We moved off the farm in October of 1987, a few days after my mother had to bury her mother. There was no time for mourning and there was a lifetime for it, but there was no lingering for me. After a weekend of emptying out a place I never considered leaving, I headed back to Boston to begin my first job as a Telecommunications Specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. My friend Lauren, intrepid Financial District veteran, took me to Frugal Frannie’s to try on suits. When I got stuck in one and had to be surgically removed from it by the store’s (not so customer-is-always-right-oriented) seamstress, I interpreted it as a sign: I had no business in the world of business. I didn’t even have any idea what a Telecommunications Specialist did.
But I showed up anyway. Seventh floor of the Saltonstall Building, Government Center, Boston.
A little known fact about Capricorns: a) we are innately aware of social hierarchies, and b) we don’t like to be anywhere but at or near the top of them. Okay, so it was an entry-level job, and my first career had been shovelling cow shit, but that didn’t mean my manager shouldn’t impress me with his status. “Steve”, I learned very quickly, was the kind of person who snorted at his own jokes. He had a thick, and not entirely clean, mustache, red-rimmed watery eyes, and bowl cut. Perhaps, when he made the rounds to introduce me to the other employees, the pity I sensed was only my imagination and not my Capricorn antennae. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just keep busy. When I asked him what I should do to get started, he handed me a thick binder full of information on telephone systems and said, “We’re renovating the office starting tomorrow, so you’ll be stuck in the conference room for a few days anyway. Might as well have something to read.” All day, as in plural days? As in, eight hours each day? Well, not if you count the coffee break where Steve and his office bff “Bob”, head of security, asked me to join them for the state employees’ mid morning coffee break. They treated me to a Warburton’s muffin and a cup of tea. In exchange, I listened to the intricacies of the birthday banners “Bob” made on his dot matrix printer. Oh God, I thought. These can’t be my friends here.
The office was, in fact, teeming with young people who marched off to lunch (and to the afternoon state employees break) in pairs and congregations, but no one asked the new girl. Especially after they saw her returning wedged between Steve’s polyester suit and Bob’s bulging sort-of-white shirt from an all-you-can-eat buffet at an empty Chinese place, a shred of scallion clinging to Steve’s mustache. During renovations, the employees sat in a small theater which was fitting. I sat with my binder and watched the show, the star of which was a highly disgruntled young woman named Jeanne Something Wicked Italian, in the kind of high heels that made it clear she did not grow up on a dairy farm. Although most of the managers disappeared to who-knows-where, Jeanne’s manager, a Puritanical rail of a girl, marched in quite frequently to give Jeanne an order. As soon as she did so and turned to leave, Jeanne rolled her eyes and pursed her mouth so that I thought (hoped!) she’d spit at her. If you were not Jeanne’s boss and you asked her a question (something I never attempted), she’d cock an eyebrow and say, “Whaddaya, stupid or something? I just said that for Chrissakes.” And then she’d strut off, incapable of imagining that, in those highrise heels, she might stumble. When she walked by my seat in one of the back rows and mumbled, “Asshole,” I concentrated as hard as I could on the bullshit in the binder and murmured a prayer to the gods of invisibility.
The renovation itself was organized by one of the project managers. The Department of Revenue spanned all the floors of the Saltonstall, and satellite offices all over the state. Our specific office was called OFM, the Office of Facilities Management. We designed and re-designed spaces, ordered supplies, maintained security (when Bob wasn’t making birthday cards) and, once in the nine months I worked there specifically for this purpose, sent out bids for new telephone systems. Robin dressed in the kind of suits I had been stuck in only weeks before. I had an idea she never got stuck in one, however. She oversaw cubicle assignments and carpet colors with a brisk, take-charge attitude that was an anomaly in a place where the managers spent a great deal of time in the computer lab alphabetizing their x-rated VHS tapes and re-designing the heading for department memos that mostly advised us on the new memo headings. But Robin also had a sense of humor. She rolled her eyes like Jeanne, but you weren’t so afraid she’d kick you in the groin with her pointy-toed shoes if you asked her a question she thought an idiot would know the answer to.
Luckily, I got a cubicle beside her. We hadn’t been there long enough to get a window seat like the other Jeanne, Jeanne Kelly, who smiled at we aisle girls but ignored us on her way out to Filene’s basement several times a day. Robin didn’t need a view since she kept herself busy with — miraculously — actual work, but I spent lots of time re-arranging the pushpins on all the squishy cubicle walls around me and wondering what I was supposed to be doing.
The answer was provided to me a few days later when yet another new girl, Melissa, received a tour of the office from Cathy “Cat” Lange, so-named, I thought, because of the cat-eyed glasses she wore beneath a startlingly orange crop of hair. As they passed my cubicle, I overheard Cathy say to Melissa, “That’s another new girl, Cawlah (Cathy was from New Jersey). She doesn’t have a real job, but no one’s told her that yet.”