Monday, October 12, 2009

My "Mad Men" Days

Whenever the characters on "Mad Men" are particularly obnoxious to their colleagues, it takes me back to my first real job after college, when I worked as a copy secretary in Boston's slickest ad agency. This was nearly 20 years after the time of "Mad Men" but office life hadn't evolved much. The offices, on a high floor in the window-popping Hancock Tower, had glass walls and doors so everyone could always see what everyone else was up to. And it was often no good.

I sat in a low-walled cube in the middle of the creative department, where I typed, proofed, and filed copy for about ten writers, using a Wang with a tiny green screen and a big floppy drive. Seven of the writers were men, and they all smoked cigars in the afternoons, a bonding ritual that nearly killed me. (I asked HR to have them stop, so they did a mock survey of the staff and reported that the vast majority didn't mind a smoke-filled office. Right.)

People arrived hung over in the mornings, left in groups for 3-hour lunches, and came back drunk and/or coked up. One of the older creative directors had a fully stocked, pub-style wooden bar in his office instead of a desk. Every Friday, and often on other days, he had several cases of liquor and beer delivered. Staying for happy hour was mandatory. (Years later I heard that he was fired, his wife left him, he lost his home, and died on the street.) Everyone was expected to party hard. If John Deere had been a client, and someone had brought in a riding mower, I'm sure that someone's foot would have eventually been mangled, just like on "Mad Men."

It was a cut-throat business to begin with, and there was a recession; jobs were scarce. The management announced that there would be significant layoffs on the day after Christmas, effectively ruining the holiday for a scores of people. On Boxing Day, I was told to take over the jobs of two stunned, sobbing women who were told to train me before they could leave. I got a new boss, too — a shrew. She tried to be "one of the guys" by being mean and raunchy. There were plenty of decent, considerate people in that office (especially in the art department), but there were also obnoxious, dumb, loud brats. Generally women picked on other women, while men picked on everyone. The way Don Draper criticizes his writers always has a familiar ring for me, as did the way Roger Sterling went after Harry Crane, and then Don last night. No one dared to be gay at this ad agency in the early 1980s, so I don't know how the Sal Romanos would have fared.

I did not fit in, but I was good at my job so I survived. I thought I wanted to be a copywriter, and took adult ed classes to build my portfolio. I was fresh from a very studious Quaker college. I wore my skirts and hair long, my heels flat, and my necklines high. I didn't drink, smoke, swear (in those days), or flirt. I took everything seriously. I was a Quaker version of first-season Peggy. Unlike her, I decided that getting along with the guys was not worth it.

One of my jobs was ordering lunch and dinner for the department when they were struggling with a campaign. I didn't mind, but when I was asked to make coffee, it bothered me. I had absorbed certain principles of the Women's Liberation movement. I believed that people who wanted coffee should make it themselves. There was something condescending in the way I'd been asked. So I mentioned that I made terrible coffee and got ready to prove it. I took the carafe, filled it with with hot water and several squirts of dish soap, swirled it around, and poured out only about half of it. Then I made the coffee on top of it. I was never asked to do it again.

I hated my job. I spent weekends exploring New England from Maine to Vermont to southern Rhode Island with my boyfriend. At the first sight of the Hancock Tower on our trips home, my stomach would turn. It was an unavoidable beacon of doom; I dragged myself across Copley Square toward it every morning. As I rode the elevator to the 39th floor each day, I would observe everyone but me sporting a trench coat, carrying a briefcase, and making jovial small talk about how much they'd drunk, golfed, or watched sports on the weekend. What was I doing there?

One day, about 9 months after I started, I arrived at my desk the day after receiving a glowing job review and a small raise from my formerly nasty boss. I worked hard; people noticed, and I'd been making her look good. Through the glass wall and door of her office, I saw one of her friends, the junior copywriter, sitting across from her, sobbing. She'd had my job before being promoted. I'd heard rumors that she was in trouble; her review had not gone well. She sat in the cube next to mine, and often arrived hung over in the morning, resting her head on her desk until she was interrupted.

Less than an hour later, my boss called me into her office. She told me sternly that I'd been doing a terrible job and that my days were numbered unless I improved. I mentioned the positive review I'd gotten only the day before. My boss mumbled something about being mistaken. It was clear that the junior copywriter was hoping to be the copy secretary again.

That night, I slept on my decision. The next day, I put on a new outfit (a short black skirt and heels) and marched into my boss's office to quit. She looked astonished. I felt euphoric and in charge of my destiny. I turned around and left forever. I foolishly missed out on collecting unemployment, but I never ordered a pu-pu platter or made a pot of coffee for a bunch of jerks again.

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