Terror in Aruba, Or: Another Maloney Family Vacation

use-aruba-posterIn the summer of 1969, my father decided that we needed a family vacation, and chose Aruba as our destination. Aruba was such an obscure place at that time that most people had never even heard of it, much less traveled there. About three hotels had been built, with more to come, because gambling was legal in Aruba.  This vacation meant that all four of us Maloney children were going to leave the country for the first time (my sister Marbeth was married by then, and off on adventures of her own), which was exciting. We had to get vaccinated for smallpox, which was also exciting. My father had to get new passports for himself and for my mother, which was more exciting than it probably should have been. When he asked the clerks of Cook County, Illinois, for a copy of her Birth Certificate, they calmly informed him that my mother didn’t exist. Since he was really sure that she did exist, my father was disgusted with the obviously incompetent clerks in the Cook County Records Office, and he let them know that in some very colorful language.  Despite my father’s best efforts, Cook County was implacable.  There did not exist a birth certificate for anyone named Mercedes Lynch. Frustrated by this Typical Government Incompetence, he stomped home one afternoon complaining loudly (and colorfully) about this situation. My grandmother, Mommy Mayme, was visiting us and she asked my dad what on earth he was going on about. “According to the %^&^ clerks at Cook County,” he said, “Mercedes doesn’t exist!”

“Oh,” my grandmother said serenely. “That’s because her name is Loraine.” My father was not an easily surprised man, but this was a surprise. He had been married to my mother for twenty four years, which was a lot of time to be in the dark about her actual name. Mommy Mayme and Grandpa George had a somewhat unusual marriage in that they often operated in separate orbits that occasionally intersected. Grandpa George was out with his friends celebrating the birth of his daughter when the people in charge of birth certificates made their rounds in the hospital where Mommy Mayme gave birth. They asked my grandmother what her baby’s name was and she told them it was Loraine. From that day forward, Cook County knew her as Loraine Lynch.

Either no one told Grandpa George, or he heard the name and rejected it. When my mother was born, my grandfather was reading The Count of Monte Cristo and liked the name of one of the characters: Mercedes. My mother was baptized Mercedes Marie Lynch. All of this was news to my father. (Years later, we found out that my mother’s sister Bernadette was—according to Cook County—actually named Virginia Alice. My grandparents really did need to work on their communication skills).Once my father knew my mother’s actual name, he obtained a passport for her and we were off on our Aruba Adventure.

I was thrilled to be on this trip. The first thrill was flying in an airplane. We flew KLM and they were very nice to children; I was provided with a free toy (a small toy like a Lite Brite without lights) and as much pop as I wanted. Always interested in food, I was eager to be served a whole meal right there on the airplane. My disappointment was deep when our food came and it turned out to be eggs with some sort of foul smelling red sauce splashed all over them. My father told me that this was a dish called Huevos Rancheros, but to my eight year old self it looked like a crime scene. I stuck to pop.

I am not sure what time we were scheduled to arrive in Aruba, but we touched down very late at night. The late flight was no doubt cheaper, and my father was on the lookout to cut every corner he could: bringing his wife and four children to a Caribbean Paradise must

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I was promised a licorice drink.

have cost a good bit of money. Even though we arrived at our seaside hotel in the deep of the night, I was wide awake. I needed to stay alert, because there was going to be a special licorice drink waiting for me at the hotel, and I didn’t want to miss it. I knew about this special licorice drink because my Dad had shown me the brochure for the hotel when he was planning our trip. The brochure portrayed beautiful men and women strolling along white beaches sipping cocktails. “Come to Aruba!” it said. “When you arrive, we will greet you with our special licorice drink!”

To my considerable dismay, when we walked into the lobby—six exhausted Maloneys and a great deal of luggage—there no drinks of any kind in evidence. There wasn’t even any licorice. There were no beautiful people strolling the beach, or even lolling around in chairs in the lobby. I tugged on my mother’s sleeve as we headed to the elevator and whispered, “Mom! What about our special licorice drink?” Bleary-eyed and pale with exhaustion, my mother said, “What? What are you talking about? Get in the elevator.”  My Aruba vacation began in bitter disappointment and I muttered something under my breath about false advertising. For the duration of our stay, I never stopped looking around for some hotel staff to offer me that licorice drink that was mine by right.

My dad had reserved two rooms: one for my brothers and himself, another for my mother, my sister Susan and me. The rooms were very nice and the beds inviting; after a long trip, we all went to bed. That first night was by far the most comfortable night we spend in our hotel, through no fault of the hotel. Whenever we stayed in hotels, my dad was always resolute that we would squeeze every ounce of value out of his investment. That meant that from the moment we walked into a hotel room until the moment we left, the thermostat was set to temperatures so cold that we would ache with it; in Aruba, we had a balcony attached to our room and every morning as soon as I woke up I scurried out to that balcony to warm up enough to move my arms and legs without pain. We also kept all the lights on until we went to sleep and we always had the television on. Electricity came free with the room, so we made sure to get our money’s worth and more.

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My father took this picture of me from his balcony next door.

The balcony we used for thawing out was lovely; it looked out over the Caribbean Sea and the hotel swimming pool. The moment I saw the Olympic-sized pool and high dive, I knew where I would be spending most of my time. I loved pools of all sorts, and usually had to be called out of the water whenever I was around one, my fingers and toes wrinkled as raisins. To my surprise, the pool in Aruba was filled with salt water. After the first shocking mouthful of salt, I adjusted and then I couldn’t get enough of that pool. The high dive that would no doubt cause night terrors for anyone writing an insurance policy for a hotel today, but we kids adored it, and had a great deal of fun jumping off. We eagerly reprised our stunt from the Three Coins Motel in Las Vegas; (here) we did have the good sense, at least, to confine our “jumping off the diving board while seated on lawn chairs” activities to the low dive. Aruba was a very laid-back place, and the Hotel’s philosophy was apparently “Be Stupid At Your Own Risk.” We certainly took them up on that offer.

My father not only brought us to this Island Paradise; he laid out some serious money so that we could have some Authentic Island Adventures. On our second day there, he announced that he and my brothers would be going scuba-diving and my mother, my sister and I would be renting Sea Jeeps. Since I wasn’t at the Scuba-Diving Event, I cannot tell the story of what happened there. I remember only that my father’s oxygen tank somehow ended up on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea and my brothers are still amazed, fifty years later, that he lived.

I do, of course, remember the Sea Jeeps. My father, finished defying death in Scuba Gear, was there to see us enjoy our motorized frolic in the Caribbean Sea. My mother went first, and she seemed to enjoy zipping around the water at the speed of about twenty miles per hour. Once she was ashore, I think my sister Susan must have gone next, although I have no memory of her on the Sea Jeep. It’s possible that I was so panicked about my turn on the Sea Jeep that I didn’t register what was going on immediately beforehand. I had zero desire to ride a Sea Jeep. From what I could see, they went very fast and needed some serious steering. I was clumsy enough in gym class at home to kill myself engaging in such pedestrian activities as riding a scooter across the gym floor or jumping over “the horse.” (here) I shuddered to think what the risks were here, with an actual motor and a Sea in the mix.

Adding to my considerable anxiety was the fact that the minimum age to ride a Sea Jeep was fourteen. I was nine. My father didn’t want me to miss this Fun Experience, and so he lied to the young man in charge of renting the Sea Jeeps and told him I was fourteen. As with the lounge-chair-off-the-diving-board caper, Aruba was very relaxed about enforcing this rule. They were also lassez-faire about life jackets. I knew I was taking my life into my own hands; emerging from this experience alive was my only goal.

The fellow in charge told me to sit down on my Sea Jeep and put my belt on while he told me how to work it. I sat there listening as intently as I could to his fast patter of instructions: once he started the motor, he said, I should head about fifty feet out or so (how far is fifty feet, I wondered), then gently start to turn left and motor around for a while, enjoying the sea breezes and salty air. When my minutes were up and it was time to come in, he continued, he would signal me and I would then turn the Sea Jeep around and head back to shore. It was important, he warned, that I not turn off the engine until I was about ten feet from shore, because the Sea Jeep would stop abruptly as soon as I turned it off. Too far out, and he would have to wade in to get me, and he did not want to have to do that. My head swimming with questions, I nodded dumbly when he asked if I was ready, and he started my Sea Jeep.

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The people on the boat were watching me with horror.

My first discovery was that Sea Jeeps are very speedy. In mere seconds, I was out plenty far, certainly fifty feet if not more. It was definitely time for me to gently turn left as instructed. In my panic, I didn’t have a clue which way left actually was, so I turned the wheel and hoped for the best. To my horror, I was still heading out to what looked to be the middle of the Caribbean Sea, so I tried again to turn. I was successful the second time, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t gone left because now I was headed directly toward a huge glass-bottomed boat filled with tourists who were looking at me with their mouths open like “O’s.”

Vaguely hearing a lot of screaming from the shore, I turned the Sea Jeep again and missed the Glass Bottomed Boat, though not by much. Thankfully, I was now headed back to shore; there were several people waiting for me who were still yelling and waving their arms frantically. Reminding myself that I was to turn the Sea Jeep off when I was ten feet from shore, I held on for dear life and plowed home to safety. My ability to gauge speed and distance was no better in this direction; I turned the key to “off” about one and half feet from shore. White faced and none too pleased with my father, the fellow in charge barked at me to “Exit the Sea Jeep!” and I gladly complied, grateful to have survived another Maloney Fun Experience.

Our family vacation was divided into two segments: daytime fun and nighttime fun. Once the sun went down in Aruba, my parents and my brothers enjoyed the nighttime fun: gambling in the hotel casino. Unlike the swimming pool and the Sea Jeep Concession, the people in charge of the Casino enforced the Adults Only Rule strictly. Whether because my parents didn’t want my sister Susan to miss the Fun Experience of Losing All Her Money, or because they just didn’t like being told what to do, they decided to dress Susan up one night (she was fourteen) in a dress and my mother’s pearls and high heels, in the hope that she would fool the bouncers and be admitted to the Casino. She was, and so I was alone for one night in Aruba. I missed Susan, and was happy to hear that she had no desire to go back the next night.

Other than the “Let’s Pretend Susan is an Adult” night, I had my sister for company during the long evenings of Adult Gambling. It wasn’t a great deal of fun to be in our hotel room for hours on end, and the Dutch Antilles were not known for their marvelous television programs. Several nights into our enforced room stay, Susan decided that it was time to take matters into our own hands. It was 9:30 at night and we were children in a foreign land, but Susan announced (to my utter joy) that we were going to the beach. Earlier in the afternoon, when we had left the water to come back to the hotel for dinner, Susan thought the surf was just starting to get wavy. We both adore wavy days, and hated to lose what might be our one chance to play in waves, since the Caribbean Sea was almost always as still as glass.

We threw on our bathing suits and grabbed some towels and made our way down to the beach. Once we ran past the pool area and onto the actual sand, the night was as black as ink, and even though we were only feet away from the water, we could only hear it. And we heard waves. Joy! We ran straight ahead toward that siren sound and right into them. These were not small waves, and it was so dark that we could not see each other, our own hands, or the next wave. I remember seeing a sky filled with stars and nothing else. The water and the air were black, and it was easy to lose track of which was which.

Susan, being older and marginally wiser, realized fairly quickly that this escapade was turning very dangerous very fast. Using her most assertive, grownup voice, she shouted at me to head into shore. While things like Sea Jeeps terrified me, I was never afraid of water, even when I should have been. I didn’t want to go in; being in the Caribbean Sea at 10 p.m. in a high surf could was exciting and fun. Certainly mere water couldn’t be hazardous—or, maybe hazardous for other people, certainly not us. It was only when Susan’s voice moved from stern to outright panicked that I reluctantly started paddling toward what I hoped was the shore. It was so dark that we really couldn’t see where we were going.

The only reason we are both alive today is that Susan has a much better internal compass than I do, and she guessed correctly which way we had to go. Even paddling in the right direction, it was an ordeal to get back to sand, because the waves by then were truly impressive. We did make it back, and scampered back to our room to dry off and get back into our pajamas, Susan still trembling. Some sixth sense told us not to mention our late night caper to anyone, and it was years before we told our parents about that night.

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Deep Sea Fishing: The Dream

My father wanted to make sure that we had a lot of Fun Experiences while in Aruba; the Sea Jeep/Scuba Diving Caper wasn’t the end of our Caribbean fun. He decided that we should all have the experience of Deep Sea Fishing. This entailed making arrangements to hire a local fisherman and his boat; our Captain would take us all out into the Deep Sea and provide fishing lines and bait for us. Until I was in Aruba, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as Deep Sea Fishing, so this did indeed sound like an adventure. We were to meet our Captain at the docks at 5:00 in the morning. Anything that entailed getting up at 5:00 in the morning sounded exciting to me, so when dawn was breaking and my dad woke us up, I bounded right out of my cot and onto the balcony to get the feeling back in my arms and legs and greet the day. My teenaged brothers were less enthusiastic about this awakening.

My dad had directions to the proper dock and knew the name of our boat for the day, so off we went. We found the place and the boat, but there was a man passed out cold on the dock, which was not a sight I had ever seen. My father woke him up, which I thought was a rude if not dangerous thing to do, especially because when the man opened his eyes he looked pretty ill and disheveled. My dad knew something we didn’t know; this man was our Captain for the day. The man pulled himself up, adjusted his pants, and gestured for us to get onto the boat. We were off.

The Caribbean Sea was beautiful, and the early morning air was salty and mild. We all sat in the boat and basked in this loveliness and peace for at least ten minutes. Then my brother Johnnie lurched up, turned around, and vomited over the side. My mother had a fragile stomach, and the sight of Johnnie throwing up, in concert with her own mounting queasiness, had her up and around in no time, also heaving over the side of the boat. My dad, Jamie, Susan and I were grimly holding our own, trying to enjoy the beauty of nature and ignore the hot saliva rushing up into our mouths, when our Captain starting cooking our complimentary breakfast. To our noses, breakfast smelled like fried offal with a side of rotten fish. That was it for us. Only my dad managed not to lose his previous three meals to the Caribbean Sea. The rest of us enjoyed a close-up view of the water directly beneath our streams of vomit.

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Deep Sea Fishing: The Reality

After my dad and our Captain enjoyed their breakfast, accompanied by the soundtrack of Five Heaving Maloneys, it was time to fish. My mother, my siblings and I were in no shape for any activity other than praying for death, but my dad had paid a great deal of money so that we could have this Fun Experience, and we couldn’t bear to let him down. We somehow pulled ourselves away from the sides of our boat and our Captain handed each of us a fishing line, which he had helpfully baited for us. Our bait came out of a big bucket of dead fish under our feet, the sight of which sent my brother Johnnie back to the side of the boat. So far our biggest discovery was just how much a human being could vomit without throwing up his own stomach. Our lines properly baited, we threw them into the Deep Sea and started to fish.

Unluckily for us, the fish in our corner of the Caribbean Sea had extremely high fish I.Q.’s, because every single fish we nearly caught simply ate our bait up to the dead fish head and them swam merrily away, no doubt taunting us as they departed. My brother thought he really had one at one point, and he enthusiastically pulled his line in; our collective thinking was that if we could only each catch a fish, my dad would be satisfied that we had had a Fun Experience and we could get back to what we really longed to do, which was vomit some more and hopefully pass out. When my brother pulled his line, though, once again he had only a dead fish head on the end of it, which swung wildly toward the boat and slapped me square in the face. That was the end of Deep Sea Fishing for me. I thought I had been close to foul smelling fish before, but having one directly applied to my face was enough to finish me off.

Having lost his best shot at catching a fish, my brother was forced back to the side of the boat for the vomiting, but while he had been struggling with his fish, apparently the wind changed direction. We realized this because he vomited into the wind this time. His vomit blew right back in his face and shoulders instead of falling into the Caribbean Sea. He was officially finished with fishing at that moment as well. Along the way, my mother and other siblings had given up and were cradling their heads and moaning softly. My sister Susan started singing under her breath; I heard snatches of The Beach Boys song, “I Wanna Go Home.” We still had a few more hours on the boat, and my dad had paid for the full day of fishing, but even he could see that he was not going to get his money’s worth on this adventure, and that if he insisted we stay the full time out at sea, several of us just might die of dehydration. He told our Captain it was time to go in.

After our day of Deep Sea Fishing, we took a few days to just relax at the hotel and not attempt any Fun Activities whatsoever, which was just fine with me. I loved that pool and the Caribbean Sea was kind of fun, too, even during the day. It wasn’t long  before our last night in Aruba had arrived.  My parents and brothers went to the Casino, and Susan and I were left to entertain ourselves in our room. As on the night of our Wave Adventure, we were bored very quickly. Knowing better now than to go down to the pitch-dark beach, we decided that it couldn’t hurt anyone if we just went down to the pool area. The pool was open but empty, and we didn’t have our bathing suits on, but it was very pretty there with the pool lit up and the Divi-Divi trees swaying in the breeze. My brother Johnnie wandered over and saw us there, and Susan asked him how things were going in the Casino. Not well—not for Johnnie, anyway. He had lost money, and he was feeling downcast. I figured he must be really sad, because his disappointment seemed to have robbed him of the power of speech. He was slurring a lot of his words and stumbling over easy words like “blackjack” and “bankrupt.” Eventually he wandered back off, and Susan told me that no, Johnnie had not suffered a sudden stroke as I feared; he had been drinking. Ah. I knew all about that. I just hadn’t recognized that as something Johnnie did. Lots of things were just different in Aruba.

Susan and I went back to our room, and decided to sit on our lovely balcony and enjoy those sea breezes for the last time. For some reason, my dad came back up to the room, probably to get something he needed down at the Casino, like more money. I did know how my dad seemed when he had been drinking, and I could tell that he had been drinking. Even stone cold sober, my father had a habit of tempting fate in ridiculous and dangerous ways, thus terrifying his children, and a few cocktails only made this side of his personality stronger. My dad started leaning out over the balcony rail, commenting on our lovely view and this lovely trip that was ending the next day. Foolishly, I said, “Daddy, please step back from the railing. You aren’t steady on your feet.”

Of course, that was the worst thing I could have said, because my dad heard it as a fun sort of challenge. He promptly climbed over the balcony rail and stood on the ledge that jutted out about two feet from the rail. There was nothing between my father and the pavement 17 stories below except air. Now I was frankly terrified, and I whispered, as if the very breath of my voice might blow him over, “PLEASE, Daddy, come back over the railing.” His blue eyes twinkling with mischief, he started to bounce softly, up and down, on the two feet of cement. I saw no way he was going to live through this, and I didn’t know what to do. I froze. I don’t know where Susan was, but I don’t think she was there. I couldn’t move or speak—it was, I think, my first moment of utter terror. Seeing no escalation of my challenge—what he took to be a challenge, anyway–he climbed back over the rail, told me to get to bed, and went back downstairs. I didn’t tell anyone about those ten minutes on the balcony, and I am not sure my dad even remembered it. I am very glad that he didn’t die in Aruba in 1969, but I am still amazed that he didn’t fall. Perhaps God didn’t want my poor mother to have to figure out how to transport a dead body and four children back to the United States, and He had mercy on her. As our mother and the wife of Jack Maloney, she had certainly earned a few favors.

Our flight out of Aruba was the following morning, and we were late getting out of bed. The “Farewell to Aruba Tour” had taken a toll on both of my brothers and my father, and they were not feeling so hot. By the time we actually got ourselves to the airport, we had missed the final boarding call. Out of the plate glass window, we could see our plane taxiing away from the gate and gliding toward the runway. My mother gasped, stunned at the sight of her ticket home leaving her behind with all of us and no money.  I have no idea to this day what my father said to the ticket agents at the gate, but they called the plane and the plane stopped. All six Maloneys, suitcases and all, hurried through the gate and out the door of the airport. A portable set of steps was wheeled out from somewhere, the plane door opened, and we climbed aboard. That was fifty years ago, and I have never since seen a plane stopped and reopened for tardy passengers. Say what you will about my father, but he was a heck of a salesman.

poster-arubaMy father wanted us to have an unforgettable and Fun Experience in Aruba. That we certainly did. In fact, certain parts of that vacation are seared into my brain, and I can be heard talking about some of those moments in my sleep even to this day. I think of our Aruba adventure whenever I see a Glass Bottomed boat, a Sea Jeep, a fish head or a man jumping up and down on two feet of cement suspended seventeen stories in the air. Oh wait; I never saw that sight again. Thank God. Satisfied that he had done his fatherly duty and given us a great vacation, my father headed back to home and ordinary time with his lovely wife Mercedes. I mean Loraine.

 

Lane Bryant And a White Nightgown: My High School Graduation.

 

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I was a chubby child from the time I was seven years old, always hovering at about twenty-thirty pounds overweight. It was in high school that my weight started to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically; when I received my driver’s license at the age of sixteen, I was able to get to grocery stores and bakeries that were once too far away to walk or bike to. I had a greater variety of “goodies,” and with a car, I had to exercise a great deal less in order to obtain them. When I started high school, I weighed 133 pounds (I was 5’7”) but by my senior year, I weighed about 190 lbs.

Food was my steadiest, most loyal friend, but it was a friend who called far too many of the shots in our relationship. I didn’t want to binge, but I did. I didn’t want to hate how I looked, but I did. I didn’t want my thighs to chafe whenever I wore shorts, but they did. I was consistently miserable in my own flesh.

At Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School, we wore uniforms; for freshmen and sophomores, it was a green plaid skirt with an ugly long green vest and for juniors and seniors, a blue plaid skirt with a more palatable navy sweater. My first uniform was no problem, because I was a size 10 when high school began. When the time came to change uniforms for junior year, however, I was rigid with dread. Size 18 was now a tight squeeze, and I was positive that there would be no uniform skirts that fit me. Of course, I should have known that was a ridiculous fear, since there were plenty of DSHA upperclassmen fatter than I, and none of them came to class naked. Nonetheless, I fretted, and I was hugely relieved when I discovered that the uniform store did indeed stock skirts in my size.

By the time I reached the end of my senior year, even my plus sized uniform skirt no longer fit, and I had to resort to closing it up with a chain of safety pins. Luckily, my blue sweater covered my waistline, so no one was the wiser. I knew it, though, and I hated it. I had to pull my sweater down many times a day in order to cover the open zipper, and I lived in fear that my secret would be exposed. For some reason, closing my skirt with safety pins resulted in one side being shorter than the other, so I was also constantly yanking at the one side to keep it from hiking up any further.

Having a uniform at all was a blessing, because I didn’t have many other clothing options once school ended for the day.  In the 1970’s, regular department stores did not carry any clothes larger than size 18, and I had no idea that there were stores with nice clothes for fat people. This degree of ignorance seems impossible today, or at the very least monumentally stupid, but there was no social media in 1976, and no Google Shopping. We shopped at Marshall Field’s and occasionally at Gimbels, and I had no idea what would happen if I should gain even more weight and no longer fit into size 18. I shuddered at the thought and hoped I would never had to find out.

DSHA was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and the tradition there was for graduates to wear long white dresses and carry long stemmed red roses. A lovely ritual, but for me just another cause of Great Fat Dread. By the spring of my senior year, I weighed 184 pounds. Other than my safety-pinned uniform and a blue sweater from the Men’s Department at Marshall Field’s, my entire wardrobe consisted of the few size 18 outfits I was able to find.  My shopping trips were never about what I liked or what might look good on me; the only criterion I really had was: did it fit? If yes, I bought it.

Starting in March that year, I started casing the stores in search of a long white dress that would fit me. There were none. I never told anyone that I was going on these reconnaissance trips; I was humiliated enough. As far as I could see, no one made long white dresses in anything approaching my size. What was I going to do? I had no idea. Apparently, I was too fat to graduate from high school, and as May loomed ever closer, I resigned myself to the brutal reality that I was not going to lose enough weight to solve my problem.

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These were going to fool no one.

Finally one day, I hit upon my only solution: I would have to find a white nightgown and pass it off somehow as a dress. This would not be an easy task; I didn’t have to look around Lingerie Departments for long in order to realize that they had no size 18 white nightgowns that even remotely resemble dresses. I was terrified that I would have to choose one of these nightgowns to graduate in, and the other girls would howl with laughter when they saw me. Seeing no other alternative, I pressed on, visiting mall after mall in search of a “graduation dress.”

 

About three weeks before the big day, my mother announced that we were going to Lane Bryant to find a graduation dress and then out to lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I had heard of Lane Bryant, and seen their ads in the Milwaukee Journal, but I was pretty sure they would have nothing suitable for me. Their newspaper ads convinced me that Lane Bryant was a store for grotesquely lb-uglyobese old women who had a fondness for rayon, polyester and lots of wild prints. (It is much easier now to find cute clothes in plus sizes; in those days, I think the mindset in the fashion world was that fat women either didn’t care how they looked—I mean, there they were, fat—or that fat women did care how they looked but needed to be punished for being fat in the first place.) My nightgown strategy was not working out, so I agreed that yes, lunch and a trip to Lane Bryant was in order.

On the appointed day, my mother and I drove downtown, parked the car and walked over to Lane Bryant. I was rigid with shame as we walked into the store. It was awful enough that I had to walk through those doors; much worse was knowing that my chic and stylish mother had to cross that threshold because of me. As we entered the store, a sales clerk said something to my mother and her whole face lit up. She turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? She just asked if I was looking for the Tall Section! She thinks we are here because of me, not you!” My mother was so happy that she was the assumed shopper, that the clerks didn’t find me fat enough to warrant being in the store for fat people. I loved my mother in that moment with a purity I can still feel. As much as she hated the idea of being fat, of being around fat, of having a fat daughter, she was happy to be mistaken for a Lane Bryant Shopper if it meant I would not be marked as one.

The sales clerk directed us up to the Junior Department on the second floor. As we exited the escalator, I was stunned at what I saw. There were racks and racks of clothes, some of them very cute, all of them in sizes I knew would fit me. I had had no idea. They had an entire rack of white dresses, including several that I had seen in Seventeen Magazine, my book of dreams—just in larger sizes. I was actually in the smallest sizes in this store, and what a feeling that was! I tried on several dresses, and bought one of the dresses I had seen in Seventeen—a long white eyelet dress with a simple bodice and a ruffle at the hem.

I was happier that day than I had been in a very long time. I felt beautiful, and—even more wonderful—I felt normal. My mother was happy, too, and she triumphantly handed her credit card to the sales clerk, who put my new dress in a shopping bag and handed it to me.  We sailed out of Lane Bryant, and I felt positively buoyant, a rare sensation for someone who weighed 184 pounds. The Milwaukee Athletic Club was just a few blocks away, so we walked over there to have lunch together and celebrate.

We took the elevator to the dining room and I sighed happily as I placed my shopping bag on one chair and sat down in another. My mother ordered a martini and I ordered a TAB, and we talked about the upcoming graduation party and who would come. The waiter came over to take our order and I eagerly ordered my favorite thing on the MAC menu: a cheeseburger and french fries.

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Truly wonderful cheeseburger and fries.

Without realizing it, I had broken the spell of our happy day. My mother’s forehead furrowed, and she sighed, “I don’t understand why you would eat that after what we’ve just been through.” I was hungry, and now I felt defensive; for a moment, I considered changing my order to the MAC salad, but I wanted that cheeseburger. I wanted those fries. When our food came, I ate every bite, but the buoyant feeling was gone for both of us.

Even though the mood of the day had changed, I was grateful to have my beautiful white dress and relieved that I could stop shopping for nightgowns. My mother had really come through for me by taking me to Lane Bryant. Thinking about that amazing Junior Department, I asked her why she had never told me they had cute things at Lane Bryant. My mom thought for a moment and said, “I was afraid if you knew that, you would be less likely to lose the weight.” Ah.

I felt beautiful on the night I graduated. I kept my dress for years; I even had it remade to be a smaller size when I lost a lot of weight later on. After taking in the dress, the seamstress gave us the yards of extra fabric she had removed, and my mother used it to have Christmas ornaments made for her grandchildren—little babies with white eyelet Christening gowns.

I no longer have even one picture of myself from my graduation night, although I know that there were a few taken. Years later, when I had lost the weight, my siblings and I were looking through some family pictures. We came across one of our family’s infamous “couch pictures”—we all jam ourselves onto the living room couch for a family portrait—and there was a picture of me in my graduation dress, surrounded by my brothers and sisters.  “Oh God,” my brother Jamie laughed, “Who is that in the big white dress?” We all laughed, but I couldn’t help but sneak a look at that girl in the big white dress and amgelremember how very pretty she felt that night. I don’t know what became of the picture, but after that night I never saw it again. To this day, the only place I can find a memento of my high school graduation is on my family’s Christmas trees, in the form of tiny eyelet-clad baby ornaments.

 

The Job I Love and How It Found Me

gread-eWhen I entered Marquette University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy, I had no idea what I was going to “do” with an advanced degree in Philosophy, but I was sure that I wasn’t going to teach. Accepting Marquette’s scholarship and fellowship was a way to postpone a future in which I would certainly be expected to shape up, grow up, and find something useful (and profitable) to do with my life. My hazy plan was to get my Master’s Degree and then go to law school. When I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, I made sure that I could “opt out” after two years with Master’s Degree in hand.

Before my first term at Marquette, my mentor at Mount Mary College warned me that graduate school would bear little resemblance to my undergraduate classes, where we had read wonderful books and asked fascinating questions.  Graduate school, Dr. Conlon told me, would be about learning a specific set of skills. I would be taught how to think, write and speak like an academic. What we studied would matter less than what I learned about how to do research, how to write for publication, how to defend my ideas in public at conferences.

I didn’t care. Maybe graduate school wouldn’t resemble my undergraduate experience, but from where I stood, it was as close as I was going to get. At least I would still be reading philosophy and talking about it with others. I was sure it would be superior to any alternative I had. As the summer ended and my first semester at Marquette drew closer, I grew more excited to begin my classes and my research work. I had graduated Summa cum laude from Mount Mary College in May, and I felt certain that I was ready.

I was not ready. The first class I walked into was a Philosophy of Freedom seminar—an entire course about free will. On that first day, Dr. Anderson informed us that each student would be writing a major paper on a topic of our choice related to free will. In addition, we would be writing a critique of a fellow student’s major paper. Each major paper would be presented in class, followed by the critique. We would not have access to the critique until the day we presented; part of Dr. Anderson’s evaluation of us would rest on how well we responded to criticism “on our feet.” Our grade would depend on how well we defended ourselves; the grade of the student writing the critique would depend on how thoroughly he or she filleted us. Those two scores—our paper and our critique—would be the sum total of our semester grade.

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David Hume

I wrote my paper on David Hume’s philosophy of freedom. I logged hundreds of hours writing that paper; the final version was forty-four pages long, and I felt confident.  Not only did I have a strong paper; for the occasion, I had gone to Marshall Field’s and purchased a new Pendleton skirt and matching cashmere sweater with my initial embroidered on the breast. I was set.

The critique of my paper had been assigned to a fellow student named John; he was a Sartrean. He also looked like Tom Cruise, and I was pretty sure that he liked me. He had asked me over to his apartment after class so he could make me dinner; clearly, I was sailing high with this whole “graduate student” experience.  After I presented my paper, John-the-Cute-Sartrean began his critique, and I simultaneously experienced my first—and only—case of hysterical deafness. John’s mouth was moving, things were clearly being said, but I heard nothing. And then his mouth stopped moving, and the members of the class, including Dr. Anderson, turned in unison to look at me. “Um,” I stuttered, “Could you repeat that?”

Silence. Then Dr. Anderson nodded at John and said, “Repeat your main objections.” John did so, and I could hear his words this time, but they were not strung together in any way that made sense. He may as well have been reading a shopping list. From the planet Bajor.

Silence. I knew I couldn’t ask John to repeat his critique yet again, so I stammered out some sort of response, relying on my undergraduate knowledge of Sartre to carry me through. It must have been alright, because the conversation moved on from there, but I was badly shaken. I begged off of dinner at John’s; the thought of spending the evening with the fellow who had carved me up for lunch was distinctly unappealing. I went home instead, and spend the evening whimpering, listening to Paul Simon songs, and eating chocolate peanut cluster ice cream. I had taken a major hit. And I was, more than anything, confused.  In my classes at Mount Mary College, I had always been confident, calm and self-possessed. I still had warm memories of the night before I graduated–first in my class. All the seniors had stood on the steps outside Notre Dame Hall carrying Japanese lanterns and singing “Climb Every Mountain.” What had happened?

I wasn’t sure. But I had gone to an all-women’s high school and an all-women’s college, whereas the free will seminar consisted of nine men—and me. My last experience of being with men in the classroom had been Christ King School, and those “men” had been twelve years old. These graduate student men were considerably older, and seemed like a different species. They talked—a lot. It seemed to be their way of figuring things out—talking, jousting, thrusting, parrying. They were thick skinned and aggressive, and not one of them was inclined to say, “I totally see where you’re coming from,” or “I hear you,” or “Wow! Your hair is so shiny today!” I was used to my fellow students using language to establish continuities and connections, to understand my point of view, but these beings were using language to make distinctions and establish dominance, to defeat my point of view. It was a new world, and no had given me the Instruction Manual.

My Plato seminar was more of the same, but without any instances of hysterical deafness. There were three other women in that class, and one of them—Mary–befriended me. She had been around for a while, and was dating one of the dominant primates in the group, so she was a kind ally, my Virgil as I navigated the first graduate school circle of hell. But the class itself was incredibly difficult. Each student had to turn in, by semester’s end, an eight page single spaced summary and analysis of ten separate dialogues, excluding the Republic, in addition to a short paper on the dialogue of our choice and a longer (20-30 pp.) paper on a topic of our choosing.  I had made it through college never having pulled even one “all-nighter,” and was convinced that students who stayed up all night studying were just poor time managers. I was never so smug again after my Plato Seminar. There were several nights of driving to Open Pantry (open 24 hours) to re-up on Diet Coke in order to finish an analysis of the Gorgias or the Meno just as dawn was breaking over Milwaukee.

I was also taking Metaphysics, taught by the most enthusiastic atheist I had ever encountered. Dr. Algozin was one cheerful, relentless atheist. I was the only woman in that class as well, but it was smaller than my other two classes, and more comfortable. The other students included a young man who dressed every day in three piece suits, carried a briefcase and a rolled up Wall Street Journal, and sweated profusely. The other two students included a farm boy from Iowa who wore overalls to class, quoted the Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find at least once a day, and glowered at our atheist professor. Rounding out our little group of metaphysicians was an eerily quiet fellow who slouched back in his seat, took no notes all semester, then blew everyone away in the last week of class with an analysis of the flaws in the arguments of Errol Harris. (Years later, I married him. The quiet fellow, not Harris.) Dr. Algozin, the professor, loved George Santayana, and so I learned more about “tropes” in the philosophy of George Santayana than I had ever expected—or wanted—to learn.

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Darth Vader: Not Dr. Vater

Those were my classes. For my research assistantship, I was assigned to Dr. Vater, also my Plato professor. (And yes, we all called him “Darth Vader.”) He gave me what he took to be an ideal job: I was to spend ten hours a week learning how to use Marquette’s fancy new computer so that in the spring semester I could type his book manuscript into it. This was well before the days of the personal computer. Until Dr. Vater gave me this assignment, the only computer I had ever even seen was the one at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance when I worked there the summer after high school. That computer was a behemoth, and only the very most trained Computer Shamans were allowed to go anywhere near it.

My first research task: find the computer. This task I completed successfully; the madeline-kahn-in-whats-up-docdepartment secretary gave me directions to a large and drafty old garage at the edge of campus, near the freeway. Approaching the site of my new job, I felt a bit like Madeline Kahn in the movie What’s Up, Doc?” The whole scene felt forbidding, strange and weird.

Inside the garage was housed The Computer, walled off from all of us by glass walls. Around the circumference of that walled-in machine were desks with terminals on them. The terminals were, of course, connected to the main frame computer behind the class. They each glowed a ghostly green, and on the unused terminals flickered a tiny cursor: on/off, on/off.

Bravely, I grabbed a terminal and sat myself down. The person in charge of the terminals came over when I beckoned, and showed me how to log into the giant computer behind the wall. He also handed me a dog-eared manual listing all of the prompts and commands I would need. He might as well have handed me the operating instructions to a space shuttle—written in Cyrillic. I knew I was in for a long semester.

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Me Before Graduate School

By the time the annual Christmas Party for the Graduate Students came along, I knew that I had done well, earning two A’s and an A-. On the other hand, my eating disorder was back with a vengeance, and I was a far more rattled and anxious girl than the one who had stood on the steps at Mount Mary College the previous May singing “Climb Every Mountain.” Apparently, it is much easier to sing about climbing mountains than it is to actually climb them.

In the Old West, when a cowboy gets shot, his friends make the decision whether to take him along or leave him to die by asking one question: “Can you stand?” If the cowboy could still stand, he had a decent chance of surviving his wound. I was

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Me on my Last Day of Classes: Thinner and A Bit Shaken

wounded, but I was still standing. At that Christmas party, I walked around in a bit of a daze, and whenever one of the professors asked me “How are you doing?” I said “I survived.” When I said this to the Chair, he twinkled at me, and said, “This is all part of the process. You come in thinking you know it all and we spend the first semester destroying you so that we can build you back up to be stronger.” I thought Dr. Coffey sounded a bit like a deranged educational Cartesian, but I smiled and said, “Oh. Hah. Hmmm.”

My second semester as a graduate student was better; I became friends with some funny and wise fellow students, and my second semester professors were not as much from the Nietzschean School of “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Even better, Dr. Vater had looked over my work on the Marquette Computer, and immediately informed Harry Klocker, S.J.—my Aquinas professor that Spring—that I was far more suited to his needs. Fr. Klocker agreed, and I happily ensconced myself in the library, studying Church Latin for Fr. Klocker while another graduate student hiked over to the Garage with the Giant Computer and typed in Dr. Vater’s manuscript.  What with the nicer professors and the more amenable research project, I was actually looking forward to coming back for my second year.

Before we all broke away for the summer, Dr. Coffey summoned me into his office. “I have good news for you!” he beamed at me. “We had our meeting about all the new students, and based on your grades and evaluations this year, we are moving you from Research Assistant to Teaching Fellow one year early! Starting next Fall, you will be teaching two full section of Logic! Yes! You’re Welcome!”

Wait. What?  “You mean, I will be a Teaching Assistant for one of the Professors?” I asked. “Oh no,” Dr. Coffey said. “The Philosophy Department doesn’t have TA’s. We give our students their very own courses to teach, after they have earned the equivalent of a Master’s Degree. In your case, we are saying that you are ready to move up now.”

I knew that after two years doing research, graduate students were moved up to Teaching Fellowships. But I had assumed I would be sitting in a classroom at Marquette Law School by then. Teaching was not ever supposed to be part of the plan.

“Oh, No,” I responded. “No. I am not. I am not ready. I don’t want to teach. I didn’t come here wanting to teach. I like research. I love research. I have never wanted to be a teacher. Thanks so much, but no. I decline.”

Dr. Coffey paused for a moment, then scowled. “Hmm. You’re not catching on. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. The Graduate Committee has moved you forward. You aren’t a Research Assistant anymore. If you want your scholarship and your 660.00 a month stipend, you are a Teaching Fellow. In Logic. Two sections. Next Fall.”

I had no idea how to even begin to picture myself as a teacher. I was twenty-three years old; many of my students would be just one or two years younger than I. Watching my own professors at Mount Mary College, I was keenly aware that they were possessed of vast amounts of knowledge. I knew next to nothing, and yet I was going to be plopped down in front of two sections of thirty students each with the expectation that they would emerge in mere months with a working knowledge of modus ponens and modus tollens?  Oh God, I thought. I have a lot of work to do.

Over the course of the summer of 1981, I chose the textbook I would use for my classes, opened the book up to the first page, and worked my way through the entire text, completing every problem until my memory of how to do symbolic logic was fresh. I made meticulous notes on each chapter and outlined lectures for the semester. I went back to the syllabus from my Logic class at Mount Mary College, and used it to model my own versions of paper assignments. When the first week of September 1981 rolled around, I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

“Prepared,” however, is not the same thing as “Ready.” In no way did I feel ready to stand in front of a classroom and act as if I knew anything. I drove to campus that first morning and wished the tires would fly off the car so that I’d have a reason not to show up. To my consternation, the car remained sturdy, and I arrived at Marquette with time to spare. Before heading over to Marquette Hall, I stopped at Coughlin Hall to drop off my coat and books; there I ran into my old Metaphysics professor, Dr. Algozin, the cheery atheist.  He was on his way out of the Men’s Room. “Oh Hi!” he chirped. “How are you?”

“Well, Dr. Algozin,” I said, “I am pretty awful. I have to teach for the first time in a few minutes, and I am a mess.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Algozin laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “That never goes away. I’m almost twenty years in, and I still get nauseous on the first day of classes.” He swung his head left to indicate the door of the Men’s Room. “I teach in a few minutes, too. First class of the term. I just threw up! You’ll be fine! See Ya!” and off he went, whistling under his breath.

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Marquette Hall

With no more tasks to distract me and no other professors to cheer me on in whatever way they saw fit, I trudged over to Marquette Hall. Room 100 was a lecture hall with desks on risers and a blackboard at the front of the room. There were thirty bodies in chairs when I entered the classroom. I placed my notes on the lectern, cleared my throat, and said, “Good Morning. I am Miss Maloney, and I will be your Instructor for Logic this term. I am here today because I am getting paid to talk about Logic. What are you doing here? Why should anyone study Logic, anyway? How is all this talk about Logic not a waste of time? What good will it do any of us? What’s the point of this?”

I looked up. At least seven people had their hands up. I called on them, and other hands went up. I started to write on the board, and every time I responded to one student, another hand would rise, another student would ask a question. I was talking about ideas with intelligent people just a bit younger than I was. They were asking good questions. I was answering them, often by asking other questions. I was going to get paid to do this. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was home.

The bell rang. I couldn’t believe that forty minutes had passed. It had seemed like ten. On their way out the door, several students said, “Great class! Good conversation! See you Wednesday!” I couldn’t wait. I could use some of the great ideas and questions from this day to make my opening for the next class even stronger. I started scribbling down new ideas, imagining how I would start class on Wednesday, imagining how I might move into the opening chapter of the text.

There were, of course, some bumpy days ahead of me. I was teaching two sections of Logic, but I had never in my life crafted a syllabus, made up an exam, created a paper assignment, or graded student work. I learned some necessary skills the hard way; when I created my first Logic midterm exam, I figured that if it took me thirty minutes to “take” my test, the students should be fine in their allotted forty-five minutes.

That turned out to be a wildly wrong assumption; none of my students finished in the allotted time. As the minutes ticked past, the smell of panic and sweat permeated the classroom; two girls cried. One fellow was in ROTC and it was uniform inspection day. The test freaked him out so badly that he threw up on his dress shoes and I had to write a note to his commanding officer explaining what happened. No one passed the exam; no one even finished it.

The following class period, when I handed back the tests, I apologized to the students, and told them that there would be another exam in a week; I would be throwing this one away. They forgave me. They took the makeup test and mostly did fine, and I learned that an exam that takes them forty-five minutes should take me about five.

Another time that semester, I realized after I got home from my day’s classes that I had taught Aristotle’s Square of Opposition incorrectly. After two nights of agonizing about my error, I walked into class and told my students to rip out the pages in their notebooks from the previous class, because I had messed them up bigtime. Then I retaught the Aristotle, and they were fine. From the beginning of my life as a teacher, I have found that, when I admit my limitations, acknowledge my mistakes, and make sure the students never suffer because of my errors, they are generous, kind and forgiving.

I taught Logic again the following semester. I loved it just as much, perhaps more. In May, Dr. Coffey called me into his office to tell me that my grades were excellent and my teaching evaluations impressive; the graduate faculty had decided to promote me from teaching Logic to Philosophy of Human Nature for the next academic year.

I now knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach philosophy. I hadn’t been certain of much up to that point, but I was certain of that. This new certainty, however, meant that I would be staying at Marquette for my Ph.D. Because I had always operated under the assumption that I would “opt out” at the Master’s Degree level, I had blithely ignored the Ph.D. requirements. Now that I wasn’t leaving, they were pertinent.

I would have to complete at least one more year of coursework, pass proficiency exams in both French and German (neither of which I had ever studied; I had six years of Latin under my belt), pass an eight hour written comprehensive exam on the history of Western philosophy and a three hour oral exam on two areas of my choosing. When that was behind me, I would be writing a dissertation on some original idea in philosophy; I would have to find a topic, choose a director and a dissertation board, write the thing and then defend it publicly.  In short, I was in for a long walk through several more circles of hell.

I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted to do. My life’s work was to teach Philosophy, and I had nearly missed it. I had ended up in Room 100 of Marquette Hall in September of 1981 either through a series of coincidences or the whimsical turnings of God’s will for my life. (For more evidence of this whole “God-in-my-Life Thing, see here.) With no real idea why, I had applied to graduate school, and I went only because I knew that I loved doing philosophy and would do it for as long as life let me. Good Catholic girl that I was, I saw in the twists and turns that led me from a required Core Course at Mount Mary College when I was seventeen years old to a cavernous lecture hall at Marquette University five years later a plan whose author wasn’t entirely me. I decided then and there that the God who somehow got me to Room 100 would show me the way through the forest of obstacles that now confronted me. I was ready.

 

 

Jobs I Have Loathed, VI: Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes

law-firm1After she graduated from law school, my sister Susan joined a law firm called Godfrey, Trump and Hayes. It was a small firm, but it had an excellent reputation, and so the office was consistently busy. Whenever incoming calls started to pile up, the GT&H receptionist moved through them very quickly. Often when I called Susan at work, it sounded like the receptionist was answering the phone saying, “Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes; how may I direct your call?” It was such an apt description of that busy little office that I got in the habit of calling Susan’s workplace “Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes.”

Not only Susan, but also both of my brothers had gone into law; for a time, I thought that would also be my fate. It wasn’t, though: after college, I went to graduate school to study philosophy. Marquette paid me a stipend for my work as a Research Assistant; it was a generous stipend compared to other universities, but it wasn’t enough to pay my mounting medical bills. (For this story, go here). I needed to supplement my research assistantship income by getting a summer job.

Godfrey, Trump and Hayes had an opening for a deposition summarizer, and Susan

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SRA Reading Program: 1964

recommended me. Summarizing depositions was something I knew I could do and do well: after all, I aced the entire SRA series in grade school. (For those who weren’t around in the 1960’s, SRA was a reading program. Students read little articles about such topics as Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Nez Perce Indians, or the Great Wall of China and then answered reading comprehension questions about each one. As soon as a student scored 100% on a “level”—the levels were color-coded and increased in difficulty—she could move on to the next level.) I was not a good student at Christ King School (see here and here and here) but I loved SRA. Reading comprehension was my strong suit, and I finished the entire series in record time. Since my job at GT&H would involve reading depositions and summarizing their important points, I was confident that I could do this job and keep my doctor in Hush Puppies for a few years at least. (Yes, my doctor wore Hush Puppies; click here for that story).

The three attorneys who interviewed me were nice, but they struggled to get their minds around the idea of someone studying philosophy as a life choice. One of the partners, Wayne, just kept scratching his head—literally—and saying, “Philosophy? Hunh.” The second partner, Ed, tried to relate to me by saying “I think it’s just great that you are studying philosophy. I think that everyone in college should major in something completely useless.” I was unsure what my best response to this statement would be. Thanks? Or: I’m not in college? Or: Useless isn’t a positive descriptor? I just smiled and said, “Okay.” The third partner, Jim, didn’t say much but he smiled a lot and made a ton of eye contact. I was pretty sure I would have a decent summer working with this crew.

They asked me to start the next day. Since my classes were over for the semester and I had just completed my final research project, I agreed to be there at 8:30 a.m. sharp. I drove home feeling good about the shape my summer was taking; I would have preferred to spend those months reading novels and going to the beach, but reading actual legal cases and summarizing them would be kind of fun. The pay was good and the office was air-conditioned; best of all, my sister worked there, so I had an instant on-call partner for lunch.

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Me in my “LA Law” Best

The next morning I woke up early, ate breakfast, dressed in my best “L.A. Law” outfit, and caught the #31 bus for downtown Milwaukee. When I

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Grace from “LA Law”

arrived at Godfrey, Trump and Hayes, the receptionist told me that one of the partners had “a project” for me, and that I should wait for him in the Conference Room. Hmm, I thought. Project? That doesn’t sound like “deposition to summarize.” Maybe they just call unsummarized depositions “projects? Before I could ponder the meaning of “project” any further, the attorney named Jim shoved the door to the conference room open with his hip and entered, carrying a large box filled with papers. He heaved the box up onto the shiny conference table, and said, “Hi. Welcome to the firm. Glad to have you. These are fire reports. I need them organized by the end of the day.”

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Actual Fire Report

Fire reports? Wait. What? I had no idea what a “fire report” even was, much less how to organize a whole box of them. Where were my SRA-like depositions? Where I would demonstrate my excellent reading comprehension skills, if not learn more about Amelia Earhart? I looked at the box, then looked at him, cleared my throat and said hesitantly, “Umm…organize in what way?” As if he had been waiting for just that question, the-attorney-named-Jim dug through the box and pulled out a stack of binder sheets, each of which was accompanied by a little colored tab with a tiny strip of paper inside. He slapped those down on the table, and then pulled an actual binder out of the box. “Okay,” he said. “Here’s the drill. I am working on a case that has to do with faw faw faw faw faw faw.” He didn’t actually say “faw faw faw,” but that is what I heard, because he was talking about a lawsuit of some sort having to do with fire reports, whatever they were. Having grown up listening to my siblings talk incessantly about law, I had by that time perfected my habit of fixing an attentive look on my face while I visited the Playground in my Mind. Thus it was that my brain just sort of automatically shut down as soon as it heard words like “writ,” “discovery,” “due diligence,” “cause of action,” and “compensatory damages.”

“Okay, then; we’re good to go.” The attorney slapped the table in a friendly way and started for the door. “Wait!” I said. “I—um—I’m still not clear as to what my organizing principle is, and what I have to do with the actual fire reports.” Trying not to appear impatient, the attorney came back over, dug through the box, took out a sample fire report and said, “All you do is skim the report; if you see that this one is pertinent to my case, binders-plastic-tabsthen put it in this binder here and separate the different months with these binder sheets. Write the name of the month on each binder sheet tab and you’re done!” He raised his eyebrows as if to say, “I can go now, right? I need to get to my Important Lawyering Business.”

I had one more question. “How do I tell if a fire report is pertinent to your case?” The-attorney-named-Jim reached into the box again and took out a sheaf of papers clipped together. “Here’s a description of the case. That will tell you all that you need to know. Thanks!” He winked at me and left the conference room.

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Grace  Being Plucky in “LA Law”

Okay, I thought, so these aren’t depositions and this project sounds nothing like SRA, but I am a plucky person just like Grace on LA Law.  I would have gone in search of my sister, but it was her day off, so I was on my own. Trying to stave off a burgeoning sense of panic, I took several deep breaths and poked my head out of the conference room to ask the receptionist where I was supposed to go to work on my “project.” I assumed that I would have a cubicle somewhere, or a quiet corner. “Oh, just stay right where you are,” she said. “Generally, we’ll just plant you in whatever office is empty that day, but all of our attorneys are in today so the Conference Room is our only open space.”

While it was a lovely space with large windows looking out over the Milwaukee skyline, conf-rooma shiny mahogany table that could have seated the entire cast of Downton Abbey, and wall-length bookcases stuffed with impressive-looking legal tomes, it was also located in the middle of the office and had glass walls. Everyone who walked by would see me sitting there at the mahogany table organizing fire reports. I felt the way that a goldfish would feel if it had self-awareness: trapped and watched.

Looking down at the box of fire reports, I quickly realized that location was the least of my worries. I had to read through the clipped-together papers and understand them well enough to develop a rubric for organizing all those pieces of paper. Determined to remain calm, I took another deep breath and started reading.

Possibly as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Law Firm Version, I have no idea now what the case was about. I must have gleaned some sort of theme out of my reading, because I did start to read through the fire reports and make different piles depending on what they said. By the time I had finished, it was lunchtime, but I was pretty sure I had already taken too much time reading the fire reports when the attorney needed this project to be finished by 5:00 p.m., so I skipped lunch. I wasn’t hungry anyway, as my head was pounding, my throat was dry and I was a tiny bit queasy.

When I was certain that the fire reports were as organized as I could make them, I turned

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Neatly Lined Up Tabs

my attention to the binder sheets. What did he say? Separate the months and write the name of each month on the tiny colored tab affixed to each binder sheet? Yes. That is my next task, I thought. But wait. The binder clips are moveable. They slide up and down the binder sheets. I have to make sure to fix them in place as firmly as I can, so that they all line up in one nice row down the binder. Carefully, I slid each binder clip to a spot about ½ inch from the top, so that when I laid all the binder sheets down together, each clip rested precisely on top of the one beneath it.

Proud that I had already completed at least half of my assigned task, I then turned my attention to the tiny slips of paper inside each clip. I knew I was supposed to write on those slips, but first I had to get them out of the plastic they were encased in. I picked, poked and prodded at the tabs for a while, to no avail. Finally, I went out to the receptionist and asked her for a pair of scissors. Without batting an eyelash, she opened a drawer, got out a large pair of scissors, and handed them to me.

Back in the conference room, I began the painstaking labor of prying each and every colored tab open with the scissors, no easy task with such large scissors. Once I had pried each tab open, I dutifully wrote the name of each month on each tiny piece of paper. Then I confronted my next challenge: now that the colored tabs had been pried open, how was I supposed to keep the little slips of paper from falling out?

Ever-resourceful, I again stepped out to the reception desk and asked for some Scotch Tape. The receptionist may well have wondered whether I was engaged in some sort of Girl Scout-type craft project back there (which would not have been good news, by the way, given my talents as a Girl Scout; see here), but she asked no questions. I headed back to the conference room with my tape, jubilant at my newly discovered problem-solving skills.

Tape in hand, I laid out each colored tab, secured the slip of paper in each, then heavily taped each one of them shut. What with some rough edges from all the prying-open-with-scissors and some awkwardly taped corners, the tabs were not exactly a thing of beauty, but I thought I had done quite well with the limited tools I had at my disposal.

Once all of the tabs were firmly taped shut, I re-attached each to its binder sheet and lined them up so that each clip once again rested directly on top of the one beneath it. That task completed, I was ready to load the whole pile into the designated binder and congratulate myself on a job well done. And it was only 3:30! Proudly, I left the conference room to find the-attorney-named-Jim and show him the result of my day’s work. He was on the phone when I knocked on his office door but gestured to me that I should wait for him in the Conference Room and he would be right over.

I am pretty sure I will never forget the look on the attorney’s face when he saw the finished Fire Report Project. I remember that there was a long moment of silence as he gazed down at the table where I had placed it. “Okay, so…” he began. Uh-oh, I thought.

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Tabs: More Useful When Staggered

“The idea of binder tabs is that you clip them to the binder page in a staggered format, so that they can actually be used to find the section that I would be looking for.” Ah, I thought. That does make sense. As I had arranged things, the only binder tab whose label was visible was the one on top.  “Also?” the attorney went on. “Why, exactly did you purposely break and then repair each tab with tape?” Okay, I thought. I have an answer for that question.

“Well,” I said, “I knew you wanted each tab to have the name of a month on the little slip inside, so I had to figure out a way to get at the slip of paper, write down a month on it, and then put it back in the plastic so it wouldn’t fall out again.”

“Ah,” the attorney said. “But why didn’t you just slide the piece of paper out through the opening on either side like so?” And sure enough, he picked up an unused binder tab and easily slid the slip of paper out of the side opening.

I don’t remember how I responded to that question, but I do remember thinking that if the apocalypse was inevitable, this would be the ideal time for it to happen. I must have said something in response, and I do remember the attorney taking a deep breath and then saying nice things to me about “first day stress” and “getting the hang of things.” To his eternal credit, he didn’t point out that a first grader of even dubious intelligence would have known (1)how to get the paper out of a binder tab without needing a scissors to cut it open and (2)how to stagger binder tabs so that they could actually have a purpose. At that moment, I felt nothing like Grace on LA Law.

The-attorney-named-Jim looked at me for a moment and said, “Why don’t you kick off early today and head home? You can get a fresh start tomorrow.” I interpreted this to mean, “Go away! Get out of my sight! You are an incompetent fool! Leave!” I was powerfully tempted to do just that. Not only had I spent hours making clownish mistakes on the Fire Report Project; this was my sister’s law firm and I had besmirched the family name with my nearly comical level of incompetence. I wanted to run straight out of the law offices of Godfrey, Trump and Hayes and straight into a bowl of chocolate ice cream, but I had family honor to defend. I asked the-attorney-named-Jim if I could stay and redo the project, this time staggering the binder clips and opening them up instead of smashing them to bits and repairing them with tape. He agreed to let me do that, so I did.

When I got on the #31 bus for home that day, I was absolutely determined not to go back to Godfrey, Trump and Hayes. Ever. I had remedied the Fire Report Fiasco as best I could, but I had hated every minute of my day. I felt tired, stupid and embarrassed. I wanted to go home and stay there. When I arrived home, my sister and my mother were eager to hear about my first day on the new job. I burst into tears and told them the whole story. Not only did they not share my anguish; they both burst out laughing when I described opening each tab with a scissors.

“But how could you not know that there was an opening to slip the paper out? That’s hilarious!” my sister said.  “That’s not stupid. That’s epic stupid!” Now feeling rather aggrieved after my difficult day, I told them that I was not going back the next day, or ever. I would write a nice note thanking them for the opportunity and saying goodbye. My sister stopped laughing and looked at me with steel in her gaze. “Oh no you don’t,” she said. “They were really nice to give you this job in the first place; no way is my sister going to be a quitter. Nope. Uh-uh. Not happening.”

I turned my most sad-eyed and mournful gaze on my mother. “Mo—om? Please? I can’t go back there. I’ll die if I have to go back there ever again!” My mother wasn’t going there with me. “Oh no,” she said. “None of that drama is going to work. You have a job. You did it badly. You will show up tomorrow and try to do it better. That’s it.” I cried. I begged. To no avail. And so it was that the next morning at 8 a.m., I was on the #31 bus for downtown, filled with dread, self-pity, resentment and fear. More than anything in the world, I wanted to jump off the bus, go home, get under the covers with my book and some chocolate, and never come out. But I stayed on the bus. I went to work. They were nice to me, and the attorney even said that once he got past all the mutilated tabs, I had organized the Fire Reports quite well.

I worked at Jumpin’ Jumpin’ Hayes until my classes began again in September; they were very gracious and let me come back for several more summers after that one. I even came to enjoy the work and my bosses. I did, in fact, get to eat lunch with my sister now and then. I made enough money to pay my doctor bills. After that first day, I completed a variety of projects, but did indeed spend most of my time summarizing depositions, which I enjoyed nearly as much as I had once enjoyed SRA.

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Me Being Plucky Like Grace in “LA Law”

Because of all that summarizing, I learned a great deal about the relationship between above-ground swimming pools and the incidence of broken necks. I learned that if a company slaps a DO NOT JUMP OR DIVE sign on the side of their above-ground swimming pool but then runs newspapers ads showing people diving into said pool, well that company is in a heap of trouble. I learned that when lawyers at a deposition start to yell at each other and call each other names, I should record it in the summary as “colloquy.” I learned—from the lawyer named Wayne—that the way to win trials was to prepare about 225% as much as you think you will need in order to prevail. When I law-lawstarted to teach philosophy, I never forgot that lesson, and I am always about 225% prepared for each class I teach. That has turned out to be a good thing, because I am rarely thrown by whatever unexpected questions students ask. Best of all, years later when I assembled my portfolio into a binder before entering the job market in philosophy, I had already learned that I didn’t have to pry open all those tiny tabs. The slip of paper actually slides out quite easily. That’s good to know.

 

 

Jobs I Have Loathed V: Going a Little Crazy Costs Money

crazy1When I began my graduate studies in Philosophy at Marquette University, I had a full tuition scholarship and a Research Assistantship. I was assigned to two professors in the department, and ordered to carry out ten hours of research a week, five for each professor. For this work I was paid 66o.00 per month, which was nothing to sneeze at back in 1980. Since I was living at home, I was able to devote my entire salary to cases of TAB, new clothes, novels and movie passes. It was pretty close to an ideal situation for me, except for one thing.

In my last two years of college, I had dedicated myself to losing weight, successfully taking off 100 pounds with a rigorous regimen of diet and exercise. Once I had lost all that weight and returned to “normal” eating, the weight started to come back, and quickly. I had become accustomed to overwhelming positive feedback from people about my new body, and the experience of being a fat person who became a thin person was terrifyingly instructive. When I weighed 228 pounds, I heard myself described by others as “loud,” “belligerent,” and “aggressive.” At 124 pounds, suddenly I was “vivacious,” “lively,” and “charismatic.”  A neighbor (ironically, the very same woman who started my mother’s fixation on my weight with a comment about my stomach when I was 7 years old—see here) saw me at my new weight and said, “I always thought you were a nice person deep down.” To which I replied in my head, “Deep down beneath what? Fat? Fat made my niceness questionable?” Out loud, I smiled and said, “Thank you.”

It came as no surprise, then, that I was grimly determined not to gain the weight back, which is what had happened on every other diet I had been on. I was a thin person, yes, but I was also a spy from the Country of The Fat, and now I knew what people were actually thinking when I was fat and they said I had “such beautiful skin.” When I started to regain weight, I not only went back on my original diet; I cut back even on that rigid regimen, taking myself from two meals a day to one. Because I was eating so little, I guarded that meal with religious zeal: the food had to be exactly right, weighed and measured, and I had to eat it by myself so that I could savor every single bite. This routine threw a serious

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My Daily Intake

wrench into my social life, but I didn’t care. Whereas Scarlett O’Hara clutched a carrot in Gone With the Wind and vowed that she would “never be hungry again,” I clutched my 1 ounce of low-moisture/part skim mozzarella cheese, my hard boiled egg, my Akmak cracker, my 1/2 cup of strawberries and my 1/2 cup of broccoli and swore that I would “never be fat again.”

skinny2I was, of course, hungry all the time, sometimes so hungry that it was hard to sleep at night. I stopped dreaming about potential boyfriends and dreamed only of food. I planned “someday” meals in my head, food I would eat “someday” when I was so thin that I could risk gaining a few pounds by eating normally. I fantasized about baked potatoes with butter and salt, a kosher hot dog on a bun, a Morning Bun from La Boulangerie, chocolate covered peanuts. I stopped reading novels and started reading calorie counters, figuring out how much I could eat and still consume less than 900 calories a day. I was slowly going nuts, but of course I didn’t realize that. In my mind, I had never been healthier.

In my first year of graduate school, my weight dropped to 104 pounds. I was 5’7”, yet when I looked in the mirror I still saw fat. I concentrated ferociously on my coursework and my research, using every ounce of energy I had to continue my track record of earning straight A’s. Socializing with my fellow graduate students was torturous; not only would I not eat while all around me my normal new friends ate pizza and grazed at all-you-can-eat fish fries, I would order tea while they drank beer: tea has zero calories whereas a Miller Lite had 90 calories.

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Me Not Having Any Fun

I forgot how to have fun. I forgot how to relax. I forgot what “normal” felt like. I knew I wasn’t happy, but my starving brain managed to convince me that the problem was that I wasn’t yet thin enough. Whatever weight was five pounds less than my current weight was the magical Golden Snitch, always just out of my reach no matter how doggedly I pursued it.

Every now and then, my body would stage a full out rebellion against my crazy mind and stage a coup d’etat, and I would eat all the foods I had been craving. Near-instant remorse would kick in almost immediately, and I would be terrified at the thought of the weight I would surely gain as a result of my weak will. I developed a strategy of swallowing a handful of laxatives after such binges, which forced everything through my intestines at breakneck speed and carried a lot of water weight out with it.

One particular night during that year, I was in my bedroom, feeling sick from all the food I had consumed and the laxative chaser. I couldn’t tell anyone I was sick, because I didn’t want anyone to know that I had eaten all that forbidden food, and I certainly didn’t want anyone to know I had swallowed a handful of Correctol. On this night, however, something new was happening and I could tell that it was Very Bad. My heart was flipping around inside my chest and I thought it might even be skipping some beats. I really, really didn’t want to die, and so I pulled myself out of the bed and lurched into the family room, where my mother was watching television.

“Mom,” I croaked. “I feel really, really sick.” I stumbled over to the couch and fell onto it, clutching my stomach. My mother got up and started asking me questions. What had I eaten? Did I have a fever? Was I nauseous? I answered her last question by turning my head and throwing up a pile of bright green bile on my mother’s couch.

That spurred her into instant action. My poor mother had not a clue about how to deal with a daughter who was starving herself to death before her eyes. She had no idea how to talk to a daughter who cried if she dared to eat one Pepperidge Farm Cookie. She had no idea how to broach the topic of laxatives when she cleaned the toilet and found empty boxes of Correctol in the trash. But one thing my mother knew, and knew well: how to respond when someone makes a mess of her couch. When she saw the vomit spew out of me and onto the couch cover, she screamed, “MY COUCH!” With the strength of ten men, she picked me up and dragged me down the hall to the bathroom, heaved me into the bathtub, pajamas and all, and turned on the shower to COLD. Then she went and got the couch cover and scurried down to the basement to get it into the washing machine before the stain set.

Other mothers may have reacted differently to the situation, and when I have told this story in the years since, people have often said that my mom’s response was….odd. Whatever her motivation, whatever her limitations, my mother did what she knew how to do, and somehow it turned out to be the right thing. The cold water roused me, the nausea passed, and I got out of the bathtub under my own power. As I toweled myself off and put on some dry pajamas, I admitted to my mother, who was by now up from the basement, that I was in trouble and had no idea how to fix it.

The next morning at 9 a.m. I was in the office of Dr. Hayes Hatfield, our family doctor. He told me—and my mother—that I was anorexic and needed to go to a psychiatrist. Despite her overwhelming distrust of all “head doctors,” my mother trusted Dr. Hatfield and really wanted me to be better. I walked out of there with an appointment for the following day at a place called “Dewey Center.” I would be seeing someone named Dr. Bedi.

I drove to the Dewey Center the next day and checked in at the reception desk. My mother’s daughter, I was very skeptical about this whole endeavor. We simply were not one of “those” families who went to therapists. The only person I knew who had ever gone to a therapist was Woody Allen, and (1)I didn’t actually know Woody, since we had never actually met, and (2)Even in my hunger-addled stated, I could see that Woody Allen was no poster child for mental health despite his thirty years of psychiatric care.

As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site
The Dewey Center

Nonetheless, there I was. I had exhausted all my other “go-to” strategies: will power, denial, prayer, self-help books. Dr. Bedi was the only thing left. As I sat in the waiting room, staring at the carpet in order to make sure I didn’t make eye contact with any other lunatics in the room, I saw a pair of legs moving toward me. The legs were connected to feet, and on the feet were an aggressively ugly pair of Hush Puppies. “Please,” I prayed. “Let those Hush Puppies not belong to the man who is going to be in charge of my mental health for the forseeable future.”

The Hush Puppies stopped in front of my chair and I heard a lilting Indian-accented voice say, “Are you Anne Maloney?” Reluctantly, I tore my eyes away from the carpet and looked up to find a slight, formally dressed Indian man with an inverted bowl haircut and round

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Dr. Bedi in 1980

rimless eyeglasses. Dr. Bedi. I stood up and followed him back to his office, where I sat on the couch and he sat in his chair and he asked me, “Why have you come here?”

My response was a twenty minute diatribe about how we didn’t believe in psychiatrists in my family because they were expensive, useless and probably pretty nutty themselves. In fact, I continued, we didn’t have much use for doctors in general, and for good reason. My grandmother broke her arm once and they set the wrong arm. My great aunt died when she was 34 years old because the doctor let a bubble into her arm when she was getting a transfusion. As a young woman, my mother visited the doctor and was told she would never have children. I am the fifth of five children. Another time, my mother went to the doctor with a chest cold and he put her in “the neck-stretching machine” because they got her file mixed up with someone else’s. In my own life, I suffered through serious pain for years because of an ovarian cyst that was diagnosed by my pediatrician as a “spastic colon.” (For that story, see here)

“So, believe me,” I said to Dr. Bedi, “I’m not here for some frivolous reason. I’m not here because I think you can help me. In fact, I’m pretty sure you will be useless. But I’m afraid I’m dying, and I don’t want to die. You’re my only option.”

After I finished this Charm Offensive, Dr. Bedi said, “So you need to be very sick in your family in order to get medical care? Medical care is the last resort in your family? This is correct?” “Well, yes,” I said. He leaned forward a bit. “And you became very sick the other night, yes?” Yes. “So you are now sick enough to justify finding some help for yourself without forfeiting your family identity?”

Whoa. This guy just met me, I thought, and he already seems to have met my family. Growing up, the family motto when any one of us spoke of seeing a doctor for whatever ailed us was “You had better be really sick.” We said it to each other so often that it could have been etched into our Coat of Arms. And this doctor had talked to me as if he knew that already. I was officially prepared to take Dr. Bedi seriously.

dewwy2My visits with Dr. Bedi every week for two years did, in fact, help me a great deal. He was worth every penny he charged, but he charged a lot. I had health insurance through Marquette, and my policy covered some mental health treatment, but not 100%. I had to satisfy my deductible, and then pay 20% of every charge thereafter. Suddenly my 660.00 research stipend didn’t seem like very much money. As the summer of my first year in graduate school approached, I realized that I was yet again going to have to get a summer job.

My sister Susan had joined a law firm several years earlier, and they needed someone at their office to summarize depositions for the lawyers. Since summarizing depositions was a close cousin of all the Reading Comprehension Exams I had always excelled at in grade school, she suggested me. I took the #31 bus downtown and met with the three attorneys in charge of hiring someone. They liked me, but even more importantly, they liked Susan and trusted her recommendation. I was hired.

Jobs I Have Loathed IV: The Good Dentist

cover-melThe summer before I started graduate school, I had to find a job. I was responsible for paying half of my college tuition, and I still owed my father for my senior year at Mount Mary College. My sister Susan had worked for several summers at our brother-in-law’s dental office, and my parents saw this as the ideal job: Mel would drive me to and from work, he paid a good wage, we knew I would have a reasonable boss, and the hours were steady. What more could I want?

I wanted to spend my summer reading novels, watching the ongoing saga of Luke and Laura on General Hospital and going to the pool. I was a twentieth century version of Bartleby the Scrivener; my go-to response to “Get a job” was “I’d prefer not to.” Bartleby didn’t owe money to my parents, though.  I did. It was fated to be my summer with The Good Dentist.

I thought of Mel as The Good Dentist because of my mother. When my sister Marbeth got married, my mother often worried out loud about her new son-in-law’s dental talents: what if he was a terrible dentist? Would we have to go to him anyway, because he was family? And ruin our teeth? How far must family loyalty go? Would we have to lie and tell him he was a good dentist, even if he was a terrible dentist? Would we need a Stealth Dentist to keep our teeth healthy and only pretend to entrust our teeth to Mel? And would he give us a family discount?  Luckily, my mother’s concerns were put to rest once she actually had Mel perform dental work on her; he was an excellent dentist. For the rest of her life, my mother would periodically remind us what a stroke of good fortune Mel’s dental talent was, sparing our family from all manner of angst and possible dental infidelity.

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Beautiful Downtown South Milwaukee

As a brother-in-law, I liked Mel a lot; I just didn’t want to work for Dr. Foley. Mel’s office was in a depressing place called South Milwaukee; he was located in the heart of that city’s downtown, which was approximately 2.5 blocks long. From Mel’s office, one could walk to the bank, to Walgreens, to the tavern, or to Lloyd’s Lunch, a decrepit looking diner where the glitterati of South Milwaukee dined every day. The office itself was small and beige, tucked in right next to an insurance agency that reminded me of the Ardlou Insurance Agency, the job I had abandoned for my dental apprenticeship. (For the story of my one-day career at the Ardlou Insurance Agency, see Jobs I Have Loathed, III: The Ardlou Insurance Agency)

I had visited this office many times as a patient, and not once did I think, “What a fun place to hang out! I wish I could stay longer!” Mel was a good guy, his staff was nice, but the music playing in the background made my teeth hurt and my sister Marbeth ordered the magazines. For reasons I never understood, she offered the dental patients of South Milwaukee Chicago Magazine, Golf Digest and The New Yorker. I was willing to go to Mel’s office at appropriate intervals for teeth maintenance, but I was always happy to leave after an hour or so and go home.

Mel worked really, really hard. Two summers of watching Susan come home taught me that when Mel worked hard, everybody worked hard. And Mel always worked hard. I had been hoping for a less intense summer job experience. My sister Susan had dealt with the stress of life as a Dental Assistant by stress-eating her way through many tubs of ice cream. Having finally lost 100 pounds the previous year, I was determined to fatten up only my bank account that summer. Graduate school was on my horizon and was certain to feature at least a few brilliant-yet-soulful young men. I wanted to greet all potential boyfriends with my newly svelte figure. I would be a Dental Assistant for three months, but I was determined to transition from my Dental Summer to my new career as a graduate student in size six blue jeans.

Once I started working for him, Mel was no longer Marbeth’s husband and my affable brother-in-law; he was now Dr. Foley–my boss. On the first day at my new job, I walked to their house (they lived just one block from my parents’ house) and together Mel and I made the forty minute drive to South Milwaukee. It was a very hot summer, and Marbeth and Mel didn’t believe in air-conditioned cars.  They had grown up without air-conditioning and figured they had turned out just fine without such frivolous excess.

One of my Dental Assistant Tasks was to man the reception desk, and so I had to dress well every day. In 1980, that meant wearing pantyhose. There is no experience quite like sitting in an oven-hot car in pantyhose, feeling little tributaries of sweat snaking down one’s legs to puddle in one’s shoes.  We always rolled down all four windows, but that merely allowed the sauna-like air to blow directly in our faces and hair. By the time we arrived at the office, I was at least one pound thinner from water loss, which I actually counted as a real plus in my whole “weight maintenance” program.

The office, thank God, was air-conditioned, so arriving at work felt good. We always arrived well before Dr. Foley’s first patient, so it was quiet and cool when we walked in, a state of affairs that changed fast. Every day was a busy day at the Dental Office, which was great for Mel’s bottom line but hectic for his staff.   Several of Milwaukee’s biggest factories were located in or near South Milwaukee, and the women and men who worked in those factories had very good medical and dental benefits. (Which, in my mind, they richly deserved; we drove past some of those hulking factories enroute to the dental office, and they were clearly places where a great deal of hard physical labor was going on.) Those factory workers and their families were Mel’s patients; there were a lot of them, and they took good care of their teeth.

My place at the Dental Office was behind the reception desk; I answered the phone, ushered patients back to the inner sanctum when it was their turn, and at the end of the day, I “balanced the board,” which meant that I made sure that the amount of money we took in matched the amount of money that was charged that day. There were two columns of numbers on “the board,” and if they didn’t match at the end of the day, we stayed until they did, no matter how long that took. Balancing the board was definitely the task I worried about the most. I dreaded those times when the board didn’t balance and we couldn’t leave. The Dental Office was already devouring most of my life, and on those late days it snapped up the precious few hours I could still call my own.

It was pretty clear to me that Mel loved being a dentist. It’s a good thing he did, because he was at the office all the time. That meant, of course, that I was at Mel’s office all the time as well. And I did not love being a Dental Assistant. Five mornings a week, we jumped into the SaunaMobile and drive to South Milwaukee in time to greet Mel’s first patient at 9:00 a.m.  On a routine day, his last patient came in at around 5:00 p.m.  But there really were no “routine days” at the Dental Office. Mel probably saw the various “surprises” that cropped up during the day as interesting new challenges that kept him fresh. I viewed them as random sneak attacks on my personal life.

Teeth are not as predictable as one might like, and peoples’ mouths can go all to hell whether they have an appointment or not.  Mel had to deal with “emergencies” as they happened, which they did with infuriating regularity. A Dental Emergency meant that everything else on the schedule had to be pushed back to a later time. I started to secretly despise those people with their broken teeth, their cracked crowns, their smashed up dental plates, and their bleeding gums. Their emergencies robbed me of my evenings. I had to work hard not to glower at them and mutter under my breath about stupid people who did ridiculous things to and with their teeth. I had to stop myself from saying things like, “You thought it was a good idea to rip that tag off the pillow or open that beer bottle with your teeth? You’re an idiot! A fool! And now it is I who must pay the price!”

Mel gave the office staff an hour for lunch, but of course I rarely ate lunch, because I was terrified of gaining weight. I would use my hour walking the hot and dusty streets of South Milwaukee. Not exactly a thriving metropolis, the city had little to offer me as diversion. By the end of my first week as a Dental Assistant, I had “seen the sights” in South

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A Busy Day in Downtown South Milwaukee

Milwaukee, so I spent my lunch hours on a bench outside the bank, reading and sweating. In a dental version of the Stockholm Syndrome, I would long for my free hour to end so that I could get back into the air-conditioned office. Once in a while, I would stop at Walgreen’s and buy an ice cream sandwich, but then I would castigate myself for endangering my new Graduate School Svelte Self for mediocre Walgreens food. Had I remembered that I was surely going to sweat that ice cream sandwich off on the ride home, I might have relaxed more.

Each day at the Dental Office was a strange combination of stress and mind-numbing boredom. The stress would flare up when a patient called or came in with a Dental Emergency, or the board wouldn’t balance, or a patient’s bridge came back wrong from the lab but didn’t fit in the patient’s mouth. Sometimes a patient would come in who hadn’t paid anything on her bill, and then my job was to be The Enforcer. When this part of the job was explained to me, Jeanette the Office Manager told me that I really had to impress upon the patient that this nonpayment was a Serious Situation. I wondered if I might have to come out from behind my desk and whisper in my best Marlon Brando voice, “Nobody sees Dr. Foley without putting some the money in the till.” “Well, no,” Jeanette replied. “Not like that. But Dr. Foley does let us say, in a very stern voice, “PLEASE.”

Whereas stress resulted when the schedule was ruined, epic boredom accompanied a routine day. One of my responsibilities was answering the phone. The phone never actually rang; it did a sort of “ding-dong” thing. All Day Long. Then there was the “soothing background music” that was piped into the office from radio station WEZW—thus named because, according to the breathy low-voiced announcer, all of their songs were “eee-zeee.” Much of this “eee-zeee” music was produced by a band called The Living Strings. In the odd quiet moment at the Dental Office, I would contemplate the irony of this band name and imagine more accurate monikers such as “The Embalmed Bodies,” “The Very Dead Strings,” “Theme from the Myth of Sisyphus,” or “Music to Listen to living-stringsWhen You Wish You Were Already Dead.” If I am ever put in charge of getting classified information out of a government source—not likely, but I am prepared just in case–I am going to force that source to listen to WEZW—“eee-zeee”–for forty hours a week. I guarantee results.

When I wasn’t busy renaming The Living Strings, I conducted internal debates about which days were worst: the stressful days where Anything Could Happen If It Involved Teeth, or the boring days when the monotony was so relentless that I awaited my bathroom break the way a four year old awaits a trip to Disneyworld.  My answer changed from week to week. Even though emergencies made for a less rip-my-own-eyeballs-out boring day at the dental office, I did long for the steady boredom of an ordinary day when confronted with Dental Chaos. One day about halfway through the summer, the schedule had been interrupted by two emergencies, which meant we were hopelessly backed up. The waiting room was filled to the rafters with increasingly cross patients waiting for their delayed appointments. Every chair was filled and people were standing. There was so much noise we couldn’t even hear The Living Strings, which was actually kind of a bonus. Mel was harried, the staff was harried, the phone was ringing and I felt like an air traffic controller at O’Hare Airport during rush hour.

As we were trying to juggle these many crabby balls, the office phone rang. I picked it up, trying to sound less cross and panicked than I felt, and I said “GoodAfternoonDr.Foley’sofficeHowCanIHelpYou?” A woman’s voice at the other end of the line breathed, “Luke Lives.” Just as I was trying to puzzle out who was calling and who Luke was, an elderly gentleman walked into the office, strode up to my desk, and handed me a tissue. Inside the tissue were several bloody teeth.

mel-7Holding what I assumed were this man’s teeth (unless he had stolen them from someone else, which seemed unlikely), I said to the caller, “Excuse me?” The mystery caller turned out to be my cousin Kathy from Chicago, giving me an update on the adventures of Luke and Laura on General Hospital.  I told my cousin that I needed to hang up now and give Dr. Foley some teeth that I was holding. No one in the office that day made it home on time, I lost complete track of Luke and Laura, and I hurt my cousin’s feelings.

When we were finally finished for the day, Mel and I would jump back into the SaunaMobile and head for home. It was almost always well after 6 p.m. when I peeled my damp legs from the seat of Mel’s car, waved a weak “Hey there” to my sister, and walked back to my parents’ house.  Sweaty and exhausted, I would shower and eat dinner, which just about brought me to bedtime where I could rest up for the next day’s Sisyphean Dental Labors.

It was a formative summer. I learned how to balance a board. I swore that I would never buy a car that didn’t have air conditioning. I concluded that The Living Strings were almost certainly the cause of most migraine headaches in the greater Milwaukee area. And I saw my brother-in-law in a new light. While I groaned and complained and drowned in self-pity enroute to South Milwaukee every morning, Mel hummed cheerfully along with the radio.

When the summer ended, I was more than ready to get back to school. But it was an education to have spent the summer watching someone else love work that seemed utterly unlovable to me. And despite those occasional ice cream sandwiches from Walgreens, I only gained three pounds. My debts paid, I was ready to be a student again. Even during my Summer in Dental Hell, though, I had learned some important things: Walgreens makes inferior ice cream, silence is better than bad music, people do incredibly stupid things with their teeth, the only fun thing in a New Yorker magazine are the cartoons, there is a point at which panty hose will actually start to melt, and human beings are lucky that there are some among us who are willing—even eager—to put their hands in our mouths and fix our teeth. Or, as my mother would say, “Thank God for Good Dentists.”

Jobs I Have Loathed, III: The Ardlou Insurance Agency

ardlou-openIn my freshman year at Mount Mary College, I had a work-study job manning the College/Convent Switchboard. I left that job after I got hit by a car on my walk home from work and could no longer fit my impressively braced leg behind the Switchboard operator’s desk.  When I returned to Mount Mary after the accident, I was offered another work/study job; the Chair of the Philosophy Department asked me to work as their Departmental Assistant, and I was thrilled to accept.

I had entered Mount Mary expecting to major in History and attend law school after graduation; both of my brothers and my sister Susan had chosen that path, and it seemed pretty clear to me that Law School was what people with excellent grades but no talent for the sciences did after college. I had no burning desire to be a lawyer, but I figured it was better to get paid well to do some probably awful job as opposed to getting paid poorly for the same thing.

In my first semester at Mount Mary, I enrolled in four classes: Literature of Western Civilization, College Math (otherwise known as Math for Dummies), Advanced Composition, and the required Freshman Seminar, Man’s Search for Meaning. From the start of the semester, I loved my writing and literature classes. We read eleven books, one of which was Sigrid Undset’s Kristinlavransdatter, a novel which ran to over 1100 pages. I kristinwas in heaven. I decided to double major in English and History.

My required Freshman Seminar was team taught by a philosopher and a theologian; we read thirteen books and were graded entirely on class participation. There were no exams, no papers, no written work of any kind. The first part of the semester was led by the theologian, Fr. Daleke, and the second part of the semester was led by the philosopher, Dr. Conlon. While Fr. Daleke was in charge, I enjoyed the class well enough; certainly it was better than College Math. Then Dr. Conlon took over. I was mesmerized. I was inspired. I was entranced. I was in love.

Dr. Conlon was a married man with two children and I was a congenitally innocent seventeen year old Catholic girl; in other words, I loved from afar. But in hanging on his every work and reading every book he suggested, I began to understand that I loved Philosophy at least as much as I loved Dr. Conlon. It was in that classroom that someone was asking, for the first time, the very questions I had been asking my whole life: What are we doing here? What is this? Is there a God? Why do innocent people suffer hideously while terrible people prosper? Is anything true? If so, what? How do I live? I became a triple major—History/Philosophy/English.

When I was offered the work/study job in Philosophy, I was thrilled because I would be getting paid to do things I wanted to do anyway. The professors had me doing research for articles they were writing (e.g.: “Find out if anyone has written about contemporary rock music in light of what Plato said about the poets in the Republic,”) and researching good movies for their “Film and Philosophy” series. Getting paid for this work was like getting paid to eat chocolate. Lovely as my new work/study job was, however, it had very limited hours and so I didn’t make much money. It was enough to allow me to have a life and still keep my insurance money to pay my half of tuition for my sophomore and junior years at Mount Mary.

My senior year in college was fraught with vocational anxiety. I knew by then that I really didn’t want to be a lawyer. That was the easy part. It wasn’t enough to have clarity regarding what I didn’t want to be. I needed to figure out what I did want to be. And no one was going to pay me to stay in college, take interesting courses, and do research for the Philosophy department. The academic life was Eden, and I was being kicked out. On one particular afternoon during the first semester of that final year, I turned in some work to the Philosophy Department Chair, Dr. Carmichael. He asked how I was doing, and so I started to worry out loud about my future. Dr. Carmichael suggested a deeply radical idea: if I didn’t want to leave the academic world, then maybe I shouldn’t. His exact words were, “I think you might be One of Us.” Graduate School, he explained, was very hard to get into, but once in, I would be have a full scholarship and be given a research assistantship as well. In other words, I would be paid to do what I most loved to do.

My parents actually supported this plan, figuring that I was young and unattached, it wouldn’t cost me anything if I did get accepted, and there was no better time to enjoy a few more years of scholarly bliss before joining the Adult World. Their only request was that I apply to graduate school in History, not Philosophy; History seemed to them the more practical alternative, and would look impressive on my probably inevitable law school applications. I agreed, and applied to Marquette’s graduate program in History, but I applied to the Philosophy program as well, and I took the Advanced Placement GRE in both philosophy and history. My plan was to let God decide; whichever program accepted me (assuming either one did) would be the one I would join. God, however, was no help at all. I got into both, and was offered all the monetary bells and whistles by both programs. I was going to have to choose.

To my parents’ consternation, I chose Philosophy. I reassured them that I was still going to end up in law school after just two more precious years in academia; after two years, I could opt out with my Master’s Degree and really impress those law school deans. I wasn’t lying to them; I believed this. Since I had no desire to teach, ever, I couldn’t imagine how a Ph.D. in Philosophy would be of any use to me in the Real World. I had bought myself two years of reprieve from the world of adult drudgery, and I resolved to cherish them.

First, however, I had to get a summer job. I had run out of money during my senior year, and I still owed my father a substantial portion of my senior year tuition. My sister Susan had worked for a few summers in the dental office of my brother-in-law Mel; I very much wanted to avoid that fate. Like me, Susan was a stress-eater, and her summers in Mel’s ice-creamoffice had almost single-handedly kept the Golden Guernsey Dairy in business. My Dad used to buy ice cream from the dairy in giant tubs, one tub of vanilla and one tub of chocolate. Every night after a long day at the Dental Office, Susan would come home and eat her way through those tubs, one bowl at a time. She gained about twenty pounds, and when it came to emotional eating, Susan was a rank amateur compared to me. If she had gained twenty pounds, I was sure to gain fifty.

By that time, gaining weight was no longer an option for me. In my final year of college, I had gone on yet another diet, but unlike my other attempts, I stayed on this one for a year. In fact, in the summer of my junior year, my “summer job” was losing that weight; it was a full time project that involved eating very differently (thus learning to cook in a totally different way), walking five miles a day, biking ten miles a day, and taking an aerobic dance class. When I graduated from Mount Mary, I weighed 124 pounds, and I was grimly determined never to be fat again. Any job that required major doses of ice cream in order to survive was not a job I could afford.

Since my parents knew that Mel was willing to hire me full time for the summer, my only recourse was to find a job on my own. I began to scour the want ads in the Milwaukee Journal. (In those pre-internet days, the Classified Ads were the surest path to a job. Each day, the newspaper offered page after page of job openings; there were two separate sections, “Help Wanted: Women” and “Help Wanted: Men.” It seems quaint now, and certainly sexist, but I would never have dreamed of looking into the “Help Wanted: Male” section for a job as a welder, or a car salesman, or in construction. I stuck with “Help Wanted: Female” and its options of work as a typist, or a receptionist, or a sales clerk.

I applied for several jobs as a typist, despite the fact that I didn’t know how to type. My high school offered a class in Typing, but my mother had forbidden me to take it. Her philosophy was that a woman who knew how to type would end up typing for the rest of her life. (I was also forbidden to learn how to sew, because my mother believed that a woman who learned how to sew would be forced by her husband to make her own clothes.) It struck me as ironic that this same mother was now encouraging to find a job. As a typist.

touchtypingbookOne of the places to which I applied asked me to come in for an interview. In the week leading up to my interview, I purchased a “How To Type” book from the B. Dalton Bookstore, and commenced learning. It did not go well. I was a terrible typist; every time I tried one of the book’s timed exams, I failed spectacularly. Nonetheless, I showed up for my job interview filled with the optimism that desperation can sometimes engender.

The position for which I was applying was at the Ardlou Insurance Agency, located in a bleak two-story building across the street from my old grade school, Christ King School. There was a travel agency on the first floor, and what my mother used to call a Beauty Parlor. The Ardlou Insurance Agency was housed in a tiny and very cramped office on the second floor. Having worked for the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, I thought insurance offices were large and gleaming places, with lots of people scurrying around and the sounds of typewriters clacking and phones ringing.

Not so the Ardlou Insurance Agency. I was greeted by an elderly gentleman wearing pale blue polyester pants belted such that they stopped well above his ankles (and his socks). He was a very friendly fellow, if a bit odd, and ushered me into the office. “Office” is a generous term for the Ardlou Insurance Agency; the entire Agency was housed in three tiny rooms in which were stacked with piles and piles of manila folders bulging with ardlou1papers. Also housed in the office was a tiny grey-haired lady who looked at me with an assessing gaze. The elderly gentleman introduced himself as Lou, and the tiny grey-haired lady as Ardis; “See?  I’m Lou and this is Ardis! Ardlou! That’s us! The Ardlou Insurance Agency!” After surveying my hobbit-like surroundings and meeting Lou and Ardis, I decided that it would not be such a bad thing to flunk the typing test and get out of there.

Lou picked up a pile of manila envelopes to reveal a typewriter on one of the desks. “Here you go, Little Miss!” he said. “Let’s see how fast you can type!” Dutifully, I sat down and poised my fingers above the keyboard in proper asdf-jkl; format, and when Lou said “Go!” I commenced to typing the paragraph that Ardis had placed next to me. They flanked me eagerly like proud parents (also, the only way we could all fit into the space was if they stood right next to me) as I typed away. When my one minute was up, Lou calculated my score: 36 words a minute with 24 mistakes. I gathered my purse and started to stand up. “Oh well!” Lou chirped. “You were probably nervous! I bet you can type a whole lot better than this! You’re hired!” I couldn’t believe my ears. “WHAT?” I thought. “I’M HIRED? NOOOO!”

Yes. When did they want me to start? “How about right now?” crowed Lou. (Ardis was definitely the silent partner in this enterprise.) Oh God, I thought. “Um, Okay,” I said. “So….do you want me to type, then?” Lou emphatically shook his head and said “Nope, let’s give typing a pass for now.” (Good call, Lou, I thought to myself.) “Let’s get you going on some filing! We need to have some organizing done around here!” (Looking around, I didn’t doubt that for a second. Also, everything Lou said was an exclamation!)

“So,” I asked Lou, “Should I just start picking up these manila folders, or….” “Aw, Heck No!” Lou responded. “These are all pretty well organized. Let’s get you organizing what’s in the filing cabinets!” I looked around. I saw no filing cabinets anywhere in the room we were standing in, nor could I see any in the other two tiny rooms. “And the filing cabinets are located….?” I asked, to which Lou responded, “In the closet! They’re in the closet! 7f66050fb1c37523deea2ebc26541c5dRight here!” And Lou opened the closet door to reveal, yes, two filing cabinets stuffed with papers, with a space between them that I could just about squeeze into if I didn’t eat lunch. Ever again. There was no place to sit, or even to bend over, for that matter.

Ardis sat down at her desk with a sigh—the most she had said the entire time—and Lou cheerfully opened some drawers in the nearest filing cabinet and explained my first task: take every document out of both cabinets, find their proper manila folder, then alphabetize everything. “That should keep you busy for today!” he said. “Meanwhile, I’ll look around for something you can do tomorrow!” And then he shut the door. To the closet. With me inside.

I am proud to say that I organized both of those filing cabinets to the best of my ability. I left that closet in significantly better shape than I found it in.  I also developed a touch of claustrophobia that stays with me to this day. When 5:00 rolled around, I opened the door and emerged from the closet—sweaty, sore from standing, and in despair. Lou, on the other hand, was ecstatic. “This is going to be great!” he said. “You did a great job!” Ardis started to cover the typewriter with its plastic hood, and Lou walked me the five foot distance to the front door. “See you tomorrow!”

vintage_dentist_plaque_custom_name_plank__62175_1408653153_386_513Lou didn’t see me the next day, or ever again. The next morning, I arose at 6 a.m., ate breakfast, wrote my letter of resignation, and drove to the Ardlou Insurance Agency well before they opened, slipping the letter under the door. I thanked them for the experience, told them they didn’t have to pay me for the previous day’s work, and wished them well. I said that while it sure would have been fun to spend the summer with Lou and Ardis, my brother-in-law the dentist really needed me. Compared to the Ardlou Insurance Agency, the Dental Office looked like Shangri-La.

 

 

Jobs I Have Loathed II: The Convent Switchboard

switchboardWhen I started my studies at Mount Mary College in the Fall of 1976, I was so grateful to be back in an academic environment that I could have kissed the ground beneath the Arches. My summer job at Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company had paid very well, but the best benefit I received was a fervent and unswerving gratitude for the privilege of being back in school.

My parents expected the Maloney children to contribute half the cost of our college tuition, and my industrious siblings had never failed to do so, working at all manner of hellish jobs in order to meet this obligation. (In those days, a well-paying summer job provided more than enough money to pay half of a college tuition bill; when I began my studies, tuition at Mount Mary College was 1,495.00 per year. Marquette University, where my brothers went, charged 3, 490.00 per year.) Because my summer job had paid well, I had enough money for my first year of college, but I knew that I would need another job to pay for the three years to follow.

When we were in school, my parents considered school to be our job, and we were discouraged from taking on other jobs during the school year, which was fine with me. Work-study jobs were an exception; perhaps because they were on-campus and sometimes even related to school work, we were allowed to apply for work-study.

I chose to do so. I loved being at Mount Mary and so I figured that any job I would get there would be better than a job in another dreaded insurance office. Work-study pay tended to be generous, since the money was coming back in the form of tuition anyway, and the recipients of that money were already members of the community. My plan was to work steadily throughout the year at my work-study job at Mount Mary and bypass altogether the horrors of the summer job that no doubt awaited me otherwise.

I applied and was accepted; my assignment was to man the main switchboard–the central locus of communication for both the College and the Convent. (The School Sisters of Notre Dame, who owned and operated Mount Mary College, also lived on campus, in the convent.) I was in charge of answering both inside and outside calls, routing all calls to the proper recipient. One buzz from the console meant “outside call,” and I would plug in the proper cable and say in my most musical voice, “Good Morning, Mount Mary College, how may I direct your call?” Two buzzes and I would plug in and say “Switchboard.”

The best thing about my new job was that the nuns didn’t mind if we read during the slow times. I was always willing to take the early morning shift on Switchboard, because that meant fewer calls (often, the College was closed during those early hours and so I was fielding calls only for and between the nuns, who weren’t heavily into phone chat). Fewer calls meant that I was basically being paid to read novels and even sometimes for doing my reading for class. In my early days on Switchboard, I spent a good bit of time congratulating myself for my excellent job-finding skills.

sb4As the first few months passed, I got better at managing the board. It’s hard to picture now in the days of smartphones and wireless technology, but an old-fashioned switchboard is an an intimidating thing to behold. The Switchboard was a sizeable box covered with holes into which cables were plugged in order to receive calls. The machine would buzz, and my task was to grab a cable, plug it into the proper opening, and speak into my headset. Once the caller identified his need, I then pulled his cable out of the hole it was in and plugged it into the hole he wanted—for example, the business office, the library, or the dining room. If the call was a personal call for one of the nuns, I had to hold the caller in his spot while I “rang for” the desired nun.

There were a lot of nuns in that convent at Mount Mary College, and each nun was identified by a system of bells. If the caller asked, for example, for Sr. Georgeann, I had to ring Sr. Georgann’s bell code, which was 1-2-2-1. Throughout the halls of Mount Mary the bells rang “bong/bong-bong/bong-bong/bong.” Whenever the bells rang, every nun pretty much stopped dead in her tracks to listen for her code. Once Sr. Georgeann, for example, verified that yes, that was her bell, she then had to find a phone, pick it up and call the switchboard. Once I answered and heard a breathless voice say, “This is Sr. Georgeann,” I would pull her caller’s cable and plug him into the phone from which Sr. Georgeann was calling. Multiply this activity by the seventy or so nuns at Mount Mary, add the typical number of outside calls to the College, and the Switchboard could be a very busy place.

Keeping all those cables straight and plugging people into the right ones was an art, but especially important was the learned ability to answer every call quickly, routing and connecting calls calmly even if the number of callers on “hold” was escalating fast .  After a few months working the quiet morning shifts, I had more or less mastered the intricate system, and had settled in happily with this job. Then I got promoted. The students who had been handling the Board during the busy afternoon hours were making mistakes, and the nuns were missing calls. It was time for a shakeup, and I was first choice to take on the busy shift. My reading-on-the-job morning shifts were apparently over.

Switchboard at the busy times combined the stress of rush hour with the technology of a 1940’s era television set. Toss in a few nuns who had just been cut off from their much-awaited phone call from home, some outside callers who insisted that they wanted to speak with the head of the archeology department (Mount Mary had no archeology department), and you have a recipe for steady panic, flop sweats and disaster. Several moments from that time stand out for me.

nuns1One afternoon, a bevy of nuns visiting from the Mankato, Minnesota Motherhouse landed at Mitchell Field, the main airport serving Milwaukee. Their leader phoned Mount Mary (from a pay phone in a public phone booth) for directions to our campus; her call was answered by me. I have such a poor sense of direction that I have been known to get lost going from one building to the next, and when I took my Driver’s License Exam, I had to put a big blue ring on my left hand so that when the Instructor said, “Turn left,” I would know which way to go.

Yet I was the woman in whose hands rested the fate of these unfortunate travelling nuns. When I realized that I was being asked for directions to Mount Mary, I pleasantly said to the Lead Nun, “Please Hold,” and immediately plugged a cable into an outside line so that I could call my mother. When she answered I gasped, “Mom! A bunch of nuns need to get from the Airport to Mount Mary. What do I tell them?” My indefatigable mother told me to take out a piece of paper and write down everything she told me, which I did. I hung up on my mother and plugged back into the Travelling Nuns. “Hello, Sisters, here is what you do,” I said calmly, and told them everything my mother had just told me. Grateful, the Lead Nun chirped, “See you soon!” and hung up just as an outside call buzzed in. “Good afternoon, Mount Mary College,” I pattered smoothly. “OH MY GOD,” I heard my mother gasp, “I should have told you to take I-94 West, not I-94 East! Get back on the horn with those nuns and turn them around!” “MOM!” I yelled back. “They hung up! They’re on their way! Where are they going to end up?” Silence. Then, my mother’s voice, deliberately calm. “Well, either Lake Michigan or Chicago.”

This was not good news. I had no way to contact the nuns once they hung up, and so my only recourse was to pray that they stopped to ask more questions prior to entering either the lake or Chicago. I prayed that my shift would be long over when the wandering nuns hit the proverbial fan. I was, in fact, off duty when those bedraggled nuns eventually found their way to Mount Mary, three and half hours later (the trip should have taken about 30 minutes). I never asked any questions about their adventure, figuring that my best strategy was to lay low and hope it all seemed funny to them by the end of their stay. If it did, I never heard about it.

There were several such anxious moments at the Switchboard during peak hours. As I continued to work the busy shifts, I discovered that fast thinking in stressful situations wasn’t necessarily my strong suit. I developed a habit of unplugging from particularly unfriendly callers—calls in which I was required to be ever-pleasant and ready to apologize my very existence if need be—and letting off some steam by saying what I really had felt like saying all along. This practice was helpfully cathartic, until the day I unplugged a rather nasty call from Sr. John Ignace in the Business Office and said in my quietest and most deadly voice, “You can go straight to Hell, Sr. John Ignace,” only to realize that I hadn’t completely unplugged the call. Sr. John Ignace was not amused. Early morning and late night shifts were suddenly more available to me after that.

I had not worked many night shifts when I started on Switchboard, but right before the Christmas Holidays, they started to show up on my schedule. The night shifts ran from 5 p.m. to midnight, and since nuns were not known for their late-night partying, the switchboard got very quiet every night by about 9 p.m. When calls did come in for the nuns, especially around Christmas time, it was essential to connect the caller with the nun. The sisters longed for those phone calls from family, and stopped with every bell that rang to listen for their code. To miss such a call was unthinkable, and I took this responsibility very seriously. Some girls on the Board would ring a sister’s bell once or maybe twice, then give up. I was always willing to keep that caller on the line as long as I could in hopes of finding the desired sister. My reward consisted in those times when a breathless sister picked up a phone after her bell code had rung four or five times, so grateful I had held on while she got out of the bathtub or back from the chapel. I liked working the nights.

That changed the week that Mount Mary College’s President at the time, Sr. Mary Nora, returned from a trip. Sister Mary Nora was a large woman, and for reasons mysterious to all of the students, she was confined to a wheelchair. Whereas the majority of the sisters at Mount Mary College were rather heroically kind and patient, Sr. Mary Nora was not known for her patience or her humility. When she attended Mass in the Chapel at Mount Mary, she always sat in the back because of her wheelchair, but when time came for communion, it was very important to her that she be the first to receive. Most of the students knew to hang back from the communion line until Sr. Mary Nora had whizzed up the center aisle to receive, but once in a while, some poor soul who hadn’t received the memo would step into the communion line before Sr. Mary Nora had received. It was not unheard of that such a person could be physically pushed off her feet by the whizzing wheelchair of Sr. Mary Nora; it was not a mistake that anyone made twice.

I don’t know what Sr. Mary Nora’s personal struggles were, and I was young at the time and inclined toward the absolute sorts of judgments that the young are liable to make. But Sr. Mary Nora did not like me, and I did not like her. By the time I started handling the night shift on Switchboard, we had encountered each other a few times already.

Our first encounter occurred in my first months at Mount Mary; one of the sisters had become a good friend to both my older sister and my father. A dear woman with a good soul, she had discussed with my family the sad state of Mount Mary’s current fundraising initiative. Listening to this discussion, it occurred to me that Marquette University, the bigger University across the city from Mount Mary, never had any trouble raising funds. Mount Mary was a college for women, and I surmised that one of its main obstacles when raising money was the fact that women control a lot less of the money supply in our culture. This seemed deeply unfair to me, and already a bit in love with my College, I decided to right this injustice by writing an editorial for the Milwaukee Journal, castigating my fellow citizens for not doing more to support the education of women.

Sr. Mary Nora was not pleased. In fact, she was enraged. Convinced that the editorial would actually damage the College’s prospects (as it turned out, an incorrect assumption), she summoned me to her office for a personal inquisition. More than anything, Sr. Mary Nora wanted the name of my source. Who had “spilled the beans” to me about the lackadaisical status of the capital campaign? There was no way I was going to tell her who my source was; that poor dear nun would have had her head served to her on a plate. Despite every bullying tactic she could think of, Sr. Mary Nora was unable to get the name out of me, but she never forgot me after that. When the College hosted an annual dinner for the main donors, each class sent as its representative the student with the best grade point average for the year. I was that person in my year, but the number two girl was invited instead. Sr. Mary Nora made sure that I knew the reason: I wasn’t “a suitable representative” of Mount Mary College.

Thus it was that when I was the night girl on switchboard and Sr. Mary Nora returned from her latest trip, I was surprised to be summoned by Sister Herself that first night. I heard her wheelchair whizz up to the steps just outside the Switchboard Office, and then I heard her distinctive voice: “Girl? Girl?” Gingerly, I removed my headset and crept around the desk, poking my head out the door to see Sr. Mary Nora sitting there in her wheelchair. When she saw me, she frowned and said, “Oh. You.” I raised an eyebrow, wondering what on earth she wanted and why she hadn’t simply called the Switchboard rather than go to all the trouble of wheeling over.

I found out right away what the reason was. It was bedtime for Sr. Mary Nora, and she needed to get her nylon stockings off. That, apparently, was my job. When Sr. Mary Nora told me to roll her stockings down from her thighs, over her pudgy knees and over her blue-veined feet, my first thought was, “She is joking.” Of course, she was not joking, and looking back over the years, I can’t think that this was any more pleasant an experience for her than it was for me. I did as I was told, and I remember being shocked more than anything by the fact that Sr. Mary Nora didn’t shave her legs. Once the task was accomplished she turned her chair and whizzed away, without even a “thank you.” I slowly walked back to my desk and thought to myself, “Whoa. This was NOT in the job description.” I didn’t want to have to take off Sr. Mary Nora’s stockings again, ever. I had no idea who to talk to about this, but supposed my complaint would have to go to Sr. Gertrude Mary, a sweet but somewhat dotty nun who was putatively in charge of the girls who worked the Switchboard. I didn’t want to go to her, though, because I didn’t want to have to explain to sweet Sr. Gertrude Mary that I didn’t want to undress nuns, and didn’t think it fit my job description. Even though Sr. Gertrude Mary was about 55 years old, and I was 18, I felt as if she was too young somehow for this information.

Two days later, I reported for work at the Switchboard; it was a Monday and it was the afternoon, so I knew that there would be no “disrobing assistance” calls from Sr. Mary Nora. This was a considerable relief to me, as I still hadn’t decided what to do about my situation. Possibly because I was distracted that day, I dropped several calls and caused more than my share of trouble in so doing. Toward the end of my shift, a personal call came in for Sr. Joselma, an unpleasant nun who received very few personal phone calls. Years after I graduated from Mount Mary, I found out that Sr. Joselma came from a very big family in Wisconsin; they lived on a farm and Sr. Joselma was considered unmarriageable. (She was not an attractive woman, in that she resembled a toad.) Her parents sent her to the Sisters as a way to get rid of her. Of course, I didn’t know any of this that day at the Switchboard; I knew only that Sr. Joselma was an unpleasant woman with a hair-trigger temper.

Sister received a personal call that day, and I lost the call. I not only lost the call; I failed to get the name of the caller. Understandably, this was a huge disappointment to Sr. Joselma, and she was very angry with me. I heard a great deal from her about her anger, and in fact she threatened to make sure I lost my job on Switchboard altogether. Now, what with losing nuns in transit, being called upon to remove nylons from hairy-legged nun, and being in general under-appreciated (in my opinion, of course), I was feeling fairly fed up with the job. The alternative, however—losing work study meant being thrown again into the gulag Summer Job Experience—was worse. I ended my shift that day with Sr. Joselma’s threat ringing in my ears, and sorrowfully began my walk home through the cold winter twilight.

Head down and forlorn, I stepped into the busy intersection of Center Street and Swan Boulevard. Just as I stepped out into the street, a man turning right was momentarily blinded by the sun’s glare on the frost crusting his windshield, and his sizeable sedan hit me full-on.  Literally thrown out of my shoes, my body sailed a few feet and landed, shoeless and with an impressive thump that knocked my breath out.

Unable to catch my breath, I was pretty sure I had been killed, and desperately tried to say the Act of Contrition, a “clear the decks” prayer you want to say before the Particular Judgment—basically, a “Boy Am I Ever Sorry” prayer before meeting up with God. Not only could I not breathe, however; the only prayer I could remember was our family’s grace before meals, which hardly seemed suitable. This rumination all took place in a real time miasma of black panic, as I was sure I was actually dying right then.

ambulanceWhen the crash happened, I must have made quite a noise, first hitting the car and then hitting the pavement, because people ran out from their houses and businesses on the street and started yelling a lot. Someone threw a blanket on me and somewhere in there I got my breath back, which turned out to mean (a) I was not going to die right then and (b) I was in a great deal of pain. There there were sirens, and an ambulance, and a trip to the hospital that I barely remember. I was very much alive, but I had a rather seriously banged up leg, and would need bedrest, then a leg brace for several months, and rehab for my knee.

There was no way I could fit my now heavily braced leg behind the desk of the Mount Mary Switchboard. The driver of the car that hit me was distraught, and owned up immediately to being at fault. My brother, by then an attorney, talked to his insurance company and retro_vintage_black_white_happy_money_woman_poster-r0522e118a05e4a0a8a8bd5109523a6c0_we1qq_8byvr_512they eventually offered a settlement. In order to assess lost wages, my brother had to call Sr. Gertrude Mary and ask for an estimate of those wages. Dear Sr. Gertrude Mary made a very generous estimate of how many hours I would have worked—especially considering that Sr. Joselma wanted me summarily fired that very day—and the money from that accident paid my share of my entire second and third year tuition at Mount Mary College. My knee hurt a lot, the brace was uncomfortable, and rehab was no fun at all, but I was nonetheless pretty happy about the way things turned out. Getting hit by a car was more fun than any job I had ever had, and a leg brace was a small price to pay for getting at least two of my summers back.

 

Jobs I Have Loathed I: Insurance at Dawn

job-coverBy the time World War II ended in 1945, my father was married to my mother and had a child, my sister Marbeth. He came home from the War in dire need of a job, and so he used the G.I. Bill to attend “Insurance School” in Boston. When he completed that program, he came back to Chicago and was hired by James S. Kemper Insurance. Two years after Marbeth was born, Johnnie came, then Jamie, then Susan, and then me. In a little more than a decade my father went from being a dashing figure in an Air Force Navigator’s jacket to one of the men who carried a briefcase and commuted every day from a little house in Park Forest, Illinois to downtown Chicago. He was good at his job and he liked it fine; he was promoted and rose up the ranks until 1963, when the Big Promotion came. My dad was named President of the new Milwaukee Office, and we moved our family and our fortunes to Milwaukee, commuters-ic-park-forestWisconsin.

For a while, my dad enjoyed his new position a great deal; he was a good insurance salesman, and he had a number of lucrative accounts—Milwaukee companies such as Bucyrus-Erie, Cutler-Hammer, Johnson Controls. His salary rose steadily and there were generous bonuses. My dad was very good at recognizing talent and training other young men to excel at the insurance business. In those days, success was about numbers and risk assessment, of course, but it was also about personal relationships. People liked my father, and he liked them. Back in Chicago at the Home Office of James S. Kemper, the powers-that-be were impressed with the men my dad hired and trained—so impressed that they repeatedly took them away from the Milwaukee office and gave them branch offices of their own, which was very good news for those young men but not such good news for my father.

As the years progressed and the World War II generation aged, the next wave of talented and bright young men started going to college instead of to work after high school. It was more and more difficult for my dad to find qualified young men who wanted to leave high school and go right to work. The people he ended up hiring were no longer the cream of the crop, and the strain started to wear on him. At the same time that his talent pool was striking out for greener pastures, my dad’s drinking was escalating and causing some serious damage in his personal and family life. We were all deeply relieved and grateful when he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous in 1970, and stopped drinking. While his drinking habits changed, however, the insurance world hadn’t changed, and entertaining clients was still a big part of success in his field. Desperately needing to stay sober, my father was less and less eager to take clients out for nights on the town, and when he did go out, his clients were not impressed with a man who didn’t have the bonhomie to have a drink (or ten) with them.

In the 1970’s, Milwaukee was still the home of large manufacturing companies, and my dad wrote the insurance for just about all of them. When those factories and companies closed down, one after the other, my dad lost account after account. While it was through no fault of his that the face of Milwaukee industry was changing, the bottom line at the kemper-insurance-building-20-n-wacker-drive-new-sign-1947Milwaukee office was looking sorrier and sorrier, and James S. Kemper let my dad know about their disappointment, loudly and clearly.  My dad didn’t retire until 1990, but the last twenty years of his work life were miserable. He hated going to work, hated how little the young men (and now women) cared about doing things the way he had always done them, hated the steep learning curve of confusing new technology, hated prostrating himself to write insurance for submarine sandwich shops instead of giant manufacturing concerns.

I was the fifth of the five Maloney children, and my childhood coincided with the hardest years of my dad’s career. My mother stayed at home and reared us, every now and then taking on a part-time job once we were all in school, but never as a way to help support the family. Supporting the family was 100% my father’s project, and he persevered. He worked his way through tuition for Catholic high schools, Catholic colleges—and Catholic law school for three of the five Maloney children. Nonetheless, the image of “the working life” etched into my mind at a young age was that “work” was draining, a form of drudgery that offered neither inspiration nor joy; work sucked the pleasure out of life like a straw sucks air out of a tire. As a child, I didn’t think much about what I “wanted to do” when I grew up, but I knew with every fiber of my being what I didn’t want to do—I didn’t want to get a job and end up as stuck as my father.

My siblings knew that they were expected to work while they were in high school and college, and work they did. My brothers and sisters were all good students during the school year and stoic worker-bees during the summer. My sisters’ jobs didn’t seem completely terrible—they worked in retail, mostly—but my brothers’ jobs seemed to have sprung out of the bleakest Dickens novel. They worked at places like Continental Can, Allis-Chalmers, Berger Polishing, the Milwaukee Sanitation Department (in other words, they were garbage men), and SuperExcavators. These jobs entailed long hours, oppressive heat, terrible smells, back-breaking labor, and continual harassment from the regular workers who sneered at the “college boys” and gave them all the worst tasks. And although my sisters never faced the harsh and dreadful summers that my brothers endured, they, too, often came home exhausted from long days of standing, frustrating days of being yelled at and treated badly by customers and crabby supervisors.

The first powerful career goal I had, therefore, was simple: I never wanted to get a job. Ever. I knew that this path would be a challenging one, because I would be expected to work just as my siblings had worked, just as my father went to work every day. Without even consciously planning it, I started to “lay low” right around the time I turned sixteen, typically the age at which my siblings started applying for jobs. I accepted every baby-sitting job offered to me, in hopes that the money I earned there would suffice. It was hard to make a decent living at babysitting, however, because my mother refused to let me babysit for anyone except my own nieces and nephews. My grandmother—her mother—had cared for her nine surviving siblings after their mother died young, and was tired of children by the time she got married herself. Not wanting her own daughters to “wear themselves out” taking care of other peoples’ children, my mother enforced her strict “only family” rule.

I adored my nieces and my nephew—my sister Marbeth’s children—and often spent time with them even when I wasn’t being paid, so babysitting for them never seemed like a job. My hope was that I could keep this “not-job” long enough to escape some truly awful “real job” that might be awaiting me. Also, an advantage of being the youngest of five children is that by the time I came along, my mom and dad were pretty tired and just didn’t pay as much attention to me. I sort of meandered around “under the radar” for a while. Even I knew, however, that my day of reckoning had to arrive. And so it did.

In the summer of my junior year of high school, my mother started suggesting I turn in applications for a job. My friends were getting summer jobs, and of course my ever-industrious siblings were already hard at work in their gulag style summer jobs. I saw no way out of leaving the house every day to walk the pavement and look for a job that I passionately did not want. Once out of the house, it occurred to me that the Wauwatosa Public Library was a couple of miles up the street, and air-conditioned. My problem was solved. I would leave the house, walk to the library, read all day, walk home and sigh sadly, eyes downcast, when my mother inquired about my prospects. Did I feel guilty about this deception? Of course I did. But the alternative was worse. The alternative was getting an actual job. Not surprisingly, I did not find a job that summer.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance   813150Then my senior year of high school was drawing to a close and even I knew the jig was up. If I didn’t find a job, my mother was going to find one for me, and she was very excited about the prospect of placing me on the coattails of my sisters, both of whom had worked in the Book Department of Marshall Field and Company. I was forced to interview with the supervisor there, a woman named Mrs. Price who despised my sister and made it clear that she was fully expecting to despise me, too. Figuring that any job I found myself was better than being the third Maloney girl for Mrs. Price to torture, I applied for a job at Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, housed in a forbidding grey behemoth of a building in downtown Milwaukee. I do not recall whether I recognized the irony of following my father, however temporarily, into the insurance business. I only knew that this job had a big advantage: if I got it, I was pretty sure my mother wouldn’t let me take it.

The job I applied for involved sorting computer output for every employee on the seventh vitosha_computerfloor. I would be expected to arrive at my job, pick up my giant cart, wheel it to the Room With the Giant Computer They Actually Called Hal, have stacks and stacks of computer printouts loaded onto my cart, wheel the cart back to the seventh floor, and spend the next four hours sorting it according to a system of rules so intricate and weird they could have been straight out of a wizard’s spell book. The most important fact about this job, however, was that since the drones office personnel needed their computer printouts on their desks at 9 a.m. sharp, my workday began at 5 a.m. and ended at 10 a.m. In order to get to my job, I would have to get up every morning at 3:30 a.m., drive downtown, park my mother’s car and step over last night’s drunkards and bums to get to the front door of Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company. No way, I thought, would my mother risk my health and safety in that manner.

I was wrong. My mother was fine with my job’s hours, and no matter how darkly I painted the picture of my harrowing and dangerous morning commute, she just laughed and said I was certainly a very dramatic girl. The pay was great, she told me, and it wasn’t even a full time job, so I should consider myself lucky. I did not consider myself lucky.

officeI hated that job. I hated getting up in the middle of the night; I hated driving my mother’s notoriously unreliable car downtown; I hated my giant cart; I hated Hal and all his minions; I hated feeling scared and stupid all the time as I figured out which sheets of input went on which desk, and I hated being surrounded by people whose entire lives consisted in showing up every day in that giant mausoleum of a seventh floor and adding up the numbers of people who had accidents in their bathrooms every year in Pomona, California.

 

My main source of comfort and solace in those days was food, and I gained forty pounds that summer. I would get home from my job at around 11:00 in the morning, glassy-eyed, exhausted and depressed, fix myself some food, and watch reruns of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley as I “rested up” for the next day’s weary march into the Building Where Hope Went To Die.

In spite of my despair, I ended up learning to do this job very well, and when it was (joy!) time to quit because I was starting college, the Supervisor of the Seventh Floor offered me a big raise and more flexible hours if only I would stay. There was no chance of that. I was grateful to have survived at all, and had no desire to gain another forty pounds, and another forty after that. Who knew where such a path might end?

I made a good bit of money that summer, especially considering my job’s lack of full time status. The most important thing my job at Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company did for me, though, was remove any trace of doubt from my mind that I wanted to go to college.  As I

mount-mary-1
Mount Mary College

stood over my desk, arranging the computer printouts on my cart, day after day, “college” became a mantra for me; I had gone from being a pretty terrible student in grade school, to a B student in high school. After my months at Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, I would never slouch my way through a school year again. Having seen the alternative, I couldn’t wait to get back into a classroom, where people actually wanted me to do things like write papers on the Revolutions of 1848 and the differences between Iago and Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. I never took school for granted again, and I understood for the first time how lucky I was to go to school at all. When I took my place in the Freshman class at Mount Mary College, I was very, very ready.