"Mary Asher Short Stories"

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Being Conservative

by Bill Scarborough

Mary Asher always hated fraternities and sororities. They stood for beer busts and racism and sexism. They were full of business students who always wanted to make money and who did not respect the real academic world she lived in. "The business school," she often snorted, "should be in a trade school, not in a university."

"I am not after racism or sexism or money," she thought, as she was preparing for her graduation from the History Department. "I have learned from the mistakes of past generations. I know the oneness of humanity and that the greatness of the best civilizations has been in the heart and not in the economy."

As she was handed her diploma, she thought, "This will be for the greater good of humanity." She had chosen to take her GRE exam after graduation. "This way," she thought, "I will have plenty of time to study for the test. Then I will go to graduate school and become a professor. Then I will teach those business school creeps the real meaning of life."

She had a resume prepared by a professional word-processing company. It showed off her good talents: her grades, her membership in the Historical Society, the roles she played in the Actors' Guild. It was printed on high-grade paper with a linen finish. While she was to study for her GRE, she needed a job that would allow her the intellectual space to do well on the exam.

Now, in many a private job-placement agency, there are two separate offices: one for the white-collar positions, and one for the blue-collar jobs. Secretaries go to the white-collar office, which has a phone with many buttons, a rug on the floor, dark paneling, and a cheerful, well-dressed interviewer. People who sweep floors go to the blue-collar office, which often has a bare concrete floor, cheap plyboard walls, and a single desk with a man (only rarely a woman) wearing an open-collar work shirt. Of course, Mary went to the white-collar office.

At the job where Mary was finally hired, the managers decided to hire her over their lunch break. Personnel director, Jim Thornton and Vice-President for Labor Relations, John Forney discussed her compared to the other applicants submitted by the employment agency. "Clara Washington has the primary job skills," Jim noted, "But this is not just a secretarial job with a secretarial paycheck. Boffo Burgers is being organized by the F-SWOC (*), and we need someone to help keep the workers in line. I am afraid that Clara will be too inclined to be cool and not face down the shop stewards."

((*)F-SWOC: Food Service Workers Organizing Committee) "In plain English," John retorted, "Clara is a nigger. We got to keep the Meskins fighting the niggers and the Bubbas fighting them both, or else we don't get those vacations in Europe." "As you say," Jim continued, "But we can't do it up front or else we get our asses caught. Now, George Fernandez knows a lot of Spanish, and he can communicate better with more of the employees. He has had a lot of speech courses, and he can hold up in a debate. But he may or may not display company loyalty when the going gets tough. He's had too many employers."

"In other words again, he is like the other beaners," John commented. "When things get a little hard, it is always jump the border." "Now this Mary Asher is an all-American girl," Jim pointed out. "She has a good family background. We found out she was recording secretary for the Young Democrats. You couldn't talk your straight English to her, but she has all the correct liberal opinions we need to pretty up our effort to destroy F-SWOC." "You mean I got to say all those nice words in front of her?.... Well, okay," John assented. "Sure beats paying those monkeys who work for us like they were royalty or something."

Mary started at her new job with enthusiasm. She was to travel between Boffo Burger places and take notes on what was going on in them. Not about production figures or sanitation standards like those frat-rats would do. She was to be the Boffo Burger historian, writing up the human aspects of working in a sandwich shop. John and Jim gave her plenty of latitude in her job. "If need be," they told her, "You can give the manager a suggestion or two on how to improve the humanity of the workplace. And, of course, we will always be open to suggestions ourselves."

Mary always went that extra mile for her supervisors. The two of them were liberal arts graduates! (They were hired during the fifties, when any kind of diploma meant a career in business if not in academics.) Moreover, this was her first job, and a good recommendation would surely help her to get into graduate school so that she could become a professor. And the research she did could be used to publish scholarly papers, which or course lead to tenure. (Of course, tenured professors make more money than managers of hamburger joints.)

What she found was not one big chain, but many little enterprises ("little nations," she called them), each with its own little history. The Boffo Burger place next to the Carver Project had been robbed six times in two years but had one of the lowest turnover rates. The outlet next to the Free Enterprise Magnet School had problems with vandals but had lots of workers from all over town.

The Boffo Burger places where country music was played were not as pleasing to her. The workers there often did not have any college at all, and some of them regarded her with distrust. They were frat-rats in the bud, she mused to herself. To her, they were devoid of the intellectual life she enjoyed so much when she went to Happy Hour at the historical society in college. But she persevered, and wrote long essays, replete with references to older civilizations, about the customs and mores of the poor white folks who peopled many of the Boffo Burger outlets.

No Boffo Burger stand, however monolithic the clientele, had a homogeneous work force. Mary wrote that her employer was a winner in hiring minorities, for in no store were black or brown people absent. Some outlets hired mentally handicapped people to wash utensils under a targeted jobs program in which each such employee was paid by the piece. (The average paid-by-the-piece worker made about 80 cents per hour.) A few outlets hired a lot of Vietnamese people, which Mary noted as a sign of willingness to help displaced people. Mary also noted that some managers preferred to hire illegal aliens but excused the practice on the grounds that many were refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Mary made it a practice never to accept a date from a Boffo Burger worker. It would have been unprofessional, she thought to herself, and besides, so many of them were so base. The men would read "Playboy", and the women would read "People". Some of them always read the "National Enquirer". This did not stop her, though, from having an occasional dinner with a Boffo Burger manager, who would take her to a good restaurant and pick up the tab. A few Boffo Burger managers took her out to see plays at dinner theaters.

As time progressed, she began to give a little counseling to the Boffo Burger managers. The F-SWOC had been working on the country-music Boffo Burgers rather heavily, telling the workers that they had more in common with each other than with their managers. The F-SWOC organizers were of all colors and backgrounds, and would work in teams to reach out to all kinds of workers. This, noted Mary, was an appeal to the greed of the workers. No decent liberal arts graduate would stoop to such a thing, according to Mary's reasoning.

The F-SWOC stewards often became aloof from Mary's investigations. They told each other that she was a "company spy," a move that Mary dismissed as jealousy. The typical steward, she noted in one of her little histories, was someone who thought himself or herself worthy to be a manager but who was only a hamburger helper.

In due time, she deduced a pattern and reported it to her supervisors. She reported that the typical Boffo Burger worker needed not money but a sense of pride in his or her own particular Boffo Burger outlet. She suggested that the custom of naming outlets with numbers be replaced with names such as "The Hyde Park Boffo Burger." She suggested that all music played in Boffo Burgers be standardized.

Most interesting to her supervisors was her suggestion that a campaign be conducted to convince the workers that their managers were regular people just like them. This would be done, she recommended, by appealing to family values, for most of the Boffo Burger managers (including many of those who took her out), were family men who lived in good suburban neighborhoods.

John Forney, always ready with a frank comment when the door was closed, praised her report: "This looks like our road to Easy Street. We'll put a picture of a good white man in every outlet. We'll let the nigger welfare mothers know that our promotions are for our real Americans. We'll let them know those commie stewards stand for the destruction of the free enterprise that made Boffo Burgers great. No Spanish. And let's use that music idea: I know a distributing company that will throw in our company messages along with our company music."

Mary Asher thought the most of Boffo Burgers. The company had done so much for her and let her do so much for humanity. Jim and John gave her glowing reference letters which helped her get into grad school. They paid her enough that she could afford study tapes to listen to while she traveled in the company car, and that of course helped her grade on the GRE. She went on to become a Ph.D. full professor at a major university. Her monographs on hamburger joints won her high acclaim.

At Boffo Burger, things became so much better from the management point of view. Executives vacationed in Europe, Australia, and the Soviet Union. Labor costs declined as the union was broken up and the plight of the workers worsened. There were numerous equal opportunity investigations but nothing was really proven. Best of all, from the management point of view, no one could have done a better hatchet job on the minorities than Mary Asher.