Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Accidental Corporate Terrorist

Visiting the promised land is triggering a flood of memories from my past...

It all began innocently enough. Post college, in the 70s, I worked in the credit department at Sears, Roebuck and Company. But this wasn't just any credit department. It was situated in the downtown store in Houston, Texas. But this wasn't just any downtown store. It also housed the offices of the district managers and supervisors of Sears.

My boss, the local credit manager, was a former IRS investigator, and an incredible judge of character. He would sit in his office surrounded by a cloud of smoke from his Camel cigarettes and watch the customers as they arrived at the counter. During slow times in the day, he would invite one of us into the cloud and share stories from his past. During one of these sessions with me, he suggested that I consider climbing the corporate ladder at Sears, that there were scads of opportunities in management positions for women.

Then I would walk out into the shared space of phones, filing cabinets, and typewriters, right past the desk of his secretary, a kindly woman who had started working there in the 40s for the grand sum of ten cents an hour. Thirty years of loyal service, through raises, had brought that up to $1.75 an hour, still
less than the rate I was hired at just a few weeks previously. I would shake my head and return to the counter to assist someone with a "credit problem".

But my boss persisted in offering me opportunities. I was sent to the Better Business Bureau to learn how to investigate credit records via a fancy teletype like machine. Thereafter, part of my day was spent typing names into the recently installed metal monster and producing credit reports right there on the spot.

Up on the third floor was a large, climate controlled room containing banks of primitive mainframe computers. These computers were attached, via telephone line, to bigger computers in Dallas, where regional credit information was stored. It became my job to periodically visit the third floor room and enter the numbers of lost and stolen credit cards.

All went well until that fatal Saturday. I was sent upstairs to the third floor, climate controlled room which housed the mainframe. In the last 30 years, computers have become second nature, available, tiny. But back in the day, they were awe inspiringly huge. And noisy. And mysterious. (I'm reminded of Terminator, the Sarah Conner Chronicles.)

It was 11:30am on a Saturday when I started typing in the numbers I was given to alert the system of lost/stolen cards. There were about fifteen of them. Halfway through my input, the phone rang. Instantly life kicked into slow motion and black and white--the computers started vomiting reams of paper, a buzzer was sounding, all the district managers and supervisors from the fourth floor were piling into the room in a panic, asking me what happened.

Keep in mind, it was high noon, on a Saturday, downtown Houston, store full of shoppers, and every cash register frozen.

It was later determined that one important fact was left out of my training--if the phone rings, immediately stop input. That call was from the bigger bank of computers in Dallas, updating. Any input after the ring would throw our computer into a loop spitting out all the numbers that were not in the system.

Folks, that's a lot of numbers!

Curiously, I didn't lose my job. My credit manager thought it was funny. I think he enjoyed the sight of so many of his bosses running around in sheer panic and confusion.

I lived to tell the tale of how I singlehandedly brought a major department store to its knees one sunny Saturday. But I still get nervous every time I go through airport security. What if they ask me if I've ever been involved in a terrorist act?