I remember the 80’s -- the days when good jobs were as plentiful as a young woman’s hopes and dreams. When I was 19 I was working as an Assistant Manager of a commercial office building -- a job that sounds like much more than it paid. It was fun; I had friends in all 18 offices in the building. They were usually the people I’d come to know when they called my office to complain about something: the price of the rent, the temperature in their offices, something the janitor had or hadn’t done, etc. After a while, I grew tired of being the complaint department. So, when one of those friends was lured away from her job to a higher-paying one by an employment agent, I decided to give that a try myself. And that was how a woman named Joanne got me a new, better job as a secretary for Borden Foods.
The one job my mother had before becoming a stay-at-home mom was as a bookkeeper at Borden Foods in San Francisco. When I was small and looked through her jewelry box, the shiny service pin that was a caricature of Elsie the Cow, Borden’s mascot, always caught my eye. It made me happy to think that I would be carrying on the Borden Foods legacy.
My new boss at Borden was Bill, and he was a pudgy, partially balding mid-Western salesman. He and his family had moved to the bay area for his new job as a District Sales Manager. He was very obviously not from around there, and struck me as in a little over his head in his new position. Though he tried to seem confident and in control, I’d have bet that his palms were always sweaty.
The job itself was very simple: as DSM, Bill traveled to the sales offices of local food chains to promote Borden’s line of products. I stayed behind in the office, answered the seldom-ringing phone, and typed his letters. The very first task I had to conquer was learning to operate a Telex machine. Every morning I had to turn on the Telex and print out the sales report for his region. It was a strange little contraption, spitting out a strip of paper punched with dots which, when inserted into a reader, were translated into words and figures that were pounded out in faint ink onto a roll of thin paper. When it finished, I tore the sheet off and had it waiting on Bill’s desk for him when he arrived. Oh, the days before the Internet!
The second thing I was tasked with was setting up the front office. All I had on my desk was a telephone and a nice typewriter (I think both were rented) and Bill had already set up an account with a local office supply store. He handed me a thick color catalog of everything from pencils to photocopiers, and told me to order myself what I needed for my desk.
Little did Bill know, but office supplies were one of my favorite things. They still are. When I was a child, I looked forward to the beginning of the school year, when we’d all sit in our rows of desks with our hands folded in front of us, and the teachers and room mothers would walk up and down the rows, bestowing upon us shiny, unsharpened pencils, 2 each, and fat, pink rectangular erasers, 1 each; sometimes even pens and scissors. I’m the kind of person who loves a sharp pencil to write with, who looks forward to cracking open a new notebook and inhaling the smell of fresh paper; who pouts when she wants to write a letter and can’t find her favorite pen.
So, when Bill said to order myself supplies, I was excited. I made a list of what I needed, and carefully inspected every page of the catalog so as not to miss anything. I’d worked in many offices up until then but I’d never had a chance to choose my own office supplies before. Should I stick with plain black, functional but boring desk sets? Industrial metal, or plastic? And, if plastic, did I dare to order some of the newest, name brand plastic accessories that came in pretty colors?
I gambled that Bill would want the front desk to look impressive, and it paid off when I got approval for the pricier, name-brand desk set. It was sleek and burgundy, and all the pieces came with rounded, instead of sharp, corners. I bought an in-box tray, a matching out-box tray, a pencil cup, and a stapler. I’d wavered over the tape dispenser – would it be necessary? My one extravagance with Bill’s office supply budget was the little rectangular paper clip holder: it had a magnet inside it, so you could give it a shake and the clips would rise to the mouth of the holder and you could grab one, without any spilling out. Such a luxury.
The rest of the supplies I ordered were practical and economical – cheap pens, plain green Pendaflex folders, non-descript manila files, a simple metal letter opener, and your run-of-the-mill brown staple-puller. But also some of the latest innovation: small yellow sticky pads called Post-it Notes.
We were equipped.
But then on the second week of my new job, Bill walked into the office holding a large bag. Inside was a small Mr. Coffee machine, cups, and supplies to brew coffee. Bill told me that part of my job was to keep the coffee supplied, and to make a fresh pot whenever I wanted to – but most importantly on the days he was due in the office. He liked to walk in the door and smell the coffee.
This was distressing, but not altogether unexpected. In some offices secretaries would still fetch coffee for their bosses, while in others the bosses got their own without expecting the women to cater to them. I’d already guessed Bill belonged to the first group, and I was ready for him. I wanted to be sure he knew where I stood on this matter: that I was a liberated woman and his equal, and most certainly did not fetch coffee for anyone. To this end, I quickly suggested the coffee maker go in Bill’s office rather than in our reception area, so that he could get it himself. I was happy to brew a pot when I got in every day, because I liked to drink it, too -- but the rest was up to him.
Bill frowned at my little speech. I don’t think he ever expected I’d be averse to being a waitress for him. “In the Home office”, he offered hopefully, “(his boss) Bob’s secretary always offers me coffee and brings me a cup just how I like it when I visit – and brings Bob his coffee whenever he wants it, too, every day!”
“That’s nice”, I said, “but I don’t do that.” The furrow on Bill’s brow got a little deeper, and he tilted his head and looked at the ceiling, as if he was thinking very hard.
“Well” he finally said, “I probably can get it for myself on normal days, that’s fine, but when Bob visits our offices, I’m going to expect you to serve us coffee.” He looked at me expectantly. I frowned back at him. And so, the line in the sand was drawn.
As we continued to work together, there really were no other bones of contention between us. I was always on time, I knew my way around the office, and I greeted our clients with a beguiling telephone voice. His pot of coffee was always prepared for him when he was in the office.
The first time Bill went out to call on his accounts, he returned with a stack of handwritten letters for me to type. I was accustomed to doing correspondence for past bosses. Bill was selling food and his letters were confirmation of how many units were ordered, and where on the grocery store shelves he’d negotiated their placement.
But, Bill’s letters were unlike any I'd seen, and had me stumped. They were written in fragmented sentences, and used unfamiliar sales terms. So, I would type out drafts exactly as they were written, even though they made no sense to me at all. I’d read and re-read the drafts, putting myself in Bill’s place until I thought I understood what he meant to convey. Then, I’d make notes of and go ask him if I was right. Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t, but Bill was always able to explain to me at that point what he’d meant to say. I’d take that information and use it to produce a clear, concise business letter.
Bill would smile when he read them. His smile said, “Damn, I’m good.” He'd sign them and send them off, with carbon copies to his boss. He got compliments from the home office.
“Your correspondence has really improved, Bill. It’s impressive.” He took all the credit.
One day, about a month into our partnership, Bill started to bring up the coffee thing again. He told me that he was expecting a visit from his boss Bob, and that when he was there, it would be important that he be impressed with this little satellite office we’d created. That meant I’d need to make sure he felt at home in our office. And, specifically, that meant serving him coffee. I narrowed my eyes and said nothing, but shook my head slightly. Nope.
The next day, Bill stood in the reception area where I sat, hands in his pockets, and tried to make conversation with me – again about coffee. I was actively disinterested.
Another day, Bill began, “Laurie, Bob’s going to expect you to bring us coffee. How is it going to look to him if you don’t?”
“It’s just not something I’m comfortable doing.”
We were in a standoff. Bill sighed in frustration. I blinked and kept quiet. I was a rock: a non-coffee-fetching rock. Inside, though, I was indignant. Why was this such a big deal to Bill? Wasn’t I a contributing member of his team, his partner? Didn’t I do enough quantifiable, real work at my desk? Didn’t he appreciate that? Did I have to wait on him as well?
The subject of the coffee was never far from us; it was a whiff of fresh brew that hovered in the background of all of our exchanges, unspoken, un-served. Bill began to get more and more desperate for my cooperation.
As the day of The Visit From The Boss approached, and much to my relief, Bill became pre-occupied with the business at hand, and seemed to forget about the coffee.
When he arrived, I greeted the boss man and I’m sure I made a good impression. Then the two of them retired into Bill’s office to talk about clams and condensed milk. The coffee was made; it stood ready and waiting in its shiny carafe for them to help themselves.
A few minutes after they’d gone in, though, Bill came back to the door of his office. I looked up to see him standing with his hands clasped in front of him, as if in prayer. He faced me and crinkled up his face into the mask of a man pleading for his life. “Please” he mouthed silently, and tilted his head to the side. He shook his clasped hands up and down. There may have been tears in his eyes.
He was pathetic.
I’m not sure what happened to me in that moment. I guess I just gave up. I followed him into his office to offer, and serve, coffee to Bill and Bob. I did it several times over the course of the day, in fact – and always with a smile on my face. Bill was visibly relieved. He was glowing. I think I could have asked him for anything I wanted that day: a raise, a company car – anything.
The next day the big boss Bob was gone, and Bill arrived at work. It wasn’t long before he thanked me very profoundly for coming to my senses and serving coffee.
I said, “You’re welcome” and then I gave him my 2 weeks’ notice. It was, I thought, the ultimate revenge. Don’t take me seriously? Don’t appreciate what I’m good at? Expect me to be subservient to you? I think not!
I spent the next two weeks with my nose in the air, and Bill spent them acting nonchalant – as if he couldn’t care less I was leaving. He could do without me. He was surely envisioning his next secretary – the one who would take possession of the little burgundy paper clip holder and be happy to serve him coffee all day, every day. His seeming ambivalence robbed me of some of the joy of having taken a stand on behalf of secretaries everywhere.
Ah, well. I think about it now and I can’t believe myself. Who was that self-righteous young woman, so sure of herself and what lay ahead of her that she would quit a cushy job over having to serve coffee to her boss? Was it all about the coffee, or was something else going on? I remember I feeling lonely and a little bored in our two-person office; maybe that is what made it so easy for me to leave. Or maybe it was just the fact that, in those days, good jobs grew on trees. Not so in 2016.
Several weeks after, when I was happily installed in my next working adventure, I got a phone call from a frantic Joanne, the agent who’d placed me at Borden Foods.
“I can’t find anyone to replace you,” she said. “Bill’s not happy with any of the girls I send over there. He says none of them can do his correspondence – that you used to do something special to his letters.”
She sounded as bewildered as he apparently was.
“Please tell me: what was it that you did?”
I have not stopped laughing about that, for more than 30 years.
I have not stopped laughing about that, for more than 30 years.