Thursday, December 22, 2011

Middle-Aged Women Don't Bounce: Part 10

After another bad night's sleep, I headed back to work.  I was still very nervous, but at least now I knew where to park.    I discovered  a slightly shorter, less windy way to walk to work from the parking lot on the hill by taking a shortcut through an alley.  There was some sort of a garage and tire business that was on my new route.    Mixed in with exhaust fumes from the traffic a block away, the smell of rubber was overpowering, even on a cool morning.  I'll never forget that stench.

My second day wasn't as eventful as my first had been, thank goodness.  My supervisor, Martha, was satisfied I had the Soundex down and I was put to work filing folders on a huge circular file.  I was a little intimidated by Martha, but not really scared of her because she was so like Miss H. from high school--all business.  She seemed to be fair, though, and had no favorites. Her rule was an honest day's work for an honest day's wage, and that did not change according to her mood.   Even though she was tough, I appreciated the fact she was consistent.

The entire department was run very rigidly.  On my second day,  I saw two co-workers exchange a few pleasantries back and forth, and Martha, who was training me at the time, broke off from her instructions to glare at them.  The two offenders stopped talking, but then, a little while later one of them went over to whisper something to the other.  That's when Martha got up from the spare chair by my desk, marched up to them and said, "Is there a problem here?  Do you need more work to do?  I'm sure I can find you some."   The properly chastened ladies in question shook their heads and blushed. 

No talking beyond short pleasantries was ever allowed.  In an office with over 60 women, the only noise was a few typewriters in the back, the ringing telephones, and the teletype machine.  It was like working in a big library.

 I liked the working part of the day; the work was intense, but relatively easy and simply required speed and accuracy.  It was hard being the new kid on the block though; so many of the other 'girls' my age had been working there for some time already and had made friends.  There wasn't any room for an outsider.  Sometimes they would smile back at me as they went about their work, but I was simply part of the scenery.  It's hard being a new employee in a big company.  I'm sure it's much the same in smaller companies, though, too.   Until people get to know you, they tend to be a bit standoffish.  Apart from a curt 'Good Morning' from Martha every day which I returned in kind, I had no call to strain my voice box, which was ok, because we weren't there to chat anyway.  We were supposed to be working.

The worst part of the rest of the first week was the lunch break. That impossibly long fifty minute lunch hour was so lonely.  I'd gaze longingly as my co-workers would gather up their purses and head out to eat together, giggling as they went.  I missed my old friends from school all the more then.   I steered completely clear of Judith.  We weren't seated near each other when we were assigned desks, either, and that was fine by me. She could keep her own uppity company for all I cared. 

I couldn't face the thought of sitting in the cafeteria alone day in and day out, so I brought a sandwich from home and ate it in solitude at my desk.  Since the office was located in the heart of the downtown area, there were all sorts of large department stores and small shops just a few steps away, so I spent a lot of my time window shopping.    When I grew tired of looking at things I didn't want and couldn't afford, I'd walk all the way back to my car and sit and listen to the radio until it was time to head back.  I realized I wouldn't make any friends this way, but since my first day of work was still fresh in my memory I thought I'd lay low until the public humiliation died down.

As my first work week finally came to end, I was extremely grateful.  I don't think I ever looked forward to a weekend so desperately.  Two whole days to spend away from it all, what a relief.  But those two days sped by much too quickly.  By Sunday afternoon my stomach was back in knots again, I could think of little else, I'd have to go back on Monday.  I was really down in the dumps.  

Monday again, same routine; drive in, park the car, walk up the alley, go to my desk.  Go to work.  But something wonderful happened that day.  The insurance company hired more new employees for our department.  And one of them was Sharon.  (I told you at the beginning of this saga I'd get around to the point eventually, and here it is.  Better late than never, right?)

 When Martha brought Sharon around to introduce her to all the employees I smiled at her.  And wonders never cease, she actually, genuinely smiled back.  When Martha suggested we go to lunch together and Sharon seemed happy about it, I was ecstatic.  She was the most easy-going person I'd ever met, the same age as I was and from a farming background.  We hit it off right away. Suddenly I had someone who didn't look down their nose at me.  We could talk about work as well as our private lives and it just felt right, like we had been old friends for years.  Sharon has a wonderful sense of humor and is one of the kindest people I've ever met.                  

 From that point on, my attitude toward going to work every day changed exponentially.  I didn't dread it as much anymore now that there was someone there to share the ups and downs with.  It is amazing how lonely a person can be in a crowd; even though it had only been a week, I don't think I realized how lonesome I'd been until Sharon came along.  The difference was day and night.

I don't know if she ever knew what her friendship truly meant to me; but it was an incredible gift.  The first year of work went by so fast.  Over time, we both made friends with most of the other 'girls', too, and had fun sneaking in snippets of conversation when Martha wasn't looking.  Just like it had been in the Office Practice Room in high school, we all learned how to have just a teensy bit of fun without getting caught.

I'll never forget the day one of the older clerks decided to share a joke her son had told her with one of her closest desk-neighbors; it was so reminiscent of Miss H. and the centerfold/ poster incident.  The joke itself really wouldn't have been all that funny under different circumstances, I suppose, but in light of the strictly enforced No Talking/ No Joy Allowed Rules we all worked under, just the memory of this day still makes me laugh out loud:

I was working at my desk when one of the Senior Clerks made a pretense of searching for a folder on my rotary file and then quickly bent over and whispered in my ear, "What stretches further, skin or rubber?"

I blinked in surprise, and looked up at her quickly.  That's when I saw the twinkle in her eyes.

I shrugged slightly and whispered back, "I don't know, which one?"

"Skin," she hissed.    "It's a proven fact.  Moses tied his ass to a tree and walked for forty miles in the desert."

And with that, she walked away quickly.   I tried so hard not to snort out loud and managed to keep it in by heading straight to the stacks of files with another pile of folders to file, doing my best to keep a solemn look on my face.  Once safely in the stacks and out of sight of Martha, I was free to bust out laughing.  (Quietly, of course.)

I could tell the joke was surreptitiously  making the rounds from one clerk to the next; from the files I could hear sudden guffaws quickly stifled and saw many of the women laughing silently at their desks as they tried to look busy.  Some of them were even wiping their eyes with the strain of not being able to laugh out loud which made it all the more funny.

Martha picked up on the gaiety right away and started patrolling around the department, peering intently into the faces of any of the would-be gigglers.  All of them could pull it together until Martha walked away and then fell hopelessly apart after her back was turned.

It's a pity no one told her the joke.

Just once I would have loved to see her smile.



Jennifer@threedogsinagarden said...

Hi Karen, I enjoyed reading your memoir of this first work experience. I think we have all had a joyless boss at one time of another. My last boss was like that. I could never understand his desire to make the workplace one of miserable drudgery. He was the most ungenerous person I have ever met.
I've had a great boss too. She inspired loyalty. You'd work even when her back was turned because you admired and respected her. It makes all the difference in the world.
I can also identify with struggling to fit in. I am shy by nature and making new friends has always been hard.
Have a wonderful Christmas Karen! All the best to you and the family for the holidays and the new year!

El Gaucho said...

This story is so much fun to read that it's a Christmas gift all by itself. Thanks for passing along this very entertaining tale of your life, and Merry Christmas!!!

Anonymous said...

I agree with El Gaucho. Your story is like a Christmas gift. It keeps on going and giving. So many of us can relate to some of your story and I thank you for sharing so much about yourself and experiences, both good and not so good. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas.

HolleyGarden said...

Oh, poor Martha. She may have thought the joke was on her. She must have really been a sweet person underneath, as she put you and Sharon together. She must have realized you needed a friend. I'm glad you did finally make a friend there - many, in fact - and that your work was not the prison I thought it would become when you first started writing. Have a very Merry Christmas!

Alison said...

I'm so glad you found your friend Sharon so soon after you started work! It sounds like it was a very miserable first week, but reading that she smiled back made me so happy for you. Thank you for this great story. You have a gift that you can then pass on to others, much like that joke.

Randy Emmitt said...


I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and fun New Year in 2012! You guessed right the photo was of a tractor covered in lights.