Diary of a Mad Secretary
By John Sanchez
Secretary’s Day has a paradox at its heart–secretaries deserve a reward but what they usually get is lunch with the boss. From my own experience in the field, I can tell you that that is more punishment than anything else. But I personally never even got that–no cards or flowers either.
I always took solace in 9 to 5, that gutsy salute to the invaluable secretary. Just like Dolly, Lily, and Jane, I survived by smoking dope and cooking up harebrained schemes to hamstring the bosses. But while the movie gals’ plotting freed them by getting their boss packed off to the Amazon, I only ended up getting laid off and collecting unemployment.
I entered the secretarial profession in true 90s style–I signed up with a temp agency. Every morning I’d huddle under the covers, hoping they wouldn’t call me with an assignment. When the inevitable call came, I’d drag my carcass off the futon and into my pathetic thrift-store imitation of office wear. The holes under the arms and the masking-taped hems didn’t really matter, because once I’d get to whichever glass tower I’d been consigned to, I was pretty much invisible. No supervisor trusts a temp to do a permanent worker’s job, but it’s no good for a secretary’s chair to just sit empty. My agency–reputed to be the city’s classiest–forbade us to pass the hours by reading, so when there was no work to do I sat and stared at a sick secretary’s wedding picture.
Office pals pass the hours chitchatting away, but the temp is a lonely worker. Finally, I invented a game: Celebrity Secretary, for one player only, ages 21 and up. I’d think of a legendary Hollywood actress and then imagine how she’d portray a person in my situation. If I had a private cubicle and was in a particularly lighthearted mood, I might even execute a performance. Rita Hayworth made for a vivacious, head-tossing receptionist, while Audrey Hepburn was professional and pixieish. Marlene Dietrich tended to be stern and efficient, crossing out entire lines of verbose memos. I don’t even want to tell you about Bette Davis.
Another way to run down the clock was petty theft, though all that really got me was a studio apartment crowded with Post-its and tea bags. I also found that I could look quite busy by entering new words into the computer’s dictionary, like teh, adn, ect. Unsurprisingly, this tactic failed to topple corporations, but at least I could pretend I was a right-on revolutionary. Looking back I realize that the only person this could possibly inconvenience was another secretary, who certainly didn’t need the grief. Sorry.
The men’s room was a convenient location for extended breaks: since office decorum forbids any acknowledgment of bodily functions, nobody wanted to ask what took me so long. The bare walls of the stalls were always inspirational. I settled on a standard tag: “I suck big dick here Thursdays at 4:30.” No, I didn’t make good on my word. But I do like to imagine hordes of middle managers lining up for a letdown.
Things looked up, briefly, when I graduated from temping to full-time secretarydom. I got the gig when my agency sent me for a one-week assignment. The agreement with the agency clearly stated that clients had to pay a kickback if they hired a temp permanently, but my new employer didn’t really care so much for rules. The Barbara Stone Group (name changed to protect the innocent, if any) was a ragtag operation on the fringes of the publishing industry. Barbara herself was a flamboyant character known for her capricious moods and surprising fashion sense. Say what you would about her, no one else could wear feathers in daylight like she could. BSG ran Barbara’s eventful private life as well as her business affairs, which meant we four employees had to get in on her various New Age and occult practices so our bad vibes wouldn’t ruin anything. In times of weakness, I still find myself mumbling her incantations.
I actually started looking forward to going to work in the morning, especially since “work” usually meant listening to how Barbara’s night had gone or driving her to the store to help her pick out some sequined sweaters. I was an enthusiastic worker for the first time in my life, cleaning the office and streamlining Barbara’s convoluted organizational systems, which gave me an unexpected sense of accomplishment. My friends tended to work as waiters or sales clerks, but for me, secretary was the way to go.
But a good job was too good to be true. I became more and more aware of Barbara’s unpredictable mean streak. Her irrational demands, which had seemed merely eccentric at first, were slowly turning creepy. I knew something was wrong the day she called my coworker Linda and told her to swing by her condo: she was feeling ill and had something that needed to be taken to the doctor. It turned out to be a stool sample in a brown paper bag. The kicker? Barbara had the address wrong–poor Linda drove that log all over the Land of Lincoln before finding the lab.
My secretarial paradise grew cold, and the bad attitude of my temping days returned with a vengeance. I stayed on, grifting Barbara in a million small ways. Like my mother always said, when life gives you nada, make limonada. All four employees were in on it. During Barbara’s frequent absences, we’d stage mini-Oktoberfests in the office, eating and boozing while the files gathered dust. We also loaded up the company’s office-supply orders with fancy gadgets for our home use. I even scored a saddle stapler, the Holy Grail of zine makers. I had begun to channel my frustrations into my first-ever zine, Fed-up Secretary, photocopied at Barbara’s expense, of course. Fed-up Secretary advocated office theft, putting Out of Order signs on functioning copiers, and unplugging bosses’ computers. There was a write-in complaint column called “True Secs.” Linda’s stool story was included under the headline “Tired of Taking the Boss’s Shit.” Others included “What an Asshole” and “Shafted on Secretary’s Day.” That last one I wrote myself. For all that I’d put up with from Barbara, she didn’t even give me a card. But not long after Secretary’s Day she did give me my walking papers. It wouldn’t have been so bad to splash around in the temp pool again, but I decided to ride out my unemployment benefits instead. It’s amazing how far $200 a week can go in Chicago.
These days I’m out of the office altogether, so rewatching 9 to 5 is always a special treat, my belated Secretary’s Day present to myself. Sometimes I wish my current professions had their own holidays too (Freelancer Fiesta, Bottle Recycler Day), but being a civilian again is reward enough. See you Thursday at 4:30!