1988 was a strange year as far as my "career" was concerned. Life outside of work was good ~ I had two pre-teens at home who were exceptionally good kids. I had an actual house with a foundation; not a tin can on four wheels. I'd settled into a routine. I worked second shift at the hospital, but I had a trusty VCR to record "St. Elsewhere" on Wednesday nights. I liked my job. Until I didn't.
I'd been at the hospital for eight years and I knew my stuff. I could juggle new admits with nary a second thought. That was essentially my job ~ slotting new patients into various rooms. The medical floor had three wings. One was a telemetry unit, but if we needed a bed for a medical patient, I had to put them there if no other accommodations were available. The central wing was staffed with two RN's and two LPN's. Telemetry was also fully staffed. Monitoring heart patients was fraught with potential emergencies. The west wing. while the nicest of the three, was the forlorn forgotten stepchild. Only one RN and one LPN were generally assigned to that unit. Monday evenings were the busiest. Seniors who had toughed it out through the interminable weekend finally went to see their doctor on Monday and were thus in a state of deterioration that required immediate hospitalization. I always endeavored to not overload the nurses with new patients, but sometimes it was unavoidable. If the downstairs admission office was ringing my number incessantly, I had to make judgment calls. At a certain point, all the spare beds rested in the west wing. An RN I liked a lot was manning that station, and she finally, after I'd given her four new admissions, expressed her frustration (in hindsight, understandably) sarcastically. I took it as a rebuke and was hurt.
After a sleepless night, I decided to post out to a different position. The only job in the hospital I was minimally qualified for was in the admissions office. I interviewed and secured the transfer. I hated it from the start. It was too, too quiet. And dark. Between new patients, who I would interview and ask what religion they were affiliated with, I filed three-by-five cards. I think I also trained as a substitute phone operator, which terrified me. I didn't want to have to call codes. I was afraid I'd mess it up and forget which buttons to push and someone would perish due to my incompetence. On the medical floor, I'd felt in command. If there was a Code Blue, I knew exactly what to do to summon the crash cart.
I lasted approximately two weeks in the admissions department before I quit.I couldn't understand how working for the same company I'd been with for eight years could feel so foreign, so like Azerbaijan. I had no fallback. I was in the wilderness. My small-town newspaper contained approximately two square inches of clerical classified ads. The most promising was a position as a medical transcriptionist, for which I had no qualifications other than the medical terminology I'd picked up at the hospital and an innate ability to type. I applied and got it. I was wary from the start. This was a five-person office; supposedly a franchise. They had two transcriptionists already and were awaiting their third "machine" to be delivered. In the meantime, I could sort mail and otherwise act busy. I've always hated pretending to be busy. Time ticks so slowly. The franchisee was the wife of the absolute worst doctor in town. I wonder if the company's only client was her husband. Hospitals, after all, employed their own transcriptionists. Nevertheless, the two gals ensconced in front of the two machines seemed to keep busy, so I was hopeful and anticipatory.
In between marking incoming mail with a red rubber stamp and neatening up the desk, I did get a half hour to drive through the McDonald's queue and feast on a hamburger and small fry in the front seat of my car. I hung on long enough to attend the company's annual pow-wow in Kansas City, although I had no earthly idea what I was doing there. Periodically I inquired when the "machine" would be delivered and received evasive answers. I began to think the whole thing was a scam. Did they actually intend to murder me and hide my body? Why? They barely knew me!
The two transcriptionists, I learned, absolutely hated the blue-haired owner. I bonded with the typists, because who else was I going to bond with? One of them had a plan to corner the corporate owner during our Kansas City convention and "spill the beans". She recruited me as her wing man and I had nothing to lose, plus I was tipsy on the free wine. Upon our return from Missouri, Mrs. Fortman called each of us into her office for a private conference. When it was my turn, she asked me if I really wanted to work there. I reiterated my inquiry as to when the "machine" would arrive. "I told you it's on its way!", she yelped defensively. I said that I guessed I really didn't want to work there, and I left.
I was once again adrift.
The only classified I could find was for a part-time receptionist at the State Teachers Retirement Fund. I had either learned how to interview really well or my 80-WPM typing scores bowled them over. Whatever the rationale, I was hired. Granted, the 8:00 to 12:00 schedule was awesome, but the requisite cut in pay hurt. And, once again, I had to find ways to fill the time. I typed "Wacker Drive, Chicago, Illinois" on endless business-size envelopes and delivered incoming mail to various offices. In between, I tried to master the workings of the correction-tape typewriter. I had, generously, one hour's worth of work and three hours of time-filling. Plus I was seated at a cold receptionist desk with no one to talk to. Rarely did anyone stop in to see one of the execs and the phone never rang. I could have not shown up for work and nobody would be the wiser. I needed to find something better or I would slit my wrists. When I finally gave my notice, the woman in charge said, "Oh, I was hoping to offer you a full-time position". What? They, in actuality, needed no one, yet they were willing to pay me to work eight hours a day? Now they told me!
I'd found a secretarial position at Farm Credit Services. On the plus side, it was full-time. But there were negatives. Firstly, my hourly wage had not risen. I was still making $5.75 an hour, plus the drive was massive in winter. The financial company was located on the far western outskirts of another town. The only scenery was I-94 whipping off toward tiny farm hamlets. The woman who hired me, Mrs. Park, would have had to pay a headhunter to find her a personality. Another minus was that I was a secretary. No offense to secretaries (or administrative assistants, as they are now called to hide the fact that they are glorified indentured servants), but the constraints inherent to the job are scratchily chafing. I don't like anyone hovering over me as if I am an imbecile. For the record, I'm not one. At least Mrs. Park didn't expect me to bring her coffee. The previous secretary had been promoted to a tax "specialist". That would never, ever be my lot. I don't like numbers and they don't like me. In her free time, the former secretary trained me, and she was impatient and brusque. I hated her. Funny thing, though, in the months to come she would become a cherished friend. First impressions are not always prescient. Generally they are, but not always.
I eventually settled into my new position. I did a lot of filing -- big burgundy binders of tax returns. I spent infinite hours in front of the Xerox machine. I answered the phone and I tried to decipher Mrs. Park's Oklahoma drawl on the dictaphone and type letters the way she intended. The tax office was in the basement (it had its own entry), so I rarely ventured to the first or second floors and struggled to get to know my fellow employees. The person I came to know best was the IT guy, Noel, because every conceivable office machine went on strike every other day. Breaks were expected to be taken in the tiny alcove off the basement entry. Mrs. Park, a couple of tax preparers, and me. Every single day. I'd recently quit smoking, but I fell back into the habit, I think simply to have an excuse to escape the stultifying discussion of which Stephen King book my boss was currently reading.
My one lifeline was the FM radio I kept on my desk. Bob Beck did the morning drive show on Y93. He was our town's one true celebrity, except few people actually knew what he looked like. Bob endlessly entertained me, stuck out in the hinterlands. Music was almost beside the point, but not completely.
The songs I remember most from 1988 and my life in purgatory:
Of course, the geekiest pop star with the most everlasting song:
I wonder whatever happened to Richard Marx. Ballads were a huge component of the eighties. We rather anticipated them.
Eric Carmen is not a name one hears every day:
What have I, what have I, what have I:
I lasted almost two years at FCS. I rapidly became desperate to get out. When a health insurance company decided to open an auxiliary branch in my hometown, I was determined to be one of the forty hired. I sat in my garage and smoked and practiced my interview, day after day after day. I didn't even know what a "claim" was. I knew medical terminology; my only saving grace. I was crushed when I didn't get the phone call ~ my lot was to be a farm records secretary and report to a priggish schoolmarm until one or the other of us ultimately keeled over.
Then, out of the blue, my phone rang. I learned later that someone had dropped out and I was first runner-up. I'd take that!
And thus, after all the piddly-assed desperation jobs, I, unbeknownst to me, began an actual career.