Here’s a story for those of you who’d like to read something other than the latest plague news. It’s the first of three episodes about odd jobs for an odd girl. We begin 57 years ago, in a world that no longer exists…
After I left home in 1963, it took two years, working full-time days and taking 12 credits at night, to finish college. My only skills were clerical. In those days, as I wrote in a previous blog post, that meant using typewriters, several sheets of paper with carbon paper in between them, and white-out liquid to correct errors. There were no copy machines and of course no desktop computers. The work was extremely tedious but, looking at it from a historical perspective, a vast improvement over making entries in journals with a quill pen, or incising cuneiform characters into clay tablets with a dried reed.
Readers may remember that the want ads back then were sex-segregated. Help wanted female ads were for secretaries, typists, teachers, and nurses. You had to wear a dress or skirt and, when you applied, a pair of little white gloves. The gloves were just for the interview—once you were hired, you washed them and sent them back into hibernation in the dresser drawer.
I landed one job after another, mostly working for grim older guys. The first was with a furniture company that seemed to be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. When I’d completed the project they’d engaged me for, transferring files from handwritten cards to a more legible format, I was let go. The next was with the New York sales office of Levi Strauss, typing orders for jeans for three more grim guys. I talked them into hiring Laura, too, and we worked together until she was fired for absenteeism. Later I became so depressed in that environment that I started taking one day a week off, and then I was fired as well.
After that, I talked—or rather tested—my way into being secretary to the vice president of the Klein Institute for Aptitude Testing. I suppose they called themselves an institute to put on a veneer of scientific objectivity. They provided personality assessments of job applicants for other companies. Of course, anyone reasonably intelligent could figure out the correct answers. In most cases, you wanted to seem conservative and appropriately subservient. I showed up in a black suit and heels, filled in the right bubbles on the test form, and got the job. My boss was really a figurehead. I think his younger relatives managed the company. A crew of high school grads in the back room scored the tests. Bored witless, I snuck out of the VP office every chance I got and spent the time joking with the other kids—hey, I was only 20 myself! The kids had been taken in by my black suit and were surprised to discover that I wasn’t another stuffed shirt. Soon enough, I was fired again.
The last clerical job I had before getting that B.A. was as a circulation clerk with Hayden, a publisher of engineering magazines. The first time I saw Nancy, the department manager, in her office for the job interview, everything about her screamed “butch!” She wore no makeup, held a cigarette between her thumb and forefinger, and sat with her knees wide apart, spreading the skirt of what was maybe two steps above a house dress. I imagine she sized me up pretty quickly, too. The work consisted of filling out punch cards with information from people renewing their subscriptions. I don’t know where the cards went—probably to a mainframe computer that collected the data, and then a printing system that spat out mailing labels for the magazines. Again, the work was painfully boring, but I was with other young people, and at least some of them were gay as well. Our boss evidently had a good eye. Four of us formed a little club, meeting after hours for a drink, gossip, and moral support. Occasionally I would write a humorous poem about the office and pass it around. Some of those verses found their way to Nancy’s desk.
Nancy hired an assistant manager, Randall, who had recently graduated from some posh business school and was being trained to oversee the peons. In retrospect, I’m fairly sure he was as queer as the rest of us, but all we saw was an overprivileged kid who had never gotten his hands dirty. When he let it be known that he’d never seen a cockroach, a large one, recently deceased, appeared in an envelope on his desk the next day. I must say he took it rather well.
In June 1965 I got my diploma and said goodbye to Hayden. Nancy wrote me a little farewell poem, saying that I would be missed, “…not as a circulation clerk/but as a poet laureate.” And then I was on my way to what I thought would be a professional career. (Hah! Find out more in Part II.)