A career is something you decide on, plan for, maybe go to school for, engage in with purpose, perhaps even use to identify yourself. Meanwhile, whenever I was asked, “What are you?” I always answered dutifully , “I’m a … [whatever work I was doing to make money at that moment].” But in my mind, I vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to work, to have a job, to make money. You’ll see why, as you read on.
* * *
Want to know how to get a kid to go to bed without fuss? Ask which stuffed animal they want to have tucked in with them. They’re so busy deciding on Elegant the elephant or Freddy the teddy bear they don’t even think to whine while you’re buttoning pajamas and tucking tonight’s best companion under the covers with them.
The kid doesn’t like tomatoes or cucumbers? No problem. Put a teaspoon or two of sugar into a little dish and let them dip bite-sizes pieces of vegetable into it. Before you know it, the sugar is all gone and so are the vegetables.
I could also fold cloth diapers as well as most mothers. I could imitate all the characters’ voices in bedtime stories. And I could usually convince a fearful 4-year-old that the good monster under the bed scares the bad monster away.
I did babysitting once or twice a week from age 11 to 15. I was good at it, but it didn’t mean much. There were better jobs in the world. I knew that, and I was going to get one of those jobs when I grew up.
Beginning at 15, I worked summers in a toy store until I left home to go to college. Too much of my time on the job was spent digging Matchbox cars out of boys’ linty pockets and baby kewpie dolls out of girls’ greasy purses while delivering the standard lecture on stealing. When I first took the job, I was shocked to discover how many kids tried to steal. Taking things that didn’t belong to me had ceased to be an option for me at age 5 after my mother marched me back to that bakery with two by-then ruined doughnuts, which she paid for. Then, I had to pay her back out of my allowance.
Sales at the store were rung up on a manual cash register that went “ker-chunk.” I ‘ve always liked sounds—bike click, dog snuffle, waterfall—perhaps beginning with ker-chunk. I also very much liked being in charge of the store. But sales clerk? I didn’t think that was all that was in store for me.
Rockette (I wish!)
When I was 12, I was just about to graduate to toe shoes in my dance class in Albany, GA. The class was taught by a friend of my mother’s who had been a Rockette in her youth. The Rockettes, in case you don’t know (why would you?), are … well, let me look them up on the Internet:
“The Rockettes are America’s most iconic dance company, captivating audiences for decades with precision dance performances at Radio City Music Hall.”
Radio City Christmas Spectacular! Beautiful long legs in a “kickline”! Huge billboards with billowing neon lights! Quick costume changes! Glitter! Makeup!
It took me and 11 other little girls in that dance class weeks to master raising our hands above our heads in exactly the same way at the exactly the same moment at exactly the same height. I don’t remember that we ever managed the iconic eye-high simultaneous leg kick in a chorus line. But we did try.
Rockettes had to be good at ballet, tap and jazz. They had to practice a lot, so I practiced, too. Ballet was the most difficult of the three dance genres, but I was ready for those toe shoes. I was ready, really. I could walk across a bare floor on my bare tiptoes. Wanna see?
“Ouch,” you say? Oh, yeah. From that time on, I wore shoes a full size shorter and somewhat wider, and now that I’m old the dropped bone in the ball of my right foot gives me no end of trouble. So I have advice that nobody else should ever be stupid enough to need: Never wear toe shoes with no toe shoes on.
Anyway, six years after deforming my feet but before the deformities became bothersome, I took dance classes again as a freshman in college. One semester of extra hard work, to try to make up for my years away, was followed by a “required different sport.” I reluctantly chose tennis. Three weeks later, the ball I never could see hit me in the face, breaking my glasses. So I was allowed to go back to dance class and continue there for the rest of the year. Three more semesters of plies and chassés and assorted kicks gave me a leg up on the competition in my sophomore year.
By then, I was in dance class 10 hours a week, watched carefully and corrected mercilessly by a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (you can look that one up, but trust me, it was prestigious). I learned not only that could I really dance but also that my being tall and long-legged was actually for the first time to my advantage: I could keep up with the male demonstrator and was his choice in a partner when he needed to demo couples or chorus steps.
Then one day I could no longer keep up.
I was pregnant.
I had three seconds to snatch a letter out of a huge sack, check the scribbling on the envelope and toss it into one of maybe 80 slots so a mail carrier could deliver it the next morning. Along with about a hundred other people, I toiled in a basement for nine hours a day, eight hours paid plus a lunch break of precisely 36 minutes plus two bathroom breaks of 12 minutes each. About half of us were female; you should have seen the rush to the women’s bathrooms when the break siren sounded.
The person to my left was a huge peasant who allowed as how he simply tossed each piece of mail toward the slots without even checking where it was supposed to go. I, however, was determined that Mary Monroe should get her own electric bill, on time, and that newly-arrived Joe Mason should hear from his Aunt Martha within a week of her writing him. Somehow, it seemed the least I could do since I was not going to be able to become a dancer.
A month into this job, my boss found out I was going to have a baby and fired me. I was not sorry to go.
Straight A’s in high school and a year-and-a-half of college and I couldn’t get a job. I was told over and over that I could not be hired because, pregnant, it would not be safe for me to sit and answer a phone or type a letter. I insisted I’d be safe enough if I could just pay rent and eat, but stridency got me nowhere in the face of company policy.
After weeks of unproductive job interviews, a neighbor recommended me to some of her overflow clients—as a maid. I washed dishes, vacuumed, scrubbed floors, cleaned windows, and even did mending. Sometimes I was there when kids came home from school. Sometimes I was needed just to make an old person’s home more livable.
I’ve worked as a maid several times since that first time when I was 20. It’s a good way to supplement unemployment benefits, and it is work that needs to be done, honest work where you can see the results of your labor. To this day after I vacuum and dust and mop and wash, I say with some satisfaction, “I don’t like to clean my house, but I sure do like my house clean.” Just don’t call me anybody’s maid.
When I was 21 and David, my son, was 2, I carried plates and served beer at several … bars? Restaurants? It’s hard to remember, but they must have been restaurants: I remember the clatter and crash of dishes and the smell of greasy steam from what must have been a huge automatic dishwasher. I also remember unaccustomed tight skirts, uncomfortable stockings and even more uncomfortable shoes. Oh, and one thing more: I think on the first of those jobs, maybe on the very first night, I managed to spill most of the contents of seven or eight bottles of beer all over the man at my big table who would otherwise have tipped me at the end of the evening. I hate beer.
One of these jobs was at a military officer’s bar in the Monterey, CA, area. To get to work, I drove from my apartment in Pacific Grove through a forested coastal range. One day, I saw a baby fawn, not even ten feet from the road and almost hidden in long grass. I never would have spied this miracle except that I had stopped to let Mama Deer cross the road just in front of me. I let David out of the car, and he toddled forth a few steps waving his stuffed fawn, Charlie, in the air, then came back to me when I called. It was one of those magic moments that make everything in life seem worthwhile—except perhaps the job.
(Assistant) Trainer for the Blind
I was 4 years old when my mother glanced out of the kitchen window and said to me, “Oh, look. See the new leaves on the tree?”
I looked. “I don’t see,” I said.
“Sure you do,” said my mother. “They’re on the tree, right there.”
“I don’t see,” I said.
“The new leaves are a brighter, greener green than the old ones,” said my mother, trying to be helpful.
By then, I’d had it. “Mama, you know perfectly well you can’t see leaves on a tree that far away.”
That very week, I saw the optometrist. 20-180 in one eye, 20-160 in the other. 20-200 is legally blind.
Back to the topic at hand: I was in Reseda, CA, living at my parents’ house. Mama was to take care of the baby when I found work. In the early 60s, the choices in genteel work for women without college degrees or specialized training were: office worker or sales clerk. Oh, no, not sales clerk again! So, OK, let’s go to the office.
I couldn’t be a secretary in most offices because I couldn’t “take a letter.” Or to be more accurate, I could take the damn letter, but I was too slow getting all those shorthand squiggles on the paper. I never could write very fast. Also in most offices, I couldn’t be a receptionist because that position required “front-office appearance,” and front-office appearance meant no glasses and preferably a bigger bra size.
I could be a filing clerk, though. Imagine: You pass a skills test timed with a stopwatch during which you arrange fictitious company names in alphabetical order. You pass a clothing inspection: skirt falls to just below the knee, shoes are just like The Beaver’s mother’s, white cotton blouse is starched and tucked in. You are ready to spend eight hours a day picking up one piece of paper after another, opening the correct file drawer, inserting the paper in the correct folder, and closing the file drawer. The high point of your day is when you get to use your “good penmanship” to create a new folder.
Imagine my relief when a job was posted for an assistant trainer of the blind at the Braille Institute of America in Los Angeles.
What was this job? I stood beside a teenager and touched her hand every time she swung her head back and forth—a “blindism” that is understandable if you’ve never ever seen yourself but that you can be trained not to engage in. I read to a child who was blind, physically disabled and loved Lone Ranger books. I traipsed up and down hallways with people learning to use canes, keeping them from smashing the canes and themselves into walls. I handled the phone switchboard during someone else’s lunch period. I answered questions posed by people whose dogs led them to my desk. And yes, I occasionally even did some dreary filing.
I worked at the Braille Institute for almost a year. It was a low-paying job but fun. Frustrating, though. Without specialized training, which I couldn’t afford because of the low pay, I could never be a real trainer. I could only be an assistant.
My next job was brief. I had been hired to be an administrative assistant to a building contractor. “Office work” proved to be little other than answering the phone and taking messages. The “building contractor” proved to be a pimp who had installed his girls in buildings I presume he had built. The calls were almost always from those girls. They went something like this:
“I wanna speak to Bob.”
“Whom shall I say is calling?”
“Whom shall I say is calling?”
“Wha da fuck do you care who’s callin’. Get me Bob.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m supposed to ask who is calling.”
“Fuck you. You get me Bob right now, you bitch!”
Come Saturday, I was quite ready for a relaxing day doing laundry, vacuuming and looking after David, age 3. About 10:00 in the morning, I got a call from Bob asking me why I was not at work.
“Uh, because it’s Saturday?”
“Shit yeah, it’s Saturday,” said Bob. “It’s not Sunday, so why the fuck aren’t you at work?”
There had been a misunderstanding. For $320 a month I was supposed to listen to people cuss at me six days a week, not five. Well, as I said, the job was brief. Nothing to get upset about. Nothing to get too involved with.
Shortly after all that bad language, I moved again to Monterrey, CA, and almost immediately became ill. After a visit to the local free clinic, I was admitted to a hospital for removal of a lymph node. Two days out of surgery, I had to go to work and get paid that very day or move myself and David out of my apartment. The sheriff was at my door.
How to get paid daily? Stand on a street corner in a short skirt and no underwear or become a go-go dancer? I chose the latter.
So I got the glitter and makeup part of dancing, anyway. The costumes were gold lame bikinis. The job—at a nightclub just outside the military training base in Seaside—was not demanding once the stitches were removed. I was encouraged to learn the latest dances so the customers could copy my moves, and it was fun watching them try.
After some months of working five days a week, however, it seemed no longer possible to get off at 2:00 a.m., pick up David from the babysitter’s, drive home, fall into bed at 3:30 and get up at 7:00 in time to keep the kid from unlocking the apartment door and carousing around the neighborhood in his underwear. After the police brought him back to me a second time and told me it had better not happen again, I moved us back once again to my parents’ house in Reseda. There ensued what seemed like a hundred interviews for office work. My skills at typing and taking shorthand hadn’t improved much, but interviews didn’t usually get that far: “Oh, you have a baby. I’m sorry. We don’t hire women with children.“
The costumes in La-La Land were briefer than they had been in Seaside. Now, we wore pasties. Yes, that’s right, pasties. Before every shift, we pasted them onto our nipples with rubber cement, and after every shift we unglued ourselves from them.
Soon, even that little glitter was gone and the makeup had become irrelevant. After all, who looked at our faces? By then, all of us so-called dancers in Southern California were “topless.” Then, as soon as laws changed to allow it, we were “bottomless.”
(Note: Despite the fact that we had all become nothing more than tits and ass, “topless” didn’t mean without our heads, and “bottomless” didn’t mean without our legs or feet.)
We were all working for agents who had us on a circuit of clubs anywhere from San Bernardino to Irvine to Simi Valley. We worked a different club each day and sometimes a different one each shift. In that cheap-gas and aren’t-freeways-wonderful era, we often drove three hours a day.
When I would get to a club, I might not know what to put on, or take off, since if the club were in a city there were city laws that applied and otherwise one of three different county laws might apply. All relevant laws changed almost weekly for a while, often at 5:00 p.m., the better to catch us doing something we shouldn’t. The agents had watchers in all the courthouses who reported each day on what laws had or had not been passed that day.
So I’d get to work, put on both top and bottom, go on stage and then get a call:
“Keep it on.”
“Top and bottom?”
Then I’d run back on stage, remove only my top and smile nicely at the two cops chatting up the waitress and waiting to pounce on a bottomless dancer.
Wearing both top and bottom was awful: No tips and oh, by the way, when you’re on your 15-minute break we want you to give the waitress a break. Topless was somewhat better: Some tips and you still gotta carry the beer, but if somebody touches you and you don’t like it (I didn’t) you can tell Billy over there and he’ll take care of it for you.
Bottomless was strange at first. I remember my mother’s apt opinion of it: “I do not see how a woman makes money displaying that which every single woman in the world has. It seems a common thing.”
But bottomless was best because it required no interaction at all with customers. As a matter of fact, at one club I was escorted by armed security guards when I went on stage and when I retreated to the dressing room. My security guys prevented anyone from even getting close to me. No more having to detour around grabasses. No more “Hey, I love you wanna mess aroun’?” I loved my security guys.
When I began as a go-go dancer in Monterey, and then when I went topless in the L.A. area, there was just David to provide for. That I could do easily working five shifts a week even after we got our own apartment. Somewhat later, there was a husband who was trying to start a photography business, the photography business bills, his almost immediate illness, and his two children, Luis and Vivian. Providing for three more people and funding a business required bottomless-type tips and 10 shifts a week, five at lunch and five at night.
It must be mentioned that certain girls could work less than I did and could make more. Certain girls went into the men’s bathrooms with customers and emerged five minutes later $5 richer. Certain girls made it known they would go home with the customer who tipped them the most. At every shift where there was a certain girl, the rest of us made less money. So, 10 shifts a week it was.
Ten shifts a week for 10 years. I danced and then went home, cooked, cleaned and helped with homework, and then I danced. And that was that.
So there, children: Now, more than 30 years later, you know why Mom used to come home from work and insist that you turn off the loud music. She had already been subjected to “Born to be Wild” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” a dozen times each that day at deafening decibels with the speaker beamed directly at her left ear. When she came home, she was ready for some quiet time with her kids.
The husband died. The business did, too. Luis went into the military. Vivian went to room with a friend. David went with his Grandma for a while. It was time to quit dancing and go back to college.
I started college again in Fort Wayne, IN, some 50 miles from my mother and David in Angola. I got a grant that paid for most of my college expenses, and I soon was awarded several small scholarships that paid for all remaining school fees and even books. So school was free. However, I did have to eat and lay my head down somewhere closer to school than 50 miles on a rough two-lane road, and that required a job.
For a while, I carried drinks at a local nightclub, charging for Tanqueray as ordered but substituting bar gin by the time taste buds were no longer operable. But my ear drums were taking a toll again, so I got a job as a lunch bartender at a new Cork ‘n Cleaver restaurant.
“Set ‘em out.” Behind the bar, line up 60 or 70 tall glasses each with ice, a lemon wedge, a lime wedge, a celery stick, tomato juice, Tabasco and some mix that came in powder form. Line up 30 or 40 short glasses each with ice, vermouth and a skewered olive. “Count ‘em out.” When the doors open at noon, slam a requisite number of talls and shorts on somebody’s tray and turn the vodka or gin bottle upside down over them. “Keep movin’, movin’, movin’” and by 12:20 the restaurant is full of what sounds like an entire herd of doggies “rollin’ rollin’ rollin’.” By 12:30, the manager jumps the bar to help wash glasses,“Hyaa!,“ Into those rotating bristles, “hyaa!” into that rinse. Final rounds at 12:40. “Don’t try to understand ‘em. Just rope, throw and brand ‘em.” At 12:50, “Move ’em on, head ’em up, Head ’em up, move ’em out!“ Done by 1:00. “Rawhide!”
Still don’t get it? You’re probably too young. Here, this should help:
Well, that was entertaining. But after a semester of immersion into chemically infused wash and rinse water that could made you dizzy if you took a deep breath while washing bar glasses, my hands were turning into rawhide. Plus, the pay was poor. The cocktail waitresses got the tips. I didn’t want to carry drinks anymore, so for the remainder of the school year, I went on dinner shift as a food waitress.
We were expected to “sell” food: first a drink or two; then an appetizer; then a meal with wine, finally desert and coffee, perhaps with an aperitif. We were incredibly busy. I learned to carry four steak and baked potato plates at once, or eight cups of coffee. There was so much food. I thought that going home with indigestion would be enough to keep customers away after the first time they were encouraged to overeat, but no. They came back, a little heavier each time. I was appalled. They loved it.
The following year, I transferred to Indiana University at Bloomington. There, after a semester at a different Cork ‘n Cleaver, I became the editor of the university’s Latino Affairs Newsletter. The job was only part time, from five to 15 hours a week depending on what I had to study that week. But it was a real job.
Notice, I said, “I became the editor,…” not “I worked for a while editing….” So writing and editing was to become my career? All right! Finally, at age 39 I had a career! I immediately transferred from the independent studies program at IU to the journalism department.
When I discovered there were approximately 400 journalism students for every single journalism job in the country, I said, “That’s OK. I’ll be best.” So I got straight A’s (well, except for one B+ I’m very proud of in journalistic photography and layout—you remember “I don’t see.”) When I heard about how difficult it was to get published without ever having been published, I said, “That’s OK. I’ll get published now.” And I did get both straight news and feature articles published in the student and the local newspapers along with a lengthy feature article in the Louisville Courier Journal, then considered one of the finest newspapers in the country. When I heard how difficult it was to get a first job, I said, “That’s OK. I’ve already got that first job.”
I worked my tail off, taking 15 hours of classes a week, slogging through the expected three hours of homework for every hour in class, writing articles for Latino Affairs and keeping house —well, keeping a university family-housing trailer–for David and myself.
I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. That was followed by lots of interviews; no job.
Sound like a story you’ve heard before? The problem was that the majority of my graduating class was 24 years old and the editors who were interviewing me were in their 30s. It was embarrassing for them to ask someone almost old enough to be their mother to work for the minimum wage then being paid to news newbies.
After several months of fruitless searching for any journalism job at all, I left Indiana and went to live with one of my two brothers and his wife in Tucson. The newspaper there wasn’t interested in hiring anybody for anything, but I did write freelance articles for both the Tucson and Albuquerque city magazines. There was not enough money in that for me to support myself, though, so I left Arizona and went to live with my other brother and his wife in Orlando. And there, I landed an actual journalism job.
In the interview for that job, I asked why a newspaper put out for Black people would want to hire a White editor. The publisher chuckled and said, “Black people can’t write. If you want to find somebody who can write, you find you a White person.” Gosh, after all that schooling, he hired me on the assumption that I could write, and he assumed that based only on my skin color.
Oh, well. I threw myself into the work, putting in 60 hours a week writing a feature article a day, editing the national and state news for localization and Associated Press style, editing contributing writers for the political, community and religion sections, writing the editorial that is expected from the editor, overseeing design and formatting and even doing hardcopy paste-up.
My work paid off: A year-and-a-half later, I was notified that my paper and one other in another state had won “best small Black newspaper in the South.” An announcement would be forthcoming soon and I would be invited to speak at a banquet.
The paper was selected for this award in part because we carried a series of articles on an eminent-domain scheme in downtown Orlando. In the name of progress, Black people who lived in the area were being removed from homes they had lived in all their lives and were being paid a pittance for valuable property. I ran articles featuring elderly women being physically evicted and deposited on the sidewalk in tears, and I wrote editorials blasting the perpetrators of the scheme. Little did I realize that one of those perpetrators was the publisher of the paper. When he found out what I was doing with his newspaper, he made some calls to ensure it would not receive any awards. And then he fired me.
After that, I was told by several people in city government and at the competing newspaper that my stance on urban renewal in Orlando meant I’d never work in Orlando again. What now?
I got on a Greyhound and rode for four-and-a-half days to Port Townsend, WA, where it was frigid but friendly. There, I worked at the silliest things: Clean wool rugs with a scrubbing brush and soap and water. Squeeze oranges in a manual squeezer for a breakfast restaurant. Hang over the railing of a balcony that encircles a large house and, upside down, paint the outside railing rungs. Scrub the ceiling of a houseboat. Seat people on three levels of a huge restaurant and try not to literally go tripping down the stairs to seat the next patrons. Do typesetting for the local paper (me, who could never write or type very fast).
Oh, and write freelance for the local paper. This was a silly job only because I was so obviously qualified to be the editor. I wrote freelance articles for some months because I knew that the paper’s editor was looking for a job in some other, warmer, town. When he found that job and moved out of the constant cold, however, the publisher didn’t even respond to my application to replace him. Instead, he hired a man from Seattle who was less qualified than I was, who was without knowledge of the local scene, and who lasted only about three months. Then, he hired a second man from somewhere on the East Coast who lasted no more than a few weeks. Then, would you believe he hired a third man, I think from Bellingham? By that time, I was finally willing to believe my women’s lib friends who had been telling me he would never hire a woman as an editor.
So, on to Portland, where I sold several freelance articles to a magazine that didn’t honor an agreement to pay me and was told by an established writer that the only reason he could afford to write in Portland was that he was retired and his home was fully paid for.
So, on to Southern California. At the time, I didn’t even know what “IBM” stood for. “International Business Machines,” said my uncle, a long-time IBM employee, on the phone. Uncle Leo knew I had graduated with a journalism degree and on that basis thought I’d be competent to edit such things as:
“Definition 18: LINE Defined ln XY-Plane Passlng Through Polnt and Tangent to Tabulated Cylinder
< SLN > = LINE/ < point >,TANTO, < tabcyl >, < near point >
Discussion: The 18th definition method allows a line to be defined tangent to, or TANTO, a tabulated cylinder, < tabcyl >, and passing through a reference < point >. A < near point > on the tabulated cylinder, at or about the point of tangency, is required to specify the desired point. For a discussion of the need for and the requirements of this < near point >, see the comments in [Heading ID ‘lp14pon’]. For an illustration of this definition, see Figure [Figure ID ‘1’].
And so forth for four more pages to document Definition 18 of of 39 definitions of a “LINE” in the IBM Numerical Control Part Programmer’s Reference Guide. Then there were circles. And splines. Numerical control automates machine tools and incorporates—as Wikipedia states—“concepts of abstractly programmable logic.”
Obviously, I was going to be abstracted. I thought TANTO was the Lone Ranger’s friend. But silly me, I said sure, I’d do it. I drove from Portland, OR to Los Angeles, CA, in a Volkswagen with everything I owned inside it and a cat screeching on top of that. Arriving, I rented a studio apartment and went to work the next day.
Uncle Leo gave his System 38 computer a friendly pat and sat me in front of one of its many terminals. He handed me about five pounds of numerical control guide that I was to edit and another five or so pounds of the manual I would need to use to learn how to do the editing. No WYSIWYG yet; that was years in the future. “If you have any questions,” he said, “find somebody and ask.” Ten months later, the job was done. I added “technical editor” to my resume and was once again pounding the pavement.
Next? A year or so working as the editor/reporter/typesetter of a weekly heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration newspaper. I took the job because it was there and I needed rent money. I kept it for a year, learning surprising little about HVACR, until the publisher retired and closed up operation. He’d known from the time he hired me that he was on his way out; that’s why he stuck me with three jobs.
After the usual round of interviews, my next job was as a technical writer in … the newspaper industry. I was hired to document and train an editorial and classified-advertising system. How fun!
Documentation proved difficult, however. I had been hired because I understood newspaper workflows and could write in the Associated Press style used by the majority of the newspaper industry. AP style requirements are many and specific:
For example, Great Depression is capitalized, but civil rights movement is not. Newspaper and magazine names are never italicized. After a colon, a sentence has an initial cap but a word or phrase is always lowercased. It is “the waitress’s hat” but “the waitress’ style.” It is a (number) “3-year-old girl,” (number) “5 acres,” (spelled out) “two years ago,” (spelled out) “second grade,” (number) “50,000 people” and (spelled out) “I’ve told you a million times.”
In journalism school, each style mistake in a story drops your grade by one letter. So reporters and editors are grim on the subject of AP style. Anything that does not comply is perceived as wrong. However, my manager was familiar only with the Chicago Manual of Style and required me to comply with its requirements, instead. In vain did I try to explain that doing so would interfere with the editors who would be the users of what I was writng.
Training was troublesome as well. The classified ad part of the system was straightforward, but almost every editorial process could be accomplished in more than one way. I developed functionality comparisons that helped clients identify their own best methods. The approach worked well, reducing training time by a third and getting my students off to a running start once they went back home to Cleveland, Cambridge, Kansas City or Costa Rica. Temporarily, that is; once my manager found out I was sitting with students and discussing implementation issues with them, she required me to go back to the only type of training she was comfortable with: Stand up in front of the class and read, word for word, from the manual. Oh, my aching feet.
Perhaps this nonsensical approach to documentation and training contributed to the company’s decision to discontinue maintaining and selling the system; in any case, two years from the time I took the job, the system was “sunsetted” and I was let go.
Next, an environmental cleanup company hired me to document their job-tracking system. I was happy to go to work for a company that was doing good work—until I found out that the environmental cleanup that was being done by the company under one company name was made necessary in part by the environmental mess that was being made by the same company another company name. Oh well, that’s business: You gotta pay us to make this mess, and then you gotta pay us again to clean it up.
The manual took a year to write, with my sources insisting that the system was too complex ever to be put on paper and making themselves scarce when I needed to ask questions. By the time the manual was finally printed, a replacement system was being evaluated. I was asked to stay on while the new system was purchased and customized.
For the next three years, I documented and therefore learned about human resources; inventory management; sales order management; payroll; capital asset management; procurement and subcontract management; project costing; accounts receivable, accounts payable and other financials; work orders; project revenue and cost forecasting; and project reporting.
During the final year, we were required to work 60 hours a week. Everybody was frantic, and the development team made it hard on me by making changes to functionality already documented, printed and distributed without telling me what the changes were. I had an assistant who had to spend all her time reviewing printed manuals and issuing change pages rather than helping me out with new functionality. I had a manager who handed out manuals to recipients in a dozen offices across the country without recording their contact information, so we never knew who to send the change pages to.
After the last system module was implemented, I tried to switch to online help, which could be updated without having to issue hardcopy change pages. Nobody at headquarters was interested in anything other than “the manual,” however, so I only succeeded in doubling my workload—online and paper—rather than in working better or smarter.
One adds “senior” to the technical writing job title after a certain number of years’ experience. The time period is not set; it may be five but is more often 10. However, after that last year at 60 hours a week, I knew I had earned the adjective, so I put it on my resume.
Do you remember the lyric, “Take this job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more.”?
Senior Technical Writer and IS Specialist / Systems Engineer
Nissan North America. Much as I hate cars as status symbols, traffic jams instead of bus routes, ever more roads instead of parks, pollution caused by vehicle exhaust … Oh, well, I’m 51 years old, right at the cusp of unemployable because of age. Besides, Nissan’s corporate offices are only 10 minutes—admittedly by car—away from my apartment. And I’m out of work, having broken Job Strategy Rule No. 1: Unless you have six months’ of expenses saved up, do not quit a job until you have another one.
My first day at Nissan was in September 1995. My last day was in March 2012. That’s 17 years!
I’ll list the stuff I did:
- Wrote IBM mainframe CICS online and hardcopy documentation during the era that had programmers telling technical writers to explain almost-incomprehensible computer processes rather than applying usability rules to the computer processes
- Authored IBM AS/400 online Help for Infiniti’s “InDealership” system, introducing task-oriented documentation to Nissan (Think of this as: “I gotta do this thing and can find it in my list of tasks in my manual” versus “I gotta do this thing and will have to page through a whole lotta documentation to find the menu and function I need to use.”)
- Authored WinHelp for a decision-support system used by management, creating the first clickable decision trees Nissan managers had seen
- Wrote a manual on a Nissan dealership auto parts application, the feedback for which was “actually readable. I can use this.”
- Taught myself Website design and built help desk websites for customer support staff and for end users, implementation of which reduced calls for support by 400 per month and cut the amount of time needed to train analysts by half
Yes, I am bragging. Then, oops! I came into work one day as usual and stuck my nose close to my computer for a couple of hours. A work friend walked by and said, “I thought you were a contractor.”
I said I was; Nissan hired technical writers only as contractors, never as employees. “Go talk to your manager,” said my friend and walked on. I did and was told that Nissan had let every contractor go two hours ago. It was a finance issue.
Lucky for me, Porsche Cars picked me up almost immediately and each week for a year flew me into and out of Reno, then its national headquarters. I wrote online help for parts distribution, vehicle management and vehicle allocation. When that was complete, Nissan hired me back again—at $2 an hour more than I had been making before. I guess the finances got straightened out.
More stuff I did:
- Took online classes in website design and information management and set standards for intranet design, format and maintenance
- Built Nissan intranets, one for each for each of about 40 departments
- Interfaced with Nissan managers to gather requirements for Websites and web applications
- Documented business requirements, system design, user test cases, system maintenance procedures and end-user instructions
- Trained and edited the work of approximately 25 department administrative assistants assigned to maintain their departments’ websites
- Coded, tested and implemented database-interactive applications, teaching myself the code necessary to accomplish this
When I began this second stint at Nissan, its intranet was a Corporate Communications tool with cute buttons. Three years later, Nissan intranets had become the primary source for information. Almost all information was database driven, so it could be easily maintained in one place and distributed as needed. In my own department, Information Services, service requests for computers, phones, software and access were all online, with five levels of approval also accomplished and recorded online.
Then, right in the middle of the famed dot-com crash, Nissan subbed out its entire IS department to IBM. And the fun and good work came to an end.
- Standards set for intranet design, format and maintenance were ignored by this “Irresponsibly Behaved Multinational.” An expensive project was initiated to set new standards, which were years in the making and which allowed for less functionality than the old standards. While the project was active, the old standards were ignored. By the time the new ones were in place, there was a mishmash of cadged-together substandard applications that had to be dealt with, each itself an expensive project.
- Entire teams of “Inexperienced Bored Miserable” employees built Nissan intranets and applications, taking weeks to years (I kid you not) to create something that could have been created in weeks to minutes (really, I’m not kidding). I once watched as work I could have completed in five minutes was charged to Nissan at 41 hours.
- Intranet and web-application requirements, received from Managers, were not evaluated for practicality or even to see if something already in existence might suffice. “Increasingly Bad Management” cost Nissan a pot of gold.
- Documentation of all types became a huge effort since what had been a hand-shake endeavor between Nissan’s IS Department and Nissan became almost overnight an antagonistic struggle with an “Insidious Byzantine Mentality.” In such conditions, documentation of good work often substitutes for actual good work.
- IBM employees who were “Into Building Money” replaced the 25 Nissan employees maintaining websites. This cost Nissan a great deal since website maintenance had previously cost nothing other than admin assistant time and my salary.
- Projects were required to be initiated to make even simple updates to applications. Projects performed by the “Industry Bowel Movement” were so expensive, however, that Nissan departments, rather than initiate projects, frequently went back to old, labor-intensive methods of getting work done and distributing information.
I found it hard to transition from a knowledgeable and respected Nissan staff member with Awards of Excellence displayed in my cubicle to a minion of the “Incredibly Bullying Menace.” I had had such a good relationship with my clients, managers and admins alike. I had been allowed to do good work, work that helped my clients do good work and go home on time to be with their families. No more.
I remember sitting in a meeting to gather requirements for a legal contact list. I knew all the Nissan people in the room, had known them for years, but this was my first time working in the presence of the woman who would for years ahead be my manager at “It’s Broken Ma’am.”
“May I suggest something?” I asked after listening to what they thought they needed. I knew they were expecting my input. “If you look at this from the point-of-view of a user of your contact list,…”
“Katharine,” my manager interrupted in the middle of my sentence, “we don’t dictate requirements. We listen to requirements.“ You know that nasal tone.
So I had to say I was sorry and “Please do go on. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
They had only a couple more details to add. Then, I said what I always said at the end of such a meeting. “Let me see if I’ve understood your requirements correctly.” I started to read the notes I had taken on my laptop.
“Katharine,” hissed my supervisor, “we never summarize requirements verbally. We write a requirements document and submit it to Nissan for approval. If it must be amended, there are procedures for that.”
So I had to say I was sorry and would submit a requirements document in the manner required.
When the meeting was over and my manager had slithered down the hall back to her office, my clients expressed outrage at the way I had been treated. “You tell me who that woman is,” demanded the admin who had formerly been in charge of her department’s website. “I’m going to report her to your manager. Nobody should treat you that way.”
I had to tell her that woman was my manager.
As the years went by, my job deteriorated into nothing other than make-work. Toward the end, I was putting in more than 60 hours a week to manage only one application, the one for service requests for computers, phones, access to systems, and so forth. Fourteen people were by that time doing the same amount of work I had been doing myself before “Industry’s Bulging Monolith” took over.
I would have been outraged, but I was too tired. I would have quit, but it was not a good time for a woman in her 60s to be out of work. And I did need the work: A divorce settlement had required me to give him the condo and almost all the money he hadn’t already stolen, and I was living on a friend’s couch trying to recoup. That was OK; by then I was working so much that I got to my friend’s home about bedtime and was up and gone before she was having her morning coffee.
Each year in annual downsizing, I was let go. I would be required to train replacements from another country where the pay was miniscule, and then I would be notified by email that my job had come to an end. I would say goodbye to my Nissan clients, who would raise a ruckus. That would get me reinstated, but usually only after I had worked several days to a week while officially off the payroll. The last year this happened, I was 68 years old, and I didn’t fight it. By then, I had recovered financially.
Oh, by the way, Nissan eventually cried “I’ve Been Misled” and fired that “Intergalactic Bottomline Mistake.”
As of this writing, in 2016, I’ve had retirement projects as an editor: various memoirs, a novel and a few books of poetry. I didn’t seek these out; they just happened to me because I was taking a memoir writing class and in a creative writing group. When it came time to critique, I kept saying stuff like, “Something can’t be very unique.” Or “I’m sure you don’t mean you ‘could literally have eaten a horse.’” So, word got around that I was a “grammar maven,” and now—as of this writing—I am the editor of nine of the world’s estimated 129,864,880 books. Wow!
* * *
So, what was I? I was a baby sitter sales clerk Rockette mail sorter maid waitress assistant trainer for the blind administrative assistant dancer editor technical writer IS specialist systems engineer memoir editor and various other that’s-not-me-either things. Not one of those things defines me, or ever did.
[Previously serialized and published by Work Literary Magazine in 2017-2018; last serialization, with links to the previous ones, at: http://www.workliterarymagazine.com/submission/katharine-valentino-12252017/ ]