From adding machines to cubicles

I wonder what I look like. Each day I sit in a 6 X 6 cubicle at work. I sit near the end of the floor so people walk up from behind me, see the back of my head, read my name plate, and turn to say hi if they know me.  Work. The office. Part of my daily routine, a much-needed structure in my life. I drift without structure, a lone survivor on a life-raft, no land, no people, no measure of myself, nowhere to plant my feet. The 6 X 6 beige panels keep me grounded and sane. I’m a Taurus (look it up), which makes me the perfect person to work in a cubicle-ed environment.

Today is my 17th anniversary at my company. Seventeen years is a long time to work in one company. I have a long history of cubicle-dwelling.

My head pivots back and forth between my two 21-inch monitors, as my fingers click-clack on the keyboard.  I bring up a gigantic Excel spreadsheet on the left monitor, and the company’s intranet Web page on the right. As the years go by, we increasingly employ shared Web space for dialogue, data, files, and other equally scintillating work objects. If I stop typing for a moment, I can hear several of my co-workers also click-clacking on their keyboards, in their 6 X 6s, some drumming quickly and some tapping slowly, perhaps composing a difficult email to the senior management.

My thoughts turn to my mother whom I lost in February to cancer. What would she think if she saw me sitting in my cube like an air-traffic controller with the two big screens in front of my face? What would she think about the complicated-looking spreadsheet to my left, or about the never-ending online activity to my right?  I work in a world that would make little sense to her.

I did try to teach her how to use a computer. She was bored with Wheel of Fortune and the usual crap that was on TV.  I was a terrible teacher. My mother frustrated me. Her hands were nervous and twitchy on the keyboard, and she kept trying to guess what I was going to say next rather than listening. I wasn’t very nice. I wrote down what I could so she could learn on her own when I wasn’t home, but it didn’t work out. Once day she called me at work to tell me the mouse was broken. I told her she needed to hold it in her right hand move the cursor across the screen.

“I am,” she cried, “but nothing is happening!” She was truly stressed. She was in her late 70s and this was a different world to her.

“You’re trying to move the cursor across the screen?”

“I’m moving the mouse across the screen, but nothing is happening.”

After another five minutes of this conversation, I burst out laughing.

“You are literally picking up the mouse and sliding it across the monitor, aren’t you?”

And yes, she was.

My mother, born in 1930, worked for much of her adult life. Her last and longest held position was as a bookkeeper for the now defunct Route 138 Motel in Easton, Massachusetts. The motel went out of business in the late 1990s, and now there is a Roche Brothers Supermarket Plaza, a CVS drug store, and medical buildings on the property that once held a grimy old two-story motel.  My mother had a filthy office; the motel owner was a filthy man who smoked cigars until the walls of his motel turned yellow and brown, and who heaped junk into my mother’s office since she only needed so much space. But she had real walls. And a big metal office desk.

easton-motel-outside
On the outside, the motel looked okay.

My mother was the bookkeeper at the motel for 30 years. She got the job when I was four and she was 36, just after she and my father separated. When I was older, she told me she applied for the job one night while sitting at the bar in the motel, drinking martinis.  The owner came up to her for a chat. No resume was provided. She told him about working on the Fish Pier in Boston for Swanson frozen dinners, about doing the books for Tabby Cat Food.  Her hiring at the motel was spontaneous and informal. The year was circa 1966.

motel-inside
On the inside was another story, but I was young enough not to notice. Note the TV. This was the 1960s.

When I was a young kid, my mother would take me to work with her during the day, or when I was in school, on days I was out sick. She would wrap me in blankets, and I’d rest my head against the big Great Dane, Max, who lay on the floor between her desk and the owner’s junk. As I got older I paid more attention, and I watched my mother be a bookkeeper. I was mesmerized by her ability to use a 10-key adding machine, with a roll of white paper to keep track of the numbers, the only piece of “tech” on her desk. Her fingers flew across those 10 keys at lightening pace. She didn’t look at the adding machine until she hit the subtotal button, at which point she would enter the number into a paper book of accounts, a “daily” ledger. She had all kinds of paper ledgers and journals to keep, to maintain the motel’s books. I asked her, “Mom, how can you use that adding machine without looking at it?” She said, “I’ve used it so much that it’s a part of me. I don’t need to think about it.”

adding-machine
The adding machine, very much like the one my mom had

In 2016, as I sit at my desk, I know what she means. I type so much, and have for all my adult life, that I type fast and accurately, if I just let my fingers do it and don’t think about the letters on the keyboard. If I think about typing, I will make mistakes.

My mother took great pride in her abilities as a bookkeeper, and she was a good one. My father used to say she was a great bookkeeper. He owned his own children’s clothing business in Boston during the 1950s and 1960s, and my mother must have helped him with the books. My father mainly criticized my mother, so for him to be so complimentary about her bookkeeping abilities made me truly believe she was a shining star in her field. I do know she loved to work. She was a role model to me in that way, a mother who worked each day and on her own, after she and my father separated.

tanker-desk
I think this is called a “tanker desk.” I remember my mom’s as much larger.

Gone are the days of adding machines, big metal office desks, smoke-filled offices and paper ledgers. Gone is my mother. But here I am, using an updated version of her tools: two big monitors and an Excel spreadsheet, and the newest version of an office – the cubicle.  I’ve been with this company for 17 years, just 13 more before I have achieved what my mother achieved. If I can ever achieve it.

Working It: The First Sexual Harassment Post or “Yes, His Name Was Dick”

But the idea of more, such as a rape, seemed inconceivable. We were standing in the middle of a supermarket with cereal and produce and frozen peas right outside the walls. The florescent lights were bright as hell.

Yes, His Name Was Dick

When I was a student at Stonehill College in the early 1980s, I had a regular part-time job down the street. I was a cashier at the now defunct Fernandes Supermarket at the corner of Main and Washington.  The area is now a modern mini-plaza with a mini supermarket chain called Tedeschi’s, a mini restaurant called “The Fresh Catch,” some little boutique shops, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. But thirty years ago, the Fernandes Supermarket was the main attraction, and I was a one of their first line cashiers, working 25-30 hours a week. I attended college in mornings and early afternoons, and I worked late afternoons, evenings, and weekends. I always had a lot of cash in my pocket.

I was good at the job and became one of the “courtesy booth” workers. Given the fact that I can be so rude, it was ironic, me in a “courtesy” anything, but I did my best (most of the time) to provide customer service to those needing to buy postage stamps, play the lottery,  or laying down 12 items or less on the conveyor belt.

Tuesday nights were slow at Fernandes. I could literally stand in that courtesy booth for an hour with no customers. When May came around in 1982, and I was sophomore at Stonehill, I decided I would discreetly study for finals while I waited for customers. While studying a book wasn’t very professional of me, I was 19 years old and not very professional. Frankly I was bored and had big tests coming up. I opened a big hard cover book of something: English? Philosophy? Required science for non-science majors?  It was well into the evening, more than 30 years ago, and I don’t remember exactly what I studied that night.  But  I read, I underlined, I highlighted, on a slow Tuesday night, as I waited for customers.

Dick probably saw himself like this guy
Dick probably saw himself like this guy

We had many different front end managers. Mr. Reardon was our main store manager and at night, there was a rotation of men (all men). Tuesday night was Dick’s night. Dick was a tall, awkward, gawky guy, in his early 30s, I would guess, with light brown hair, a left over mustache from the hairy 1970s,  and with a mildly bucked tooth smile. Had he been a good guy, I might have considered his face pleasant. Because he was such an asshole, he impressed me as goofy verging on ugly. Of course, ugly or good looking don’t matter when someone harasses you.

His personality made him look more like this guy.
His personality made him look more like this guy.

“What are you doing with that book?” Dick asked.

“I’m studying for finals,” I said. Don’t think I was a nice, sweet girl trying to explain myself. I was 19 and full of sarcasm.

“Put the book away. You’re at work.” He wasn’t wrong.

“No. Why should I? There’s no one here, Dick, and no one can see the book, anyway, unless they come into the booth.” He’d come into the booth.

“Put it away.”

“No.” And so I didn’t.  Only a 19-year old who doesn’t really need a job could be that brazen. I felt I could speak to Dick that way because our relationship hadn’t been all bad. He’d admired the way I’d handled a difficult fellow employee when I told her, “What works for me is I pretend to be normal. I say normal things. I do normal things. Although I feel like I’m faking at first, eventually, I start to feel normal.”

“You should be a psychology major,” he’d said. I thought he liked me and was just giving me shit about studying in the courtesy booth.

I don’t know if it was that Tuesday night or another night when Dick was managing, but sometime after that incident, he managed to corner me in the fake “office” with no actual ceiling, just the supermarket ceiling so high above. Or maybe it did have a ceiling but for some reason, I remember it only as walls with the color green. We were the last two left in the store and I had just finished counting my drawer. I was preparing to leave. He walked toward me. I had no idea he was walking “at” me.

“I’ll see you next week,” I started to say, and all of a sudden, all 6 feet plus of his tall lanky body was pressing against mine and I had my back supported by the back wall of the makeshift office.

I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what he said. How I wish I did. I don’t remember a lot of fear, but a little of it. I didn’t believe he would really do anything more than what he was doing. Maybe he would try to kiss me. Maybe he would fondle my breasts or try to squeeze my ass. Maybe he did. It didn’t go too far because if it had I would have been traumatized. But the idea of more, such as a rape, seemed inconceivable. We were standing in the middle of a supermarket with cereal and produce and frozen peas right outside the walls. The florescent lights were bright as hell.

At the time, I thought Dick did this because he found me attractive. I was only mildly attractive. I did understand when the fear started to creep in, when he didn’t let me go after the 1st or 2nd or 3rd request, that his actions were about power. Still, I thought it was about attraction AND power. All these decades later I know this was about anger and power. I had angered him when I defied him about closing my books. Perhaps on other occasions when I disrespected him, as we all did.

I also don’t remember how I got away, but I did. He didn’t keep me pinned for too long. Maybe he’d hoped I would respond in kind rather than indicate I wanted him to leave me alone. Maybe in his head, he was “coming on to me” and not harassing me. 

As a young worker in a supermarket, back in the day, I wasn’t aware of sexual harassment issues or laws. Several years later, I would become aware, and take mandatory training in the issues surrounding sexual harassment, after I finished college and eventually began a career working in corporate America.

Back then, I told Steve, another assistant manager, what had happened. Steve was a street smart guy, who treated us all with respect.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, or something to that effect. Perhaps I was more frightened than I recall. I must have been afraid to spend another Tuesday night as the last shift cashier with Dick.

“It will never happen again,” Steve promised. And indeed, it never happened again. I can only imagine Steve spoke with Dick. Dick probably denied doing anything wrong and Steve probably said, “I’ll break your fucking legs if I ever hear you laid another hand on Cindy or anyone.”

That is how we took care of sexual harassment at Fernandes in 1982,  by having a tougher guy talk to the other guy. Eventually, Dick was fired when it became known that each Tuesday night, he exited the supermarket with a cart full of unpaid groceries. 

If you have a sexual harassment story you are willing to share, please do. I realize for many, this is a traumatic experience, and in my own particular case here, I didn’t suffer trauma. I have been lucky in that the times I’ve experienced harassment (and there have been a few), it never went so far as to affect my life or career or my state of well-being. I know for others, the opposite is the case. 

Working it

I actually don’t mind the cubicles. I have had offices here and there throughout my years of working and have often felt isolated and depressed in them. I thrive on the activity of others around me. I think thriving in such an environment depends on temperament, what kind of job you are doing, how much you get paid, and whether your co-workers and bosses are good people or assholes.

The other day I was walking down the long aisle at work. I work in a cubicle environment capable of seating 300 people per floor. I can’t say how many cubicles are on the my floor, since it’s been years since anyone made me count them (yes, I once had a job that included counting and taking inventory of cubicles) but it’s daunting to look from one end of the floor to the other.

image
This is only about half the hallway. It’s at least twice as long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I experience existential moments these days, as I traverse the long perimeter and wonder: What is the meaning of life? How did I get here? Do I really spend the best days and years of my life sitting in a square box made of wood and fabric, my ass plunked down in an ergonomic, high end plastic office chair, alongside 300 other people doing the same thing? I don’t mean doing the same jobs, but existing similarly in this cubicle environment?

This could have been me but I have no musical talent.
This could have been me but I have no musical talent.

Wasn’t I supposed to be a rock star? Remember when you were little, Cindy, singing into the handle of the Hoover vacuum, which reached your mouth perfectly as a fake microphone, belting out “It never rains in southern California, but girl, let me warn you, it pours, man it pours?”  Come on, I was eight. I even took up the guitar at age 11, but I kind of sucked. I was also aware that I couldn’t sing for shit. But I could fantasize.  Then I started to write in my teens and thought: I’ll be a famous writer! Oh, yes, yes, that one. I was a pretty good writer. But pretty good is a long way from GREAT, ASTOUNDING, ORIGINAL, BRILLIANT. I’m still a pretty good writer, even with a few publications to my credit, but not famous, not brilliant, etc.

This is how the hallway looks by the end of the week.
This is how the hallway looks by the end of the week.

A college professor? When I was younger, I thought, yes, the perfect marriage of my writing interests and my academic interests. But after that first master’s degree, I didn’t want to be broke for another 5 years getting a Ph.D. with no promise of a teaching job, so I sucked it up and began my career in “business.” I was 28. I’ve spent the last 25 years of my working life “doing things” in the cubicle-d world of business. 

I actually don’t mind the cubicles. I have had offices here and there throughout my years of working and have often felt isolated and depressed in them. I thrive on the activity of others around me. I think thriving in such an environment depends on temperament, what kind of job you are doing, how much you get paid, and whether your co-workers and bosses are good people or assholes. I’ve experienced all variations. Right now, I’m in a good place. I cannot mention where I work and would appreciate if you didn’t either as I want to keep a separate existence between my writing and my “paying” job.  However, when I talk about past jobs in future posts, I will name the places.

What I would like most is to hear from you. Tell me about your work experiences. And by work, I mean anything you consider work – past, present, future. You might work in an office or work at home or be a homemaker, a mother, a stay at home dad. I want to hear your stories. Please comment here and tell me.  Let’s talk! Thank you.

The Twisty-Turn-y Journey of My “Career”

 

 

In an effort to lighten up my blog (and to lighten up generally), I’ve chosen the relatively innocuous topic of my career. I think work histories are interesting. I hope mine is to you, but if you’re bored, just stop reading. That should be a rule for anything you read.

 

Tell me the story of your work. I would be interested to hear how my readers ended up in the careers they are in – or if you are out of work – what kind of job or career would you like to find yourself in when this economy provides you with more opportunity?

 

Although I like to consider myself a writer, I don’t write for a living. I work in business and have been doing so for more than 20 years. Here I present to you the twisty-turn-y journey of my career.*

 

I sat in the conference room the other day, listening to my coworkers as they discussed “COUNT,” and “MASTER” and “UMPH” and “OWL,” and how to apply automated security level reporting around these applications. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, as a member of this particular review team, I barely knew what I was talking about, so don’t feel too badly.

 

The conference room smelled moldy.  When the building was constructed 10 years ago, it was built flawed. Moisture snuck in between the carpets and the floorboards and mold grew. The carpeting had to be ripped out of each floor, the floors sanded, and new industrial carpeting squares laid down. I don’t know whether the third floor didn’t receive this treatment or whether the moldy smell on this floor is a different problem. I’m surprised nobody calls OSHAto complain. 

 

OSHA photo
OSHA photo (Photo credit: shurestep)

 

As the meeting droned on I began to feel disoriented. Half of my brain listened and responded to the highly specific and nearly indecipherable acronyms of my colleagues. The other half of my brain was startled:  HOW DID I GET HERE, sitting in a moldy smelling conference room talking in a language we all invented amongst ourselves? Could I be further from what I initially envisioned for my career when I was a young woman – teaching and writing?

 

I held my very first job at Roxies Supermarket in Stoughton. The branch is now defunct, but during the 1970s it employed many of my fellow high school classmates. The first paycheck was for approximately $49, and I have never since received a pay check that made me feel so rich. In 1978 terms, $49 could still buy a lot, and at age 16 living at home, I had few expenses. I wish I could remember what I spend that money on: Doritos? Cigarettes at 67 cents a pack? Vinyl record albums: Santana, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin? (I was so effing cool back then.)

 

Roxies did a lot for my educational aspirations. I was a cashier and worked up to 25 hours a week. It was my Roxie’s experience that made me decide to go to college. I decided to attend college based on one overriding career requirement: I wanted a job where I didn’t have to work on Saturdays. Well, two criteria: I also did not want to stand on my feet all day. I imagined college was my only road to such a lofty aspirations.

 

I completed a bachelor’s degree easily. Academics had always come easily, where other things came hard, nearly impossibly – like personal relationships, especially romantic ones. Academics were so simple by comparison. If I could just read and write about people and not have to kiss them and get into bed with them, I did just fine. (Sadly, this is still true of me to some extent. I like theoretical sex much more than real sex. All secrets revealed on Cindy’s blog tonight.)

 

I didn’t receive the greatest advice as an undergrad, however, when faculty advisors told me to major in “journalism” and not English because journalism had practical applications. I listened to them. This was the early 1980s. As an undergraduate, I did not take one creative writing course, always being told it was impractical so “take expository writing.” So, I did. I learned how to write argumentative essays, not even personal ones. I’m an argumentative soul so this was pretty easy for me but not very exciting.

 

I fell into a public relations writing position in higher education soon after I graduated from college. My first “professional” job was at Wheaton College. It was a great experience for me, more meaningful than my actual undergraduate education had been. I learned to write for publications, even if those publications were local newspapers, wire services, and alumna magazines and not exactly literary ones. At the time, Wheaton was still an all-women’s college, and my budding sexuality, although yet to be named, found a home there, where women were primary.

 

The job at Wheaton was only supposed to last a year, and still on that “practical” path I’d been led to as an undergraduate, I applied for and was accepted to BU’s Graduate School of Communication with a full assistantship and tuition reimbursement. This was a Ph.D. program. I was 23. If there were ever a time for me to embrace the practical and set myself up for a career teaching at the college level, this was it. But I didn’t go.

 

I could tell you I didn’t go to BU because I couldn’t walk up to the third floor of the Communications building on Commonwealth Ave. I couldn’t. I had an appointment to meet with my faculty advisor prior to attending in the fall. My panic attacks disallowed my body from climbing three sets of stairs. That is a different post about agoraphobia, but it is one reason I didn’t attend, so it is relevant here.  I think, however, that other forces were at work. I didn’t want a Ph.D. in public relations or communications, or whatever the program was. Such study didn’t have emotional teeth for me; the kind of writing I did in this field didn’t move my soul.

 

Brandeis University
Brandeis University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Instead, I continued in a career as a writer in public relations at Wheaton, then at Clark University and finally at Boston College. I became bored. The economy was good in the mid-1980s. I job hopped. I received offers from Brandeis and Clark at the same time, with Brandeis offering me more money to come write pr crap for them. I was a young woman and the world waited for me. I feel badly for today’s college graduates who end up with debt in the tens or hundreds of thousands and no solid job prospects. For a little while, back then in the mid-80s, things were different. I wish I had chosen Brandeis, because I think it would have changed my career path; I think I might still be there and perhaps have become a teacher. There is something about Brandeis. But I chose Clark, also a great school, but not the best fit. I left after six months. I was 24. 

 

At Boston College, I worked in major gifts “development writing,” which meant I wrote to millionaires and asked them to fund this or that – a scholarship, a wing of a building, stands in a football field, etc. After pounding out the initial templates, I had nothing left to do except to fill in the names and make slight alterations. I had my own office in those days. I had an ashtray in my office. I filled it daily with my butts. All that luxury, huh? But it wasn’t enough.

 

I decided that I would finally major in English and in a BIG WAY. I applied for a master’s program (an M.A.) in creative writing. Ohhhh, how rebellious of me! I applied to three programs and I only got into one at the University of New Hampshire. They accepted me as a fiction writing student. Their mistake, hahaha…. At the time (1988), as far as I know, the “creative nonfiction genre” had yet to be named as such, or had not caught on. I thought my only choices to study writing were fiction, poetry, or drama. I was a prose writer so fiction was the closest to what I was doing.

 

UNH was a difficult experience for me on many levels and I have written about it in one or two essays. In terms of career, however, let me just say it’s hard to fit a nonfiction writer into a fiction workshop. The problem is, even I didn’t realize that I was writing in a different genre (yet to be defined). People have written essays and memoirs forever, but naming the creative nonfiction genre took a long time. Instead, I listened to all kinds of criticism of my work, which mainly went like this: That’s NOT fiction…duh. I wasn’t even invited to the student readings. Those of you who attended the Solstice MFA program or are currently attending can see how different a graduate writing program can be. But I would have to wait another 20 years  (until 2008) before I found the writing program that I was meant to be in and the genre of creative nonfiction.

 

I graduated with an M.A. in English from UNH in 1990 but those amazing career days of the 1980s had ended. I had four years of experience as a writer in higher education, I had 100+ articles published from my local freelance journalism days, and now I had an M.A. With all that behind me, I could not even buy a job making beds in higher education.  At first I tried for teaching jobs and was told college-level writing used to be the entry level for an M.A. English graduate, but no more. “We have Ph.D.s from Harvard applying for those part-time jobs,” my own alma mater told me. 1990 featured recession, similar to the one we’ve been experiencing in the 21st century.

 

I couldn’t even get hired again doing PR writing. I applied for “director of pr” at a local college and had an interview with the president. I remember her saying to me, “Cindy, I really like you and you have good qualifications, but I have people with 20 years of experience who want this job because they are out of work.”

 

So, I didn’t get the job.

 

At age 28, I had bills to pay and I wanted to live independently from my mother. (Yeah, effing joke for those of you who know my current living arrangement.) I applied for anything and everything that I could find in the newspapers. I accepted a job for $9 an hour with benefits from a local company (now defunct) known then as Evernet Systems, which I now affectionately refer to as “Ever-Sweat Systems.” They were one of the many networking companies of the early 1990s who went into business and set up LANS (Local Area Networks) with ethernet wire , before Wifi was the rage, even before WINDOWS was used as an operating system. I remember the day they installed windows in our PCs at work and we all thought it looked like a cartoon. A mouse? What’s that? I am freaking old.

 

With all of my background in English and writing, Evernet systems hired me to work in this environment as an administrative assistant.

 

“I will only be there for 3 months,” I said to myself.  I ended up there for two years and ran the office toward the end of my tenure. It was fun. Truly. I was good at it. There were about 25 employees. That led to jobs at banks and then at financial services companies. I am not in investments, so don’t think I’m one of “them.”  I work in a back office, meaning, we are doing the work of keeping records for your accounts. Currently, my title is Process Improvement Analyst, although I’m not sure I improve anything – yet they keep me around. It must be my good looks. 

 

 

It turned out I was very good at working in a business environment (Dad’s genetics?) and over the next 22 years, I became more entrenched in this “career” that has absolutely nothing to do with reading or writing or teaching. Still, I am grateful for the career, for allowing me to earn a living and freeing up my mind to write. And for bringing me some very nice friends and coworkers.

 

I would love to hear the story of your career or job or work or lack therof.  Please write.

 

 *I have made some insignificant changes to the details of my current work environment so as not to reveal the company name.