Sticking It to the Man
Attached to the back of a voodoo doll hanging on the wall of The Coffee Bar is the poem "Enron Voodoo's Special Charm":
"Cold winters he'll bring Natural gas prices high, and / Electricity demand exceeding supply," it reads. "He'll cast a spell or break a trance: / Visions and values not left to chance. / Voodoo feathers have colors three / For power, wealth and, yes, / Endless possibilities."
Participants in an Enron legal conference got the dolls and prose in the company's headier days of 1999. But like everything else on display in "'ENRON': A Term of Art (1995-2001)," they take on an ironic tone following the energy giant's demise.
Nearby is "Not a Shred of Evidence," a Lucite dome containing shredded money made in 1995 to commemorate an artful Enron financial project. A plastic gravestone created in recognition of the end of an old document-tracking system becomes "Rest In Peace." And "How Much Is Your Vote Worth?" a watercolor print of an American flag and eagle, began as a gift to Enron political action committee members in 1999.
The few dozen pieces of now-perverse artwork line the walls and shelves along the sides of a small coffee bar on the second-floor lobby of downtown's Three Allen Center -- the eerily barren office building that once housed some of the off-balance-sheet partnerships blamed for the company's ruin.
Curator of the exhibit is Drew Crispin, a middle-aged man with a silver mane. A sometime marine surveyor, he spends most of his time managing the bar. He's soft-spoken as a guide, leaving most of the talking to his hodgepodge of trophies and mementos. Enron employees past and present refer to the collection as "deal toys," knickknacks lavished at conferences and meetings during the monolith's freewheeling heyday.
Workers used to joke that if the company stopped handing out toys, they could have a few extra hundred dollars added to their paychecks.
Crispin's inspiration for the exhibit began with a display table meant to assist the company's laid-off employees in finding other work. Next to boxes of corporate literature, Crispin came across a copy of the company code of ethics. The board of directors waived that code so Enron's chief financial officer, Andrew S. Fastow, could also serve as general partner of LJM2, one of the partnerships now seen as the core of the financial debacle. Crispin heard the ethics code was going for a fortune on eBay, so he grabbed it. Now it rests in framed splendor on the wall of his shop, as "Res Ipsa Loquitur (The Thing Speaks for Itself)."
Crispin's wife, a former Enron employee who was fortunate enough to get out before the fall, mentioned his find during an off-hours bitch session with co-workers at a local restaurant. Disgruntled employees past and present began swapping stories of their own hard-earned baubles. They thought it might be funny to put their relics together and make an art show.
By the end of January, Crispin had enough to launch the exhibit. The artwork also includes "It Takes Skill(ing?) to Decipher," a mixed-media installation featuring a www.InvestInMe.enron.com highlighter and an Enron calculator. Mark Courtney, one of the company's top traders, lent "Hang 10K" from his private collection. It is a surfboard given during a Caribbean vacation for Enron Energy Services executives. "Bolt Before Screwed," a steel bolt on a bed of velvet beneath a glass dome, came in recognition of their Houston Pipe Line Company being reassessed upward to $2.6 billion in 1999.
Crispin's curating was cut short last week by an employee from Enron's besieged legal department. He offered to go to the company store and buy a wire ball for the exhibit. Crispin warned him to watch what he says with the media present, but the worker didn't hesitate: "We were screwed, blued and tattooed, and you can quote me." However, he preferred to remain nameless. "The FBI was on our floor today. The fucking FBI. How much more of this shit do we have to take?"
Taking over as guide, the worker points to a card given to every employee when the stock hit $50 a share. Enron's four basic principles are emblazoned on the back: responsibility, integrity, communication and excellence. Back when times were good, he says, they honestly believed that crap. With the stock closer to 45 cents a share, the credibility is gone.
"It's hilarious," he says of the exhibit. "You have to either laugh or cry about it."
A few of the pieces could be worth hefty sums to ex-workers strapped for cash. Items date back to the change of the company name from Enteron, after someone discovered that was a term for intestines. The first trademark slanted "E" logo had the color yellow instead of green, which didn't Xerox well. But the mostly anonymous donors appear to find more value in publicly displaying these pieces of a corporate past.
Some concerns have arisen that the protest exhibit -- like the Enron jobs and even pensions -- might be dismantled. Crispin says building management hasn't hassled him thus far. His contract did promise to keep the coffee bar within certain design specifications. "Then again," he deadpans, "they promised me a full building."
He figures that after the exhibit has made its point, he'll dismantle it in a few weeks. The coffee bar operator sees the gallery as a tribute of sorts to the former customers, lower-level Enron staffers who were ethical, hardworking people who stopped by his stand daily. "There was just a hell of a collection of good minds," Crispin recalls. "It was a pleasure to see them come in."
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