits for a few more minutes, looking out the window contemplatively while drinking the rest of his coffee.

Then he leaves, and we are all back to work.

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up

© 2007 Jeff Matthews

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews' recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


JScott said...

Several years ago the company I was working for went under. We were called into a meeting where we received the announcement. When we returned to our desks, our computers were gone! No chance to get contacts, work samples, etc.

Steve said...

That was well written. I read it like a piece of fiction (I'm currently writing my second novel). Perfect, to begin with Joyce.

dkman said...

I hope that the fired man comes back with more than just the key. I would strongly encourage him to come back with a lawsuit for a humiliating dismissal in a public place.

At the very least, his counterpart here deserves to be fired too.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Somehow, due to the ever-blurring lines between the office and the world outside, it has become acceptable to treat Starbucks or any coffee place as a bona-fide office. I have had and observed actual job interviews in coffee shops, which I always thought was more than a little awkward, but clearly over the line in this case.

This will not change unless our man with the key here launches a highly visible lawsuit/PR campaign.

Corporate counsels and HR executives would quickly fold and issue memos about appropriate places to conduct business.

David Andrew Taylor said...

What an interesting moment of humanity.

pondering said...

An audience of coffee drinkers while the executioner puts a slug in him. Nice. I wonder if the white shirt bought?

dearieme said...

"the two weeks’ severance": is that a typical pay-off in the US?

whydibuy said...

Getting alot of stories like that here in Mi. A bowling team members son was just laid off, as they say today, after just a few months ago being asked and accepting 7 day weeks. It was some kind of manufacturing job. Today loyalty is at a minimum. People are utilized for the moment and canned like so much corp fodder. I know I wouldn't show much loyalty to a co and if the opportunity presented itself to steal a customer or walk to a better job, its later gator.

Anonymous said...

A sad but elegant piece, Jeff. I agree with dkman - I can't believe the lack of tact and respect the manager had for firing his employee in such a public place! But then, I guess maybe this is one of those "signs of the times", where Starbucks is the "new" HR department for company employees looking to "see and be seen".

NM said...

"Counterparts" is a work of genius and, like the other stories in Joyce's Dubliners, should be read by everyone. Thank you, Mr Matthews, for this vignette.

I imagine the reason you chose that story is Joyce's use of the term "counterparts". Besides referring to the the two parts of a contract (each executed by one party), Joyce is implying that Mr Crisp Shirt cannot exist without Mr Humiliated in Public.

It's the next day for the poor fellow who has lost his job that I do not want to imagine.

market crasher said...

Rather than feel sorry for this guy being fired realise this happens for reasons. I love the guy encouraging the lawsuit. What if this "humiliation" is less than if he was fired in front of all his coworkers? I am afraid we will likely see more layoffs in the future. As one who has been layed off in the past due to "assets under management" of the firm dropping (from 15b to 10b when I was fired for saying YHOO at 100 is not yet 2.9b) I actually would have liked to have got venti with my firing.