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The Anyway Worthless Commute

commute

Ma, Daryl’s o’ me agin.”

“Dar’l, git off yer sister. Whachu think dis is, some sorta royal rumble?”

“She started it. She always does,” drawled Daryl. He climbed off his sister, Beulah May.

“I donne care if she starts a fire in yer britches, boy! She got one arm, plus she’s a gurl. You ain’t no man a’tall if you beatin’ on no one armed girl, even if she is bigger’n an ox.”

Daryl shrugged at this, and moved to his side of the bench seat. And Beulah May smiled, pleased at the compliment.

“Why we gotta go anyway, ma?” Daryl asked from the backseat beside his sister.

The old blue van rattled down the road like a sack of rocks flung down a mountainside. It made each curve a treacherous exploit, all rattle, no brakes, daring fate to end the anyway worthless commute.

“Youse gotta go because I said youse gotta go.”

“I thougt we had to go because that True Ants Officer told you we hadda,” Beulah said as she itched her stump.

She thought about that day over at Laverne’s farm. Laverne was always showing her and Daryl how all his second-hand machines worked. Each week he had some new “big city intervention,” as he called them. One thing was certain about the gaggle of gadgets he laid claim to—they couldn’t make his crops grow. If his land or any of theirs had been worth two nickels, the government would have seized them long ago. But that’s the thing about Hell, no one fights you for it.

That day, a few months back, Laverne had been especially proud of the wood-chipper he’d finally rigged up to work. He displayed it to the children, usual visitors to the “farm” for the open air of it. They loved it out there, and Laverne loved having them. He lived alone, except for some cats and the giant rats that chased them. He always talked about his wife coming home someday, but even the children guessed what he surely knew. He’d die with those cats and those rats and not much else.

“Thing is, it’ll chip up jus’bout any ole thing,” Laverne told the children that day as he fed a plastic sled into the slot. The machine groaned its dismay, smoked, churned, shook, and eventually spit out shreds of ruined plastic.

“See!” Laverne smiled at his wide-eyed audience. “I fixed her up speshial. It’ll chew through jus’bout any old thing, I’ll tell yens!”

“You think it’ud chaw through an arm?” Beulah May barked. She barked everything, like a cough—it hurt but she had to. She liked to talk too, obviously unaware of the sound of it.

“Shu’up, Beul,” Daryl snapped. “Don’t be stuupid.”

“I’n’t being stuupid, Daryl. Youse the one being stuupid anyway.”

“Dis stuupid?” Daryl put his oversized sister in a headlock—indeed, no small feat—and Laverne saw his audience slipping away.

“Hey! Chil’ren! Lookee here!” they both glanced as if he had a treat for them.

He did.

Laverne took up an old broom and fed it through the chomping machine.

“See there!” he piped as wood chips stumbled from the gnawing beast. “Yens wanna feed her?”

The children nearly cried. It was seldom they were given anything at all, and opportunity, well that was the rarest of things.

“Go on, walk the yeard and pick you all out each one it’m.”

Daryl and Beulah May were frozen.

“Well go on fore I change my minds!”

They quickly thawed right out, and, excited but focused, they set off combing the litter-strewn dirt patch Laverne called a “yeard.” It was a large enough patch, and they wondered each inch of it—unwilling to waste such a chance.

It was hard to say who enjoyed it more, the children or old Laverne, leaned up against the remnants of a dead Willow Tree. He watched the children study the ground, occasionally one or the other would pick up an item, inspecting it with their crossed-eyes and dirty hands, weighing it and imagining the magnitude of its destruction. They’d toss it aside—a rake, an old, rusty lawn chair, a brick, some guttering, among other things—and move on to the next sordid treasure.

They searched for their happiness while Laverne found peace. He looked on, at first hoping certain items would be spared, but after a few minutes, he ceased caring. These precious moments were the nearest he had felt to love in some time, and it was worth having even his most prized possession chipped up to sustain the perfection of this moment. He leaned his head back against the rotting wood, soft and sweet, and, soft and sweet, he smiled as his muddy eyes gently shut.

Soft and sweet faded in a blink as Laverne was awakened to a hyena. His first thought was that the children had put one of the cats in the chipper. He ran toward it instinctively, and noticed Beulah May writhing on the ground as the chipper oozed a spray of red.

His shock was broken not by Beulah May’s hideous moans as she lay there clutching a bloody mess where her right hand used to be, but by the shrill yells of Daryl:

“SHE PUT HER ARM IN DA CHIPPER! I TOLE HER NOT TAH!”

Laverne ran in and got his one good bedsheet and half a carton of milk. He poured the milk on the stump slowly, trying not to pass out.

“I gotta git my water from the well . . . dis milk’ll havetahdo in a pinch.”

“I like milk,” Beulah said softly, full of the sweet whimsy of shock.

“SHE JUST STUCK IT ON IN DER EVEN THOUGH I SA–I SAID ‘BEULAH MAY DON’T YOUSE EVEN THINK A-STICKIN YOUR PAW INDA CHIPPER!” Daryl went on yelling.

“Dar’l, you think you can keep dis from your ma?” Laverne asked nervously.

“How we gonna keep dis from ma, Laverne? Beulah hain’t got no hand!”

“I just thought she could keep it inher pock’t or Sumthin’ . . .” he seemed to catch his own ignorance when voiced aloud. “Oh ri’t. Dar’l, run along up the road. Ferguson’s gotta phone. Git us an ambulance.”

“Really! Can I? Beulah, you hear dat! Laverne gonna let you git a ambulance! Whoo boy!”

And with that Daryl hauled over to Ferguson’s and dialed up the ambulance, just as excited as he could be for his sister and her opportunity for an ambulance ride—sirens and all, it turned out!

And after the hospital stay is when the “True Ants Officer” showed up. Officer Parker was as cordial as his job would permit, and he informed Ms. Tamms that if her children were not cleaned up, put into school at the end of summer, and cared for like children and not beasts, that the State would have to intervene.

“Youse know why yens gotta go, Dar’l,” Ma Tamms answered back from the jouncing driver’s seat. “Cause youse and Beulah May went stickin’ your arms in Laverne’s machines, dat’s why.”

“But Beulah did it, not me. I tolt her she bett–”

“Dat’s enough, Dar’l. Youse think I want yens in dat fancy school all day gettin’ all educated and leavin’ me by myself all day long?”

“Sorry, ma,” Beulah said, still itching her stump. “I didn’t mean no harm.”

“Well, sorry’s idn’t gonna change dat True Ant Officer’s mind none, is it? We’ll git by, we always do.”

With that the van shimmied its way to the front of Jefferson Davis Elementary and Junior High School. It was a squat, brick building, and from high enough in the sunny sky, probably looked a fair bit like Laverne’s old wood chipper.

“Yens git on now. Yer ready real late. Git on now,” she coaxed her terrified children from the car.

“I’d rather put my handin another chipper,” Beulah said with watery eyes.

“Well we don’t ‘av dat choice now, do we?”

The children walked toward the glass front doors, and Daryl grabbed hold of Beulah’s stump. Ma Tamms watched for a second longer, then drove off, fear forming in her eyes. She went down the road about a half mile, then parked on the street, facing the front of the school, waiting till three o’ clock or whenever it was that school let out. “We’ll git by, we always do,” she murmured through the sobs.

 

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From Good to Great to Discourteous: How Wells Fargo Can Be Great Again

(originally published on Linked In on September 29, 2016)

Wells Fargo Bank was one of America’s best companies.

Jim Collins profiled Wells Fargo in Good to Great. Legendary value investor Warren Buffet owns approximately 2,000,000 shares and his Berkshire Hathway holds a 9.5% stake in the company. Wells Fargo easily weathered the financial crisis of 2008 and its quality of management was rewarded with a national footprint when the government forced it to acquire Wachovia to avoid the latter’s collapse.

What Went Wrong?

What madness drove such a well-run and well-respected financial institution to open more than 2,000,000 unauthorized sham accounts for its customers? Are CEO John Stumpf, Carrie Tolstedt, who ran the bank’s retail banking division, and other executives at fault because they established employee compensation policies based on accounts opened? Or does blame belong to the 5,300 fired Wells Fargo employees, who allegedly opened those sham accounts? And why did Wells Fargo’s fabled culture of courtesy fail to stop such practices?

As Gretchen Morgenson said in Tuesday’s column in the New York Times, Wells Fargo’s board of directors has “some ‘splaining to do.” After Mr. Stumph made Wells Fargo look even worse by failing to hold himself accountable for the scandal when grilled by Senator Elizabeth Warren at a Senate committee hearing last week, the bank’s board of directors has begun to take appropriate action to find out what happened. For starters, the bank’s independent directors hired Shearman & Sterling to conduct an internal investigation, and Mr. Stumpf and Ms. Tolstedt will forfeit $60 million of stock awards and their 2016 bonuses.

Shearman & Sterling will do a fine job as an ombudsman for the conscience of the bank. Hopefully, the investigation will reveal why Wells Fargo’s fabled courtesy oriented culture devolved to the point that the bank forced accounts on unwitting customers. Most likely, however, Wells Fargo will pay its $185,000,000 settlement, make a few changes to its operations in addition to those already announced and return to business as usual, hoping that the scandal, like so many corporate scandals before it, will soon be forgotten.

The Hidden Cause of “Eight to Great”

The root cause of the problem, however, as Justice Stevens said in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, is that “the corporation has no conscience.” As long as we accept the sponsoring thought of modern capitalism that the corporation, whether by law or custom, exists solely to maximize profit for stockholders, public corporations such as Well Fargo will remain under constant and enormous pressure to do just that by every available means. This including exporting jobs to China, re-domiciling in Ireland to avoid US taxes, and opening unauthorized accounts for customers.

This sponsoring thought drives good people like Mr. Stumpf, Ms. Tolstedt, and Wells Fargo’s other directors to replace the golden rule that runs their personal lives with the rule of gold in the board room. As a result, instead of doing unto others what they would like done unto themselves, corporations often do unto others whatever it takes to maximize their own profits, including forcing unwanted accounts on hapless customers. The default moral compass that guides corporate behavior is the belief that it is morally acceptable to foist as many as possible of the negative consequences of corporate behavior on society, the environment and, in Wells Fargo’s case, customers in order to maximize profit.

How Wells Fargo Can Return to Great

There is a bold way that Wells Fargo could re-affirm its commitment to its culture and more importantly, to its customers: reincorporate as a Delaware public benefit corporation and adopt a new corporate charter that makes a legal commitment to embody its core value of courtesy. Since Wells Fargo is already a generous supporter of the arts and other community causes, becoming a Delaware public benefit corporation would actually be in alignment with its historical culture and values. Becoming a benefit corporation would give Wells Fargo a path to go from discourteous to great, re-positioning the bank as a global leader in corporate governance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a satisfied Wells Fargo customer since 1975 and am a small Wells Fargo stockholder. My fondness for the bank grew after I recently moved to west Marin County north of San Francisco. My Wells Fargo branch in Point Reyes Station is the only bank serving the entire western half of the county. Service Manager Jeffrey Schroth and his team know me and most of their customers by name. They exemplify courtesy and model community banking at its best.

If it were up to me, I’d require Mr. Stumph and each of Wells Fargo’s officers and directors to spend a month working for Mr. Schroth in his branch to help each of them

remember the true purpose of their bank: to serve customers like me with courtesy.

What would you do to make Wells Fargo great again?