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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who Wants to Be an Idiot?


A defense contractor in Washington, DC hired me in 1980 solely because I could type 120 words per minute. I was a 23-year-old slacker, who, with my bachelor’s degree in hand, drifted among employers who would pay me five dollars an hour to sit at a machine all day.

I didn’t really have much of an interview. I had a typing test. I didn’t know anything about the company or what they did. I didn’t really care, either, as long as they cut me a check every two weeks.

I was a phototypesetter. This was before personal computers and laser printers. The machine I used was a hundred-thousand dollar wonder the size of a chest freezer, and it flashed light through a spinning disk of mostly black X-ray film. The disk was about the size of a 45 RPM record, and held four clear sets (each a different font) of all the letters of the alphabet, both cases, as well as the numbers and some typographic symbols. As the disk spun, a light would flash through the clear letters onto an unexposed piece of photographic paper, which was then developed, dried, and glued onto cardboard mats that were photographed and sent to press. My machine was especially coveted because you could use four disks at once, thereby having sixteen fonts on the fly, without having to pause the machine to change the disk.

In order to work there I had to get a Department of Defense security clearance. There were different security levels, each of which seemed to take a long time to get, due to the intense background investigations that were done. Federal employees spied on you and talked to friends, neighbors, former friends, former neighbors, and anyone else they could track down that would talk to them. For the first few weeks I was there I worked on unclassified material. It didn’t take too long to get my Confidential clearance. A few months later I got my Secret clearance, and then a few months after that, my Top Secret clearance. I was paranoid that I’d lose my job because I was gay, but apparently if you were out, you were fine. It was the closet cases they had a problem with, because they could be easily blackmailed.

None of these clearances did me any good, because most of the time I sat and typed a whole lot of acronyms, and I had no understanding of what they stood for, except NATO.

I was paranoid the whole time I worked there. Remember, this was 1980, before the time when every place on earth was covered with webcams. There were cameras in the parking lots, and there was not one corner of the building of all the floors that was not being videotaped, except, allegedly, the bathrooms, and even then I had my doubts that someone in security was watching me pee.

I worked behind a door with a push-button combination lock on it, and the code would be changed every sixty days. All publications that were confidential and higher had to remain in a safe until they were distributed for people to work on. Only one person had the safe combination. So any time I had to leave the locked room, I had to print out what I had typeset, clear the screen, pack up the paperwork, and give it to the lady who knew the safe combo, and then go and pee or get a sip of water, and then come back and do the reverse of everything.

When you worked on Secret material and you were near a window, you had to close the blinds, and when someone came in the room, you had to check their little badge and see if they had the little red box, which meant they had a Secret clearance. If they just had a blue dot, they only had a Confidential clearance, and you had to dim your screen and turn over everything you were working on. It was officially called, “protecting your work.” I never once worked on anything Top Secret, which was represented on my badge as a black triangle.

The Graphics department, except for the supervisor and the safe lady, were a bunch of low paid hippies. On several occasions I can recall, those of us with Top Secret clearances would go out to lunch or on our 15 minute break in my 1963 Volkswagen convertible and pass around a joint, sing along with Blondie, and end up eating from large feedbags bought at Jo-Ann’s Nut House in the mall just down the street. People with lower clearances couldn’t be so bold, because they had something to lose. They still had creepy people spying on them and interviewing people who knew them.

The people not in Graphics or Editing were white men in suits, presumably Republicans. They had meetings; long meetings with big slide shows.

The bigwigs met in a bomb-proof think tank in the sub-basement. I never saw it and had no idea how to find it, but I pictured getting to it would take some kind of Get Smart maneuver, passing through multiple doors, and then finally dropping down into an atomic bomb-proof area from a fake telephone booth. Frequently the bigwigs would have a Ridgewell-catered lunch, and when they were finished, the omnivores from Graphics were allowed to go eat their scraps and leftovers, provided we cleaned up the mess.

It was an odd place to work. You had to know the rules. I was always worried that someone was watching me. Security was tight. You weren’t allowed to talk about what you were working on, which was fine, because you never knew really what it was. We made a lot of maps, never knowing what country the map was representing. Before there were insertable digital images, there was clip art and rub-on graphics that you could adhere to the map. I loved the rub-ons. I used to walk around with a rub-on mushroom cloud on my forehead, until I was told to cut it out. They were very serious there, totally humorless, and completely committed to the security of whatever it was we were doing. For the most part, you minded and protected your own work and kept your mouth shut, unless you were out of the building eating bags of cashews. Privacy procedures were always adhered to, even if you were high.

I was thinking about this today after I made a major faux-pas at work. It was at this time I longed for the days when I had security and privacy paranoia built in to my modus operandi.

Our photocopier had been down for two days, and when I heard it running again, I grabbed my pile of stuff I needed to copy and headed into the copier room.

“Oh, great, it’s working again,” I said to the detective sergeant who was using the machine, photocopying multiple yellow pages of diagrams of wide-open vaginas. That was something that for the entire eight years I’ve worked here, I had never laid eyes on. And quite frankly, I didn't really want to. There or anywhere.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed, “What are you doing?”

With a stern look on his face, he quickly flipped over the beaver shots and muttered, “You’re not supposed to look at that! She’s still here, right over there.” He pointed around the corner.

“Oh. Sorry. God, I’ll come back later to make my copies,” I said as I quickly fled the room. I didn’t look up and see what was around the corner, because I knew there was a sexual assault victim there, probably staring at me with laser-burning eyes.

And for the first time in decades, I had a yearning for a Volkswagen convertible and a joint, just so I could forget about what I'd done. I felt horrible, and I was crippled from doing any work the rest of the day, because all I could think was: What an idiot you are!

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