The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
After graduate school I took an administrative job in the army because I had a romantic notion about service to my country. I was made a low-level supervisor in charge of people — mostly civilians — who were older and more experienced than I was.
As part of my preparation, the army sent me on a five-day management-training course conducted by a private contractor. Our bright, enthusiastic teacher gave us exercises in decision making, role-playing, and people skills. One lesson covered Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, from basic survival to noble self-actualization. By recognizing people’s individual needs, we were taught, we could be more effective managers. Behind the teacher’s back, the military participants were contemptuous of this candy-assed approach to group dynamics.
After completing the course, I went back to the office, where one of my staffers asked if she could switch her vacation time with another. Not only was she a fine worker, but the schedule change wouldn’t affect the department at all. I approved the switch.
A little later my boss called me into his office. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Leave schedules are fixed in advance.”
I told him about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the benefit to the worker — and, by extension, the whole organization.
He poked a finger in my face and said, “Listen, you’re a manager. That means you’re a son of a bitch, and you’re gonna be a son of a bitch!”
I left the service after my first tour of duty. My boss retired as a full colonel.
At the age of twenty-five, with my shiny new doctoral degree in hand, I landed my first job, complete with good salary, benefits, and retirement plan. Mom and Dad were pleased and proud of their firstborn daughter.
Within two months I’d begun to flirt with Doug, a cute and charming co-worker. At a bar after work, over pints of beer, he and I kissed. It wasn’t until a few weeks and many kisses later that I learned he had a girlfriend. I, too, was dating someone else at the time, so I forgave Doug’s deceit, and we continued our secret courtship. We would rendezvous wherever we could: in closets, behind doors, in hidden corners, always with the risk of being caught. I told myself to stop being so reckless at work, but my resolve was washed away each morning when I saw Doug. For forty hours a week lust was my number-one occupation.
I began sleeping with Doug and realized I was completely in love. I left my boyfriend and naively expected Doug to leave his girlfriend, but he didn’t. Six months later he moved in with her. Instead of ending our illicit relationship, I let it continue.
We are still having an affair today. Doug is unavailable to me outside of work hours, so our encounters occur entirely within the walls of the office. I am emotionally drained. My work suffers. I have become unrecognizable to myself. In my stronger moments I am able to resist Doug for a day or two, but then I am drawn back, and we head off to one of our secret locations. I’ve traded my dignity, my professionalism, and my self-respect for a decent fuck in a stairwell.
I wonder whether my parents, if they knew, would still be so proud of their firstborn daughter.
The office is as quiet as deepest space. A fine layer of dust covers everything: the spines of the neglected college texts in the bookcase; the backs of the cane chairs; the ridged vents on the sides of the fax machine. There are plastic spoons for stirring nondairy creamer into instant coffee, plastic binders for holding the copier’s spewed reams, plastic devices of every sort, all in neutral colors, dull as pablum.
Driven by boredom, I rummage through the computer’s hard drive, searching for documents left by other temps before me. There’s little of interest: a random updated spreadsheet, a calendar of urgent meetings now long past. My immediate predecessor, though, left extensive personal files. I read two versions of her résumé and learn that she earned her undergrad degree sixteen years after me, in chemistry and anthropology. I read cover letters to the directors of graduate programs at four local universities. I read a two-page to-do list with reminders to pack “razor, sunscreen, hair shiny stuff,” and “BRAS (strapless, w/ straps, sports bra, regular).” I sift through seven typed pages of generically uplifting quotes on nature and “living in the now” and four copies of the same Max Ehrmann poem, “Desiderata.” I read her recipes for homemade soy milk (baking soda? seriously?) and brandied pears with mascarpone (I print that one). I look at photo after photo of the same group of pretty blond strangers — at a wedding, in the mountains, at the beach — and try to guess which one is her.
My predecessor has become more real to me than the disembodied phone voices and the interchangeable faces I deal with for eight hours each day. In her I see a younger version of myself: vulnerable, determined, ambitious. I’m not sure she would approve of the comparison. After all, she has moved on, while I’m still here. I’ve already been in this office longer than she was. I grip the edge of the heavy desk and swivel hard from side to side, as if to generate momentum.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The prize was a plastic rooster, about six inches tall, with molded feathers and a proud, curled tail. Each week at the staff meeting an editor would present the rooster to a reporter who had “something to crow about.” If you got the rooster, you kept it on your desk until the next staff meeting. That was it. No promotion or raise: just a plastic rooster on your desk.
We all liked the rooster. At a daily newspaper in the twenty-first century, morale boosts were hard to come by. We couldn’t be sure we’d be employed in two years, but the rooster’s presence was a cheerful reminder that, however long it lasted, this job was more rewarding and challenging than most.
Then came the complaints, all anonymous: the rooster seemed to favor younger reporters; copy editors were ineligible for the rooster; and so on. So management announced that the rooster would no longer be awarded to anyone. Instead it was placed on a shelf, to be “enjoyed by everybody.”
New York, New York
When I was in my midtwenties, I worked in a publishing house on the top floor of a downtown building. One June day, just when I was about to leave work, it started to pour rain. I stood at my window regretting that I hadn’t brought a coat or an umbrella for my walk to the subway. I was wearing a royal blue linen suit that had cost me almost a week’s wages, and I wasn’t thrilled about getting it wet. Catching a taxi, however, was out of the question on my puny junior editor’s salary.
I was riding the elevator down, resigned to getting soaked, when a young businessman with a killer smile — and an umbrella — got on. He was tan with a square jaw and dark blue eyes, and he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.
“Can you believe this rain?” he said. “It came out of nowhere.”
“Well,” I replied, “at least you had the foreskin to bring an umbrella.”
The sentence hung there in the air between us, impossible to take back. If I’d been quicker and braver, I might have said, Jesus, what do you think Freud would say about that? Maybe we would have laughed and headed to the basement bar for an afternoon mojito. But I was twenty-five, and he looked like a GQ model. We watched the floor numbers light up in silence. When the doors opened to the lobby, he stood aside for me, and I walked out alone to face the rain.
When I started out as a doctor, my brother Larry, already a practicing endocrinologist, gave me one warning: “Whatever you do, don’t run your office like Uncle Eddie.”
I had wonderful memories of childhood visits to Uncle Eddie’s office, which spilled over into his and Aunt Lola’s apartment. I’d walk in and find the bookkeeper sitting at the dining-room table writing checks, Uncle Eddie in his easy chair reading EKGs, and a couple of the Bronx teenagers he’d hired as part-time secretaries in the kitchen eating lunch. Aunt Lola would be washing dishes while speaking to the hospital on one line and her sister on the other. Mrs. Greenberg, the medical assistant, would be stocking the freezer with a week’s worth of chicken fricassee, stuffed cabbage, and meatloaf.
Did Uncle Eddie need all those people to run his office? Of course not. Some of his staff stayed with him for decades, such as Mrs. Donohue, the receptionist who toward the end couldn’t see well enough to type or hear well enough to answer the phone.
Other employees actually were indispensable, but Uncle Eddie would push them out because he wanted them to seek better employment. One secretary went on to medical school, and another became a hospital administrator. But they always stayed in touch with Aunt Lola and Uncle Eddie.
When I told my brother I did want an office like Uncle Eddie’s, he scoffed. “A blind typist? Come on. You’re Dad’s daughter.”
I felt a tightening in my stomach. My father’s dental office was the opposite of my uncle’s. There was only one employee, my mother, who was responsible for scheduling appointments, buying supplies, and collecting payments. It was an orderly place, but dry as dust. My father is a meticulous man, attentive to details, not people. To avoid making small talk with patients, he would read the newspaper while waiting for their fillings to set. If my mother ordered the wrong envelopes, he would fly into a rage. But no one was ever kept waiting. In place of the convivial chaos at Uncle Eddie’s, there was monotonous efficiency.
My brother was right. I am Dad’s daughter. I chose order.
Brooklyn, New York
I live alone in a four-bedroom house. I have no children, and my husband is in a nursing home and isn’t coming back. The house feels like an empty movie set with one actor left behind.
A spare bedroom is officially my office and holds all the necessary equipment — computer, phone, fax — but I don’t do much in there. My work migrates out all over the house: Reading materials await me in the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, and living room. Filing sits on the coffee table, to be done during TV commercials. Notes are scattered everywhere. I carry my laptop into my husband’s old office or the living room or the yard. When I’m not working, depression and loneliness crowd in. So I always work.
These days I don’t go to the office. I live there.
Sue Fagalde Lick
South Beach, Oregon
I left the university with an obscure degree and a burning desire to start putting my youthful ideals into practice. I lucked into a job on an organic farm and spent the next four years planting, weeding, and harvesting vegetables. The summers were frantic, the winters dull and dreamy.
Longing for a steadier annual schedule, I moved to a small town and took a part-time job at an accountant’s office. After years of wearing grubby jeans and a sweat-stained shirt, I found myself subject to an office dress code and many policies and procedures, some of them printed and stored in a thick binder, others unspoken and transmitted by example. I noticed, for instance, that my co-workers were all immaculately groomed, cleanshaven, and doused in fragrance.
After I’d been working there for a month or two, one of the partners called me into her office and said that people had noticed my body odor. What, if any, deodorant did I use? Embarrassed and shocked, I ended the meeting with as few words as possible. I was used to sweat staining my armpits and dirt under my fingernails. This sterile work environment, this denial of the body felt completely foreign.
That weekend I went for a hike, and my hiking partner showed me a clear-cut. Though the land was bare, a river still ran underground.
At our next staff meeting I sat in a windowless room under fluorescent lights, doing my best to play along. My co-workers, with their shaven faces, starched shirts, and manicured nails, were gathered around a long, empty table. The only nod to the natural world was a clichéd painting of a wolf. That room, I realized, was like a clear-cut: barren and lifeless. But even there nature was alive. Beneath my co-workers’ polished exteriors, blood and sweat flowed like rivers running underground.
After college I became an elementary-school teacher. I sat in small chairs, played Duck, Duck, Goose, and did paperwork at a desk surrounded by students’ drawings. When my husband and I started our family, I chose to stay home and raise our children.
Then, when our youngest son was in second grade, my husband lost his job of fifteen years. The company’s policy was to inform employees of their termination and escort them out the door the same day. My husband came home with all his files and books in boxes, and I started to look for a job.
My teaching license had lapsed, but a former colleague of my husband’s said that the company that had fired him was looking for a proofreader. I’d spent many years correcting papers, and we were desperate for the money and insurance, so I put on high heels, pulled my hair back, and aced the interview. After years as a stay-at-home parent I found myself standing on the corner at 8 A.M., waiting for the bus with the other office workers.
Nothing about the job seemed to suit me. The chair felt too big, so I would sit on the floor to read and edit documents. I struggled with online editing, being used to working shoulder to shoulder with students. Everyone was pressed for time and didn’t care to discuss the finer points of grammar. If I missed correcting an error, my supervisor would reprimand me in a voice I recognized from my days as a teacher — only now I wasn’t the one using it. People would finish their reports by five o’clock and throw them on my desk to be proofread by the next morning, forcing me to stay late in the nearly empty office. I missed my family.
Worst of all was working for the company that had fired my husband. What kind of place was this that made us all wear company-logo sweaters and play ridiculous team-building games but would then turn around and escort fired workers out of the building like criminals?
After my husband reentered the workforce, I traded that job for freelance writing and occasional substitute teaching. I haven’t worked in an office since.
St. Paul, Minnesota
When I first went to work for a government human-services agency, I was unaware of the many agendas in the office. I simply wanted to implement programs to help the disadvantaged. Then I began to notice that the workers who rose in the ranks were the ones who said the least at meetings and got little or nothing done. Those who talked a lot or were passionate or showed initiative were sent to bureaucratic Siberia. Each time a new commissioner took over (which was often), priorities changed, and whatever project I was working on would come to an abrupt end. During my many years at the agency, its name was changed five or six times, though its goals remained essentially the same.
My relatives liked to taunt me with stereotypes of government bureaucracies: was it true, they’d ask, that supervisors made daily rounds to make sure staff members were all still alive? The reality was that productivity was high, but our good work was often discarded or unrecognizable in the final product. Project data and outcomes were tweaked and skewed to put the agency in a favorable light. As the years passed, some staff stopped trying. Afraid to risk their pensions, they sought safety in working below their capabilities and found other ways to fill time, running side businesses from their cubicles or writing novels. I myself studied in the office for my evening massage-therapy classes.
About seven years before my retirement, I was in a group of workers honored at a special luncheon for our longevity. Along with a handshake from the director of personnel, I received an official-looking certificate in recognition of twenty-five years of service. Looking back on those years, I realized that my greatest achievement had been securing a cubicle with a window through which I could watch the snow fall and feel the sun shine. In a quarter of a century I felt I had done nothing of any note in my career. I had not one accomplishment I could point to and say, I made a difference. How could this have happened? I imagined my tombstone: “Here lies June Glaser, career civil servant.”
I’m happy to say that in the three years since I retired, I’ve filled my days with meaningful and fulfilling volunteer work. I never could have done it without my generous government pension.
Brooklyn, New York
Oscar came back from his usual five-martini lunch and bellowed that everyone was fired. It wasn’t the first time he’d fired everyone. While the rest of the office staff scurried into the lunchroom to hide and wait for him to calm down, I packed my belongings and started to leave. I’d had enough.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Oscar called out.
I ignored him and kept walking. As a single mother of three daughters, I’d put up with a lot just to have a job close to home, but Oscar’s bullying was too much. I went to the parking lot, got in my car, and drove away.
To my surprise Oscar followed me, honking, weaving in and out of traffic, and attempting to pull alongside my car. At home I locked myself in the house and paid no attention to his entreaties through the door. I believed that we teach people how to treat us by what we put up with, and Oscar’s behavior toward his employees was deplorable.
When my daughters came home from school, they found my boss sitting on our porch with his head in his hands and alcohol on his breath, and they let him into the house. They didn’t know what else to do.
Oscar begged me to come back. I told him to go away, that this was my home and he had no right to be there. He countered with an apology and said he couldn’t run the company without me. I knew he’d become president by marrying the owner’s daughter, and his father-in-law was threatening to take back control of the business.
I finally convinced Oscar to go away by promising to think it over. For the rest of the week I worked in my garden, caught up with housework, and enjoyed being home when my girls returned from school. The following Monday I went back to work with a promise from Oscar that he’d behave and a 40 percent increase in salary.
Santa Rosa, California
Soldiers in Vietnam had an acronym for guys like me: REMF. It meant “rear-echelon motherfucker” and described the clerks who worked in the offices behind the lines and did not, it was believed, share equally in the physical drudgery and hazards of war. We were despised.
I wasn’t always a REMF. When I’d first arrived in Saigon as a draftee in the infantry, I’d been assigned to guard installations, warehouses, barracks, and motor pools in the teeming capital city. It didn’t take long for me to realize that some Vietnamese citizens were not happy with my presence there and would actually shoot at me now and then to prove it. The dreaded graveyard shift, from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M., was particularly dangerous — and appropriately named.
One evening, after head count, the first sergeant asked, “Can any of you young heroes type?”
In those days it was unusual for a man to be able to type. I could do so only because I’d taken a typing class in high school, thinking it would help me meet girls. My typing speed had never exceeded twelve words per minute (my success in romance had been even less spectacular), but still I raised my hand.
No one else did. Out of 150 soldiers not one other could type — or else, none would admit it.
“All right, report to the orderly room,” the sergeant said to me.
I was instantly transported into the safer, more insular world of the hated REMF. Typing saved my life.
One spring when I was five and my sister was nine, my father brought us home a box of office supplies he snatched from the trash: tablets and ledgers, pencils and pens, a broken stapler and an old rotary phone. My sister was thrilled. She quickly converted my bedroom into an office. I, her assistant, took calls and printed invoices for imaginary clients (including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Nixon) while my sister sat behind a blanket wall, pretending to hammer out deals and promising we would get “stinking rich.”
Weekdays were my only respite. With the “boss” gone to school, I could do what I wanted, which was to play outside in the dirt or be alone in my room with a book. But then Saturday would arrive, and the office drudgery would begin all over again. I started to daydream about growing up and making lots of money (in an office, if I had to) so that I could buy a big chunk of land and dig in the dirt and read books.
In the meantime I devised a scheme to put my sister out of business without hurting her feelings: I got very busy selling, thinking that the office would have to close if we had no more invoices to send out. Our stack of ledgers vanished like so many canned peas under my plate. As smart as my sister was, I’m sure she could have figured out a way to “requisition” more forms if she’d so desired, but she didn’t. Instead she began to hang out more with the boy next door, who had a pool, and I got my old life back.
A few years ago, after more than a decade of working in offices, I left the corporate world to begin carving a homestead from thirteen wooded acres. I am finally doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was five. I grow or barter for most of my food, split piles of firewood, walk to a stream each day, and read and write on quiet mornings. I never have to speak on the phone before noon or move meaningless papers from one side of my desk to the other.
My sister, who’s spent her adult life handling other people’s money, thinks I’m nuts to live all alone in the woods. I’ll admit that my way of life isn’t for everyone, but it may suit more people than she thinks. Lately I’ve been reading about disillusioned office drones filling empty hours playing an online game called “FarmVille,” in which they plant imaginary corn and hoe hypothetical peas and generally pretend to do many other satisfying things I do for real every day.
Asheville, North Carolina
© Sandra-Lee Phipps
After my father graduated from Harvard, he bought a chicken farm in upstate New York. When the chicken business faltered, he sold the farm and went to Wall Street to work as a stockbroker. In his midfifties he became president of an electronics corporation and spent most of his time in Switzerland. Then he returned to the States and switched to selling bottled spring water. My mother, exhausted from the moves and the financial roller coaster of their marriage, left him. My father remarried, and his second wife insisted he get a steady office job.
He found work in the accounting division of a Manhattan department store and never retired. At eighty-three he’d still arrive at the office every day at 8:00 A.M. and leave at 5:30 p.m. Young female clerks from India and Russia brought him checks, which he signed with a flourish. He learned to compliment the clerks in their native languages, and they called him “Louie” and invited him to barbecues in Queens, but he declined their invitations; he was a married man, after all.
When I would visit my father in his windowless office, I’d find him sitting behind a large metal desk in a creaky swivel chair. He spoke often of the past as we ate overcooked vegetables and rice at the cafeteria. He could still feel the grass of Harvard Yard under his feet; still see the stock-exchange building, its marble facade shining like white gold in the sun. I pressed him for details of his early life, and he told me how, at seven, he’d left Russia with his family, fleeing the pogroms. “I remember carrying a lantern that was as big as I was,” he said. “I was near a river. The sky was very dark.” He paused for a moment and then said, “I was hungry for stars.”
A week after my father died, at eighty-four, someone found in his desk a plan to start a multinational company in India.
New York, New York
I was married. He was separated. We were working late at his home when he asked if I’d like to go upstairs with him. His bedroom was upstairs.
He was my boss, my mentor, my teacher, advocate, and promoter. I wanted to sleep with him, but I wanted more to be blameless in my inevitable divorce. I declined his invitation.
I got good at my job. He told me I was the quickest study he’d ever seen. Clients asked for me instead of him. I became his promoter — and his apologist. Then he began dating another employee. There were meetings that excluded me, sexual tension and jealousy in the office. Newly divorced, I resigned and moved away.
Twelve years later my old boss showed up in my town. Over margaritas he apologized for his behavior more than a decade earlier. Then he asked my advice on how to beat a sexual-harassment charge against him.
In the late sixties I worked as an office girl at a New York City underground newspaper called the East Village Other — not to be confused with the more aboveground Village Voice. Each weekday morning I walked twenty blocks uptown to work from my two-room tenement apartment on Spring Street. My route took me through the Bowery and past flophouses and religious missions and stores that sold used restaurant equipment. I dressed in the latest fashions and might have on a silver-fox-fur jacket with navy-issue bell-bottom pants, a broad-brimmed purple-felt fedora, and lace-up boots. Occasionally a man would invite me — at 10 A.M. — to have a cocktail in one of the many dive bars that sold dollar-a-shot whiskey. I would laugh and keep walking.
The newspaper’s office was in the back of the Fillmore East, a restored vaudeville theater on Second Avenue that was now a rock-music mecca. Janis Joplin played there, along with Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and others. During concerts one could almost get stoned from the leftover pot smoke trapped in the narrow staircase that led up to the office. In the evenings my co-workers and I labored to hear each other over the music and the roar of tripping fans.
We generated plenty of noise ourselves as editors banged the doors of their small cubicles and argued over what to print. Everyone but me was an editor, it seemed, and material was published more or less by hard-won consensus. I typed copy for the printer and answered the phone. Sometimes we got calls for help from people whose friends had overdosed or were having bad trips, and I would stop my slow typing and give them some names of nearby free clinics or tell them how to get to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
My desk was by the office entrance, and there I met many famous countercultural icons. Abbie Hoffman would joke with me when he dropped by to work on his column or argue for a story. In 1967 Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who would later cofound the Yippies, hatched a plan for a protest at the Pentagon as part of a larger antiwar march in Washington, D.C. Hoffman declared that they were going to “levitate the Pentagon.” No one cared whether levitating the Pentagon was a literal goal or not. It was a rallying cry to raise the consciousness of the American military. We published protest-march routes in the paper and made buses available to take activists from New York City to D.C.
On the day of the demonstration, after the main rally at the Lincoln Memorial, thirty-five thousand people walked two miles to the Pentagon. My job was to find a phone at 3 P.M. and give the order for a plane to fly over the seat of U.S. military power and release a payload of flowers. When the time came, I climbed the long flight of stairs to the main entrance of the Pentagon, walked inside, and politely asked the man at the door the location of the nearest phone booth. I dialed the number, but the person who answered said the plan had been canceled.
By the time I got out the door and down the steps, armed soldiers were forming a large semicircle between the protestors and the Pentagon. Some girls walked up and put flowers into the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles. The people I had come with were no longer in sight. Suddenly alone, I realized that those young, cleanshaven, grim-faced kids in uniform more than likely had live ammunition.
At last I found one of the editors, and we concurred that it would be best to move away from the crowd and rendezvous with the other newspaper staffers at a friend’s house. As we walked away, the bright afternoon light suddenly dimmed. We saw a smokelike haze blurring the edges of the trees and heard the sound of tear-gas canisters flying through the air. The editor and I ran from the fleeing crowd and cut down a side street to safety.
That night the office staff gathered together, grateful that none of us had been tear-gassed.
Patra Ancona Apatovsky
New York State
My favorite room at my grandparents’ house was my grandpa’s office. Adjacent to my grandma’s sanctuary — the kitchen — and sandwiched between the sterile sitting room and the lived-in family room, my grandpa’s office was quiet and calm. Most of his grandchildren thought it was too dark, too small, and mostly just too boring, but I liked to sit on my grandpa’s lap in his big leather desk chair, his arms wrapped tight around my waist.
The room had pistachio-colored carpet and aftershave-scented air. The walls were covered with pictures of his ancestors and of himself as a small child. Collecting dust on a shelf in the corner, almost hidden, were framed articles about him and his long career in medicine. Another man might have proudly displayed such good press, but my grandpa preferred to hang pictures of his family.
After my grandpa passed away, the family mostly stayed out of his office, as it made them sad to be in there, but I sought comfort in his chair, imagining his arms around me, breathing in the lingering scent of his aftershave, and slowly drawing a finger through the dust on the frames.
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
The first man to employ me after I left university was a widower who lived with his two grown sons and a housekeeper in a dismal village at the very last stop of the London Underground. He ran his own business, training managers and executives on how to speak in public and present themselves well. My employer was an ugly man, short and wide and more than twice my age. I believed he hired me because I was educated and articulate. I was also ignorant and contemptuous, as only the young can be. I loathed him for his coarse, utilitarian outlook and took the job only to get as far from my parents as I could.
It was 1969, and, like other stylish young women in London, I wore thigh-high leather boots and skirts that were higher still. It never occurred to me that this might not be appropriate office attire. I chose clothes that made me feel good, and if men couldn’t handle it, that was their problem.
The office was in my employer’s house. Our large desks butted up against one another in a book-lined room with doors that opened onto a garden. He and I worked side by side, preparing seminars and promotional materials. I even took lunch with the family: always overcooked meat with boiled vegetables, but there was nowhere else to eat, and the meal was included in my salary. I lodged nearby, in the attic of a bitterly cold rectory, and escaped to the city on the weekends.
After six weeks my boss fired me with immediate effect, though I demanded he pay me for the full three-month trial period. One day I dropped by to return some books he’d given me. He was out, and as I put them on his desk, I nudged a piece of paper, which fell to the floor. I picked it up. It was a draft of a poem about love and desire: desperate, hopeless, and sad. It was about me.
I got my first office job in 1955. Eighteen and just married, I was assistant to the assistant comptroller, and my duties were to post and balance the client accounts and handle incoming checks for thousands of dollars — and once one for a million.
The day I started work, the treasurer quietly said that I might want to avoid three older women in the office who provided unsolicited moral guidance to young married women like me. I would come to think of these three as “the Teachers.”
One day as I was leaving work a bit late, I found Angie, another young newlywed, sobbing in the cloakroom.
“Jack and I have been sinning,” she said, “and I don’t know how to tell him.”
The Teachers, all strict Catholics, had lectured her on appropriate sexual behavior for a wife. For instance, the only proper position was the missionary, and a woman should never appear naked in front of her husband. When Angie had said her husband enjoyed seeing her nude, the Teachers had insisted it was a sin.
Although I tried to comfort her, what she’d said had ignited my own doubts. My husband and I enjoyed sex and didn’t always turn off the lights. Not wanting to sin, I decided to ask my widowed mother for advice.
It was a difficult question to raise over a cup of tea. “Mom,” I finally said in a low voice, “when you and Dad had sex, did you . . . ?” I stopped, blushing. My mother raised an eyebrow. “Was sex just — you know: him on top, do it, and that was it?”
“Good God,” my mother said. “I should hope not. I was his wife, his lover, and his friend, not some paid prostitute!” She touched my hand. “We explored each other, mind and body, and enjoyed every bit of it.”
That was the last time I paid any attention to the Teachers.
Carol M. Anderson
I got married while still in college and went to work for a temp agency in the glamorous (to me, back then) city of Dallas, Texas. My husband’s salary paid for our housing, food, entertainment, and car. The Veterans Administration paid for my school because of my father’s military disability. I worked mostly for money to buy clothes.
I liked the attention I got in offices as a fresh-faced college girl. I did not like the older woman from the temp agency who sat next to me at my first assignment. She asked me for a ride home once, and I delivered her to a dreary, depressing apartment building. It had likely been an upscale place in the past, but now it was just run-down. Her life appeared sad and frightening, and I did not want to see any more of it.
When the temp-agency supervisor called to ask me how everything was going, I whispered that the woman next to me smelled, and I was embarrassed to be from the same agency as she was. The next day they pulled her off the job. I never saw her again.
Forty years later I’m a single, sometimes smelly old woman myself. My graduate degree and years of work experience are valued less in the workplace than fresh faces. I don’t like this, but I get it.
Los Alamos, New Mexico
My husband, Mark, came home at 2:30 A.M., quietly emptied his pockets on the nightstand, undressed, and folded himself into bed beside me. I lay awake, troubled: Why so late on a weeknight? Why the smell of alcohol when he was supposedly at a co-worker’s home doing some planning? On the nightstand was an unsealed envelope that had been in his pocket. I slipped out of bed, picked it up, and read its contents at the moonlit window.
I’ll skip the body of the handwritten note and just say that it ended, “I will love you forever, Mark!!” in a bold, unfamiliar scrawl with a heart under the signature.
In the morning I confronted my husband, and he tearfully confessed that he had loved the author of the note secretly for two years and now could not leave her. He was visibly ashamed when he told our teenage children why he was moving to a motel.
My officemates, I decided, didn’t need to know what was going on at my home. A personal matter had never affected my work in the past, and it wouldn’t be a problem now. At work I would behave as if none of this were happening.
A week later Mark sent a contrite e-mail, begging forgiveness and wanting to seek counseling. Two days after that, he said he’d misspoken and that counseling wouldn’t work for us. Trying to take his alarming reversals in stride, I redoubled my efforts at work, buzzing through routine tasks, hiding the mess my life had become. This gave me a sense of control and seemed to dull the pain — or at least postpone it until the evening, when I’d get drunk.
It took me by surprise when Lisa, our receptionist, pulled me aside one day and asked if there was something wrong. For over a week, she said, I’d failed to greet her. I’d closed my office door at every opportunity and looked more haggard every day. As far as she could tell, I wasn’t eating.
The truth tumbled out, and Lisa’s sincere compassion was comforting. After telling her, I told others. My boss listened and shared a similar ordeal of her own. Four co-workers gave me a basket of skin-care products, gourmet chocolate, and a gift certificate for a massage. The office became a refuge for me — not because I could forget my life while there, but because, during a loveless time, the people I worked with gave me friendship and support.