The Woman and the Machine

Ah, the joys of gainful employment. As I’ve been working on this proposal, I’ve been brought back to my days of working in offices (and remembering why I hoped to get back and/or into teaching ASAP).

Back in the 70s, I worked at a large Denver law firm, in fact, the one founded by the grandfather of “our” new Supreme Court Justice. The job had a lot of great qualities — it was varied and interesting; I’d never worked in law, and the firm did every possible kind of law, so I learned a lot. My job included taking the phone deposition of a Mafia grandma who sent me a dozen roses in thanks for not making her come into the office for her deposition.

The people I worked with were, for the most part, great, and I had good friends. It was fun working on 17th street in downtown Denver. I knew it was fun at the time and that makes it even better to remember now, 40 years later.  I ended up working for city attorneys — the firm had a contract with Colorado’s second largest city to provide those services. I didn’t dislike it and could have done it longer, but I wanted to teach and I landed a job in China.

But… In my early days there, before I was plopped into my niche (another blog post), I was a legal secretary out in a big open room shared with maybe 10 other legal secretaries. In this giant open space there was an early word processor. This thing used disks as big as an LP. It was a wonderful thing, really, because until its arrival as an experiment, we often had to retype documents. Sure, we had photo-copy machines, but they were not all that great yet. They jammed easily, and it was usually obvious that documents had been photocopied. With the word processor it was possible to print numerous original legal forms.


The Big, Black One

The woman who ran this thing knew a good thing when she landed on it. She had been specially trained and was totally aware that it meant job security. When she had a job to do on The Machine, she had theater to go with it.

First of all, she was a certain kind of woman. Obviously she’d been very pretty in her youth, but now her youth had faded leaving behind a cheap-looking but somewhat attractive woman in her 40s. Lots of spangly jewelry — rings, bracelets, dangly earrings, necklaces, jersey blouses unbuttoned three down at the top, support stockings that were too visible on her skinny legs, sandals, usually. Her jersey skirt clinging to her nylons in Denver’s dry air. Hers was a look from another era made with new clothes. Her hair was poofy, a kind of strawberry blond. Each morning, hoping to obscure the result of years of smiling, frowning, smoking, she troweled foundation onto her cheeks then filled the remaining cracks with powder. I learned later that she had once been the mistress of one of the partners…

Second was the spray. Static electricity could cause the machine to crash, and a repairman would need to be called in, wasting the fruit of many billable hours and slowing down the ingress of even more. She, herself, didn’t spray. A special technician, who belonged to the building and was at the beck and call of all the tenants who had leased or boughten these machines, sprayed her whole area while she stood to the side, her arms wrapped around the forms and papers she would be reproducing with the magic of her fingers and the word processor. When the area was safe from static, she was sprayed. Her skirt relaxed its hold on her nylons, and she went into the sacred area and began working.

To have access to this marvel, this wonder, we had to go through channels, and the channel was named Bud. Bud (I just typed butt so I’ll go with it) was a classic office manager who envisioned himself on equal with the attorneys. He was a pompous, mildly-sadistic, self-important shit in navy blue double-knit trousers and Hush Puppies. If he didn’t like a particular attorney OR a particular secretary, their requests for access to the machine were always turned down. And, as you might expect, Butt didn’t like me and wasn’t too crazy about the attorneys I worked for. Still, when we were involved in a major real estate deal — several hundred employees of a Canadian insurance company were relocating from Canada to Denver and buying homes — my boss and I were given access to the machine so we could have shiny, pretty deeds of trusts for all our clients. The real bonus, though, is that the document would be saved to the giant floppy disk and could be reproduced again and again as more Canadians made their way south.

That brought me, early one morning, into direct contact with the Woman and her Machine. Once permission was given, I was told to take my work to her inbox which was strategically located to one side of the Machine, away from any danger of static electricity. The Machine was at her normal work station, so when it was off, she was just a secretary with an IBM Selectric like the rest of us. There was an arcane form that had to be filled out and signed by Butt and the requesting attorney. They didn’t want secretaries getting out of work by using the Word Processor. This form was lain on top of the material to be reproduced, but not paper clipped.

“Well, I don’t know when I can get to it,” she said. “The partners have me tied up.”

I tried not to laugh at that. “I wrote the deadline on the form. It’s for the Canadian Insurance Company people. Mr. W. (my boss) needs it by tomorrow afternoon. I need the ten copies sooner because I have to type all the information into the forms. Any chance early this afternoon?”

“I don’t do work at the last minute. I have to turn on the machine, be sure all the static electricity is gone and then I have to do the work. You should have brought this to me two days ago.”

“Butt has had it since last week. He just signed the form today.”

“That’s not really my problem, is it.” She popped her gum.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go to my boss. He was “examining some property” (playing golf) and no where around. I had to go to Butt and, to my surprise, his determination to have power over The Woman and the Machine overrode his desire to humiliate me.

“Come with me,” he said, taking the work out of my hands. I followed him to The Woman and the Machine. “I’ve called the technician. He’ll be here in five minutes. This is a big client, we want to keep their business, and you’ll find a way to do this job for Mr. W,” he said to the Woman.

She visibly shrank. Her dominion over The Machine and her power were unraveling. The reprimand was public in that big room, and I could feel the cheers beating in the hearts of my fellow legal secretaries. “All right, Bud,” she said. I later learned she’d been his mistress, too.

Still, she had her ways. She dragged out The Ritual as long as possible, and I didn’t get the forms until 4 o’clock that afternoon. It was her way of slamming me for publicly diminishing her power in that big room filled with legal secretaries.

10 thoughts on “The Woman and the Machine

  1. Oh this takes me back in so many different ways. I never handled that type of proprietary-computer access situation, but I recognize some of the archetypes. My favorite description was for Butt: “He was a pompous, mildly-sadistic, self-important shit in navy blue double-knit trousers and Hush Puppies.” I worked in many offices as a temp secretary for a few years here and there between jobs. There was a version of that guy–or sometimes gal–everywhere you went. I do wish they had a lapel pin or other trademarked tchotchke as a required ID so you’d recognize them when you step into a room. It would save so much time.

  2. I worked about a year before coming to Switzerland as a temp. Every week a different place somewhere in the city of London, but I had all the machines to work on. I never had one with a static electric problem. I think the most advanced I had was when I worked for a couple of weeks in a very new tall building at the Mansion House. It was a chartered accountants who customers were from the city. I was just a temp to help out, but the secretaries each had their own accountant to work for and the account sheets they produced were works of art, I think mainly written on the IBM Executive. Yes, those were the days. And the city gents were no problem in the afternoons. They all seemed to have a liquid lunch in the pub and fell asleep at their desks afterwards.

    • I don’t think in London static electricity would be a problem. It was the result of the very low humidity in Colorado. Sometimes when I reach out to pet Dusty T. Dog, we both get a little shock. 🙂

      • Tabby is not very static with her short fur, but I am always careful when opening a door in the appartment. The handles are metal and I know they will give me a short “pick” when I touch them.

  3. Ah, memories. The days when floppy disks flopped and the small machines on which I worked didn’t have a hard drive. Two floppy disks rotated. Print everything out because you could never be sure.

    I was one of those “powerful people” because I owned computers very early in the game. I remember when I got my first “real” computer — and it had a 10 MEGAWATT HARD DRIVE. My nerdy-geeky friends were slavering! It was that hot!

  4. Doesn’t matter where you work, there is always a Butt and always someone in charge of the Machine. They are always so fascinating to watch, too.

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