Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Elegant Octopus - by Patty Mooney

Secretary's Day is officially celebrated in late April. But, like Mother's Day, it really should be acknowledged every day. Every secretary should be greeted by her boss with a rose in one hand, and a latte in the other, as a show of gratitude for the person who makes his work life livable.

I was just leafing through an old journal and found an entry I'd written 30 years ago about how it felt to be a secretary, after I'd left the profession to become a massage therapist (which is what I did prior to entering the field of video production). What's interesting about it is that the role of secretary has not really changed all that much in three decades, except for a more palatable title that now includes males who find themselves in the role of "Administrative Professional" or "Executive Admin." So with no further ado,...

There is no bigger nuisance to me than the telephone. For nearly ten years of my life I plowed the secretarial fields of boredom, redundancy and monotony, ever striving for better, always scheming to get somewhere else, out from behind that desk covered in papers and figures and runny ink pens and telephones. The funny thing about a telephone is that no matter how quiet it has been all day, the moment it begins to ring, two more lines will start buzzing as well. Everyone calls at once. And it's up to me to be the diplomat, the efficient receptionist, the elegant octopus. I have never been more disgusted with any employment as that of secretary, the most thankless job in the universe.

"Here, make two thousand copies of these reports, and copy on both sides of the page," is one directive that haunts me in nightmares to this day. "I will never never never ever find myself in that position again," I retort, and the black dream clouds lift and disperse, but never so far away that I would ever forget what it was like to be a secretary.

A boss is a boss is a boss. Female bosses can sometimes be a little better than male bosses, especially if the woman began her career at the bottom-most rung of the ladder, as somebody's "Girl Friday" - a term which calls to mind a modified Gauguin jungle girl with bared breasts holding a platter of coffee cups and a memo pad. Whatever else a girl Friday must do, the ever present memo pad lends credibility to her position, taking down someone else's notes. Came a time when I wanted to be the one giving notes, dictating into a recorder and having someone else type out my sage thoughts.

For some, secretarial work can be the first rung in the ladder leading up to psychosis, insanity and intense self loathing. I know it was this way with me. I kept feeling that there was something else out there for me. This is not to say that I didn't learn a lot of valuable information regarding filing systems, addressing envelopes, the proper way to answer a (choke) phone, how to write a striking business letter and how to market oneself. But after a few years, the lessons began to boomerang, laughing at me; at what expense these lessons, I began to wonder.

There is one day a year, "Secretary's Day," that was always an embarrassment to me. This is the one time in an entire fiscal year that a boss would remember who he's got out in the front office, minding the telephone and scraping together the coffee every morning. He might buy her a single long-stemmed rose, and/or take her out to lunch, filling that one hour sandwiched between two halves of grueling labor, with more business talk. Secretarying is one job that goes everywhere with you: to any restaurant in the city, to the bathroom when all you want to do is mend your makeup, and then home, to bed. There were times when, after a full eight-hour day of non-stop labor (even a coffee break is laborious), I would come home and dream of undergoing another eight-hour work day. Then I'd wake up and be faced with the same thing again, thus enduring 24 hours of work in a 36-hour period!

I never again want to:

-have a copy machine break down in my presence and begin smoking with the 72 reports that need to be copied and sent (today) going limp in my hands;

- be in charge of making coffee that half the members of the office consider mud and the other half think is like drinking watered-down ink;

- get "dealt on" by the boss. Although this happens in any profession, as a secretary it feels just a little more degrading and one almost believes that it may just be included in one's job duties. Filing, typing and making it with the boss.

Sometimes, between massage jobs, I think, "Well, I can always make some money as a temp typist" and it's a deadly thought. Sure, one can make some money, but think of the price. The new kid on the block is always the most belittled. If you are a new face at the front desk, the older, wiser employees assume they can drop anything into your in-box and you'll do it. You don't know any better. And they always delight to see if you can answer twenty lines on the phone at the same time as rub your tummy and scratch your head. Hello, catatonia!

I want to take this opportunity to thank some of my past bosses for all they have done for me: Thank you, Paul Stein, for teaching me the best method of filing: The boss stands there and hands the secretary each and every piece of paper to be filed and makes up categories on the spot. And thank you for mixing business with pleasure. The vacuuming, cooking and other assorted duties rounded out my meager secretarial existence. Thank you for your astute attraction to me and thanks for the Irish coffee. Thanks for your affection but the pay was not quite up to par. And having your bedroom located in the same setting as your business office was somewhat disconcerting.

Thank you, Nancy Jensen, for being my wisest instructor. You are the one who taught me how to follow my feelings. The times were up and down but I was never happier as anyone's secretary than as yours. You are the one who suggested I look into massage as a vocation, and I have never forgotten how we grew to respect one another for who we were, and for these things I still maintain a deep respect and love for you.

And finally, thank you, Fred Parks, for your business-like approach to business. You're the one who first took me on when no one else would, thus beginning my sweet and sour career as go-fer and go-between, my education in life from a secretary's viewpoint, the "school of hard knocks," as my dad would have put it.

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Cheeseboy said...

This makes secretarying sound so glamorous. The whole coffee thing alone makes me never want to do it.What an entertaining post this is.

Patty Kay Mooney said...

Thanks, Cheeseboy! Since I wrote this 30 years ago, it was like reading work by another author. I'd completely forgotten about writing it, and feeling it. I thought it was surely worth of resurrecting! ;)

DUTA said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences as a secretary.
Very thought-provoking post!