It’s a blurry photograph. It was taken with a box camera (no flash) in the late afternoon — November or early December 1947 is my best guess — probably on a Saturday, because I was still in high school then and he had a job. He’s sitting on a white cotton chenille bedspread in the small half-room that was my bedroom. It has a single window nearly covered with white criss-cross curtains to block the view of the dingy rear. Not much light at the best of times. A late winter afternoon was not one of those times. What I can tell you about him will be equally blurry. I wasn’t yet sixteen when I met him, just past seventeen the last time I saw him, and voracious for my future life to get going. I didn’t stop to ask, to remember, to value. Well, we do our best with what we’ve got.
At the end of June 1947, my father found me a part-time job at Where Magazine. The summer before, I had taken two courses at a pay-as-you-go business school in the city to learn typing and shorthand — skills then considered essential as “the way in” for young women hoping for a post-high school or college career in anything but teaching or nursing. The shorthand I never did master. My heart wasn’t in it. But I became a quite proficient typist — bringing up my speed with feverish poems by Beaudelaire, the rhythms of which made my head reel and my panties damp as I copied them, and writing passionate letters to an imaginary nineteenth-century lover in high-school French. I was fifteen and the high school where I was learning to write French so well was just for girls. I knew no boys at all.
But now, a year later, when I had only one more term of school to complete in the fall, it was time to start putting away money to help pay for college. My parents and I hadn’t yet had a discussion as to the finances involved in going anywhere other than Hunter College, where tuition was free because it was a city school and where I would be an automatic admit as a graduate of its associated high school. If I continued to live at home and commute to the city, I would also be saving money on room and board.
This option didn’t appeal to me at all. What I wanted was to leave my small room with the criss-cross curtains for a dormitory and to lead a beautifully dressed college life on a velvety green campus at Vassar, or Radcliffe, or Wellesley or Bryn Mawr — one of those elite and very expensive Seven Sister schools featured in the September issue of Mademoiselle — on which boys from Harvard, Yale and Princeton allegedly descended every weekend. What else I might be doing in this halcyon future other than parading a new wardrobe over velvety lawns I couldn’t have said, but it didn’t matter. Away-from-home was the important thing. My mother encouraged me in this; she thought I might meet a “better class” of boy on one of those lawns. Her hopes for me were always upwardly mobile. My father came up with the job at Where.
How did he find it? He probably picked up the telephone and asked whoever answered about summer jobs. He was a hotel musician, and Where Magazine was distributed free of charge in every hotel lobby in New York as “the Hotel-Greeters-Endorsed Where-To-Go Guide for Out-of-Towners in New York.” Work at a weekly magazine must have seemed to him much better suited to what he perceived as my marketable skills than the job I had already located all by myself in the Times Sunday Classifieds.
I was going to be a youthful “saleslady” in Misses’ Budget Dresses at a Fifth Avenue department store north of Altman’s and south of Saks that doesn’t exist anymore. (Russeks? Wanamakers? Ah, let it go; it doesn’t matter.) Just for the summer, of course — although I do recall letting it be understood in Personnel that I was a permanent hire. (An unspoken lie. I had no intention of quitting school at sixteen, much less for a sales career in Budget Dresses.)
My summer sales career didn’t last long. Nothing was air-conditioned in those days, except a few glittering movie palaces showing first-run films, so Misses’ Budget Dresses, which occupied an interior section of a floor and therefore had no windows, was a very hot place to work, especially under the overhead lights. Wearing stockings (rayon, with seams) was a requirement of the job, which meant also wearing a girdle, panty-girdle or garter belt — all equally uncomfortable — to hold them up. Over whichever undergarment you chose came a slip, either in cotton or new-fangled nylon, both of which stuck to sweaty thighs. (Teen-age girls didn’t wear silk slips, unless they were Gloria Vanderbilt.) And then over everything the freshly ironed dress, which looked less fresh and less ironed as the day wore on. Selling budget dresses might be a blue-collar job; we were supposed to look like ladies while doing it.
But the thing that broke me after only three days was the no-sitting rule. Eight hours on your feet, with only two five-minute bathroom breaks and a thirty-minute break for lunch in the employee coffee room! Even if all the tacky rayon dresses in ugly prints were immaculately arranged on hangers, even if there were no customer in sight, and no one was occupying either of the two chairs placed on the floor for shoppers, even if I had a blister on my heel — even then, no sitting! I came home on the hot crowded subway, sat down on a kitchen chair, kicked off my ballet slippers and cried.
Then my father came home on the hot crowded subway, listened to my tearful story, said I owed no loyalty at all to Misses Budget Dresses and it was absolutely okay to quit. Two days later, I was interviewing at Where. Noon to five (which left me mornings to practice piano). Nice neighborhood, near Carnegie Hall. No stockings, no panty-girdle. (We didn’t actually discuss this, but I could see that Cris, the friendly woman who interviewed me, was bare-legged.) No dissimulation about having to leave at the end of August. An airy office where two standing fans blew breezy relief from the heat. What more could a nearly sixteen-year-old ask of a summer job?
The federal minimum wage in 1947 was forty cents an hour. But the sealed white pay envelope Cris would hand me before I left on Fridays held more. (I seem to recall being paid for twenty-five hours a week at sixty cents an hour.) Whether this was because New York State had enacted more generous labor legislation or because my father had negotiated some sort of special summer deal for me I can’t say. My allowance during the school year — for transportation, school supplies, movies, standing-room tickets to the opera on Saturday afternoons — was five dollars a week. My weekly pay from Where, less minuscule withholding for income tax and a contribution towards my old age under the new federal Social Security program, seemed munificent in comparison. My father helped me open my own savings account the following Monday morning. I was on my way!
I more or less recall the office, a large single room off the lobby of a residential hotel between Seventh and Eighth Avenues on West 57th Street. It had its own glass door opening on 57th, and another door into the interior of the hotel. (The restrooms were in the lobby.) There were only three desks. The front one, to the left as you came in from the street, was where Cris worked. She was the managing editor. Behind her, but to the right, was the desk where she put me. And further behind her, again on the left, was the third desk — shared by a part-time typist who was only there in the morning, and two space salesmen, who were usually out selling the pages and pages of ads for plays, concerts, restaurants, shops and nightclubs which kept Where running. The last quadrant of the room, behind me, was occupied by filing cabinets. We also had a water cooler. A bare bones operation.
But that’s all I remember of the job part of the job! Where was a weekly. Much of the work, such as layouts, accounts receivable, accounts payable, messenger service, must have been contracted out. But as I didn’t then understand what it took to put out any kind of publication, even one as thin on editorial content as Where, I asked no questions and never really grasped the gestalt of it. All I recall now, apart from Cris and the two space salesmen, is an elderly bookkeeper coming in several afternoons a week to do the books. He was forty-five or fifty and all business. I remember him only because when he was there he used the third desk — which meant the two salesmen, if in the office, had to pull up a chair and use my phone for their calls.
I must have done something for eight or nine weeks. Answered the telephone. Typed addresses on envelopes for the invoices prepared by the morning typist. Folded the invoices and put them in the envelopes. Affixed three-cent stamps to the envelopes, using a wet sponge in a glass cup. Filed copies of this and that in one of the filing cabinets. I certainly did all of those things in subsequent office jobs. But I have no specific memory of any of that at Where.
What I do remember was occasionally looking up to gaze at the rear side view of Cris. She was often on the phone herself, negotiating with suppliers and gathering information for the short editorial columns of puff she wrote about Where‘s advertisers every week. Since the phone rang and the front door opened and closed so often for the postman, delivery men, and people wandering in off the street to ask directions — she must have done most of her actual writing and reading proofs after the rest of us had gone home. She lived in the building, so in a sense she was always home. And always working.
This was precisely what fascinated me. A thirty-year-old unmarried woman from the midwest, living alone in the city, working long hours at a responsible job. And not even glamorous looking, as “career girls” like Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn were in movies. She had dark blonde, very curly hair styled in that ubiquitous short “feather cut” seen everywhere on New York’s hot humid summer streets before the advent of hair relaxers and straighteners, was a trifle plump, and wore clothes only slightly more attractive than the misses’ budget dresses with which I was now so familiar. And yet here she was, a “woman in business,” as my mother would have said a trifle scornfully — surviving all alone, with aplomb and a pleasant smile. And, as far as one could tell, without a man.
Perhaps she was someone’s mistress? Twice during the time I was there, Cris’s boss Sidney, a fattish, balding man of indeterminate age and apparently considerable power and wealth (he distributed local variations of Where in the hotels of every major city in America) came to New York from Chicago to check on operations. On those two occasions, Cris left early because he was taking her out to drinks and dinner and she had to go upstairs to her hotel room to shower and change. John, one of the two salesmen, was in the office using my phone the second time this happened. I leaned over the desk towards him and whispered, “Do you think something’s going on there?” “Nah!” he said. “Not with him!”
So with whom? The other salesman? She did once observe he was cute. But he was five years younger than she was, which to my fifteen-year-old mind was an insuperable obstacle to romance. She was right, though: He was cute. Unlike John, he could even have been in a Van Johnson kind of movie, with someone like June Allyson as the love interest. Cris didn’t look like June Allyson. On the other hand, he did sometimes perch on her desk.
Although not often. During the first weeks I was there, he didn’t even show up until near the end of the workday, when he would sort out leads for the next day at the third desk. Then the summer became hotter and stickier. He began making earlier office pit stops — to eat lunch purchased from the drugstore around the corner and then to do some of his work on the phone near one of the standing fans. Which on bookkeeper afternoons brought him to my phone. He winked at me and perched on my desk.
Cute or no, he was nine years older than I was. A grownup. I was pleased to be treated as a colleague, but I knew perching on my desk instead of pulling up a chair had nothing to do with me personally. He was just a friendly person. I would go to the bathroom in the hotel lobby, which took some time, and then find some filing to do till he was done.
His name was Perry.
[To be continued…]
6 thoughts on “THE PRACTICE BOYFRIEND: A MEMOIR (PART ONE OF FIVE )”
Two comments… I’m already enjoying this memoir of your very early years, and yet again see strange parallels in our lives. My first job, for four hours every Saturday whilst I was still at school, was tidying rails and doing up coat buttons at my local C&A, a dowdy mid-market clothes store. The one thing it persuaded me of (as my mother had hoped) was the value of continuing my education so I wouldn’t be stuck with a coat-buttons job for the rest of my life.
And the other comment….? Your practice boyfriend was…. HOT!!! 😉
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Those non-professional jobs were all deadening, and deadly. I don’t know who’s doing them in Great Britain now, but here in the States these days they’re mostly performed by emigres from third world countries with poor English skills. Even high-school grads without any college usually manage to find something somewhat “better.”
As for Perry, yes he was good-looking. (Although in those days “hot” referred exclusively to air, body, food or beverage temperature.) But he was also so genuinely nice and kind, as you will see, that even today “hot!!!” probably wouldn’t be the first word one would apply to him. In fact, it took me so long to finish writing this piece — I believe I first mentioned it was coming down the pike early in January — because it was making me sad to come to the end.
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Big difference, doing a coat-button job for 38 hours a week. I did it for just 4 hours a week, and for more money than I’d ever seen before, so I knuckled down for those few months – literally (doing up coat buttons is murder on your knuckles!)
Hot or otherwise, I’m looking forward to the rest of your boyfriend tale. I envy you having kept that old snapshot to enhance your memories. I have a very poignant tale from times past, when I was just 18. But somewhere along the way, I let go the photographs. Would that I had not.
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Would that you had not indeed. We never know, when younger, what we will value when older….
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Love the way you write. Makes me remember when I was young when I never realised that I was being ‘chatted up.’ If only I could have the chance now.
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Thank you, Margaret, for being one of my best fans! About “wishing I could have the chance now” –as I just commented to Julie Lawford (“Jools”), it was taking me so long to finish writing this piece because the fact that it’s now all long gone was making me too sad.