Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Museum of Lost Work Skills

The other day at work, I found myself pulling Post-it flags off of a big stack of papers and sticking them neatly back on the dispenser. This is an embarrassingly frugal bit of busywork that I do from time to time, both to save my employer money and to give my mind a rest when I’m particularly busy.

As I sorted the green flags from the yellow ones, a memory flashed through my mind: At my first job, back in 1979, I used to sort paper clips—a lot of them. I was 17, working as a receptionist for a magazine publisher. And when I was bored out of my mind, which was often, I would open my top drawer, pull out the week’s accumulation of paper clips, and sort the big ones from the small ones and put them in separate little bins. Thinking of this the other day, I had to laugh—I mean, there were times at that first job when I genuinely had nothing to do. This never happens now; even when I’m sorting Post-it flags, it’s just a pit stop in the middle of a racing workday. And that got me thinking about other things I did at that job back in 1979 that I never do anymore. Such as…

Typing mailing labels
I must have typed a million labels back then—truckloads, busloads, shitloads of them. The company was forever sending out sales letters, so day after day I’d sit there with mimeographed lists of addresses propped up next to my IBM Selectric typewriter. I’d set an accordioned ream of blank labels behind the typewriter, thread the top end of the strip into the platen, and type labels for hours, mindlessly copying names and addresses—probably full of errors, since I was a crappy typist. To this day, I can still remember the abbreviation for every state in the union; I know Alaska from Alabama, and Missouri from Mississippi*.

This was one of the more glamorous parts of the job. A telex was a clattery, heavy machine that, through some technology that I still don’t understand, sent typed messages over the phone system—a sort of distant, overweight cousin to the fax machine. The telex machine stood on its own steel pedestal in a corner of the office far away from people’s desks, presumably because the vibration of the thing could knock your coffee cup across the room. The beauty of it was that it transmitted messages overseas instantly—a revolutionary concept at the time, much faster than mailing a letter and much more convenient than trying to phone people in Europe or Asia in the middle of the night. We had a lot of overseas customers, and I got handy at typing messages into the stiff keyboard and calling up telex numbers on the big rotary dial. I made some unusual penpals this way, foreign businessmen whose missives I would find printed out on the big roll of paper when I arrived in the morning. At a trade show I later met one of them, a charming Englishman who thanked me for all the helped I’d given him by presenting me with a bottle of my favorite perfume, White Shoulders (hey, I was a teenager). Another regular telex pal was a guy who worked for the government of a Middle Eastern nation**. I also got to meet him in person once, when he made a business trip to the U.S. It turned out that we were about the same age—a surprise to both of us—so we had dinner and went to a disco. It was fun. He was tall, wore a strong cologne, and had a great accent.

Using a postage machine
To mail all those letters that I’d typed labels for, I had to go into the back room and use the gigantic mailing machine—a Rube Goldberg contraption about the size of a refrigerator laid on its side***. It was festooned with belts and pulleys that hurtled your envelopes though a chamber, where it stamped the postage in red ink and shot them out the other side. But all those belts and pulleys turned out to be an OSHA nightmare: One day when I was posting a big stack of letters, I leaned over the machine to reach for something. Before I realized what was happening, a thick strand of my hair—waist-length, blond—got caught in one of the belts, disappeared down into the running machine, and began pulling my head in, closer and closer to the maw of the mangling gears. Finally, somebody had the presence of mind to pull the plug out of the wall and the whole thing stopped. But then I was trapped there, bent over with my head a couple of inches from the machine, until we figured out how to disentangle me. One co-worker gleefully grabbed a pair of scissors, but we held her off long enough to get the cover off the thing and loosen some of the belts, backing my hair out of there an inch at a time. It was all a good laugh; it wasn’t until much later that I learned that people used to lose their fingers, limbs, and lives all the time in industrial accidents just like that.

*AK, AL, MO, and MS, respectively. This is one of those vanishing skills, like long division and sock-darning, that only come in handy once in about 10 blue moons.

**My company published two magazines about aviation and the defense industry, and we ran a trade show. Our advertisers and exhibitors were everybody from major defense contractors to people who paved runways to government employees who bought Lear jets as gifts for dignitaries.

***One of my fondest memories of that job was taking the brain of the machine—the postage meter, a heavy control panel about the size of a lunch box—to the post office every couple of weeks to replenish its postage. I’d box up the meter in its protective plastic case and haul it down there, along with a check, and wait in line. Then a postal clerk would open the meter using wire cutters and a special set of screwdrivers and would reset the little dials inside. Then she would lock it up again using some steel wire and a lead slug that she’d squeeze with a tool that looked like a gigantic hole punch, pressing it into a seal with the U.S. Post Office emblem. It was almost always the same clerk, a Hispanic woman who had fantastically muscled forearms.


  1. Amy, I love this entire entry (who wouldn't), but as an assiduous participant in asterisk treasure-hunts, I read all the way to the *** bottom, and speaking as a woman who spent many years on the postal side of the counter setting those very meters you write about, let me just add that it hurts like hell when not just the lead seal, but a finger gets crimped in the pliers. Which speaks as well to your industrial accident theme . . . It's not our childhoods we should be amazed that we survived; it's our worklives!

  2. Love that detail, Nancy. You must have a lot of great stories! It makes me think of how little poetry there is about the workplace. We need to start us a new genre.