Anyone who works in a professional capacity — that is, without expectations of a nine-to-five day — probably long ago realized the major part of his or her life was now being spent in an office. [For those who toil equally long hours at home the temptations to be discussed below will necessarily be different. The refrigerator? The nap? The laundry? Here I have no experience to share, and can only imagine.]
Especially where it is men and women who are collegially spending these major parts of their lives together, having frequent one-on-one conferences and meetings on this and that early and late, passing each other in the sometimes narrow hallways, occasionally needing to order working suppers sent in — what thoughts, and other nouns, do you suppose might occasionally arise?
Of course, we’ve all heard the friendly advice: “Don’t mess around in the office.” [A more gender-specific version of this counsel, inapplicable to half of us: “Don’t stick your pen in the company inkwell.”] And we all know nothing good can come of whatever we’re contemplating, irrespective of the immediate pleasure. Not in the long run. Or even the short run, if one party seriously misreads the signals coming from the other party. Nonetheless, to err is human, especially under conditions imposed by the American economy on those who want to put their children at least through college, if not graduate school, and have enough left over to retire before being overtaken by death.
That said, I never did find out much about what went on in the two law firm offices in which I sweated out my last nineteen years of paid employment. By then I was rather too long in the tooth to appeal to any but a highly specialized taste, which did not timely present itself; I therefore acquired no first-hand information to impart to you. As for piggyback hearsay, unless inebriated at firm parties lawyers tend to be discreet. However, the woman who ran the night Word Processing Department was another story. “Oh honey,” she would say at 10 p.m., as you gave her a marked-up brief that had to be ready to file the next morning: “What I could tell you about lawyers in love!”
If no one was behind me waiting for her services, I could then hear of a dainty Chinese-Australian first-year associate found sitting on a large partner’s lap behind his closed office door after hours (both parties married to others), and about a Supreme Court Chief Justice’s son — also married, and breeding legitimate babies like a rabbit — who could not resist openly pinching secretarial bottoms, and perhaps in a few instances reaching under and up the rear hemlines. (Admittedly, this last hardly qualifies as “love,” but does cross some kind of bright line for seemly office deportment.)
There were also two other male partners, both splendid chaps and wonderful conversationists when not discussing the law, who in the past had traded in their wives (with multiple attached children) to marry the younger, more comely secretaries who were their office wives already. One of them — not having learned anything from experience — later repeated the process with a subsequent secretary who had replaced the new Mrs. Partner as soon as new Mrs. P. got the ring on her finger. He was then burdened with two monthly alimony payments and two packages of child support. [He also paid for one new wife to go to art school.] Fortunately, he was a lucrative rainmaker, so that his domestic expenses remained manageable.
In that very large firm with the voluble night Word Processing manager were two more partners — both married, although not to each other, and both professed Catholics — who comported themselves with utter propriety even when no one seemed to be looking but were given to leaving warm, bordering on openly affectionate, messages on yellow stickies affixed to each other’s desks, easily legible if somebody else were to walk in while one or the other of them were away in the bathroom, for instance, or doing a deposition in a conference room. Once when late at night I was leaving the building, which occupied a square block, I saw them halfway down the steps together in the near dark, under the dim light of a faraway street lamp. They were face to face and no more than an inch apart, bidding each other goodnight in whispers too soft for me to hear. But no part of either touched any part of the other. It must have been exquisite agony. He later died of prostate cancer and she became visibly distraught at the funeral, more so than any of his other partners. However, she later went on the state bench and managed to insert herself between another state court judge and his wife, who sat on the federal bench. The two married judges were not Catholic, so their marriage unravelled more easily than had that of the recently deceased male partner. Apparently the lady partner turned judge who had previously communicated her feelings to her male partner via yellow stickies had not been so Catholic after all. Are you still following me in all this?
Moving right along, some people (although not lawyers, as far as I know) have tried to bring the desired one home as a congenial colleague, in the apparent hope of incorporating more time with her or him into married social life. In the one case I personally know of — because it took place two floors below the apartment second husband and I occupied while our children were small –this strategy boomeranged big time. The young and good-looking male neighbor, who worked in public television and had two small children himself, introduced his pretty wife to an extremely attractive young woman with whom he worked and who he thought felt about him the way he felt about her. Was he ever wrong! The pretty wife and the extremely attractive young woman fell in love, and our young and good-looking male neighbor had to move out. He later found employment at another public television station in San Diego, and another wife as well, so you could say it all worked out okay, but as you may well imagine, there were many hard feelings along the way.
And now we come to the feature attraction of this piece: my very own story of office temptation. Let us roll back the years to 1962, when I was 31 — just a year older than the Balzac ideal woman, la femme de trente ans, old enough to know what’s what, still young enough to be desirable. We find me recently divorced from first husband (and therefore theoretically and also actually “dying for it”), looking about as good as I ever would, and writing advertising copy for things women wear in a small ad agency run by two aging brothers, one of whom I never saw in the two and a half years I worked there. There was a “creative” staff of five: senior art director (male), junior art director (male), two copywriters (both female), and a Creative Director (male) who had been an art director but had worked his way up. He was married; however, the wife and three children were tucked away in Long Island somewhere, a one-hour commute from us. There were also several account executives, a bookkeeping department, and an art department of persons perched on art stools who did layouts and paste-ups and technical stuff for print ads you don’t need to know about. Also an unmarried receptionist/switchboard operator of about twenty-four, slender but with badly colored brassy red hair that was really black, as were her eyebrows (she was of Italian descent), skin that showed the ravages of teen-age acne, flashy taste in clothes and poor diction.
Back to the “creative” staff. Our offices ran along the side of one hall, together with the office of one account executive. The senior art director, about my age, was reputed to have been “wild” in his youth. “Wild” as in sometimes ripping off all his clothes except his BVDs and running around the agency barefoot to let off steam. He didn’t do that any more. He was married, and a father, and grumpy because this was the Doyle, Dane Bernbach era when the visual ruled in print advertising. We, on the other hand, often ran a lot of copy to go with the photo of the product because the manufacturer wanted it that way, which meant our ads had no chance of winning art director awards.
The junior art director was simpatico, competent and gay. (But in the closet. We were sort of friends, I sort of guessed, he never said.)
The other copywriter was married, a mother, and with a husband who didn’t earn enough. She worked a three day week, and on those three days worked through lunch so she could leave at four. She hardly had time to talk, even in the john. So I carried the copy load for the big accounts.
The account executive whose office came between the senior art director and the Creative Director had been a secretary who found favor with the client that really kept the agency going. Now she was liaison between that client and the agency. (It was copy for that client’s account I was principally responsible for.) She was also the sort of person who couldn’t bear seeing you idle for a moment if you could be doing something to improve service for “her” client. One such afternoon she set me the challenging assignment of finding “fresh” ways to say “Prices slightly higher in the West.” Go ahead: you try it. “Prices rise with the Rockies” was about as good as I could do and, as you can see, it wasn’t very.
Under these lonely and unhappy working conditions, you may well understand that a nice-looking Creative Director — tall, dark, and with a warm, friendly smile just for you each time he passed your doorway — could begin to occupy the thoughts of a 31-year-old copywriter who was “dying for it,” even though he was married. We sat in many meetings together — Creative Director, senior art director, account executive and me. As the senior art director and the account executive droned on, about ruffles on a blouse, tucks that didn’t photograph well, I would examine the Creative Director’s features — his nose, his mouth, his chin. Suddenly, his eyes met mine and saw desire. For one electric moment, our eyes touched. Then, embarrassed, I looked away.
Too late. The fat was in the fire. Now there were many mutual looks. Much stopping in doorways. Little chats about the weather that weren’t about the weather. Unnecessary excuses to check out a piece of copy. One day, he came into my office dangling a sheer flesh-colored something from a finger. It was a probable design reject from a brassiere manufacturer we represented: a bra without an underwire or any built-in support and no extra appliqués of cloth covering the nipple area. The client thought it wouldn’t sell.
“What do you think?” he asked. “Can we do anything with this?” I took it from his finger, our hands briefly touching. An hour later, I was in his office with the bra and a piece of paper pulled from my typewriter clearly revealing what was on my mind: “BARELY THERE: the bra to feel you’re not wearing a bra in.” Now his smile was huge. The next morning, he was back with a line drawing of a lovely odalisque: a reclining woman wearing the bra and apparently nothing else. (The drawing stopped at her hip.) My headline was lettered in below. He had done it himself, at home, imagining me. Well, that’s what he said.
It was seven years before Woodstock, but “Barely There” sold and sold! We had a hit! We also had a dilemma. Where did “we” go from here? At the next boring meeting with the account executive and the senior art director about ruffles, tucks, pleats and retouching an unattractive pimple on the model, the Creative Director began with a little anecdote he thought was funny. (Although what it had to do with ruffles, tucks and pleats he never said.) “A lady comes into a psychoanalyst’s office. Before she can say anything, the psychoanalyst directs her to take off all her clothes and lie down on the couch, whereupon he has sexual intercourse with her. When he’s done and buttoned up again, he says, ‘Well, that’s the solution. Now, what’s the problem?'” The Creative Director then turned to me and asked, “Is that the solution?”
Quel drama! In a public forum! Did the other two suspect what was going on? The silence was thunderous. Reluctantly, I answered, “It’s a solution that creates more problems.” For a moment he seemed startled. Then he replied, “That’s a very good answer.”
And on that prudent note, dear readers, my story ends. Soon the Creative Director was taking extremely long lunches out with the red-haired receptionist/switchboard operator, who tried not to talk about what they were doing during those long lunches but occasionally failed. As the weather got warmer, and the Creative Director began walking up and down the corridor past my door with his jacket off, I also noticed he had a very big ass, quite out of proportion to the rest of him. It was an ass that might possibly be acceptable in a husband, because whether you were on top or on the bottom you didn’t have to see it, but certainly not what you would want in a married lover in the office, where you saw him walking up and down the corridors before the two of you went out for the quickies which were all you’d ever get because he was homeward bound every night to his wife and three children.
About a year later, I was let go; the account executive felt she needed someone “fresh.” This was not an unmitigated tragedy. I did find another job writing copy, and then I met someone who would become my second husband and the father of my children. Just to wind this up on an even more positive note, I was walking through JFK several years after that with my six-month-old first-born on my shoulder, having returned from showing him off to my parents in California. The Creative Director, also in the airport but several groups of other people away, nevertheless spotted me, waved and mouthed a question about the baby: “Yours?”
I nodded. He gave me a thumbs up, and we smiled at each other one last time.