I would not be blogging about the various and amusing differences between dudes and chicks for fun and profit if it were not for a boss who dressed like she was ready to hit a late-’90s girl power soft rock music festival at a moment’s notice.
When I moved to New York 15 years ago, I was lucky to find any work. I had no connections, no money, and no marketable skills. I had a degree in playwriting which qualified me to brood. I was too sweaty to wait tables, too goofy to work in sales, and when the temp agency put me in front of a computer, I looked like a monkey with a Rubik’s cube. I tied my only tie with all of the grace of a hangman. That tie was baboon ass red.
Those are what I call my “Dickensian” years. My daily budget was a series of stacked quarters on the desk of the room I was renting in a hotel where I shared a bathroom with an entire floor of junkies, shut-ins, and frail old women who managed to cram their lives into one small room. Cell phones were extravagances in 1996, and I would spend half my quarters cold calling temp agencies and setting up appointments that felt like tribunals where my value as a human being was accessed. My other quarters went to hot dogs. After weeks of fruitless hustling, my funds were fumes. I was forced to consider the inconsiderable, a fate worse than failure. A move back to Texas.
The temp jobs I went to were thoroughly unimpressed with me. The fashion designer showroom didn’t like my clothes folding skills. I operated a freight elevator clumsily. I was a terrible telemarketer. First of all, the scripts they provided when I would cold call people I picked from a random page ripped from the phone book lacked a little pizazz. Pizazz is not an asset in telemarketing. Also: when the annoyed person whose dinner I was interrupting would say “No thank you,” I was too quick to apologize over and over again.
Money, connections, and skills are valuable. But it’s not like I didn’t have any talents. Other 23-year-olds I would meet in those years had trust funds, or Ivy League pedigree, or degrees in finance or marketing. I had faith. The kind of faith reserved for drunks and children and sailors in tiny boats lost in violent seas. I meet kids who’ve just moved to this ridiculous concrete carousel all the time. Many of them are smarter than I ever was, and they are so tightly wound that their inevitable unspooling will be some therapist’s profit. Some people get all the breaks, and the rest just get broke. I also meet plenty of men and women 10 or more years my junior who are all fear and hunger and faith. A few will bail after toiling for months or years. But then there are the sweet and savage knuckleheads who head-butt doors until they crash open. I root for you.
I root for you because I know, from years of playing video games, all you really have to do is keep pressing buttons, keep shooting laser bursts and punching stuff, until the tips of your fingers hurt, and eventually you’ll unlock a hidden door or discover a bag of magic. You’ll get lucky. If I can get lucky, you can get lucky. Slog forth, brothers and sisters.
I caught a break first because a very nice woman at a temp agency briefly treated me like a human being and suggested that I might make an excellent receptionist. She made this suggestion because a recent employer had complained to her that I was “talkative.” Being a receptionist fit my skillsets: I could answer phones. I could smile. I could answer phones. She tried me out as a receptionist at a couple of companies. Granted, those employers were a little shocked to see Oliver Twist answering phone calls, but eventually, my mix of desperate-to-please charm and ability to arrive at work on time won over. She sent me to work at a small publishing company that produced magazines about the brave new world of laptop computing and “networks.”
Seeing as I wanted to be a writer, I figured that being close to writing, any writing, was a pretty good gig. I hate to brag, but I was an amazing receptionist. My fingers were fast. I was a Southerner born and bred, so I had manners beaten into me. I was friendly, and since I was making hundreds of dollars a week, my stomach wasn’t constantly trying to eat itself. I had one tie, sure. My two dress shirts were always wrinkled, I admit this. I was a reception prodigy, but I still looked like a corporate hobo.
Karen was just a few years older than me. She was the office manager. Her hair was short, she wore flowery hippie dresses, and her breasts were perfect. I was terrified to even glance at them, though. It would have been inappropriate. She was my superior. My first boss in the big city. A real live making it in New York person who offered me, free of charge, her respect and I returned it as often as I could.
Karen was bright and chirpy. She joked with me, taught me some computer programs, and had the nicest way of telling me I was screwing up. Her training mantra was “this isn’t really hard.” After a while, I believed her. Her easy confidence and mellow demeanor was a revelation. Everything had been hard since I had arrived in New York on a fall day when 1,000 other ne’er-do-wells probably showed up with post-college delusions of grandeur. Karen talked to me like a peer, while at the same time, wearing her authority the way she wore her assortment of skirts with little bells on them.
I have no idea whether or not she was a feminist. I can only guess what her politics were or are. I mean, she looked like she’d toured with the Indigo Girls. I have no idea. But when our CEO, a bull who wore expensive Italian suits and worked out in China shops, a gruff macho hunk of cheese who sounded the way I imagine Batman would sound if he wore a moustache, complained to Karen that I wasn’t … attractive … enough to be the receptionist, she flipped out. At one point, he even asked me if I really wanted to be a receptionist. “YES!” I shouted.
He wanted a woman at the front desk. When Karen hired me fulltime, she explained to me that she was hiring me because I was good at my job, and that she could see me progress at that company. Maybe I could even become an editorial assistant one day. In the distant future. She coolly told me that not hiring me because I wasn’t a woman was sexist.
A year and a half later, I became an editorial assistant. A job I was woefully under-qualified for.