The River's Badge

Friday, February 16, 2018

1997 In Country Music ~ And Work

(when a company disappears)

I suppose others experience it, too -- when a company to which they've devoted their best years disappears. It's eerie to think that one's past is gone, just like that, never to be retrieved or visited, except in memories.

There once was a company called US Healthcare. Really. Even though I can't even find a picture of its logo on Google images. The company was founded in 1975 by a man named Leonard Abramson. The company started small. It was first called HMO of Pennsylvania. There was one office, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. I had no clue where Blue Bell, Pennsylvania was, but the city had a rather pretty name. (I now know, in hindsight, that Blue Bell is a suburb of Philadelphia.) In 1983, Mr. Abramson took his company public and renamed it US Healthcare.

In 1990 Mr. Abramson was looking to expand his operation and began a search for a city whose citizenry possessed a good work ethic. That's where I came into the picture. Somehow, Bismarck, North Dakota was chosen. I say "somehow" because Bismarck never got chosen for anything except possibly "world's windiest town". It's true we had (have) a good work ethic. We didn't know any better. We all just naturally assumed we were supposed to work. We didn't know there was a choice. Perceptions of work vary by geographic longitude. I understand this now because I live in Minnesota. Perhaps we Dakotans had an innate guilt that if we didn't go the extra mile we'd be viewed as lazy. Thus we always did much more than was asked of us. Other big companies eventually learned to exploit that guilt, but US Healthcare was the first.

The Blue Bell employees worked thirty-seven-and-a-half hours a week and got paid for forty. We clocked forty hours a week and were grateful for the opportunity. Our Blue Bell trainers viewed us as utter morons, but we abided that and held our collective breath until they whirled back on the jet plane home to PA. Condescending disregard was de riguer for us. 

I only secured my position by divine providence, but I held on for dear life. After all, it paid $6.00 per hour, which was twenty-five cents more than I was making as a Farm Records Secretary. We were the experiment. Let's see how they do and if they can hack it, was the mindset of the Blue Bellians. Well, we did great. Because we worked our asses off. We cared about getting it right. I didn't know anything about health insurance, but I knew how to follow instructions. I began life at US Healthcare as a claims examiner and eventually convinced someone to take me on as an assistant supervisor, and then as a full-fledged supervisor. 

I excelled in supervision because I knew how people wanted to be treated from my many years of being a nobody. It's not rocket science, people. I understood how far a good word could propel even the lowliest of us. How bestowing a modicum of respect could engender results that surprised and delighted even the most self-effacing wallflower.

In 1996 Freaky Phil called me into his office and presented me with an offer that I could "think about overnight and then come back and say yes". It was a pilot program the company called "IKFI" - "Integrated Key From Image". It was a glorified data entry unit that US Healthcare was ready to pilot. Phil's offer felt like a demotion. I was a claims specialist and now I had been selected to slum into the realm of data entry, with a three-person staff of temps. I guess my construct of making peace with Phil hadn't worked after all. I knew my fellow supervisors would look down on me and thank the lord it hadn't been them. That sense of mortification haunted me. I went home Friday evening and fretted for two long days. Some divine sense of approbation told me that this was an actual "opportunity". I didn't see how it could be, but I knew, instinctively, that it was.

I carried my claims binders over to an unused, echoey area of the building. There were cubicles set up, but their desks were loaded down with broken computer monitors and other miscellaneous castoff equipment. A fine layer of dust covered every surface. Someone, in an optimistic frame of mind had long ago constructed a glass supervisor's enclosure in the corner. I grabbed a tissue from the box and tried to scour a peephole in the greasy film. I sat down behind the desk and squinted at the squiggly lines and numbers on my monitor that represented "something", which I would eventually learn was the workflow I was tasked with managing. I received a crash course in the keying process by phone from another Philly Patronizer. I don't remember her name, but her voice dripped with a combination of pity and disdain. Thus, I sat alone in a ghost unit and played with my new toy for three days, until my three temp workers showed up to begin their assignment. I think the company hired temps -- and only three of them -- because they were not convinced this new experiment would work out. 

The IT guys back in Pennsylvania were like actual humans. They were invested in making their new process work, and they didn't treat me like a simpleton. I appreciated that. My three new employees were surprisingly awesome. One girl, Gaby, had emigrated from Germany. She was quick to learn and a joy to be around. The four of us stepped through the ether together and bonded, like hostages do. Phil stopped over often and sat down in my visitor's chair just like he used to do. He never offered any words of wisdom or counsel. He was just bored, and this area of the building was a new place for him to peruse. He exhibited zero interest in this new US Healthcare experiment, which perhaps signaled his confidence in me as a manager, but I don't think so. I think he simply didn't care. 

Dave called a couple of times. Dave was the VP of Something or Other -- possibly the Claims operation -- the guy I'd spilled my guts to a couple of years earlier regarding Evil Connie. I never knew how I ended up on Dave's radar. Maybe he chose me for this new position because I'd demonstrated that I was a fighter. And there was no question that Dave chose me -- Phil was simply his imbecilic conduit. 

Dave was a yeller. He loved to yell at and scare people and take their measure. It was an odd management style, but one that lots of executives use. Dave called one day and yelled at me about something. I responded with facts and figures, not necessarily calmly, but I didn't back down. Dave never again bothered me. I think I garnered his stamp of approval that day. My state of mind was, no other fool will take this job, so sink or swim or stand on the unemployment line, which was a definite possibility, take me or leave me. I never asked for this.

From three to twelve to nineteen, the temps began to stack up. The building manager began constructing additional cubicles. I finally said to Phil, "Come on! Let's hire these people!" Let's make them legitimate. My staff was supporting an entire company, lessening claims examiners' load. We garnered zero respect -- we were, after all, data entry drones -- but I knew and my staff knew that our results were pivotal. 

Suddenly I had thirty-seven folks. I had to designate an assistant/trainer. Kristen had begun as a temp, like everyone had. She was whip-smart and fast, and better at the nuts and bolts of the job than I could ever be, and I was pretty good. She was a kid - maybe twenty years old. I picked her. Kristen handled the day-to-day operations while I composed performance reviews and dealt with the Philadelphia overseers. 

In the blink of an eye, things began to spiral exponentially. I had thirty-seven employees and was instructed to add a second shift. Then I inherited the referral process, which encompassed another twenty-two people, plus their two supervisors. 

By the end of 1997, the IKFI Department had one hundred and fifty staff and five supervisors. 

And I never received the designation of "manager", even though that was definitely what I was.

My new overseer was named Peter. He was a kid, but I ignored that because he was ostensibly my new "boss". Peter resided in the hallowed confines of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, so our interactions were mostly by phone. Peter took a trip out to the hinterlands a couple of times a year, to check in and assert his authority. He was a decent guy, albeit "by the book". On one of his semi-annual visits, he mandated that we do a survey of our IKFI employees. The next day he paged through the survey results and iterated that there was a consensus that I practiced favoritism. I protested strongly. Peter responded, "Perception is the truth". 

"Perception is the truth" is one of the few management principles I've always remembered. Meaning, whether it's true or not, if people believe it, that is their reality. Peter bestowed upon me my most vital takeaway from my lone foray into management. 

The other thing Peter did for me was to survey the building landscape and recognize that I was sorely being squeezed out, between my five supervisors and the paucity of real estate. "There's an empty office in the corner, just sitting there. Why don't you move into it?" he asked. I stared at him wide-eyed, feeling like a common criminal. 

"You think?" I asked. 

"Why not?"

And thus I claimed the very first and only office I ever owned. 

My relocation was not viewed warmly by Claims management. In management's eyes, I was a pretender; an interloper. After all, IKFI was the branch's unwanted stepchild -- not a "real" department. It didn't have the cache of Claims. Phil was still nominally in charge of the office, but he had acceded the bulk of his duties to his new assistant manager, Linda. Apparently an assistant was needed, because Phil really didn't much feel like working, and someone had to do the actual job of managing. Here is where men and women differ -- Phil didn't care if I had an office or whether I'd pitched a tent in the parking lot. Linda viewed my new digs as a threat to her dominance.

Linda had clawed her way to the top by the sheer force of naked ambition. She was a skinny bleached blonde who was a mom in the sense that she waved hello to her kids just before their bedtime, and left the actual child rearing to a paid "girl". She was the kind of mother who acknowledged she actually had children only when they did something she could boast about, which was apparently not often. She had a boy and a girl, Boy and Girl, we (and she) will call them. Linda's background was not in health insurance, which was perfectly okay by me. My background wasn't in insurance, either. Everybody's gotta start somewhere. But whereas I had found my way to management by enduring the scourge of barely minimum-wage jobs, Linda was a person who inserted herself into her every boss's good graces by flattery and batting her eyelashes. 

I got the measure of Linda the day I phoned her to tell her my mother-in-law had passed away and that I would be taking my three days of bereavement leave, and she responded, "Do you have all your work caught up?"

Linda had initially been hired as a claims supervisor (a nice leapfrog I wished I'd been granted), and then proceeded to kiss as much ass as was required to boost her way to the top. She'd been a sycophant of Connie's, and Connie loved nothing more than boot-licking toadies. Once Connie had been shown the door, Linda latched onto whichever manager happened to occupy the corner office. Thus she eventually became the Dwight Shrute of Claims, Assistant To The General Manager. In her new position (and new office), she had everything she'd ever demeaned herself to be. 

It was an out-of-the-way means of accessing the building, but occasionally Linda took the detour to climb the steps outside my new office, just so she could amble by and shoot disdainful glances in my direction. Some days I'd pretend not to notice her; some days I'd give a little wave, which took her aback, and she'd jerk her hand in the air in an awkward faux-Nazi salute.

Linda deplored the fact that she no longer had control over me, but she made up for that helplessness by denigrating my department in passive-aggressive comments. I didn't care. I loved the fact that my manager resided fifteen hundred miles away.  

I had never before noticed, but now, in my new office, the office's piped-in music was unnaturally loud. I kept hearing this song, and had no idea who sang it or what the name of the song was. Google didn't exist yet. I think all we had was America Online and maybe Netscape. My local music store, Musicland, however, had bored personnel who stood around waiting to answer stupid questions, so I stopped in one evening and repeated a few lines of lyrics to the clerk, and he pointed to a section of CD's labeled, "Boz Scaggs". 

I love this song and I don't care if it doesn't fit any musical category. 




Let me just say that Boz Scaggs is ultimately cool. From "Lido" to "Look What You've Done To Me", he was always there, beneath the surface; under my consciousness. But always there.

It was weird hearing songs from the fabricated tape loop. The company who supplied the tunes didn't want to offend, so they were never too country or too rock -- middle of the road was where they landed. They were inexplicably big on Steve Wariner songs, one of which sort of broke my heart a couple years later, but that's a whole other story.

I didn't pay a lot of attention to radio then, because I had a lot of work stuff rattling around in my brain, but my kid liked this song, and therefore I rather liked it, too:




Make no mistake -- I was still buying CD's -- but country was beginning to disappoint. George released a mediocre album, the new people weren't very good singers (Tim McGraw). Thank God for Mark Chesnutt:



And Diamond Rio:


A singer who rarely got her due, but one of the all-time best singers (country or otherwise) of the modern era, Trisha Yearwood was possibly eclipsed by her future husband's success in the nineties, but wow, I love this:


This was not a great song, but it stands out for two reasons -- one, it was played on the radio ad nauseum, and most importantly, the lyrics featured Bismarck, North Dakota. Sure, you may scoff, but how many songs feature your hometown, unless you live in Amarillo or San Francisco?


As out of touch as I was with the musical world in 1997, I still vaguely remember the media-created controversy regarding who sang this next song better. I know one of the versions well, because it has been my personal earworm for over a year (and I have almost rid myself of it; yet, here I go again). The other version I frankly don't remember, so I'm going to play along and then issue my official decree. (And all this drama for a crappy movie.)






I like Leann Rimes (or "liked" Leann Rimes when she took music seriously, which she apparently no longer has time for, what with her beach bikini pics and all). I loved "Blue". She sang the hell out of that song. But here's the difference for me: Trisha has a warmth to her voice -- like honey. And Trisha's singing is not forced. It just is Trisha on her front porch, maybe with her farmhand husband,  Garth, strumming an acoustic guitar. Trisha doing what comes naturally and drawing in neighbors from miles around, just to hear an angel sing. 

Leann is eyelash-batting. Trisha is instinct.

Music can be a life lesson.














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