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Getting Started in 1954 New York

Getting Started
Martin Green

The date on the New York Times classified section I was looking through was April 15, 1954.  I’d gotten out of the Army, having been drafted to fight the Korean War, the month before.

I was now home after two years, home to my parents’ two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.  And, I was looking for a job.   This was why I was sitting in the rather shabby waiting room of a midtown employment agency whose Sunday Times ad said they had “Many Jobs for College Graduates, No Experience Required.”
 
“Paul Lerner.”  That was me.  I’d finally been called.  I followed a bored-looking receptionist into a large back room and then to a small cubicle, where a bored-looking middle-aged man awaited me.  I sat while he read through the application form I’d filled out.  “Just out of the Army, huh?”
   “Yes.”
   “Got a master’s degree from Columbia, huh?”
    “Yes.”
   “Going to be a teacher, huh?”
   “No.”
   “How come?”
 
I hesitated a moment.  I’d gone for my master’s because it put off being drafted by a year, hoping Korea would be finished by then.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  Once in the Army, I found myself with young guys my age who were already married and talking about starting families.  It made me feel like a kid.  I decided that I didn’t want to spend another three years going to school to get a PHD, before I finally emerged into the real world, if that was what academia would be.  I wanted to get started now.  How could I explain all this to the guy, looking as if he couldn’t care less about anything except how much longer until his lunchtime. 
  “I decided teaching wasn’t for me,” I said.  “I’ve had enough of school.  I want a regular job.”
  “Hmmm,” he said.  “Well, I don’t think we have anything for you right now.”
   “What about all those jobs for college grads you advertised?”
   “Well, they all require some specialty.  I’ll keep your application on file and if anything comes up I’ll call you.”
    Sure, I thought to myself.   I stood up and said, “All right.  Thank you.”
 
     It didn’t take long, for even me, to realize that those glowing employment agency ads placed in the Sunday Times were phony and that answering them was pretty much a waste of time. My last visit to an employment agency was to one advertising almost a half page of jobs, leading you to believe it was a large modern organization.  I found that it was in an old firetrap of a building.  I climbed up a winding flight of stairs and at the top found an office the size of a broom closet.  It was filled with cartons and cartons of God knows what.  Behind a battered desk sat an old woman with tangled gray hair, a cigarette dangling from her lips and a wild look in her eyes.  I said, “Sorry, wrong place,” and fled back down the stairs, the old lady’s voice calling, “Don’t go away, sonny,” chasing after me.
 
     After this, I revised my resume, composed a cover letter and made a list of companies to contact directly.   I found myself going into the lobbies of tall office buildings and studying directories.  I rode up elevators and invaded reception rooms, asking to see somebody about a job. 

Usually, I was directed to a personnel office but occasionally I actually got in to see some company officer who told me he might have something sometime.  In any case, having established contact, I always left a resume and said I’d call back.
 
     Going into these buildings and talking to the people in them gave me a funny feeling,  all of these other people were on the inside.  Somehow they’d managed to penetrate the mysterious business world.  They were the ones who moved so confidently through the streets of Manhattan.  They all, even the lowliest clerk among them, had their places in the scheme of things.  Meanwhile, I was the outsider.  
 
     Sometime during the summer, I had a call from one of the companies I’d approached, asking me to come in for an interview.  The company was in one of those new glass buildings which seemed to be springing up everywhere in Manhattan.  I took the elevator to the 20th floor and entered a reception room filled with ornate old cups and plates, so you’d think the company made fine china although in fact it produced soap flakes and toilet paper.  The receptionist was a stunningly beautiful girl, but when I told her why I was there she spoke in a flat New York accent.  She phoned, then told me Mr. Walker would see me in a few minutes, returning to the paperback romance she was reading.
 
     I sat and waited, first glancing through a company magazine, then looking at whatever I could see of the receptionist’s legs behind her desk.  After half an hour, a youngish man came out, hand extended, and introduced himself as Mr. Walker.  “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, in a tone which indicated he really wasn’t, “but I got busy.  You know how it is.”
 
     I nodded to show that I knew how it was and followed him back to his office, which was of modest size and had no window.  Walker seated himself behind an absolutely clear desk, waved me to a chair and picked up what I assumed to be the resume I’d left.
 
     The first thing Walker wanted to know was why, having gotten a master’s degree, I was now looking for a job in business instead of becoming a teacher.  I gave him a lengthier answer than I had at the employment agency, the gist of which was that I wanted to get started now.   The next thing he asked was what I’d been doing since getting out of the Army.  I told him I’d been looking for a job.  He jotted down something, I think it was “no experience” and I gathered that being unemployed wasn’t a point in my favor, although if I wasn’t unemployed why would I be here.
 
     The next thing he wanted to know was why I wanted to work for his company in particular.   The truth was that I just wanted to get a job so that I could move out of my folks' cramped apartment into a place of my own.  Aloud, I told him that I'd always admired the company's products, mentioning the soap but refraining from commenting on the merits of the toilet paper.     
    
     This seemed to exhaust Walker’s curiosity, or maybe he was really busy, because he then led me down a corridor to a small cubicle and left me to take some tests. He said they were standard for anyone applying for a job with the company.  I finished the first one, an intelligence test, pretty quickly.  Next came what was supposed to be a personality test, with questions such as would you prefer to play football or go to an art gallery and had you ever been attracted to members of your own sex.  The first page had a statement that there were no correct answers, you should just respond honestly.  This immediately sounded a warning and I tried to give answers showing I was an All-American guy.
 
     The third and final test was even more invasive, asking about my feelings toward my parents, my political and religious beliefs and other matters even more personal and private.  To show how inexperienced I was, I wrote on the first page that I didn’t think these things were the company’s business or had any bearing on my ability to do a good job.  I left the tests in the cubicle and made my way back out.  The beautiful receptionist was still reading her romance novel.  She didn’t look up as I passed.  So much for that, I thought.
 
     How was I getting along while being unemployed? As I’ve mentioned, I was living with my parents, not the arrangement I wanted, but food and board was free.   For spending money, I belonged to the, at that time famous, 52/20 club. The Army, in return for your service, gave you $20 a week for 52 weeks after you were discharged.  The office where I collected my check wasn’t too far away from the glass building so after leaving I walked over there.  The place was really a large barren room where you lined up as for everything else in the Army.  A couple of military policemen stood around nervously, as if expecting us unemployed veterans to start a riot.
 
     I heard someone say my name, turned around and there was someone I’d known in the Army, Stanko.   He was a short chubby guy with slicked-back black hair.  At our post, Stanko had been known as an operator, someone who always had a deal going.  “What’re you doing here?” Stanko asked me.
   I told him.  He expressed surprise that I hadn’t been able to find a job.  “You went to college, didn’t ya?”
   “Yeah, maybe that’s the problem.  How come you’re not working?”
   “Hey, I got a few things going, but why pass up 20 bucks a week?  But you should be holding down a good job by now.”
   “Well, one of things the guys doing the hiring don’t like about me is that I’m unemployed so I don’t have any experience
   “Yeah, the old catch-22.  You need experience to get a job, but you can’t get a job because you don’t have any experience.”
  “That’s about it.”
   “Okay, no problem.  Here.”  Stanko handed me a card that said import/export on it.  “Just tell them to call that number.  I’ll tell them you work for me and give you a great reference.”
    “But that would be lying.”
Stanko gave me a pitying look.  “Look, you’re in the real world now.  You have to do whatever it takes.”
   “I don’t know if I can do that.”
He shrugged and said, “Well, think about it.  I’m there if you want.”
 
     A couple of weeks later, I got a surprise, an advertising agency whose office I’d been to called back and asked me to come in for an interview.   They wanted an updated resume.  “Okay,” I said.  We then set up an appointment for an interview for the next week.
 
     When I arrived at the ad agency, another surprise, I was almost immediately taken into the office of someone whose title was vice-president in charge of media.   I expected to meet a distguished-looking elderly man in an expensive suit.   But this vice-president was a harassed-looking young guy in shirtsleeves.
 
     He stood up and shook my hand.   He had my  resume and was about to speak when his phone rang.   He answered and said something which sounded to me like "submerge the copy under the production schedule."  He put down the phone and, still standing, said to me, “Your resume looks okay.  Mr. Stanko says you’re his best salesman.  That’s good.  And you have a master’s from Columbia.  That’s also good.  We can use someone around here who can write decent English.   Can you start on Monday?”     
I, the articulate English major, replied, "Uh, yeah, sure."        
 
     "Okay," he said.  “My secretary can take you to Personnel and you can fill out all that crap."   His phone rang again and he waved me out of his office.
 
     After filling out the Personnel forms I went out and walked up Madison Avenue to 59th Street and then over to Central Park.   Once again I was amazed at all the people hurrying along, men with their little attache cases, women with their huge bags, all having someplace to go.   And now I was going to be one of them.   Next Monday I too would have a place to go.   Instead of being on the outside, drifting like a ghost through the streets of Manhattan, I'd be on the inside.   
 
     The pay for my first job wasn’t too much, but that fall I moved out of my folks' apartment in the Bronx into an apartment in lower Manhattan with a guy I’d met at the ad agency.  It was small, old and shabby, but it was cheap enough so that with our combined salaries, we could afford it and it was all our own.  I bought a new suit and also an attaché case.   Winter came and with it the usual New York snow and rain, but I didn’t care.   I had gotten started.

© Martin Green December 9th 2005
mgreensuncity@yahoo.com


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