“My Path of Fire” by Mary-Minn Sirag, KindTree archives (2013)
I got my first job in April 1970, two months before my 16th birthday and a month or so after my family had moved from Lebanon to Burkittsville, Maryland. My early work history was an escape from the endless chores at home, for which, despite all my efforts, I almost invariably got punished for lack of thoroughness. I had never been shown–or figured out on my own–what “done” looked like.
Burkittsville had a population of 180 people. There were four churches and two general stores. One unnamed store was adjoined to the post office. Gordon’s General Store, where I worked, was situated on the one street corner, kitty-cornered from our house, which had bullet holes from the Civil War, a ubiquitous historical presence in western Maryland.
There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment in Burkittsville. On summer nights, the village idiots (or so my two younger brothers and I called them) stood on the street corner and cheered on passing vehicles, “Get it on!” in sexually charged grunts.
Both stores had a gas pump, so I pumped gas and wiped windshields. In the summer, the store was kept comfortably cool by a swinging screen door and a large ceiling fan suspended from a high ceiling. The proprietors, Mildred and Hubert Gordon, were a church-going elderly couple. They lived in back of the store with Hubert’s energetic mother, Mrs. Young, who cooked us up a delicious and filling lunch.
The store had a clean and friendly smell of old wood and penny candy. It carried candy, cigarettes, 8 oz. bottles of Coca Cola and 7-Up, cigarettes, bulk cheese, milk, nails, sewing notions, rope and string, stationery, cheap perfume, and other basics to tide you over until your next trip into town, which happened to be Frederick. She ran tabs, even for the deadbeats.
The cash register was a giant brass machine with large round typewriter keys that didn’t have weighted action so you had to push them down forcefully. You added numbers by pulling a lever, like returning the carriage on a manual typewriter. You multiplied by adding however many times you wanted to multiply by. Receipts were written out by hand, including a carbon copy. I had to write slowly as to be legible and remember not to cross my 7’s.
I was hired to replace Brenda Murphy, who was going off to college. Brenda had grown up in Burkittsville and knew everybody. I, on the other hand, though hungry for any gossip at all, had no point of conversational reference. I couldn’t recognize the people coming through the door, let alone remember who their daughter was, whether they suffered from bursitis or a bum hip, or put a face to the person who had been seen at the game with a colored man.
Mrs. Gordon was disappointed that I had to be told what needed to be done during the down times, unlike Brenda, who instinctively picked up on useful tasks such as inventorying the canned goods or cleaning the dairy refrigerator. So, during the year I worked there, my wage was frozen at fifty cents an hour.
The summer after my junior year, my brother John and I got a part-time job cleaning offices for a friend’s mother’s janitorial service. I enjoyed the mindless physical work and obvious procedures, joking with my co-workers, and being treated to a McDonald’s milkshake on payday.
The summer before I went off to college, my friend Jean and I got a job cleaning rooms at the Holiday Inn in Frederick. Jean lasted through the summer, but I was fired after a week. The manager had pushed the quota from 25 minutes a room to 20 minutes, and I couldn’t get past 22 minutes. On my last day, I was “training” a new girl, who had been cleaning rooms for a while and knew all the short cuts. The manager caught the two of us dancing to Soul Train on TV and fired us both on the spot.
Though I had a learner’s permit, my parents would not let me use their car so I had to be driven places. John had gotten his license, so we both got jobs at the Horn and Horn Family Restaurant in a strip mall in Frederick—he as a short-order cook and I as a waitress. The waitresses’ job included preparing salads and cold sandwiches, bussing tables and cashiering.
Unlike me, John was a quick study. He’d rub it in how pleased the manager was with his work and, in contrast, the toll my poor performance was taking on the poor man’s health. (He had a heart attack the following winter.)
I would not have made it through the summer without the interventions of the head waitress, Ursula. A tall and buxom Fraulein newly emigrated from northern Germany, she barked orders in a stentorian Prussian accent. For some reason, though, she found me, with my pretentiously large vocabulary, amusing. Whenever I had a meltdown out on the floor because my brain was spinning too fast, Ursula would drag me off into the kitchen and put me to work making crab cakes until I calmed down. Though nobody knew from autism back then, she and the other girls intuitively understood how hard I was trying and cut me a lot of slack. My high-school friend Diane and her boyfriend Dan would sometimes pick me up after work and calm me down with sassafras tea.
During college, I knew enough to cherish the ivory-tower luxury of the academic year. School came more easily to me than anything else useful. Campus life in the sleepy college town of Mt. Vernon, Iowa, was simple and pleasurable. My board job, working circulation and shelving books in the college library, was scheduled around classes.
On the other hand, summer was an odious thing—with the humid heat, having to make money to pay for the following year’s expenses, and, worst of all, moving back to Maryland to live with my parents.
During my sophomore year, my brother and I got jobs at the I-70 Truck Stop outside of Frederick–he as a short-order cook on evening shift and I as waitress on graveyard shift. I slept during the day, thereby managing to escape the tumultuous horror of our home life. Business was slow enough for me on graveyard to keep up with the orders, and the truckers were a sociable and good-humored lot. The waitresses on graveyard shift were all older women, who were maternal toward me. The cooks were cantankerous, especially Johnny, who, nonetheless, snuck me steak and eggs when the snitch from day shift wasn’t looking.
The following summer, my parents and I bid each other good-riddance. My mother’s recently widowed best friend, Sally, who lived in Washington, D.C., invited me to move in with her and her two daughters. Though this family was less chaotic and not verbally violent like my parents, the older daughter, who was my age, took a vocal and spiteful dislike toward me. When I moved in, I asked Sally about house rules and expectations but these turned out to have many nonverbal footnotes that were beyond my intuitive grasp, so I would find myself tiptoeing around mine fields of misunderstandings and gaffes.
I escaped into my work, as a cocktail waitress working from 8 pm to 4 am at a bikers’ bar on Wisconsin Avenue that boasted the most tiltable pinball machines in that fair city. The bar served no snacks, not even pickled eggs or Vienna sausage.
The bartender was a short-statured Irishman who bragged constantly about his latest sexploits. I ridiculed him to his face though I didn’t dislike him. It never occurred to me that such “teasing” could actually be hurtful, not just witty repartee. Looking back, I am amazed that he didn’t fire me for being rude and disrespectful. The clientele were a congenial bunch of guys. After work sometimes, we’d go out for a massive breakfast and I’d return home a little after dawn, a truly decadent bedtime. Though I had been told that I could come and go as I pleased, Sally would be up waiting for me.
On days off, I’d escape to the Mall and take in a museum or gallery. When it was simply too hot, I’d rock myself into a blissful oblivion in the basement rec room, listening to Les Menestriers, a group that played medieval dance music on period instruments, and different instrumental variations of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suites, which were my addictions that summer.
I graduated in 1976, in the depths of the second big recession that decade, which added to my diffidence about my employability and competence. I lived in Cedar Rapids with my college roommate, whose father had just died of cancer and whose mother had died years before. After a couple of weeks, I nabbed a waitressing job at the Dragon, a Chinese-American restaurant which aspired to some elegance, with mysterious lighting, piped-in muzak, glass-covered tables with Chinese astrology paper mats, candles in red globes with plastic netting, and a nice selection of potent umbrella drinks. They assigned me to the smallest station of 2’s and 4’s. Again, my job was saved from extinction by the head waitress, who liked me because I gave her my Christmas off. She had young kids; I had no family in Cedar Rapids and my roommate was too depressed to celebrate Christmas.
The following summer, I fled to New York City to study art at the Art Students’ League. 1977 was a grim time in New York City. The city was bankrupt. The streets reeked of piled-up garbage from a long garbage strike, and it was a hot summer. I was living without air conditioning on the 11th floor of NYU student housing at the time of the big blackout during a record-breaking heat spell; fortunately, I was not on the elevator when the lights went out. There was looting but not in the Village, where I was living that summer. The Son of Sam, a famous serial killer, was at large and I was his “type”.
In spite of all this, I loved New York. It was vibrant, extroverted, cosmopolitan, and tolerant of eccentricity. People would start up a conversation in the elevator or in line at the Strand on a rainy afternoon.
I was physically invincible and fearless about everything besides my bleak financial prospects. As dismal as I was at waiting tables, I had no other marketable skill. I didn’t know how to type yet and had no office experience.
It was easy to find work, at least of the low-level sort that I had experience doing. I was eager, enthusiastic and energetic. I’d walk down 3rd Avenue and duck into every establishment, inquiring if they needed help. By the first day or so, I’d have landed another job, which would last for a while. Then, jobless yet again, I’d despair for a day and go at it again.
During the next 18 months, I worked for an afternoon at a Greek diner on Times Square (too slow, didn’t even know what an egg cream was), for a weekend at a sports bar in the Village (fired by the boss who hadn’t hired me), for a week at an export company across from the World Trade Center (I hadn’t learned to type accurately and the typewriter had a sticky key); and for about 5 weeks each at a Japanese restaurant (was blamed for something I hadn’t done) and a Mexican restaurant (refused to clean the restroom when my newly hired friend didn’t have to), a Baskin Robbins (took too literally their invitation to eat as much ice cream as I wanted), a “chocolatier” on Canal Street that, in actuality, imported cheap chocolate from Brooklyn and returned it to the display case after it had fallen on the floor (the only job I actually quit).
At the time my sleazy boyfriend and I got evicted from my apartment in December of 1978, I was working at a fish market on the Upper East Side and delivering bag lunches to office workers at publishing houses for a start-up catering company. These last jobs were my two favorites. I enjoyed advising people–and learning–how to prepare the fish myself, by listening to the instructions my flamboyant Italian boss gave to the customers. I prided myself in my ability to weigh the fish exactly to the ounce. Delivering bag lunches was my very favorite, though. I was out and about in all kinds of weird weather, burning excess energy dashing across 57th Street and up high-rise elevators, and, in the process, earning decent tips for my lightning speed.
In 1979, in a futile attempt to escape my parasitic boyfriend, I ran away to the Bay Area, where the economy was booming. After two weeks, I landed a secretarial job at the San Francisco office of Mitsui, a gigantic Japanese trading conglomerate. The corporate world presented a whole new phase of my career—more lucrative but socially treacherous.
When I arrived in San Francisco, on January 14th, 1979, I decreed to myself that my waitressing days were over. I had evolved from a conceited college student, who made decent grades fairly effortlessly, to a barely competent waitress, who knocked herself out trying to please, barely making ends meet. Having graduated during the second recession of the ‘70s, I knew no other economic climate than the ruthlessly competitive recession.
Desperately as I wanted to slip back into the relatively cushy academic world for another 2 years, I hadn’t managed to navigate applying for graduate school. At this point, I had serious doubts I could do much of anything.
My sleazy boyfriend Gene (who had caught up with me in Iowa after 2 years of futile attempts to escape him) and I arrived in Oakland with $600. I was carrying a small flight bag containing 5 pairs of underwear and socks, jeans and a blouse, a heavy wool sweater, winter parka, volume two of “War and Peace”, and a Delft trivet and a rolling pin, both Christmas presents. The rest I was wearing. All our other possessions had been sealed in our apartment by the city marshal, property of the city of New York. We had been evicted.
I spent the first night in Oakland with my sister and her boyfriend. Taking one look at Gene, she dropped him off at a fleabag hotel in downtown Oakland. The second day, we lucked into two weeks of free rent in the studio apartment of her friend, who was moving into a one-bedroom at the end of the month. That very day, there had been a death in his family and he had flown back east for 2 weeks. The rent on his old apartment was paid until the end of January, so we got to live there for free until February.
My sister, who was selling cosmetics at the Emporium in San Francisco, found me a professional looking outfit at a thrift store and showed me how to put on makeup. A college friend of mine had recommended that I hit the employment agencies rather than chasing want ads. The economy in California, unlike New York, was booming.
The job placement people, working on commission, let me use an electric typewriter to bone up on my dismal typing skills. They gave me lots of excellent advice and detailed feedback from people interviewing me.
I was advised to emulate the interviewer’s word choice and manner, a dramatic feat for someone who had been typecast as the crazy old lady throughout her entire acting career from elementary school to college.
I was instructed to make eye contact, but having never observed another human’s eyes during conversation, I didn’t know what that looked like. My unblinking stare was off-putting and the efforts it took to keep my eyes focused on the other person distracted me from following much of what they were saying. After a few minutes, my eyes started darting around the outer contour of their head. I carefully avoided their chin, for fear of appearing fixated on their cleavage.
I was told that I was too intense and animated, that I went on too much. To keep still, I positioned my hands in my lap but my face would start twitching, to compensate for the bound limbs. When I tamped down my intensity, I came off indifferent and cold. When I curbed my tendency to go on and on, revealing too much about myself, I came off as hesitant and vague, even evasive.
I fibbed on my applications about jobs I’d been fired from, counting on my prospective employer not to check references.
On January 29th, after 2 weeks of playing the professional part, I landed a secretarial job in the chemical and general merchandise department of the San Francisco office of a huge multi-national Japanese trading company called Mitsui. This came just in time to pay February rent and buy some food. We had been living on Wonder bread for 4 days.
The woman interviewing me gave me an easy test in math, spelling, punctuation and grammar. She handed me a handwritten letter to edit and type. She told me to type as slowly as I needed to be accurate, not to worry about format. (Later on, she was fired for drinking on the job.)
Mitsui was hiring American liberal arts graduates like me–young women with a “well-rounded” education, good grammar and diction. During the recession in the early ‘80s, they started hiring less uppity Asian business graduates.
I was slow to master import-export documentation and the interoffice ledger forms that the keypunch operator used to input data into the mainframe computer. My boss didn’t know now to fill out these forms, so I assumed he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the hardware store either.
The other secretary, a straight-laced woman called Nancy, quickly became impatient with my endless questions about procedure. Terrified of getting into trouble for making a mistake, I wanted to make good and sure that everything I handed in was accurate. After all, I had been assured early on that there is no such thing as a stupid question, a well-meaning statement I have learned to ignore. Decades later, I gradually figured out that after the fourth or so time of asking the same question, it usually works better to fill things out to the best of my ability and learn from my mistakes rather than pestering co-workers with endless questions. In an office environment, calm and unobtrusive deportment is more important than output or accuracy.
When Nancy came down with salmonella and her mother called the office, I told her what Nancy had. Nancy later scolded me for being indiscreet. It hadn’t occurred to me that a simple sickness could be so taboo. Similarly, I learned the hard way to tell callers only that the person they’re wanting to talk to is “away from the desk”.
Having finally doped out the procedures, I xeroxed the forms, numbering and annotating each item. My ad-hoc manual saved Nancy’s successor months of humiliating questions and trial and error. It took her 3 months to learn what it had taken me almost a year to figure out. Instead of thanking me profusely for my training manual, the bosses were blown away by what a quick study she was.
Mitsui made IBM look like the Rainbow Gathering. The Japanese corporate hierarchy favored men even more than American corporations. Japanese culture is subtle for the socially astute, never my strong suit. Layers of politeness and inscrutability are built into the fabric of their very language.
On the plus side, the Japanese had low expectations for crass Americans, so my primitive social skills weren’t as striking as they would have been in an American company. Japanese companies were paternalistic. People were fired for criminal behavior and that was about it. Management froze out the undesirables rather than firing them, as I was to learn later. I think this was because the Japanese have a horror losing face, which includes admitting to a hiring mistake.
Sexism was blatant. We were expected to serve coffee, which some women in the steel department refused to do. Later on, these women reported Mitsui to the Justice Department for anti-trust violations, which contributed to the demise of the US steel industry. Mitsui was fined $13 million, a slap in the wrist.
I joined the women’s liberation front later, when I caught wind that the steel department was hiring a Caucasian man with less education and experience than the rest of us 15 or so secretaries and offering him more. I had nothing to gain personally from getting even for this injustice but it rankled my sense of justice and I took the lead. During lunch, I swiped the interview notes from the steel manager’s desk during lunch and smuggled them to my Japanese American colleague to translate.
Having ascertained that this man was being offered more, I confronted my department’s seemingly genial and sympathetic vice president/general manager about the job offer and exact starting salary. I gravely informed him that sexual discrimination is illegal. That afternoon, we got a mysterious mid-year raise and I glowed self-righteously for my heroism. Only later did I learn the consequences of confronting a Japanese male superior over a matter outside my department, an obvious faux pas.
When my friend in the steel department was promoted and given a large raise, she started taking lengthy inebriated lunches and overall set a bad example. Upper management tightened the screws on all of us. I chewed her out for betraying us.
Things then started to get weird for me. Hewlett Packard, my favorite account, was handed over to a junior secretary. Mitsui had a Christmas party at the Mark Hopkins Hotel for their customers and, though I had been with the company for 6 years, I was left to hold down the fort, along with some of the older and “less attractive” Japanese women. It turned out that the secretaries were expected to look cute and help serve appetizers rather than party on with their customers. Still I felt slighted.
I found another job as a research associate and fact checker for Consumer Reports Travel Letter, a brain-sucking job with gender equality and better salary and benefits. That introduced a whole new set of challenges I had never realized existed.
to be continued . . .