It was back in the 1980’s. I’m not sure of the year, and if I were, I wouldn’t tell you because it would make me sound ancient, but it was sometime before we all had PC’s, before even the big boxy cell phones.
In those days there were still companies like Wang that made one-function computers called “word processors,” and the people who worked on these machines were also called “word processors,” and the ones who did this only on occasion while imagining they were destined for better things were called “temps.”
Yes, dear reader, I was a temp.
My specialty was Wang, and though I wasn’t the world’s fastest typist (that means keyboarder children), I was good enough to sometimes join the elite who worked graveyard shift. Graveyard was almost exclusively at large firms. The pace could be quick, but often there was lots of downtime waiting for lawyers and paralegals to make their changes. Sometimes the computer “system” would mysteriously go “down” and people would sit around for hours on some corporate client’s dime. There were perks like free food, and many companies would pay for a car service either to or from the office. There was also a fat hourly pay differential.
I wasn’t getting a lot of night work, so I decided to expand my skills by learning another word processing program. This one could be done on a regular computer like IBM and was called, Wordstar. Unlike Wang — an ancestor programming-wise of Word — Wordstar was command, not menu driven. I’d taught myself using a book in a friend’s office and was good enough to pass the temp agency test.
My first Wordstar assignment was at a small firm located in midtown on the 19th floor of the Chrysler Building. There was no car service offered, so I drove in from pre-hipster Williamsburg in my 1972 Dodge Dart and easily found a space good till 8:00 am when I’d be out. This was not like my Wang gigs. I arrived and found a tiny office with just one other temp working who was about to go off shift. Like me she was somewhere in her twenties. Unlike me she was African-American a bit zoftig, with braids. She immediately started telling me how she was really a writer and had had a meeting with Spike Lee. She kept calling him Spike and was very excited. She didn’t ask me about my own ambitions or dreams, and I remember thinking that she was either insane or soon to be famous. Strangely, as it would turn out, the latter was true and this was in fact an encounter with greatness.
The lawyer came in, and Suzan-Lori-Parks left. He wasn’t so old either and explained the assignment to me. He’d be bringing in more copy and edits throughout the evening. It was a very important contract and due in the morning. I got started. He’d come in with more stuff, kind of nervous. Sometimes I’d walk down the hall to where he was working to ask a question. Often he was in the bathroom. This was not uncommon. Lawyers working the night shift during the 1980’s seemed to spend a lot of time in the bathroom and often emerged with new found energy, but they tended to have a very short fuse.
At some point, I had to do some repaging and I ran into a problem. The problem was that I was completely without a clue. I had no idea what to do. It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t think of anyone who could help. Well, one person maybe, a friend who was a professional word processing supervisor, but I didn’t have my phone book with me, and I couldn’t get an outside line anyway, and this was before cell phones and the Internet and he probably would have been sound asleep.
The lawyer came in more on edge because it was now getting very late. I stalled. He left. I tried a couple of things but couldn’t figure it out. I went back to look for him, ready to confess my incompetence, and scared for my safety. He was in the men’s room again.
I looked down the hall at the office I had come from. I looked at the men’s room that the lawyer would emerge from any second. I looked at the silent elevators which required a key that I didn’t have and the lawyer in the men’s room did, and then I looked at the emergency fire exit door.
I opened the door. No alarm sounded. I made my way down one flight of stairs after another. Strangely, I emerged on the street almost right in front of the Dart. I got in and drove home as dawn broke in New York City.
For a while I screened the calls as they came through the answering machine. I didn’t hear anything from the temp agency till about two weeks later. I picked up. They wanted to send me out on a job. I told all to the very nice counselor who hadn’t heard about my disgraceful behavior.
She replied, “Well, Freed Frank requested you and that’s Wang. We won’t send you on anymore Wordstar.”
I don’t know what happened to that lawyer when his document wasn’t ready that morning. Maybe they got Suzan-Lori Parks back to save the day.