Summer jobs were scarce in June of 1980, so I was grateful to land an internship in the purchasing department of the electric company. For work that was full-time, air-conditioned, and unrelated to French fries, I could stand some boredom.
The purchasing department had two lawyers and I was assigned to help their legal assistant, Margina. Margina had a frizzy blonde afro that she picked and groomed with a wide-tooth comb she kept on her desk. Her gold hoops were so big they bumped against the shoulders of the crocheted vests she favored. She smoked long skinny brown cigarettes called Mores; unlike mine, Margina’s Mores went out unless she was puffing.
We became friends, even though she was more than twice my age. On smoke breaks, she confided about the times she stayed late and her bosses took the credit, and about how they lied to cover mistakes by blaming her. She also liked nickel beer night at the Cowboy, a disco down the street. Another thing we had in common.
My first month was spent typing contracts, which consisted of filling in blanks with typewriter numbers and double-checked names. When I worked through the backlog for rubber bands, green bar, and reels upon reels of insulted wire, Margina promoted me to cover letters.
I wasn’t a particularly good typist but my real downfall was spelling. My family laughed when I wrote about the importance of a smaile. Just last semester, my Shakespeare professor had written on an exam, “Your spelling is a thing of wonder.” There was no hiding behind a dictionary on a test.
For a week, I pecked through a stack of letters. Margina proofed them and taught me the secret of correction tape. Everything was fine until Friday, when the attorney about to sign noticed I spelled “truly” as truely. Very truely yours on every single letter. He screamed at Margina and demanded she retype each one. No correction tape for a valediction. No Cowboy for Margina tonight either.
She called for me, steam mingling with the smoke of the More she relit. Her exhaled rants filled the cubicle. “And Monday, they want you to start in the file room,” she said with a sorry shake of her head.
The file room was a maze of open shelves containing thousands of alphabetized manila folders, one for each vendor, containing every piece of paper that passed through the department. Peons had to put each paper in the appropriate folder.
Since it was isolated and private, people lingered to gossip or kill time when dropping off more filing. Some of the men would follow as I paced the labyrinth, inserting as prescribed. If someone was standing behind me, there was no room to turn around. Hands could travel over hips. Even if I was striding, hands found a way to cup, or caress, or pinch.
Not all the men did this. It was only a few, the brashest and most brazen, who happened to be the shortest. Regardless of age, the height of the man seemed to correlate with the propensity to disseminate unwanted touch.
Embarrassed and confused, I sought Margina’s advice. She squinted through her smoke to regard me with one eye. “I hate to say it,” she sighed, “but you’ll get nowhere complaining. When I tried, they put me in the file room for a year.” She looked away.
The thought was beyond comprehension. Each day in the file room stretched as long as a week. There was no end to the tedium, no reward in the work. As soon as one stack diminished, another appeared. I measured time in fifteen-minute intervals, fixated on the next break.
I got sloppier with my wardrobe but that didn’t stop the hands. Until a pile of dirty laundry dictated wearing a dress and the snap-decision to put on the high heels that matched.The short men noticed. I got hoots and sucked in whistles, compliments on my legs and my ass. But they didn’t touch.
I kept wearing heels to confirm my hypothesis: height didn’t stop the leers and rude comments, but most of the offenders seemed intimidated when I stood taller. If not, nimble footwork, with a joke and a smile, would save face. His. We still had to work together and I was just the summer intern.
Today, the electric company labels this behavior sexual harassment and condemns it for contributing to a hostile work environment. In 1980, everybody knew and nobody told.