Girl Coming of Age in the 1960s



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Landing a temporary secretarial job in the computer department of J.C. Penney was one of the luckiest events of my life. After talking with a young programmer there who'd been a math major in college, I was convinced that I'd like programming—though she seemed dubious that I, a secretary and music major, would be much good at it. It was such a new field then that many companies needed programmers and would train them in-house, if you passed an aptitude test.


Letters from New York City - May 1967

5-22-1967
Mon. morn.

Phoenix of London - ick!

This is another of those IBM carbon-ribbon typewriters I love. The print is so clear.

Today I am at another new place, the J.C. Penney Co., Sixth Ave. at 52nd St., 37th floor, data processing department. And nothing much to do so far.

But last week—ugh, didn't like it at all. I was at Phoenix of London Guarantee & Accident, Ltd. An insurance company. It was just like something out of "How to Succeed." First office I've been in that is a huge room filled with row upon row of desks. It was just like school. Everything very regimented. Coffee break time, everyone took off and talked for ten minutes, morning and afternoon. 11:45 all the girls rose en masse and scrambled out the door for lunch (45 minutes). Quitting time was the most fantastic. By 4:20 all the girls all across this acre of desks are putting covers over their typewriters and adding machines. By 4:25 everyone has their hair combed and purses in hand, and sit around strumming fingers on the desktops. About 4:28, these two old biddies who sit in the very back of the room get up. It's a signal! Everyone in that whole room gets up at once and pushes toward the doors. No one ever stays one second later to finish up anything they may happen to be in the middle of. Whoosh, the place is deserted.

The hours at this place were 8:30 to 4:30, which I liked (getting out so early). But the thing is, it's the first place I've been where everyone is actually at their desks at starting time. 8:30, you start. Never saw such a place. And yet, before I came to New York, that was my vague idea of what an office was like. But most of them aren't, thank heavens. (I just fixed up the word "heavens" with KO-REC-TYPE, which I remember telling you about, and I think you hadn't tried it. Will enclose a sheet of it with this letter.)

Really, the regimentedness of this place wasn't what I really had against it, but that my bosses were right on top of me. I was working for two young lawyers, both kind of repulsive, and one's desk was pushed right up against mine sideways, so that I faced him two feet away while typing, and the other's desk was right in front of me two feet away so I faced him while sitting straight ahead at my desk. It's not that I resent supervision so much, but privacy and a little elbow room are important. It is terrible being right on top of your boss.

However, the work was very interesting and there was plenty of it. This was real legal stuff in the credit insurance dept., unlike the not-very-legal work I did in the ABC legal department. At Phoenix, I typed summonses, motions for summary judgment (whatever they are), and signed my name to things as witness, it was very different-type work.

Isn't this box cute? I made lots of these at the top of long legal papers:

BERMAN BROS., INC.,
:
Plaintiff,     
:
-against-
:
BENLEN MENS SHOP, INC.,
:
Defendant    

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff requests that the Court award him relief in the amount of $4,563.97 with interest from the 2nd day of January, 1967.   (etc.)

Generally, it seems the bigger the company, the less work you do. Phoenix was an exception, but Penney's is back in the groove. I'm sitting here at this lovely desk with this perfect typewriter and nothing to do.

I'm glad you like the perfume, Mother. I read in a description of scents one time that Quadrille is a citrus, and since I like Jean Naté and Wrisley's Lemon Twist, thought it might be nice.

Sounds like Pine Hill will be a fruit and flower paradise by the time you get through. Just reading over the names of what you are planting is delicious. I will be home Friday night June 9 to see everything. I have no particular plans for Memorial Day, but hope I can work Monday, the day before. I also want to go to Doloff's while I'm home, please make me an appointment for Sat., June 10, or something, so I can pick up new glasses, which I think I need, before I come back. An examination and new glasses should run $15-20, right?

Saturday night I went out to dinner with Billie Jeffries (from Dallas) (female) and Diane Ford. We went to Coq au Vin, a nice little French restaurant, and Billie and I had the specialty, coq au vin. Chicken in wine with mushrooms, etc. It was very good. And we had rosé wine, and mousse au chocolat for dessert. It's such a heavenly change from the Y! Afterward we went to see a revival of the musical "Wonderful Town" at City Center. It's a musical version of "My Sister Eileen", about two sisters from Ohio who come to live in Greenwich Village in the thirties. Elaine Stritch played the lead and was perfect. She reminds me so much of Janie, my college roommate.

Billie works for Good Housekeeping magazine, is an English major from Texas University for Women (or something like that). She wants to be a writer, and she is one of those people who wants to be a writer who actually does write. She wants to live in the Village, and she is getting me swung that way again. Funny how relationships with people keep shifting. Now I feel more rapport with her than with anyone else at the Y.

My appointment at Fashion Institute last week was a disappointment. My time was 7:00 and I was there at 6:45, waited till 7:30 when the woman still hadn't arrived, then left. There was another guy waiting to see her, he had had an appointment at 6:00. So I thought, this is ridiculous, and came home in time to go swimming. But I was very impressed by the building and the displays of student work, and notices about now famous alumni. Will make another appointment. Registration is June 19.

Recently I bought Mary Johnson's "Sewing the Easy Way." And discovered that I've been making things too big for me for ages. She says you should make clothes using the same pattern size as readymade size. So my present project, the lacey-stripe linen, is size 10 instead of the size 12 patterns I've used before. And she's right. In the 10, the sleeves are small and close like they're supposed to be, instead of too wide and belling. And the collar fits like it should. I'm very pleased with the way this linen is turning out, wish I hadn't made three before it in 12.

Almost lunchtime. The people are very nice here. Just asked me out to lunch with them. This job pays $2.65/hour. Phoenix was the best paying yet at 2.85. But it wasn't worth it. Couldn't take the proximity of those two guys.

Saturday afternoon I went to the park with Diane Jackson for the first time this spring. All of a sudden it's green.

And with the much improved weather, have started going swimming about every night again.

Have to leave for lunch and mail this.

5-23-1967
Tues. aft.

Maybe I'll be a correspondent

Have just finished a huge typing project. Since I wrote to you yesterday, I have typed a complete book, at least.

This morning I went on a job interview, ad for which is below.

CORRESPONDENT
English major. Dictate own correspondence. No typing, own office. Permanent. 5 day-35 hours-8:45-4:45.
SIMPLICITY PATTERN CO. INC.
12 E 36 St., 3rd fl, OR 9-3700 Ext. 289

What a disappointment! Doesn't it sound to you like a responsible position? I was afraid that, if anything, I was not qualified enough. Turns out, the salary is only $85/week. Can you imagine?! From now on, no wasting time answering ads that do not give some indication of salary. All the time I spent composing and typing a beautiful résumé, slanted just for that ad...grrr!

Gee, I just heard on the radio last night that President Johnson is advising Americans not to visit the Middle East. Wonder what will happen to Aunt Jean's trip. Maybe they'll decide to go to Paris instead, which would probably be more fun anyway. If you write to her again soon, mention the paperback "Mandelbaum Gate" by Muriel Spark. It's set in present-day Israel and Jordan, and is kind of interesting.

Congratulations on your 25th. That is so unbelievable. Never occurred to me that that landmark should be coming up. Seems short to me too. But you're still only halfway to the big big celebration. Where'd you go for dinner? Take the offspring?

Your material sounds pretty, Mother, light navy silk and linen. I have never had anything silk that I can remember, but now I have some of that material too.

I was ironing one night when Vanee, from Thailand, came by. Everything she owns is made of Thai silk, beautiful things. We were talking about making clothes, and she mentioned that she had been sent some Thai silk which she would not get a chance to make into anything before going home in June, and offered to sell it to me.

So I went over to look at it in her room. It is a very bright clear blue, shiny and dressy looking. I've read in books, "the rustle of silk", and this really does rustle distinctively, a sound different from any other fabric.

She said she would charge me just what it cost in Thailand, which is half what it costs here in Bloomingdale's. The staggering price I paid for this stuff is $6.50/yard, for 3 1/4 yards, total $21.20. Staggering. Now what do I do with it? Will give much thought to it, and probably make the pattern in something else first, before cutting up this material. It's enough for a suit, or dress and jacket, or something.

This Saturday night Diane is getting reserved tickets for she and Billie and I to see the Taylor-Burton movie, "Taming of the Shrew". Last night Billie gave me a carbon of a spy novel she's written to read. It was late and I've only read a page or two, but I'm impressed. She has submitted it to several publishers and gotten only reject slips without comments. But there is this whole box of paper she has worked over! Writing is so much different from any other art, I think. It gets less of a hearing than anything else if you can't get it published. I make a dress and at least can put it in the public eye by wearing it, but writing you can slave and slave over and when you're done it may just lay around, unread.

New York in springtime is lovely. Time for you to visit me again.

6-4-1967
Sun. morn.

Coney Island is sleazy

I'm sitting on top of a bunch of rocks in Central Park, with the sun beating down so that I can hardly keep my eyes open.

Just moved so at least this paper's in the shade.

Thanks for calling Tuesday morning. I got a card and sent it to Grandma Shaw on Wednesday, air mail.

Later on Tuesday I went to Brighton Beach (Coney Island) with Ingrid and got as sunburned as I can ever remember being. Wednesday I could hardly open my eyes, they were so red and swollen, and I didn't go to work that day. Just sat around in a thick layer of Noxzema. This week I went through three jars—started out with the smallest size, finished it and got a slightly larger, finished it, and now have the 10 oz. largest size.

But yesterday the buses to Jones Beach started running, and I went with Billie & Ingrid. It was a perfect day, and we stayed all day, but I feel no more ill effects from the sun. It's just the first time, I guess. Also, yesterday I used tons of Coppertone. Jones Beach is so clean after Brighton. There, the people surrounding you are all loud and greasy and sloppy, and men keep stomping around yelling "Get yer red hot potata knishes here!" Also, a boy was beat up and knifed (his face) while we were there. Apparently this happened just a little ways down the beach from us, and he was brought to the lifeguard stand near us. Ick! Now that Jones Beach is accessible, no more Coney Island for me.

After we came back last night, Billie and I went to La Crepe for dinner. Enroute, we passed the Americana Hotel and blocks of jammed-in demonstrators. Johnson was inside the Americana. I have never ever seen so many policemen in one place. Practically wall-to-wall policemen all along the curbs for several blocks. And policemen standing like sentries on the roof of the Americana (the lower part, which spreads out around the tower part on about the 3rd floor).

Last weekend I saw "The Taming of the Shrew" movie with Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton. It was very good. Beforehand we went to Tortilla Flat, a little Mexican restaurant in the Village. It was terrible. I had chicken, sausage and beef tacos. They really were terrible. The only good thing you could say is, they were cheap.

On Monday night, "Barefoot in the Park" was good at Radio City. It was even funnier than the play.

I'm still at J.C. Penney, will stay there through this Friday. It is good for me to see this computer department. They have a lot of young trainees, about half girls. But it does look awfully dry, and they obviously get bored with their work too, and don't have enough to do. Wander around a lot and talk to each other.

I feel like going and finding a Good Humor man and getting a coconut popsicle.

I'll write you again Monday or Tuesday when I have my ticket. Don't forget to make me an appointment with Doloff, as well as Lutz.

Really, I'm melting in this sun.

6-6-1967
Tues. morn.

Maybe I'll be a computer programmer

This is a slow morning.

But beautiful and warm.

Heard on the radio recently that the City will guarantee any college graduate, any major, a position in a city school this fall if they will take 12 credits of a program of education courses they are holding this summer. And they gave a number to call for complete information. Really desperate for teachers.

This Penney EDP department has a very pleasant atmosphere. The woman who sits across from me used to be an instructor in a beauty school. We were talking about how computers seemed to be the only area where a woman could come close to having equal opportunity with a man.

She said that of her students in beauty school, the boys were never as good as the girls. The boys were heavy-handed, did not have the deft quick touch of the girls, or just the aptitude. The girls were always better. And yet the men are the ones who really go places in the business. She mentioned one male lunkhead who studied under her who now has his own shop in Queens with ten girls under him. And it's true, most girls seem to prefer a man to do their hair. The famous hairdressers are all men.

This evening I'll go get my bus ticket. Meant to last night, but forgot, was so tired coming back from Macys, where I went after work.

I feel so fantastically nothing today! Ever since taking these temporary jobs, actually since last September when I began being a floater at ABC, I have felt guilty about not doing anything in particular. Like the lowest of low class drifter, a work shirker.

Yet I still don't want to take a permanent job till the summer's over. And I just don't know what to do.

I am really leaning toward the computer programming. Good working conditions, excellent pay and opportunity for advancement. I have talked with people here, and no one has yet named a sum, but everyone says excellent pay even for trainees, and rapid advancement.

The only thing is, it's hard to put away the old vague dreamy-dreams, of being connected somehow with show business or publishing. But they are the impractical dreams of so many girls! Maybe I should settle for good pay, and look for glamor outside of working hours.

Because, another big plus of the computer world, I would be escaping, in one of the few ways possible, a woman's traditional office role of coping with phones (I loathe telephones, and taking messages, and screening calls, and the politics some men practice in having secretaries place their calls, not wanting to get on the line until the other man is on, to show that they're more important. Shudder, ick!) In this department, the programmers are two to an office, they work pretty much independently. They—oh, I've gone on about this so often, about a secretary being considered a menial servant, but she so often is!

Ramble, ramble. It's five of twelve, and I go to lunch then. Will mail this, and send you a note tonight when I get the ticket. I'm really looking forward to next week.

6-6-1967
Tues. night

Taking the bus home

The final bulletin:

Have a reservation on the 5:20 shortway to Scranton, should be at Martz by 8:15-8:30 p.m.

I got your letter today. Thanks for taking care of the appointments.

Soon to see the new sofa. Until Friday,

6-23-1967
 

A would-be computer programmer

Today I am in the nicest office I've hit yet: the Esso Building, W. 51st just off Fifth Ave., 7th floor. It's so spacious! I practically have a private office. I'm only here for today; the girl who holds this job regularly is getting married tomorrow and is just taking today off.

Yesterday I was at Lever Bros., Park Ave. at 53rd St., 19th floor. It was nice too, but also just a one-dayer.

And on Wednesday I was down on Wall Street for the first time (actually on Pine Street, one block up) at Chemical Bank New York Trust Co. That place I did not like. It was supposed to be a job for three days, but I got out of staying the other two, because the man I was working for was impossible. [He needed to hear the song "A Secretary is not a Toy".]

On Monday I went to IBM and they told me they have no openings at present, said I should call back in a couple of weeks. They don't have classes beginning on any certain date, just on-the-job training. It was raining, and that was kind of disappointing. I went over to Equitable. There, they had me take two tests, for a total of 1 1/2 hours, and with the time spent waiting before, between, and after for an interview, that took up the whole day. But I passed those tests, and was told to come back on Tuesday for another one at 10:00.

The Tuesday test was 2 1/2 hours, but was only five problems. They were all to do with "a mechanical robot you have working for you, who cannot do too much thinking by himself, but does everything you tell him to do very quickly." It took a half hour to read through the instructions, which explained everything this robot was capable of doing, and what his reaction would be to any instruction you might give him.

It was really a lot of fun, that test, very much like a maze, and if that is what programming is like, I will like it. I'd tell you one of the problems to give you an idea what it's like, but it would take a few pages to explain the robot's capabilities, and the symbols you've got to use when talking to him.

I will tell you one of the arithmetic problems on Monday's test, because I have no idea how to do it.

You are publishing a magazine which costs 70 cents a copy to produce. You have received $15,000 for advertising. How many copies do you have to sell to make an $8,000 profit, if you sell the magazines at 50 cents a copy?

How, how, how?

[Surely I wrote the above problem incorrectly. How could you make a profit if it cost .70 to produce and you sold it for .50?]

Anyway, I did well on the robot test and have an interview with someone in their programming department next Tuesday at 10:30. Equitable's training classes start on July 31.

There is a new development. I thought I wouldn't want Metropolitan Life because they are located at Madison and 23rd. Now it's kind of my first choice, and I am thinking about going there on Monday instead of Penneys.

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