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Making Changes - A Brief Memoir
In the Spring of my 48th year, I returned to school. Fifteen pounds, one husband and a career lighter, I was starting over. It took only ten minutes and three hefty bags to rid myself of clothing that represented my last twenty-seven years of hard work, groveling, and extensive travel that took me away from my family for days at a time. I would like to say that I had an epiphany and quit my job. That would not be the truth. I was unceremoniously fired after returning from a long business junket to the east coast. That was the catalyst for making changes that had been brewing for some time. As my father would have said, “the irons were in the fire.” Nonetheless, after two decades of selling out, it felt like a change that I had careened into and it was welcome.
Devoid of life, the clothing I got rid of was like dead skin from a bad burn. Although red and turquoise, even lavender, could be found amongst the large heap that formed as I excavated through years of accumulation, funereal black and brown were dominant. My summer habiliments included matching skirts and sweaters in beige, taupe, and more black. While the rest of the world wore bold, bright hues inspired by steamy summer days, I was wearing clothing the color of spackling paste, the compound used to cover cracks in walls before you primer them and paint them a real color. My wardrobe blended perfectly into the catacomb of cubicles at work.
This obfuscation of me didn't happen overnight. I had sold out slowly and my clothing reflected this dimming and waning of me. I recollect a cartoon from an old legal publication that properly summarizes what happened in a nutshell (if a nutshell could properly encapsulate an expanse of time.) A woman of the early 1900's was pondering a purchase in a general store. The object of her desire was a shiny new set of bread pans. “I'll sell my soul to the devil for those bread pans”, she declared. I saw the humor but didn't heed the message and started on a trajectory that lead me from law office to insurance cubicle, insurance cubicle to “territory”, eventually landing in a financial career that had me dining with the enemy and spouting such witticisms as “work hard, play harder” while I downed another fine sauvignon blanc with my colleagues. Somewhere in between wearing the gauzy and brilliant second hand finery of my poverty stricken twenties, and sporting a Communist Party Membership card on my refrigerator as I toiled with the rest of the proletariat, I lost sight of a few principles, adopted a Dickensian palette and became an orphan of the corporate world.
My long foray into the dark side and off the color spectrum didn't begin with selling my soul for bread pans or money. It began with an attempt to get what my husband to be referred to as a 'real job', meaning my evening career as a cocktail waitress at a swanky downtown watering hole didn't qualify. He had a point. While he labored as a fresh new talent in the district attorney's office, I served scotch to stockbrokers after work and Spanish coffees to the late crowd. His expectation that I arrive home prior to 4:00 in the morning was not unreasonable. Making it a condition of matrimony probably was.
In an effort to please and to not delay the nuptials, I settled upon instead of searched for, employment. The wife of one of my husband's attorney friends worked at the county courthouse and told me that they were looking for another clerk. I never stopped to investigate how I could use my education to pursue employment that coincided with my interests. A change was due, but the one I was about to make was in the wrong direction.
Suffice it to say I never imagined that I would toil alongside women of ponderous weight in sagging poly pants as I accepted fines from unhappy citizens who had just had their vehicles towed. If I had, I would have slit my lovely wrists there and then. To say they were a mediocre lot it to give more credit than due. I was raised in a family where the work ethic was sacred. We began picking crops as soon as we were big enough to heft a hundred pound bag of green beans, and proudly purchased our school clothes with the proceeds. My coworkers consumed candy bars and smoked cigarettes while eating at the public trough. I was castigated for working “too fast”. To top it off I was also yelled at by citizens who actually made enough to own a car. Of course, it is that sort of job that makes the next one look so very good.
The next one was offered to me as I was swilling a long island iced tea at a downtown bar that offered “dollar drinks” on Thursdays between four and six. I was wearing a vintage sky blue Hawaiian shirt and had liberated the top two buttons for happy hour when I was double-teamed by a seemingly harmless pair who were “partners at law”. The next week I interviewed with them in a pale blue button-down blouse and a pale yellow cotton dirndl skirt. My ingenue tackiness aside, I was immediately hired and put to work writing business letters, interviewing clients and in general, clumsily handling work I was ill prepared to do. Luckily, my new employers didn't seem to notice. Large verdicts in their favor seemed to cavort towards them, and there was a constant celebratory mood involving cocaine, caviar, and Tattinger champagne. The longer this provident mood endured, the more I found their laissez-faire attitude towards money enchanting.
Feeling the need to dress for their success, I applied for and received my first credit card at a major department store and proceeded to charge it to the limit, buying several new outfits that I thought fit my new career. They were shapeless and semiprofessional but not totally devoid of color. I even have fond memories of one, with its' slim black skirt and black and green jacquard hip length top. Still a bit in my D.H. Lawrence phase, mixing the artistic socialist with whatever is the opposite of that, I donned brogues and brightly colored stockings with mid calf skirts for Fall. That look was discouraged by the firm with a thoughtful gift of a pale pink silk blouse and pleated skirt. I eventually headed on my own in the direction of sale rack Liz Claibourne, dressing more like a matron than a young woman of almost thirty.
I worked for this illustrious pair for eight years. When their partnership dissolved, I was left without an occupation. I contemplated returning to school at this point in time and went as far as completing an application packet to nursing school and meeting with an admissions counselor. Despite the fact that my notion of nursing was a cross between Florence Nightengale carrying a latern during the Crimean War and Scarlett O'Hara fainting as a wounded confederate soldier suffered an amputation with no anesthetic, I had a genuine desire to help others. My betrothed had other ideas. He was under the impression that our vows included the promise of two paychecks and no student loans. For the second time, I acquiesced.
Numero tres was paralegal to a workers' compensation insurance company. I wore a navy blue polka dot dress to the interview. It vaguely resembled the brown polka dot dress Julia Roberts wore to the polo match in “Pretty Woman”. My future employers were charmed for all of six months. It was long enough to plant the seed that not only was I a paralegal but there was a whole insurance industry out there waiting to be plundered for jobs. My 'loot' was an eight year term at a property and liability company where I sat behind a desk and received calls from angry claimants who had been injured in automobile accidents, victimized by thieves, and who had sustained wind and water damage to their homes. My reward for holding the purse strings as tight as possible was an office in my home, a company car, a larger territory and a workload twice its former size.
I ignored abundant signs indicating I was off course. My husband enjoyed his colleagues and socialized with them outside of work. I could not fathom doing anything with my co-workers. Socially and politically conservative, I was constantly on guard lest I let my true feelings be known. Unfortunately, there was no promise of imminently more interesting work to make this sacrifice worthwhile. My fashion suffered greatly during this period as did my joi de vivre. I had a brief blitz of tres chic when I became pregnant with my daughter. I wore red. Bright red. And blue, sky blue. I felt truly beautiful for the first time ever and was completely in love with my form. How I made a living was not important as long as it offered insurance benefits, a maternity leave and the ability to order soft pastel flannel sheets and a wicker rocking chair from Eddie Bauer. When I returned to work in a black dress with spit down the back, I thought I looked “bomb”. And in a way, I did.
It is the nature of insurance companies to be purchased by other insurance companies. By the time my adjusting knowledge had grown to include the ability to crawl under a house in an oversized jumpsuit and identify the carcasses of dead rodents, my company was on the blocks and so was my job. I received a sizeable severance package and was enormously relieved. My daughter was seven, my marriage had rebounded from a very difficult episode, and I was flush enough to take some time to ponder what I really wanted to do when I grew up. Barely two months into that blissful reprieve, I received a call from a friend who knew a friend who needed an assistant desperately. I agreed to call “this friend”, promising myself that I was doing this to be polite and wasn't really entertaining the proposition of returning to work before I had fully examined and reflected upon the color of my parachute.
My interviewer was a voluptuous and vivacious blonde. A born salesperson, she needed an assistant with equal energy. Her job was to acquire the investment relationships and mine would be to keep them. No matter that I didn't know what a mutual fund was and had never willingly invested in my previous employers' retirement plans. I could learn all of that. And did. I also acquired a new wardrobe which involved more fashionable black clothing with matching handbags and shoes. It did not go unnoticed by me that my new boss wore expensive tailored slacks that fit her exquisite derriere to a tee, while I could have passed for a nun in my navy suit and sensible shoes. I became her perfect accessory.
For seven years I met with corporate clients, provided investment education to hundreds of employees, and wined and dined prospective clients. I convinced myself that I was providing a needed service. It helped that I was well compensated for this. It was difficult to ignore the lavish company expenditures on booze, questionable entertainment, and padded expense accounts, but I did. When the party ended, rather badly I might add, I was tired and drained.
I would have like to have given my work garments a fitting funeral. Piled high upon themselves they would have made a lovely funeral pyre. But I don't like to waste. So I filled my hefty bags and donated them with well wishes for their next owners. For the past three years, I have worked in a field that is far more my true calling. I care for people in a high risk hospital and I work at a residential care center for people who are living with AIDS. I write to gather further 'oxygen'. I wear scrubs to work every day. In blue.