“MY JOB WAS TO TAKE THE ESCALADE OUT AND BUY CHAMPAGNE,” says one former employee. “Well, not every day, but that was memorable.”
He had been working as an executive assistant to the CEO of Bechtel, one of the world’s largest engineering companies. Bechtel built the Hoover Dam, the Alaska Pipeline, the Hong Kong International Airport, the mass transit systems of several cities, and the first commercial nuclear power reactor in America. It is responsible for one of the world’s largest copper mines in New Guinea and was named by the United Nations as a supplier of weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein. It has, also, been targeted for war profiteering and environmental degradation. The Bechtel office building lies in the dark heart of San Francisco’s financial district at the corner of Mission and Beale. The building: brown and unadorned, and everything about the place anonymous. In front of it, every weekday morning, the woman running in tall black boots with tall black heels will be running late to work, this just past the person handing out Examiner newspapers and the homeless man standing with his back to a brick wall selling Street Sheet for $1. “Have an absolutely magnificent day,” the homeless man will be saying.
“There’s always some Bechtel protestor wandering around wondering where to stand,” or so they say.
“I worked there for a year,” according to the former employee. “I left when I decided I had enough of being completely miserable every single day of my life… I didn’t do anything interesting. I was there to like pat him on the back and stroke his ego.”
“I used to work on a farm, and one day I was birthing a calf and suddenly thought, ‘This is disgusting,’” someone else says of the day he decided to seek out alternate employment.
Or the job might be sent to countries whose citizens are willing to work for a bowl of rice a day, where airports dance to the hum of mechanical ceiling fans. The inner workings of the place are sometimes erratic – communications breakdowns, system failures – a fractured existence limping along in last place, a cascade of desperation, inconsistency, and lies. Dealings are in tragedies and poor timing, remoteness and misinformation. The common language is gibberish. A dusty yellow haze settles over all things, and wild boars walk the unpaved streets. There is nobody rational at the wheel.
“I hope you enjoyed your stay,” management says upon dismissing an employee from the crumbling empire. “If you didn’t have a good time, well you could have had a good time but you chose to focus on the negative things instead of on the positive things.”
OVER 40 YEARS AGO, A STUDY WAS CONDUCTED in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. Called the Stanford Prison Experiment, it was to last two weeks but ended after six days following a series of emotional breakdowns and a general state of things rapidly and irreversibly becoming deeply disturbing.
The experiment began with a classified ad: Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks. Pseudo-prisoner subjects were arrested, fingerprinted, blindfolded, searched, deloused, and dressed in numbered uniforms. Guards were armed with clubs and told to create an environment of powerlessness. Why did things go the way they went? Why didn’t everyone just sit around staring at the wall? This is how things went: It’s hard to say exactly when the prisoners started to revolt. Someone has it written down. But they did indeed, and retaliation was swift. Where once were lilting melodies bouncing brightly through the air-conditioning vents was now the sound of chainsaws and thick-soled shoes echoing across concrete plains. Prisoners were stripped naked, their beds removed, and the leader of the rebellion placed in solitary confinement – a janitor’s closet. But not a janitor’s closet – a windowless cell rather where the most insolent of offenders would be locked away for days and relieved only by the occasional sliver of light and by scraps of food tossed inside at random intervals.
In order to maintain the illusion of incarceration, guards placed bags over the heads of prisoners during transfers throughout the prison. Punishment was administered in the form of press-ups and sleep interruption. The International Committee of the Red Cross calls it “prolonged stress standing.” In these cases, the victim might be handcuffed and shackled to the ceiling, and bolted to the floor.
One prisoner developed a psychosomatic body rash. Professor Philip Zimbardo, orchestrator of the experiment, walked the halls with his hands clasped behind his back and a scowl on his face, no longer a student of the meandering mind but rather a middle-class monarch monitoring the master laboratory for negative reinforcement. Over the course of many days, the walls, it seemed, grew to an industrial thickness. All sounds were blocked from the outside world. The prisoners became pale and wasted, the guards deranged. Nothing stirred save for the inner workings of many a disintegrating mind.
People sometimes find it hard to believe that someone can become a different person, as it were, that moment of stepping off the front doorstep, boarding a train or a bus, and becoming whatever title the world has assigned to them. Can good people commit acts of evil, and were they not perhaps evil all along? Zimbardo calls it the Lucifer Effect: The social norms associated with the role become all-consuming regardless of who that person was yesterday or what they might have been if only. Independent thought is compromised. When you’re in it, you can’t see it. Something like that. The power of the situation to transform human behavior – that had been the focus of the study. And specifically how a person adapts to a situation in which everything they know to be familiar is taken away.
“I wish,” someone might say, “that I had more power. But that is by the way.” This person will lack defined ankles and shuffle about as though atrophied in the art of walking. They will gaze upon the world through grey eyes which lack both depth and humanity.
There were private jets once. “We had a private jet once,” someone else might recall wistfully, as if remembering a time when Santa Claus was real. These are, in their heart of hearts, an ancient and warlike people, of irritable nature, demanding respect. Distant and mythical, like wizards, talk is always of winning and wanting and things reminiscent of world domination – all things of the earth in numerical order, cross-referenced from the beginning until the end of time.
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