A Different Kind of #MeToo Story

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Workplace abuse doesn’t have to be sexual to be abusive.

“I hired you for your brains.”
It was his mantra. My new boss was so excited to learn that I was a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, just across the bay. His wife, he told me during our interview, was a professor there. He informed me on my first day of work that that was why he’d hired me: he liked smart women. He bragged about my brains to the whole office as he introduced me around.

Soon, all too soon, the unspoken second half of his mantra became painfully clear: “…so why don’t you use them?”

It was a starter job, but a pretty good one; I felt lucky to have landed it so fresh out of college, with a résumé short on work history. The office was on the top floor of a tall building in downtown San Francisco. I would be paid an okay salary, but the benefits were generous even by the standards of the day (the very early 1990s): plenty of vacation and sick leave; the company matched 401(k) contributions dollar-for-dollar; and the free, excellent health insurance even covered psychotherapy, if you can believe it.

I commuted downtown on BART, carrying my high-heeled pumps in my handbag, like the rest of the skirt-suited, sneaker-shod ladies. I even wore panty hose (yes, my young friends, the eighties and nineties were a different time). I enjoyed playing dress-up, even though I couldn’t afford much, rotating my few outfits as best I could.

Things are always so clear in retrospect. There were signs on my very first day: my predecessors — two of them, most recently — were already gone; apparently no one had managed to stay in the job longer than six months. There was nobody to train me, no instructions left behind.

It was an Executive Secretary position, though: how hard could it be? I had those brains, after all.

I went through the desk I’d chosen as mine, then the other one, searching for hints and clues, things left undone. My boss was out much of those first few days, doing business, I supposed. I found a notebook with some information about travel arrangements. There was a Rolodex. I figured out how the phones worked, then waited to be assigned something to do.

I suppose you could say that my boss trained me, but only by making it clear when I’d gotten something wrong. On day three, he dumped a huge pile of mail on my desk on his way back from lunch.

“I found this in the mail room,” he said, his voice dripping with disappointment. “Haven’t you been checking my box?”

“Um…where’s the mail room?” I asked, suddenly sick to my stomach. Of course there would be mail. Why hadn’t I thought to ask about the mail?

He rolled his eyes, took me to the mail room, then repeated his mantra.

On Friday of that first week, though, he stopped by my desk with a big smile. “Come on, I’m taking you to lunch at Postrio.”

I was thrilled and terrified. Postrio was San Francisco’s “it” restaurant just then, and far, far out of my budget, a place I’d only read about in Herb Caen’s column in the newspaper. So oh my goodness yes.

But also: my older married boss wanted to take me, his new secretary, out to lunch in a fancy, trendy restaurant? I may have been only twenty-three, but I wasn’t an idiot. (Brains, you know.) I knew what this would look like, what it might mean.

He drove us there in his luxury car, even though it was only a few blocks from the office. A valet whisked the car away; my boss led me down a sweeping staircase to the most gorgeous dining room I’d ever seen. Lunch was amazing, delicious, incredible. My boss told me stories about all his famous friends, asked me a few perfunctory questions about my studies at Berkeley, and complained about the current trend in upscale restaurants for bringing unsalted butter to the table. “The whole point of butter is the salt,” he said.

(He wasn’t wrong about that.)

At the end of the lunch, he said, “Well, I’m going to the Bohemian Club for a massage; I won’t be back to the office today. Go ahead and take the rest of the day off.”
I got home, still trembling. I’d just been given half a day off. I’d just been taken to lunch at Postrio. What did it all mean? Was I in big trouble here? Was he leading up to making a pass at me?

What was this job all about, anyway?

My boss liked to roll in mid-morning, after calling me from the phone he had installed in his car — something only super-rich people had, in the very early nineties. “Any messages?” he’d ask. “Any interesting mail?” I’d read off what had come in.

He’d tell me in which order we were to make the call-backs. It was my job to already be dialing as he strode into the office and hung his long black cashmere coat on the rack. “Is Mr. Y available?” I’d ask the secretary on the other end. “Mr. X is calling.”

The game is this: these Misters must never be forced to speak to another Mister’s secretary. I was only to transfer the call once Mr. Y was on the line. Of course, Mr. Y’s secretary understood this as well as I did. (She was, no doubt, hired for her brains.) Victory was me telling a clearly annoyed Mr. Y, “I’ll put him on now.”

Defeat was a lecture from my boss, and the shaming mantra.

The job soon settled into, as the old saying about war goes, “…long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” My boss traveled a lot. When he was gone, I had basically nothing to do. I began bringing novels to read at work, first sneakily, then openly. Nobody could do anything about it — I made friends in the office, but I wasn’t allowed to help anyone with their work. I had to sit by the phone, keep my decks clear, in case the boss needed something. Even from afar. Anyway, Executives don’t share their Executive Secretaries.

Sometimes I would gaze across the room at the other desk, the empty one, wondering what the man could have possibly needed with two secretaries. Maybe they were there to keep each other company, like when you adopt two kittens so they can play together. I wondered if he now felt he’d come down in the world, with only one idle young brainy woman sitting outside his office, playing Spider Solitaire and reading novels.

When he was in town, that’s when things got more interesting. There were more fancy lunches out — he took me to Lulu, and Aqua, and Zuni, so many places I don’t even remember them all; it also amused him to drive us over to the Mission District, to a corner taqueria where he’d slurp down a bowl of menudo, grinning at the incongruity of his bespoke suit and my downtown drag in the humble setting.

There was weirder stuff, too. One day, he informed me that I must rush over at once to Saks Fifth Avenue, where his wife (the Berkeley professor) needed some help. You see, she’d just had a manicure and her nails were still wet, but she had to return a pair of Ferragamos she’d bought in Honolulu and decided she didn’t like. I had to open her wallet and remove her credit card to hand it to the clerk so they could apply the credit; I also had to carry her bags to her car and put them in the trunk, then hand her into the car, behind the wheel.

I got the rest of the day off after that, too.

He never did make a pass at me. So there’s that, I guess. Whatever strange psychological dynamics were going on inside the man, they weren’t about sexually fetishing his young secretary.

Small favors.

I think it was more about the humiliation. He loved to wield that mantra, setting me up to fail, then announcing loudly how smart I wasn’t being.

I learned to go one floor down, when I needed to cry in the bathroom, so that no one from our office would know.

Until this job, I had always thought I was smart. Hadn’t I gone to Berkeley, and graduated with honors — paying the whole way myself, I might add? But now I began to wonder. Was I actually smart, or had I just been…unusually lucky, or something? Was I now being exposed for the horrible fraud I truly was? How did I keep screwing up? How hard could it be, to open mail and answer phones and make travel arrangements?

Oh, travel arrangements. The heart of darkness.

Gather round, my dear young friends, and let me tell you a tale of the olden days. You see, back when the earth’s crusts were cooling and your humble narrator was a girl of twenty-three, there was no internet. There were people called Travel Agents, whom you called on the telephone. You told the Travel Agent what flight times were wanted, along with hotel rooms and rental cars and the like; and she (it was always a she) took down the information and promised to call you back.

She entered all the information you gave her into a magical device that sat on her desk called Sabre, and if she was any good, she knew further magic that she could wield when Sabre didn’t give her the results she wanted; and the upshot was, she called you back an hour or two later with flight times and prices.

Now, my boss didn’t care about prices, of course, because the company paid for all his (first-class) travel; but he cared a lot about flight times.

Flight arrangements were always fraught. Never, ever, ever, in the entire time that I worked for him, was he happy with his flight arrangements. The layovers were too long. The departure time was too early. The return time was too late! The airport was too far from his destination.

For a man who traveled as much as he did, he sure did hate traveling.

There came a day, a fateful day, when he called me into his office to make arrangements for yet another trip. I grabbed my trusty notepad, because I had brains; I stood before his desk, my downtown-drag heels sinking into the deep carpet. “I need to visit the office in Melmac,” he told me. {City names have been changed to protect the Executive Secretary, here; but they did all start with M.} I wrote down, Melmac. He told me the dates and times and other particulars — which specific hotel, what kind of car. I wrote them down.

Dismissed, I went back to my desk and called the Travel Agent. She and I, though we never met in person, were by now very good friends. She made arrangements for my boss’s travel to Melmac.

He was cranky about the times and the connections, but Melmac is a smallish, out-of-the-way city, and that was the best that could be had.

The travel day approached. I received delivery of the tickets (physical tickets, with carbon backs, hand-couriered from the Travel Agent’s office: valuable as gold). I put them in their fancy folder, along with everything else my boss would need for his trip, and put them on the top of the pile to give to him, with his mail, when he came in that day.

He came in. Took the pile. Went into his office.

Then. An explosion. Shouts, a command to present myself At Once.

I rushed into his office in a sick panic. “What? What’s wrong?”

He waved the tickets in my face. “These are tickets to Melmac!” he shouted.

“Yes…?” I replied, trembling.

“I am flying to Montac!”

“But…you said…”

“I! Did! Not!” he thundered. “What in the world made you think I wanted to fly to Melmac? Everything is going swimmingly in Melmac. It’s Montac that needs my presence!”

“I…wrote it down…”

“I don’t care what you wrote down! I need to go to Montac! How could you have gotten this so wrong??! I HIRED YOU FOR YOUR BRAINS!”

I’ll spare you the rest, it doesn’t get prettier.

I think about Mr. X periodically, what could have been going on there. What kind of person needs so badly to prove his power, his superiority, that he hires an endless string of young, powerless, smart women, then randomly rewards and humiliates them until they flee? I didn’t know the term gaslighting then; it feels apropos, but only to a degree. What he did was less focused than that.

Frankly, I don’t think I was even important enough to him for the concerted effort that gaslighting requires.

I don’t think he saw me as a person.

Sure, I was a good accessory, with those brains; and I proved capable of learning how to open the mail and answer the phones; but to him, I was not a human being. I was a device for tending to his demands, and when I broke down, I could be replaced. There was an endless supply of brainy young women he could, and did, hire.

This is gendered, even if it wasn’t #MeToo-level sexual abuse. Yes, women can be executives and men can be secretaries…but even today, that’s so not the norm. In 1991, it was basically unheard of.

I’m glad we’ve made some small progress in breaking down this gendered system, but we’ve got a long way to go.

There is a nice coda to the Melmac story. As I was sobbing in the ladies’ room on the floor below later that afternoon, a kind woman asked me if I was all right; it turned out she ran a temp agency down the hall, and she — and her agency — provided me the rescue I needed from that job. I temped happily for nearly a year, slowly recovering from the psychological abuse I’d suffered, learning to trust myself and my abilities again.

Eventually, a staff version of my Berkeley student job became available. I returned there with undying gratitude, remaining for nearly twenty years. That time had plenty of its own dramas and stories…but it was a department founded and staffed by all women.

What a difference that made. Oh, my goodness, what a difference.

I wish the whole world could be run like that office full of women.