Deconstructing Pop Culture

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The Capitol Ham

December 22nd, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Well, the holidays are with us again, and I would like to offer this encomium in memoriam to the Capitol Ham. I refer, of course, to those days of yore when I was employed as a dutiful attaché to the star-making machinery that is/was Capitol Records, Inc., the North American unit of the international multi-media conglomerate, EMI Music. Actually, at the time, EMI was Thorn-EMI, and it really was an international conglomerate, though not multi-media. And now, EMI still really is an international company, though not a conglomerate, and I would hesitate to describe it as multi-media. Of course, since Vivendi no longer owns Universal (the studio, that is), and Warners no longer owns its record company, Sony (and maybe Disney, to a teeny-tiny extent) are the only companies around owning both a record company and a movie studio. Thus the ranks thin.

Anyway, senior management at EMI had a long-standing rule, ONLY THEY would receive year-end bonuses, which I’m sure, were ferociously negotiated with their corporate task-masters in merry olde Englande. Perhaps it was something like the 13 Colonies pleading for more saleable commodities, or Oliver Twist dutifully petitioning for another cup of gruel. Those of us minions of the working class – really, anything at or below the level of Vice President – had to do without. It was sufficient compensation, or so it was thought, to be involved in such an exciting and dynamic industry. At such an exciting and dynamic company.

Realizing this policy well might lead to disenchantment and mutterings within the ranks, senior management dutifully deliberated, and devised a course of action, as follows: they would give each employee a ham. That is, a rather large chunk of meat from a beast with a cloven hoof; a swine, if you will.

There were several things wrong with this policy. First, it offended the religious sensibilities of a number of Capitol employees. In such respect alone, it was a stunningly intolerant gesture; only a management totally and irretrievably out-of-touch with both its industry, and its employees, would blithely stumble along, thinking something like this was appropriate.

Second, it came frozen. In perma-frost, taking days to un-melt. What on earth is one to do with a huge hunk of frozen ham?

Third, it was extremely salty. So salty, in fact, it probably could have doubled as rations on a Spanish Galleon on a trans-Atlantic sea voyage during that Golden Age of maritime activity, the Conquest of the New World. In short, it was inedible, even post defrosting.

And there were hundreds of them. On the appointed day, some sort of conveyance – I would like to think it was a refrigerated truck, but I remember it more as an unenclosed flat-bed type of vehicle with stakes around its perimeter, the better to enclose the hams – decamped to the Capitol parking lot, right behind the famous tower located not far from Hollywood & Vine. The famous spire, blinking “Hollywood” in Morse code, loomed overhead. The fabled Hollywood sign, that signifier of so many hopes and dreams, shimmered in the distance. This being Southern California, it usually was balmy; perhaps slightly windy, with beautiful cumulus clouds, and the sky azure blue overhead. Around this time of year, with the sun setting so far in the south, the light is especially refracted, lending a peculiar kind of brilliance, almost radiance, to everything it illumines.

During a window of several hours, each of the employees was invited to unchain him or herself from his or her desk, free from the fetters confining them, descend via the one elevator typically in service, and ambulate over to the truck. Thereupon they would be issued their ham. Most importantly, their name would be checked off on a list, the better to discourage those who found this tasty treat to be so delectable, they were tempted to enroll for another round.

I’m not quite sure when this merry holiday custom was discontinued; perhaps it lingers on, even today. To me, it always will symbolize how myopic a company’s management can be; how out-of-touch with the needs and requirements of its employees; how condescending, supercilious, haughty to the point of disdain, and even contemptuous. There is a reason why companies today are more like public utilities, or government bureaucracies; why they fail to command the loyalty and dedication of their employees; why their business objectives, and the assets deployed to obtain them, are treated with no more dignity, or respect, than a subway turnstile. And the Capitol Ham falls squarely within that tradition.