Saturday, July 22, 2006
Ken Lay's Dead and Downtown Houston Smells Like Pee.
In the early hours of the morning of July 5, 2006 I was sleeping peacefully in my bed and Ken Lay was dying.
I would awake to find my windows wet with rain. Nothing seemed terribly abnormal. I rode my bike to class and after class caught the train to work. While on the train I received the text message from my mother. All it said was "Ken Lay dead. Heart attack." I reacted aloud. It was so surreal. Like the end to a strange dream. A sad, somber ending, but an ending none the less.
Lay had died while on vacation in Aspen. He was afforded the luxury of traveling out of state while awaiting his sentencing. Downtown Houston was abuzz. It seemed more alive. Perhaps it was me. I overheard conversations, speculations on the validity of the story of how Lay died. None of these people will ever really know what Ken Lays final days were like. But, on this day they all knew the story. On this day, in the rain, strangers painted stories of Lay filling overseas bank accounts and escaping to an island he had purchased with the hard earned dollars of Houstonians. Stories of Lay and his wife saying goodbye and lying down in expensive sheets to wait for his heart to stop. I just sat silently. I did not know Ken Lay and I have no idea what happened that night. I would speculate that it would not really matter one way or the other to all those that had lost everything. A 65 year old man would still wake up at 5am, so that he could make it to Wal-Mart, where he worked as a greeter after being forced to come out of retirement. He would still go shake hands and devote his days to yet another corporation. If he wants to eat dinner and pay his taxes, he will do this everyday until he dies. The death of Ken Lay would not change this.
I would occasionally see him outside the Federal courthouse in Houston while on my bike ride to work. I would catch glimpses of his bald head in the crowd and wonder what he must be thinking, or what life has been like for Ken Lay. He won't be standing outside that Federal Courthouse ever again. Life for Ken Lay, whatever it was like, is over.
Lay began his demise on the 4th of July. Historically this day was the beginning of freedom for a select few. It would for sure mark the beginning of a better life for men like Ken Lay. White, male entepenuers with visions of freedom, wealth and power would create a home in America and others would follow behind growing strong by feeding off the legacy.
Enron and Haliburton take up space in the same section of downtown Houston. You feel the presence when you enter this section. All of downtown Houston smells like urine, but this section has an added hint of excessive smoking and guilty conscience. Maybe there is no guilty conscience, but there is a lot of smoking. There is a courtyard that sits near both corporations. It is riddled with white men in short sleeved button downs with ugly ties, filling their lungs with the smell of slow death. Of course, Enron is just a shell of a corporation now. A big shiny new building used solely for Enron spin-offs and as a focal point for news cameras.
Houston is an odd place. It's layered with textures. The smells in downtown are almost tactile, like something you can actually peel off of at the end of the day. The smells shield the city from sunlight, tinting the city to create a soft yellow hue and harbor the 85% humidity. To walk through downtown feels almost like wading through warm water. After my trip to work I always feel like I'm at least ten lbs heavier, caked with moisture, smells and the envious stares of everyone that just wants anything but what they have.
I wonder if this is what finally weighed Ken Lays heart down. I wonder if after decades of wading through this city, Ken Lays heart could not remember what the right thing was. Was it clouded with those same smells, that same humidity, and way too much power? Or did Ken Lay ever have to walk one block in this muck? I suppose he didn't. I suppose the power is the difference. When I get home, I can still peel the layers and the textures off of my skin. They still sit on the outer most layer. But for Ken Lay, they must have been ingrained deep inside, caking the walls of his heart, that in the end, could not withstand the light, clean Colorado air.