This law firm’s office was on K Street, N.W. I don’t know whether “K Street” already had the reputation it does now, of being the location for all the lobbyists. The office was in a townhouse, up several steps to the front door. The front room, what might have been the parlor, was the lawyers’ main office, while the secretary and typists were in a small room in the back.
The secretary, who also headed the office, was a tall, middle-aged Black woman who wore her hair in a 1940s style. She was stern and correct. There was no kidding or casual banter. I don’t remember her name, so let’s call her Mrs. C.
I came in, sat at my desk, and did the work assigned to me. And while it’s easy to describe, it was not so easy to perform.
The firm represented clients to the FCC, so clients were radio and TV stations, and most of the work the firm did was to help the stations renew their licenses to broadcast, which was required then every three years. These stations were all over the country, so communication between the lawyers and their clients was primarily by letter. The lawyers thus wanted these letters to be or at least look perfect. No mistakes, or anything that looked like a mistake.
This was still the days of white paper and carbon paper; carbon sets may not yet have existed, and copying machines were certainly not common in small offices. One carbon copy was the minimum (original letter to the client, one copy for the file), but if a letter was being written to the FCC, that meant one copy for the client, one for the file. Sometimes we might need to make four copies.
Nobody is a perfect typist. What happened if one made a mistake? Liquid paper, a precursor to Wite-Out, existed, but Mrs. C would have none of it. It revealed that there had been a mistake. And we did not yet have electronic typewriters that let you backspace and retype a wrong letter on the same line. Mrs. C was a genius at erasing a mistake so that it looked like it had never happened, and not only on the bond paper original, but also the carbon copies.
In those days there was a hard rubber eraser shaped like a flat wheel with a metal circle in the center and a brush attached. The trick was first, roll the paper and copies up a few lines so you could reach the copies, then erase the mistake on the carbon copies, brushing off any debris, next erase the mistake on the bond paper, then carefully roll the paper back to original position, and type the correct letter. Erasing was tricky, not so hard that you abraded the surface of the paper, but hard enough to remove all visible ink. This was hard.
Mostly I remember trying to master this erasure trick, because I could not type perfectly, no matter how slowly and carefully I went. Often I had to toss what I’d typed and start over. Documents were the hardest, because they were many pages, and if I made a mistake near the bottom of a page, it was impossible to do the roll up/erase/roll down/retype; I’d have to retype the entire page. There was little chitchat in the office, either, because Mrs. C believed in coming in, doing the work, and going home.
The only client I remember this firm representing was Pacifica, the listener-supported station in California, but why do I remember that? Pacifica did not have a station in Washington, D.C., but perhaps the fact that Pacifica’s license was being held up by the FCC that year, which was investigating the Pacifica Foundation for “communist affiliations,” made it stick in my mind.
Outside of work, I had finally moved in with Susan, the young woman I’d met at NIH. We lived a block above Dupont Circle, a neighborhood of small row houses, many turned into apartments. Our apartment was the literal ground floor, four steps down, in front, and it also had a back door that led to an alley down the middle of the block, which opened onto Q Street. (Washington has lots of alleys. This alley will play a role in a later decision concerning job #9.) The office was a straight line down New Hampshire Avenue from Dupont Circle, and often I walked there and back instead of taking a bus.
I was dating a boy named Aldace Newton Howard III (he liked to recite that sometimes), called Aldie, who’d been a transfer student to Antioch, then dropped out and enlisted in the Navy. Columbus Day (not yet a federal holiday) weekend he had leave and came up to Washington so we could spend the weekend together. Since he arrived in Friday, I called in sick that day — I know, calling in sick when you haven’t even been working somewhere for a month is probably not a good idea, but I was still a kid, barely 20.
I came to work on Monday, the actual Columbus Day, and was surprised to find the office mostly dark and only one lawyer on the premises. Let’s call him Mr. M, since I don’t remember any of their names. Mr. M called me into his office and very gently told me that he was sorry, but this job did not seem like the right one for me. He said I was a smart girl and he was sure I would find the best place elsewhere — and I could have two more weeks.
I was being fired. Was it because I’d called in sick on Friday? Was my typing really that awful? But secretly I was glad. I didn’t like this job at all.
affairs very soon made my renewed job hunt feel incidental. By the end of that
week, rumors were all over Washington about something happening regarding Cuba.
At the end of the weekend we learned that President Kennedy was going to
address the nation on Monday night, and since we didn’t have a TV, my roommate
called her father, who picked us up after work and took us home with him for
dinner and the speech. We were terrified, though her father tried to talk us
down. Back home, we discussed what we would do when (not if) we heard the
air-raid sirens. Dupont Circle was known to have a fallout shelter. Would we
rush the block and a half to the shelter? Or would we start drinking all the wine we had? (Ten years later, I wrote in my journal: "I don't think then I really believed in my own death. I think I was as much excited as I was terrified.")
Susan worked at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, and her boss, S.L.A. Marshall, had just written an article on Cuba for the New Republic, and all that week, he was getting phone calls from reporters wanting to pick his brain about Cuba. At the end of each day, the director would say, “See you all tomorrow (pause), God willing.” The weather in Washington was warm for October, and on Wednesday I ate my lunch in the little park between K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. To the south, dark clouds piled up. A storm approaching? a harbinger of the nuclear war that might happen any minute?
By the end of that week, the Soviet ships on their way to Cuba had stopped and turned around. There was no nuclear confrontation. Life could go back to normal. And I had to find another job.