Hell No, Love God
I sashayed into a midtown office seeking employment in 1983 at age 22. “How fast can you type?” came the question from the Manhattan headhunters. I’d just told them I had earned a bachelor’s degree in English. Type?
Dante, the merry recruiter managing my case, helped me rehearse for the morning interview with Stone & Adler, an advertising firm on Park Avenue South. My attire: red patent-leather pointed-toe pumps, a hip-length white denim jacket and navy polyester skirt.
“Love the shoes, Gina,” Dante said, revealing all his teeth. “The skirt works but the jacket…” He paused.
“What’s wrong with my jacket?”
“The jacket’s fine; you look great. Next time you might want to try something a little less…sporty.” As I left Dante’s office, I observed the matched tailored suits of the women in the reception area. Brown. Navy. A demure burgundy. No red. Anywhere.
“Nice shoes!” Gail S. said as she led me into her office at Stone & Adler. Gail, one of the Account Directors, would be my boss; I’d also support her Associate Account Executives or “AAE’s.” Gail appreciated my English literature degree; told me she had one just like it. And, that I reminded her of her ten years ago. She didn’t have an M.B.A. Gail began her career as a secretary and worked her way through the ranks. “You can, too, Gina,” she assured me. “Pay your dues at this level, and by year-end, we’ll have you as a Traffic Coordinator,” an entry-level position on the account management track.
When my first year at Stone & Adler rose and set, I had averaged 50 hours a week, barely looking up from my IBM Electric typewriter. Still, no Traffic Coordinator promotion for me.
Bob F. was an Account Director for a different client, and one of five executives for whom I tapped out 60-page marketing plans on an electric typewriter. He had put the kibosh on my promotion. From his view I wasn’t entry-level executive material. The proof? One day seven months earlier, I had cried in the office.
All five of the executives I supported had waited until the day before the General Manager’s deadline to begin writing their marketing plans. Each fed me snatches of scrawled pages, the pica versions of which hurled at me with edits rendering the text new. With each revision, I hunched over the whirring of the soon-to-be-obsolete typewriter, scissors and cellophane tape at the ready. White-out stippled my face and fingertips like ceremonial paint, and correct tape billowed from between my knuckles.
The deadline loomed like furniture and strewn clothing which, in a room’s darkness, strikes the imagination as a menace. And that deadline fueled the ferocity with which the executives I typed for hurled their copy and fired their commands.
I tented my palms over my face as if pelted by needle crystals in an ice storm. The sobs that followed were robust.
After escorting me from the row of secretarial desks along the office’s main thoroughfare into his private office, Bob F. gestured toward an upholstered chair opposite the desk. “What’s wrong?”
I resigned from Stone & Adler 13 months after my hire date and six months after Bob admonished me for remaining mute under the weight of my workload. He assured me had I voiced my burden, he would have farmed portions of his marketing plan to the other secretaries. And who, I wondered inside my head, would have assumed responsibility for typing the other secretaries’ marketing plans that their assigned executives had dumped on them eight hours before deadline?
Two months after landing at my desk at a new job in a public relations firm near Grand Central Station, Account Executive JB called. Would I like to come back to Stone & Adler on his team as an Associate Account Executive for AT&T? JB knew that my learning curve would be steep, but I was bright, he said; and he would help.
This was a scene right out of my favorite movie, “Working Girl” starring Melanie Griffith. Just like the heroine at the climax of this 1984 film when her title changed from secretary to Wall Street executive, I imagined phoning friends from my private office and asking them, “Guess where I am?”
The resumes of Columbia University MBA graduates crammed the file cabinets of Stone & Adler. Many I had archived in what Gail S. dubbed her “TBNT” file: Thanks-But-No-Thanks. As an AAE, I would garner a $10,000 increase in annual salary and leapfrog the entry level. Best of all, I would return to Stone & Adler not as a subordinate but as a peer.
My plan to attend graduate school, though new, had already blossomed into evening pre-requisite courses at Hunter College, my alma mater. The decision to advance my education felt right and I was having a grand time. JB’s offer brought validation, the promise of a career path, and a tormenting choice.
During the next 48 hours, I decided that graduate school would wait. JB had extended an opportunity unprecedented in Manhattan’s advertising circles; to be sure, plucked from the pages of a Hollywood script. Turning him down was unthinkable.
One week into the last two of my tenure at the public relations firm, Carol N. called. The new General Manager for Stone & Adler, Carol delivered disappointing news. “AT&T gave the business to a competitor, Gina. Your position was attached to that budget. Can you get your old job back?”
“I – I’m not sure,” I told her.
“If you can’t, we can still offer you an AAE position, but you’d be reporting to Bob F.”
From Carol’s tone I suspected that my tears, and Bob’s reaction to it, were now Stone & Adler lore.
“I’ve spoken with Bob,” she continued. “And he’s willing to try it with the condition that he’ll evaluate your performance after one month.” Even at age 23 I knew that few people could demonstrate their full competence to an employer a mere month into the job. I could learn but not without help. And there would be no help from Bob.
Some might have called this moment coincidence. Others might have tossed it off as an insignificant random event. Me? I lacked the lexicon for naming the force that had plucked me from one side of the fork in the road – an early corporate career – and then deposited me on the other – graduate school. One that would transform my life in ways seeable only twenty years later. Still, the clarity of this moment rattled me like shifting tectonic plates. Had I not been the daughter of a militant atheist, I might have known it as the hand of God.