Love Letter to a Letter
During Enron's brief, Icarian lifespan, the company was known by its logo -- the tilted E.
A capital sans-serif E, rotated 45 degrees counterclockwise, was the company's ubiquitous symbol. Large, lighted chrome versions of the E -- illuminated in red, blue and green -- were prominently displayed around the company's Houston headquarters. Four-foot-high letters were staked outside, flanking the building. A granite base once held one of the Es; a matching block now occupies the cradling wedge.
A rotating E -- it came to be known as the "disco E" -- lighted with LCDs, spun inside the building's lobby, visible from the sidewalk.
With the company's downfall, accusations of executive malfeasance emerged. The tilted E became known as the "crooked E." (Which, by the way, looks remarkably like the tilted E in the Dell logo on the laptop right in front of me.)
Come bankruptcy, however, the Es -- tilted or crooked -- became something more than just the typographic symbol of corporate corruption (and a gift from heaven for news-graphics editors everywhere). The Es were worth actual cash money.
In fall of 2002, at a Houston hotel, the company auctioned off everything that wasn't tied down -- computers, chairs, desks -- 53,000 items in all. Including the Es.
Houstonian Fred Massey bought one of the four-foot-high Es. Why? Well, why not? He had $10,500 burning a hole in his pocket, evidently. At the time, he told the Houston Chronicle his wife wanted it for a coffee table.
I called Fred to see if I could come look at his E. It didn't seem like too personal of a question.
Turns out, Fred sold his E a couple of years after he bought it.
"Well," he said, "it was much larger than I thought." Fair enough. An E's a big vowel, not like your skinny capital I.
So he put it up for sale.
On eBay, naturally.
Massy ended up selling the E -- for the same amount he paid for it -- to a Boston banker whose name he couldn't remember.
Oh, well. E-z come, E-z go.
The "disco E" fetched $33,000 in December 2002. Its resting place remains unknown. It was bought by a mystery man who made the winning bid and then swept out through the hotel lobby without giving his name, pausing only to tell reporters: "It's a Christmas present for someone who has everything." Then, he zoomed away in a gray Ferrari.
The Chronicle copied down the Ferrari's license plate number and engaged in a little public-records diving to try to ascertain the man's identity but couldn't nail it down. It's just as well. It's romantic to think of the disco E twirling somewhere secret and intriguing -- perhaps in the middle of a circle of Houston druids, or 33rd-degree Freemasons.
Another of the four-foot Es now rests in a far less-glamorous space than it originally occupied.
It was the first E put up for auction. The owner of a Houston chain of bargain computer retail and repair shops known as MicroCache sent his top salesman, Jimmy Luu, to the auction to buy it. Luu came home that day one E heavier and $44,000 lighter. Luu enjoyed some brief celebrity as a keeper of the E. "The reason we bought this was to preserve this business icon," the company's lawyer said at the time. At a second auction shortly after, Luu lost the bidding for the second four-foot E to Massey.
I called Luu to ask him about the E. Did MicroCache get its $44,000 worth? Did the letter deliver?
"It was fun," Luu said. "It was good for business when we started out."
But after a few months, he said, "everything just died out.
"It's just sitting there for nothing now," Luu said.
I drove out to the MicroCache store to see the E, to see where it has lived for the past three-plus years.
This MicroCache branch is a one-story block building squatting hard by I-45 southeast of downtown Houston, next door to an adult video store. It is a long way from the glimmering skyscrapers of Energy Gulch, the strip of downtown Smith Street where Enron, Dynegy and a dozen other oil and gas companies reside.
Open the barred doors of MicroCache and walk into the tight space; $59 computer monitors crowd the shelves. A technician works on a computer in the back. The E has its own little windowless room, just to the left of the front door. The walls are painted black and the E sits in a stand against the back wall. The day manager flips on some track lighting trained on the E. The polished chrome shines.
I ask: Do people come by to look at it?
The manager smiles a little: "Sometimes." Seems like ancient history, that momentary celebrity, that groovy notoriety of Enron paraphrenalia. This is what it feels like to become a footnote in history, tossed into the pop-culture dustbin along with the Whip Inflation Now buttons. It's hard not to feel a little bad for the E, like a forgotten grandparent in a nursing home. "I used to E somebody," it might think.
I take a couple of pictures and the manager flips the lights back off. The E's moment is over.
By Frank Ahrens |
April 23, 2006; 9:30 AM ET
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