Take a letter, Maria

I once had a summer job in an office. This is different than having a summer job that is not in an office like the one supervising a summer playground program (where I learned to hate the smell of sunburned grass) or the one pasting new-fangled bar codes on library books (where, to quell the boredom, we sang a made-up song that went to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean: “One label goes on to the track sheet, and one on the front of the book, you then place the Mylar on top, and admire how shiny it looks. Peel back, paste down, I could just label all day, all day. Peel back, paste down, we’ll Mylar our troubles away.”) The problem with the bar code job was we got so efficient (probably because of the song) that we accomplished it twice as fast as expected and since we were being paid by the hour, lost out on some money. After that I learned that if you are being paid by the hour for a specific number of hours, make sure you take exactly the amount of time allotted. But I digress.

I had a job in an office during the time when the ‘girls’ sat outside the men’s offices at desks with typewriters, surrounded by filing cabinets, without even the vestige of privacy offered by cubicles. Having dutifully taken the ‘practical’ courses of typing and shorthand in high school (something to fall back on if I did not make my fortune as a philospher or actress) I was well equipped to be a summer helper and general fill-in for vacation absences of the secretarial staff.

I spent my time filing files, retrieving files and mostly twiddling my thumbs awaiting the call from Mr. Gibson that he had a need for my services to ‘take a letter’. And it was indeed an honour and a privilege to heed the call as it added a dash of excitement to a job that turned out to be almost as boring as putting labels on library books. When the occasion arose, I took my steno pad to Mr. Gibson’s office to capture his important correspondence. It usually went something like this: “Dear Mister Smith semicolon We have received your application for the position of shop foreman period Thank you for your application period new paragraph We will review your application after the close of the competition on July 15 period We thank you for your interest period If you are not selected for an interview we will keep your resume on file for six months period closing salutation Yours sincerely comma Mister Fred Gibson”. Once this opus had been dictated, I read it back to him to make sure I had recorded it correctly and he had the opportunity to fine-tune his eloquent prose before I typed it up (with carbon copy of course).

In retrospect there were several things wrong with this picture:
• Since there were only about three different variations of letter (we got your application, we’d like to interview you, you didn’t get the job) why didn’t Mr. Gibson simply tell me to copy variation A, B, or C and insert the appropriate applicant’s details?

• Why was it assumed that although I knew how to type and capture English sentences, that I did not have a firm grasp of punctuation or the basic structure of a letter?

• Didn’t it take more time for Mr. Gibson to dictate the letter to than to write it down himself and hand it to me to type? Oh – but that may have required taking his feet off the desk.