Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Breeder and the Queen: Adventures in Word Processing

When I die — and the actuarial tables tell me the wait isn’t likely to be that long — one of two things will happen. The world will realise what a frightful mistake it made in ignoring me between the publication of my disapproving review of Led Zeppelin's debut album and my death, and a mob of biographers will pore over everything I’ve ever written here. Or no one will take the slightest notice. I suspect the latter is the more likely, by a factor of several million, but will nonetheless tell you in more detail than ever before about my dark, dark days as a word processor jockey, hereinafter WPJ, at a big fascist law firm in San Francisco.

The firm I worked for was huge, with offices on around eight floors of three different buildings in San Francisco’s charmless Financial District. There must have been 75 of us WPJs. The vast majority were overweight middleaged women who almost invariably washed down fistfuls of chocolates with big sips of Diet Coke as they worked. I was one of three heterosexual male WPJs. One of my fellow straights became enflamed by jealousy and resentment when I brought a photo of First Wife to place upon my IBM Stylewriter. (For several months, just to be funny, I’d displayed a photo that had come in the frame. I enjoyed, when people said, “Oh, she’s so pretty! Who is she,” being able to answer, “No idea. She came with the frame.”) Not a few of the gay ones treated me as though I’d invented AIDS; I overheard myself referred to on several occasions, not adoringly, as "the breeder".

Those whose words we luckless 75 processed were, by and large, a dreadful bunch — either terribly full-of-themselves new associates who’d only recently passed the bar — or their oppressors, arrogant old fuckhead partners in suspenders. One of the most insufferable was the pompous, supercilious Vaughn R. Walker, whom Ronald Reagan was soon to appoint a District Court Judge, presumably in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Republican party. Democrats undelighted about his having helped the United States Olympic Committee forbid use of the title "Gay Olympics" opposed him. He went on, to my great personal horror, to preside over several momentous trials. 

We got 15-minute breaks, we WPJs, in both the morning and afternoon. If mine lasted, 20 minutes, I’d receive a stern talking-to. If one of my black women colleagues’ lasted for 45, no one would dare say a word. One such woman with whom I worked briefly, Ms. Jan Broadnax, spent around 80 percent of the time she wasn’t down on Geary Street enjoying a multi-cigarette break filing or repainting her fingernails, which were too long for word processing. I got tired of the associate attorneys whining about how long it was taking for their dictations to be transcribed, and advised our mutual supervisor that I was happy to do 50 percent of my share of the work, but not half of Ms. Broadnax's as well. I was quickly banished to another group.

I was heartened at one point to be transferred into what was called the environmental group, which turned out to have been named in the same spirit the Department of Defense had been named. It was actually the anti-environmentalist group, in the business of defending Chevron Oil against lawsuits filed by groups like the Sierra Club.

I worked some overtime for extra scratch, and met two women who, because they regularly worked 100-hour weeks, were earning as much as some of the partners, and dressed very expensively. To sit in airless cubicles and process the words of nincompoops and flatulent assholes for 16 hours at a stretch. The place bred madness. I fell in love unseen with the telephone operator whose voice was commonly heard over the firm's public address system. Kathleen Turner, as Jessica Rabbit, sounded like Minnie Mouse in comparison. I got myself invited to her home. It reeked so awfully of cigarettes and her million cats that I had to flee without even kissing her. 

I got into a psychotherapy group at which I admitted that working at Pillsbury Madison & Sutro was jeopardising my mental health, to whatever small extent I could have been said to have any. My fellow neurotics asked why I didn’t quit. Because I had a resentment-inspiringly pretty wife and baby daughter to support, I said, though I didn’t say resentment-inspiringly. Then said spouse, who'd found herself a Swiss electronics mogul with lots and lots of money, decided we shouldn’t remain married, and I had no reason to continue being miserable, at least in the way that working for PMS made me.

It occurred to me that, with a little ingenuity, I might be able to get myself fired, and to collect unemployment benefits. These were the days when heterosexual men were beginning to wear studs in their earlobes. I wore the most outrageous drop earrings I could get my hands on, and my most garish clothing, and even, on a few occasions, makeup. I wore only bolo ties, and had my hair dyed a lurid dark orange. I allowed an associate attorney who had decided that I was a rock star in disguise to seduce me. Nothing worked. 

I was called so often on the carpet that I nearly wore it out. I was regularly read the riot act. Who did I imagine I was, correcting the associate attorneys' often horrendous grammar unbidden? "Someone who loves the language," I said at the last of my many dressings-down, "and can't bear it see it mistreated. And I quit." Aside from "I love you," which I've been privileged to say to some wonderful people in my time, I've never enjoyed saying three words more than those last three.

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