Back when I was 20 years old and freshly landed in San Francisco after a life of idyllic suburban living and a whirlwind cross-country–and back–trip with two rather hippy-oriented young women, I found myself in need of employment.
There wasn’t so much “employment” for young Xers then as this was the beginning of an era of unraveling in the nature of business and work, and the rapid deregulation of the economy and how workers were to be treated. It was the beginning of the era of two-tiered wages where people a few years older had jobs and salaries and benefits and pensions and all the things Xer children had been told would be theirs, but weren’t.
But such is the lot of the Gen X generation: to hit all phases of life at the worst time to be that age (for success, comfort and safety) though the best time to be in that age for adventure, excitement and “having a life.”
And so instead of finding “a job,” I found this thing called “temp work.” It was a new thing. It was exciting. It was different. It was nascent. It was 1983.
Someone I met — I don’t recall whom, how, when or why — but someone I met gave me a number for a guy who had these “temp jobs,” so I called him, met with him, and, lo and behold, within a week or so I had some temp work lined up.
It was the mid-80s. Workaholic Boomers were just moving into midlife as young Xers were emerging as the new young adults in society. The corporate work environment and dress code was hard core–suits for the men and feminized suits for the women. I had professionalized my wardrobe young and had suits galore to wear. (It was the early ’80s.) While other temp workers were probably getting jobs doing data entry in dark corners of dark offices, I had the clothes, presentability and the skills (I could spell, write and type) for a more front-and-center office job.
And that’s how I found myself sitting at the first of two front-office desks, inside AT&T’s highest corporate offices, in the office where many an AT&T vice president and people with Fancy-Pants titles worked. If, instead of turning left and walking the 15 or so steps to my desk, one were to walk straight for 15 or so steps, one would be at the receptionist area for AT&Ts CEO. I was, at least in terms of my physical location, in the center of things with this behemoth organization.
Mine was a horrible job. Boring. Few skills acquired. I answered calls. I typed correspondence and filed away carbon copies of memos. I made photocopies. I picked up office supplies. I entered data into a terminal with an orange screen. I think I was paid $7 an hour. Maybe it was $8. It wasn’t $9. And I worked a full-time job’s hours, right next to people with full-time job salaries and benefits. I wasn’t part of meetings to discuss how things got done. I learned little. No one mentored me to build up my skill levels. I was a cog in the wheel, disposable at any moment.
But, my, was it fancy. The building was fancy. The company was fancy. And, to boot, AT&T was going through a full-on, court-mandated divestiture at the time, wrapping up in 1984, right when I was there. I worked for the key people responsible for planning the divestiture.
The offices were at the top of the Shaklee Terraces building on 444 Market Street, smack dab in the city’s financial district. I was 20 then–a kid, with little prior exposure to cities other than an occasional jaunt to various Smithsonian museums and the national mall on field trips, or a trip my mother somehow managed to pull off with three kids, no GPS and the convoluted streets of D.C.
Oh, and I’d been to New York City once as a kid. Overwhelmed. Scared. Inundated with energies, vibes and mannerisms I found alien and strange.
Now, here I was: not only living in San Francisco (I was in the utterly beautiful Castro District, 14th & Noe Street), but working in the hubbub and center of this city for one of the biggest U.S. companies at a time when telecommunications was a hot-hot industry. In an era and time of the relatively recent women’s lib movement and attendant attempts to shatter glass ceilings. A time when people wore suits to work as a default. A time when yuppies (not my generation) filled the streets.
It was fancy!
stealing pennies from king midas
In 1983, every minute of every long-distance phone call was an extra charge. Long-distance calls could really add up. My family was in Maryland; I was in San Francisco. Email didn’t exist in any functional manner then. Cell phones and text were long yet to be a thing, and phone calls on land lines were how most people stayed in touch. That, and letters. I made calls to my family here and there (mostly my mom), while at work figuring, “Heck, it’s the phone company; will they even notice?”
And then there was that day when a small group of women I worked for (not with) gathered, looked at me, tittered, and then one came up to me and asked if I was the one making these calls to Maryland. I lied. Said it wasn’t me. I’m sure the calls were connected to my phone line and the proof I’d made the calls was obvious, but I was embarrassed; and more so, I was terrified they were going to make me pay for the calls. I was barely scraping by financially, and the thought of having to suddenly pay an extra $50 or $100 or whatever the amount to cover the calls frightened me.
I was also peeved by how small-minded these folks with their full-time salaries, luxe benefits, paid vacations and company credit cards were being.
I showed up day after day in a suit and clothes worthy of their office environment (not a cheap endeavor), working for one of the largest businesses in the U.S. (ranked #22 in terms of revenue that year), in a fancy office in the financial district of a fancy city, earning $7/hour–or maybe it was $8–and, what?–I couldn’t make a long-distance phone call or two or three or eleven?
There wasn’t any policy saying you couldn’t make personal calls, but they made it clear I had stepped out of line. I didn’t make any calls after that, so score one for Corporate America.
tryna be robin hood
Among my responsibilities at this boring, go-nowhere job was getting office supplies requested by execs in the office. AT&T had an entire floor serving as an office-supplies closet. This was a time was before global supply-chain technologies and the China-fication of manufacturing made so many items inexpensive and plentiful. The selection of available items in the world was smaller then. Much smaller.
But my eyes spotted some pink Post-it pads. Light pink. 3M hadn’t yet expanded their Post-it product line to the gajillions of sizes and colors we know now. I had a friend who sold Mary Kay products, and I thought she’d appreciate some pink Post-it pads, so I snagged (stole) three of them for her.
I remember coming home that day and finding my car had a flat tire, and I wondered if my stealing the pads and the financial loss (the tire repair, or replacement … I forget which it was) was connected. Such things are not provable, or knowable, only consider-able.
james, the giant pervert
One of the assistants to AT&T’s CEO was a man about a decade my senior. His name was James, he was British, and he had the rather classic pasty-white-boy look some British folks have. James apparently took a liking to me and started bringing small gifts such as a little bit of gourmet chocolate or a flower in a vase, which he would leave on my desk while I wasn’t there, but which the other women in the office often saw him do.
They were all quite excited. James–in with the even big(ger) wigs than were in our office. James–from England. How white-boy exotic.
I was a bit flattered as well. Older guy. Higher up in the echelons of higher-up-ness. He asked me to lunch one day, which I accepted.
At lunch, he told me he found me very attractive and, get this, that he’d like to watch me have sex with someone. He told me he knew a particular hotel and particular room number where I could go to do the deed. He could rent the room across the way. He told me all he wanted to do was watch and that he wouldn’t ever touch me. He just wanted to watch, and all I had to do was leave the curtain up while I had sex with whomever. He then held out an envelope with $250 cash.
I rejected his offer, and we didn’t speak again.
I still have a bad taste in my mouth from that experience.
teaching me a lesson i couldn’t GAF about
Then there was the older Filipino lady next to whom I worked in this fancy front-office area of this fancy, ranked #22 nationally corporation. I’ll call her Mrs. Reyes, though that’s just made up for story-telling purposes.
Mrs. Reyes was probably in her mid-50s or so and was probably quite proud of being a secretary in this fancy office for fancy-titled people. It wasn’t my lifelong goal to reach her status, but we were different people with different backgrounds who came of age at different times. She probably believed she was grooming me for greater front-desk responsibilities, which I didn’t hold against her. I simply didn’t have any interest in being her.
Back in those days, executives (or whomever had a secretary or typing pool for support), usually men, would handwrite notes and then the secretaries, who were usually women, would type them up with carbon paper and (usually) a yellow-colored “file copy” paper behind the carbon paper.
One afternoon, late in the work day, I was typing up a note for one of the execs. It wasn’t a long note.
I typed it and was about to leave for the day when Mrs. Reyes said, “Un-uh, you made a mistake, and it shows on the carbon copy.” (True: I had made a typing mistake; I had used White-Out, I had waited for that to dry, and I had typed the correct letter where the mistake had been)
I looked at her incredulously. This was a memo from one person to another person in the same office–not what anyone might think would be a big deal. But she told me I had to retype it. I did. And I made a typing mistake again.
She told me I had to retype it. I did. And I made another mistake. Lather, rinse, repeat. I think it took me five times before I typed it correctly, error-free.
I remember feeling so bitter. So squashed by the pettiness of perfection on something so absolutely irrelevant. So demeaned by her Small Power wielded over me.
I don’t know how long I lasted after that. I went home in tears that day.