“What do you think of outsourcing?”
My nephew’s question came out of nowhere. We were sitting in a little bar & grill, waiting for our lunches to arrive, and he’d been looking at his phone while I chatted with his wife.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m surprised I’ve never thought about it before, but I’ve been reading lately, and it looks like a business can save money by using employees in another country. And it’s not like we’re unconnected…”
Adam was referring to Jamaica, of course. His wife Véronique was born there. My brother and sister-in-law had ex-patriot careers (she with the State Dept and he trying to do PR consulting wherever they were stationed). Adam lived on the island from adolescence till around twenty. Niqi was his first (only) girlfriend, and has been his wife for fourteen years.
“Wait: are you two thinking about moving back?”
“No way.” They seem to prefer the US although they gripe about the politics and the economy. They moved from Oakland shortly after Niqi immigrated and they married, first to Red Bluff, then Arcata, now Medford. They ignore the Meth-ford nickname. They praise their current home like it’s an actual city in an actual state. I try to be diplomatic with them; I bite my tongue and never say that Oregon makes a lovely territory but lacks the resources to be a player.
Adam continued. “We’re doing okay. But it’s interesting to think about ways to reduce costs.”
Adam and Niqi have their own home business. They make and sell cheap Rastafarian objects. They’re not lazy, so they eke out a living. They started by selling on etsy and ebay but now they run their own website and manage their own sales. And have employees. The young people who come to work for them are fans of theirs. But Adam and Niqi only pay $10 an hour and don’t provide benefits. They experience turnover and some headaches.
At that moment the waitress brought our lunches. I bought some time doctoring my fish tacos and taking a bite from one. And then more time because I couldn’t put the taco down or it would have sogged and resisted being lifted neatly again. I went at it sideways, one bite after another, and inwardly rated it B+. Adam forked slaw into his mouth before addressing his fish & chips. Niqi plowed into a big salad Niçoise.
Between tacos, I said, “I guess I’m against outsourcing. This may sound harsh or emotional, but I think if you can’t make it paying your employees American wages, then you can’t make it.”
“Yeah, but say you can make it; what’s wrong then with cutting costs and increasing profits?”
“Is that your business goal?”
Adam looked at me blankly. This happens whenever I ask them anything about their strategy. I remember a few years back, when he was high about a big order week, and he said his goal was to double weekly sales by Christmas (then six months away). I asked him how he planned to get there and he said, “I dunno. Just work harder, I guess. So far that’s been the ticket.” Niqi jumped in (literally) with “I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader, but we’re into positive thoughts.” We were in their red, yellow, green and black kitchen at the time, and Niqi landed on her butt when she came down from her jump and her sock-covered feet slid on the flooring. Adam is short and too heavy to give gleeful leaps, but Niqi is slim. I remember the sight of her limbs flailing as she fell, and her tight curls not moving at all. Niqi is one of those amazing multi-racial Jamaicans: green eyes blaze out amid a café au lait complexion and thick jet hair.
I just couldn’t imagine embarking on a venture without a plan. When I opened my consulting office I had ideas about creating a space I’d like to work in, and rendering services I would want to receive, and I kept those ideas in mind as I built the place. I remember Dad counseling us on the subject. He told us that any campaign, military or political or commercial or emotional, required strategy and tactics. He showed us how, with long engineering projects, he set interim deadlines: that way the natural human tendency to procrastinate resulted in several mini-crams, instead of one monstrous high-stress impossibility when the project was due. He taught us the way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. He counseled my brother along with me, and I’m certain my brother passed the ideas on to Adam.
I thought Dad was brilliant. Now that I know most of these wisdoms were not original with him, I’ve modified that to bright enough. Maybe it’s not important who said something useful: just that it’s said? After all, does anyone really care who or if Shakespeare was? The significant thing is we have the plays and poems. And the moment I think that, I conclude that it may not be crucial to correctly attribute some wit’s words to another or to no one, but it isn’t okay to appropriate them as if they were your own…
I was passing through southern Oregon on my way to Eugene and Portland. I’d stayed the night in Ashland, with my brother and sister-in-law, and I was having lunch with Adam and Niqi before continuing the drive north. I own a little real estate in Eugene, acquired when my daughter’s family lived there and inhabited by tenants since she and hers moved to Portland. I was in the process of retiring from my consulting career, and I’ve been thinking about developing the Eugene place. So maybe I was so focused on planning that all I could see was the absence of it, among the youngsters. I concentrated on my taco.
We got onto another subject while we finished our meal. Adam and Niqi have decided not to have children but they live with three dogs, two cats, a rabbit, a couple of hens, and four geckos. They told me about their little zoo.
I thought the food was okay. Unlike Niqi’s tuna, Adam and I were eating local cod. It made me remember my first fish taco, at Steelhead Brewing Co in Eugene. Niqi wasn’t crazy about her salad (too many olives of all things), but Adam got just what he expected. I left them around 2 p.m.
I wasn’t hungry when I hit Myrtle Creek, but I had to stop. I’m in love with the picturesque little town. I once considered moving there, but they don’t have an economy. What they do have, besides oceans of conifers, is Myrtle Creek, two covered bridges, and an adorable old-time Dairy Queen overlooking the burbling waterway. I always stopped there and sat at one of the window tables. I’d have a cone or a bland order of popcorn shrimp.
I was totally unprepared for what I found. The DQ was closed. And there was no indication that the closure was temporary, or that the business was for sale. Just closed.
I sat in the car for a while, looking at the place, pretty sure I’d never see it again. I wondered if the former operator had a business plan. And I wondered about Adam and Niqi. They’re hardworking and they have some enthusiastic customers, but I feared their market was too small and too poor.
I heard my favorite line, in Dad’s voice, in my head: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” He said it more than once, and although he never provided attribution, he let us know from the beginning that he didn’t originate it.
I pulled out my phone and used the Internet. And smiled till I laughed. Apparently George Harrison used the line in a 1988 song called “Any Road:”
But oh Lord we pay the price with the
Spin of a wheel – with the roll of the dice
Ah yeah you pay your fare
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there
That was the smile. The laughter started as I read that Harrison was paraphrasing Lewis Carroll. Of course:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6, 1865)
I composed myself and blotted my laugh tears. Then I continued on my road (I-5), thinking about how to place strange architecture on a small rectangular lot.