July 24th, 2013
The long and meandering response to this week’s PROMPTuesday…
Eight months after I graduated from college, I took a job as a receptionist at a Milwaukee law firm. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but after living with my parents for a brief time in San Diego, I decided to really be a college grad and strike out on my own, no matter how I had to do it.
So I moved back to my alma mater town and slept on a couch in my friends’ East Side apartment. In the first days, I took my “portfolio” to all the ad agencies in the city and after realizing I was too green and dumb for copywriting right off the bat, I applied anywhere I could to get myself a paycheck, which became Howard Solochek & Weber, a downtown law office where I answered phones. The attorney who hired me told me that they wanted someone to stay awhile and that I shouldn’t take the job if I considered it a stop gap or a transition, so I lied and said I might consider becoming a paralegal if all went well.
I took the bus down cold streets to work every day and bought thick veggie sandwiches in the downstairs deli for lunch. I dressed up in black skirts and scarlet blouses and felt like an adult in training. Sometimes after work, I’d go to the Chancery Pub with a new work friend who had big sad eyes and heartbreaking stories. I integrated into the team and made pals, mostly paralegals, who advised me daily to pursue their path if I wanted to move up. I loved the office’s law library and the staff’s sense of purpose, but I hated the job. Despised feeling like my brain was going to rot (“Good morning! Howard Solachek & Weber!” “Good afternoon! Howard Solachek & Weber!”), and that this is what I’d settled on after earning a four-year college degree.
But I kept sleeping on my friends’ couch, staying home on Friday nights to watch Twin Peaks, and almost settling into where I found myself that late fall of 1990.
Then a few months later, I heard from the publisher of an LA magazine where I’d interned the summer before. The production manager was having a baby and the publisher would like to offer me a job to pick up the slack. I might get to write a few articles, too.
I took it.
My decision to move to LA necessitated that I quit the law firm less than two months after being hired by a man who told me I could basically never leave, and if I did, I was a liar. So I lied. I told him my mom was sick and I needed to move back to California to take care of her. A particularly horrible lie because my mom HAD been sick the winter before. Sick with breast cancer, and I’d never gone home to be with her.
That one still haunts me. Especially after Sad Eyes sent me a card telling me how much she missed me and she hoped my mom would get better soon so I could move back to Milwaukee. Ouch, all these years later… Don’t think the word “karma” didn’t take on significance for me when my mom really DID die six years later.
Anyway, less than a week after receiving the job offer I was in Los Angeles, rooming with the publisher’s wannabe actress daughter in her parent-provided, red-doored home in Encino. I set myself up in a tiny room with a single bed and stayed there alone every evening, reading “The Fountainhead” or suspended in a state of misery. My roommate was gone all the time, I worked at a job where I had absolutely no idea what the hell I was doing, and the owner’s wife, also the general manager and my current roommate’s German mother, hated my guts because I was passive and 21 and a stand-in for her daughter who she couldn’t yell at because of parental guilt and child manipulation.
When in the office, really just a four-bedroom house converted into a work space behind the Woodland Hills post office, I mostly sat in front of an enormous PC writing overwrought articles on karaoke and juke boxes using a prehistoric Word program with blinking cursors that looked like Pong paddles. But at the end of each month – a time period known fondly and panickedly as “deadline,” I joined the other four staffers in getting the “book” out the door. This required taking all written articles, saving them to floppies, and then downloading the copy to a 20-ton typesetting machine where the typesetter (me on many occasions) would make the words fit into columns. Once each article was typeset, the words would be sent to another machine that spit the articles out on long, slick, curling lengths of photo paper which we’d dry over counters and whatever hard and smooth place we could find.
This was just the beginning. Those long, flip-ended columns of paper would then come to me (or the pregnant production manager) at the light table where the articles would be X-Acto’ed into individual pieces and painstakingly positioned using adhesive within columns on 8-and-a-half-by-11 boards. After paste-up was done and we had a pile of mechanicals (the magazine’s mocked-up pages), they went into the garage to be blue-lined (readied for printing).
In the midst of this busy period, I took solace in staying late on the typesetting machine or cutting copy into precise pieces, even if I weren’t very good at it, as the owner’s German wife constantly reminded me. If it were more common then to sue for harassment, I’d certainly have a case. Some days, she’d just open her mouth and tears would spring to my eyes. When stressed already, having someone sarcastically yell “HELLO?” in a heavy accent directly in your face, can really put you over the edge. Even better, the German manager’s Jaguar vanity license plates read a shortened version of “Heisse Scheisse,” which translated to “Hot Shit.” So that was especially non-threatening and welcoming.
Still, I had nowhere else to go. Most weekends I’d drive to San Diego to hole up with my parents, but during deadline it felt good to be occupied and “doing” something. So I worked overtime and often. Anything was better than returning home to an empty room in a house filled with no one you know not talking to you.
At any rate, the whole deadline deal culminated in the entire staff convening on a storage facility space to “put together” the magazine, a place we dubbed the “bindery.” Each magazine piece (signature) was lined up on a long square table and we’d all walk around the table, take a piece, add other pieces on top of it, and so on and so on until we had the whole interior of the magazine. Then we’d take our stack and add it to the other stacks in front of the glueing and stitching machine, where the magazine would quite literally be “made” into a magazine.
Once the books were all stacked, it was time to mail. So we continued to stand around the table – the whole process took days — and stuff envelopes with magazines. Then came postage, then the post office drop-off.
Every single month.
It was at times back-breaking work, but I learned all aspects of writing for and assembling a magazine, knowledge that empowered me until a scant year or so later when the little Macs made their way into our offices and desktop publishing removed that 20-ton typesetting machine from the office (we continued to put the magazine together and mail it). After several months, I eased into my role (the German woman still hated me and probably still does), made friends, and moved out of the lonely Encino home.
Best of all, the production manager returned to work after the birth of her daughter, which freed me to focus more on the editorial side, leading to a promotion to “assistant editor.”
I see those days through so many lenses. Those early ’90s days represented the first real time I was on my own and away from anything that was familiar. That time felt like a sort of boot camp I dug into and vowed to complete, but I can still cry when I remember the loneliness, imagine my little twin bed, or hear this song.
Then I think that my whole me began when I worked at the law firm and decided it wouldn’t be my life. Now, I’d tell the truth and stand up to “Heisse Scheisse” and get my own place, but everything else, I’d keep the same. And when my daughters tell me they want to stay somewhere because it’s familiar or they won’t know anyone anywhere else or that life is hard sometimes, I’ll tell them to go and it is and would you rather a lifetime of comfortable evenness or always becoming?
They get to choose.