My First Job, Working for the Feds

Related image The Typing Pool

The first job I ever held was during the waning days of the McCarthy era. Here’s a story about it:

Are you now or were you ever a member of the Communist Party? The Ku Klux Klan? The Nazi Party? The National Negro Labor Council or the Ukrainian-American Fraternal Union? The application for federal employment listed 300 subversive organizations. I’d heard of the first three but none of the others and, as far as I knew, had never met any of their members.

It was the summer of 1961, and I had just finished my first year at City College. I was seventeen, and a loner. I hadn’t even belonged to any student clubs. I checked the No box. Same with the question about whether I was a homosexual. I’d never met one of those either. Again I checked No. I had raging hormones and confused fantasies but was clueless about sexuality in general. Kissing a boy in a movie theatre was just a matter of hot saliva, slithery tongues, and his wire braces. What was it supposed to feel like?

Finally I was advised that the FBI would conduct a background check and might interrogate anyone who knew me. I signed, and turned the papers in.

As soon as the spring semester ended, my father had announced that it was time I earned my keep. No more idle, delectable summers on the beach.

That morning I stuffed my hips into a girdle, legs into nylons, feet into three-inch heels. Smeared deodorant in armpits. Shrugged into a dress. Once I was presentable, Dad escorted my reluctant adolescent self to the Navy Regional Accounts Office—the NRAO—in Brooklyn, where he’d been clerking since the end of World War II.

The ride to Brooklyn from the Bronx took an hour and a half. The subway car was packed, a steam sauna redolent of perfume, sweat, and metabolized alcohol oozing from the drunk hovering over me. The trains weren’t air conditioned back then.

From the exit it was a two-block trot to the six-story edifice that housed the Navy’s business operations. No air conditioning here either. Fans and fluorescent lights hummed overhead. It smelled of metal desks and stale cigarette smoke.

Mr. DiSalvo, the head of personnel, was a dapper man with an olive complexion and a serious face. He gave me a typing test. I was sure I’d failed to make 35 words per minute but he passed me. I think he must have owed my father a favor. Then I was sent to the nurse’s station, where a med tech tried to test for syphilis. I had small veins. He poked three times without success. “Oh, forget it. You’re Jack’s kid. You’re OK.”

On Monday I reported as assigned. My job was to type invoices for all the Navy’s purchases, covering everything from a three-million dollar airplane to 144 gross boxes of yo-yos. Did bored sailors have yo-yo contests at sea? I never found out. Another mysterious item was meprobamate—invoices for thousands of tablets every day. Much later, I learned that it was generic for Milltown, the first tranquilizer. Apparently the entire Navy was being treated for psychological disorders.

My hips were trapped under the desk for the eight-hour shift, except for two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch in the cafeteria. The girdle and the desk seemed to have been designed as a chastity belt, to anesthetize if not totally destroy the life force in my loins.

I was the youngest in the typing pool, surrounded by middle-aged women who chain-smoked constantly. Within a few hours the fumes had made me sick. The supervisor moved me to the back of the room; the draft from the fans carried the smoke toward the front windows. My co-workers never looked up, never said a word to me all summer. I didn’t approach them either.

By 5:00 on a sweltering summer’s day, moisture-laden clouds had eclipsed the sun. We all punched out just as the thunderstorm began and raced to the subway, holding newspapers above our heads to keep from getting drenched, trying desperately to avoid stepping in a grate and breaking a heel. By the time I got home my inner thighs were raw from the girdle.

We worked on manual typewriters then. Every night that first week, I kept hearing the click-click-click and the bing! of the carriage return in my dreams. If I hadn’t really been able to type 35 words per minute at the beginning of summer, I certainly could at the end.

I left the NRAO in September when school started, agreeing to return the following summer. During the winter I turned 18 and started an affair with a guy I met at a party. We had real sex. It was more pleasurable than getting pawed in the movies, but not exactly earthshaking. Then one night my best friend Laura seduced me. Her first kiss burned off the underbrush of my ignorance. I went home and lay awake, rolling the word lesbian over and over in my mind, telling myself I’d go through the fires of hell for such kisses. I was in love. I ditched the boyfriend.

In June I returned to the NRAO. This time I was assigned to a smaller pool, in contracts. Here the girls were my own age and none of them smoked. There were no photocopying machines, so we retyped paragraph after paragraph of boilerplate. If we made a mistake, we dabbed correction fluid on the first page and on all the carbon copies underneath it.

I was still the oddball in the group—a college kid, while the others never had the opportunity to go past high school. They would work until they married and had babies. I was Jewish, the others Sicilian. In my naiveté I’d assumed they were all good little Catholic virgins, but when we sat around the cafeteria table at lunch, they told the raunchiest jokes and screamed with laughter. I grinned and blushed furiously. Nobody I knew talked like that.

Fridays at noon, when we got our paychecks, we scorned the cafeteria and treated ourselves to lunch at a nearby Italian deli. The girls watched their language there—it was a tightly knit community, and the owners would know their families.

One of my co-workers, Paola, took me under her wing. She showed me where to get materials from the supply cabinets and how to dial out on the extension phone. She had jet-black hair and creamy white skin—a high-energy gal, quick of speech and always in motion. Whoever came up with the phrase “faster than a New York minute” must have been inspired by her.

I was enjoying this summer a lot more than the last. Some nights I didn’t go home but stayed at Laura’s apartment. I’d put her on the phone to assure my mother that I wasn’t sleeping with a man. I’d go to work next morning with her scent in my nostrils, and at each inhalation an exquisite current ran down to my groin. I’d call her during break, pretending I was chatting with my boyfriend “George.” Maybe I should’ve been scared but I don’t remember that at all. By now I was used to keeping my sex life secret. My parents hadn’t found out, and nothing bad had happened.

When we had coffee together Paola confessed that she had a boyfriend. She’d gotten pregnant a couple of years ago. Her parents had sent her to a home for unwed mothers and made her give up the baby. Now she was dating a sailor who worked at the shipyard nearby. “I’m really worried,” she confessed. “If I get pregnant again, my dad will kill me for sure.”

“Birth control,” I advised. “Go to the Margaret Sanger Institute. They’ll fit you with a diaphragm and show you how to use it.” I had, in fact, used their services during that short-lived heterosexual affair.

One day during break Paola picked up the second extension. She hadn’t noticed that I was already on the phone with “George.” I saw her out of the corner of my eye—she heard Laura’s voice and turned green as a hospital wall. Even before I hung up she grabbed my elbow and was ushering me into the ladies’ room. “Are you crazy?” she hissed. “You could get into so much trouble. If anyone finds out you’ll be fired.”

I was astonished. Not only didn’t she mind that I was gay, she was protecting me.

That summer we kept each other’s secrets. We didn’t stay in touch after I returned to school, but years later my father told me that Paola was still working at the NRAO, and sent her fondest regards.

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One Response to My First Job, Working for the Feds

  1. Perry Brass January 27, 2019 at 2:54 pm #

    This is such a wonderful memoir, Martha. I loved reading it—such a keyhole into your life as a young person in NY, a time that I remember when I first came to the city in 1966 and the subways were not air conditioned, and you worked with people who became your friends because they weren’t texting invisible people all day. My sister went to the Margaret Sanger Clinic also to get abs IUD. I remember it was in a town house somewhere below midtown, and it had a wonderful, long staircase that went from the waiting room to the upper clinic floors. I still remember my sister coming down the staircase after she was fitted for an IUD—it was a real ordeal. I’m glad I was there to pick her up and take her back to my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen which you probably remember from our GLF days.

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