Escribe Marta Avellaneda desde Nueva York

Hello Kenneth, I Mean… Kathy

Part I - The setting

The owner of our company was in jail in Buenos Aires. The country was under a military dictatorship. It was 1980, I was twenty six years old and the Treasurer/Vice President of a small international finance company in New York. Our parent group in Argentina had recently gotten into deep trouble with the military authorities. No formal charges had been brought against its sole shareholder but he was imprisoned under an established law that allows a person to be detained for up to two years without being charged. He had been in jail now for a few months and his bank and companies had all been intervened, except for our office in New York.

The debacle of the parent group in Argentina had come at the worst of times for our small affiliate company. It had caught us in the middle of a process of expansion. We had just moved to larger offices, hired new people, and planned to pay the increased bills with an influx of capital from our parent group, which never arrived. Because of our association with the disgraced owner, our lines of credit were cut, and some of our clients had withdrawn their business. INTERPOL had paid us a polite visit only to check our affiliation to the group in Buenos Aires, ¨to see how we were doing,¨ and obviously to establish the possibility of some wrongdoing on our part. No matter how polite they were, I was very unhappy with the notion that now they had my name on file.

My boss Marcus, of Brazilian origin and I, shared the responsibility of management and now also of saving the company from being closed down. We were trying to prevent its twelve employees from being laid off. Communication with the Directors of the parent group on whom until now we had relied for instructions, had ceased abruptly after they called to inform us of the distressing news. There was a new Officer in our staff, an American who had joined us as part of our plans for expansion, having left a secure job at a bank in Boston for what at the time he believed to be a good career move.

Guilt and embarrassment prevented Marcus and I from sharing with him most of our troubles, and we tried to make his life at his new job as ‘normal’ as possible.

One evening I had just come out of one of those endless meetings with Marcus, where we had exchanged the latest news on the several economic groups that had been seized by the government together with ours. We had gone through the long list of problems that we already faced, and those we were about to face in the near future. We had discussed a variety of plans that would allow us to survive as a company on our own. The results of our meeting had not been very encouraging, and I felt depressed and tired, thinking ¨I'm too young for all this, it's all way over my head.¨ I had never wanted to work in finance. I had never been trained to be an executive. Mid American was an opportunity that had simply come my way and I had been endowed with responsibilities that exceeded my age and my expertise.

I stopped for a moment to watch from my corner office on Madison Avenue at 57th Street, the spectacular red sunset over New Jersey, hoping to find relief in beauty. While I was at it a faint knock was heard. The door was already open, and Kenneth was standing timidly at the threshold. I saw him standing there with one of those looks which conveyed that more bad news was on the way. Not feeling up to being burdened with any further distressing information, I spoke to him impatiently

“Yes, Kenneth. What is it?”  He was taken aback by my manner, which sometimes could be  brisk but never unfriendly.

“I know you are busy, and have more important things on your mind, but I wanted to let you know that whenever you have some time this week, I need to talk to you about a personal problem.”

Kenneth was my Accounting Officer and I found him rather strange. Tall, very slim, he had limp thin hair that he wore almost to his shoulders, a pale angular face and eyes that never looked straight at you but sort of shifted from side to side as if he were scared. Kenneth didn't walk, he glided softly through the rooms, so that despite the wooden floors, I could never hear him approach, but would find him by my desk, respectfully and patiently waiting for me to lift my eyes from my work and discover him. He never raised his voice, and whenever he felt nervous, which was often enough, he spoke inwardly. That made me ask frequently ‘What did you say?’ which made him even more nervous creating a vicious circle. This and the fact that he wore his nails a bit long were two things that annoyed me about Kenneth. For the rest, and in contrast to his shy attitude, he had a rather caustic, funny sense of humor and a strong will.

He was intelligent and hard working, and he knew his job.

‘A personal problem,’ I thought. ‘That could be refreshing. It will take my mind off unsolvable problems.’ So I told him to come in and talk to me.

“Now?” He said, horror-stricken.

“You said when I have time, and I have time now. Come in.”

I sat at my desk and watched him take as long as he could in closing the door and coming to sit on the chair in front of me. Then he started to stir uncomfortably, rolling his eyes from side to side, looking up at the ceiling, looking down at his hands and all the while expressing his discomfort with deep sighs. It took him a long time to frame the first phrase, and in that time my lousy mood dissolved as I concentrated on trying to figure out what could be the problem which was giving him so much pain. I had recently read an article about women supervisors and the way male subordinates relate to them.

It talked about the mother figure and the frequency with which men would discuss their most intimate problems with their female bosses.

So I thought ‘Kenneth has a problem with his wife and he needs a woman's point of view in the matter. This is a piece of cake.’

I always felt comfortable giving advice on love relationships, probably because I made such a mess of my own.

Finally, he spoke:

“I hope you have a liberal mind.”

That was definitely it; this was an intimate problem with his wife, probably involving their sex life, so I said:

“I like to believe I do.”

“Then I hope you are not easily shocked…”

To be continued. Part II will be published next Sunday 13th.