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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Typing with My Vagina

Unless your career goal was to clip the beaks off of baby chicks, slaughter poultry or work on a manufacturing production line, the Shenandoah Valley was not an easy place to find work in the 80’s.

At that time, I had managed to get myself in a Green Acres-type situation. The man I was pretending to love insisted we abandon our practical city lives in DC and move to this dumpy weekend place we had bought outside the tiny town of Shenandoah, Virginia (see photo, above). You are my wife. Goodbye city life!

I lived on unemployment for several months while working on rehabilitating the house. When it became clear the money was going to be gone before the house was completed, I went job hunting. For a man who had very few real-world skills other than word processing, I was in a bind to find work.

That part of Virginia is a hotbed of Republican, fundamentalist Christianity. It was not the place to be a shy homosexual with a history of administrative jobs with big companies. Nevertheless, I managed to snag an interview at James Madison University. The man who interviewed me had no intention of hiring me after he learned I didn’t attend church. How, you might ask, did he know that? Why, he asked me, of course. “What church do you go to there down in Shenandoer?”

I quickly figured I had three choices: I could lie, but I didn’t even know the name of a church; I could politely say my religious beliefs were private, or I could tell the truth, which was that I didn’t go to church. Translated, to him that meant: Satan worshiper.

The correct answer was: the Shenandoah Valley Pentecostal-Baptist Zealot Independent Church on Shifflett Hollow Road (motto: Repent or we’ll kidnap you, tie you to a herculon recliner and force you to eat pork rinds and watch episodes of Hee-Haw.)

I answered with the truth--no churc--and that was the end of that. No church, no job.

Money was running out, and I was getting desperate. Even though I only had one marketable skill, I could type like a sumbitch, as they used to say in the Valley. I had been a phototypesetter for many grueling, boring years, and I could hit 114 accurate words per minute on a good day. Surely someone would hire me.

The last place anyone seeking full-time employment goes to is a temp agency. The pay stinks. You’re always given the shit work to do. The stuck-up permanent employees assume that you’re inept and better than you because they have benefits. Signing on with a temp agency is the last, desperate act of the unemployed. And temp agencies thrive on people with low self-esteem. Perfect for me at that time in my life.

So I called Manpower in the nearest city with a stoplight to ask for information. They told me to mail in a resume, and they’d get back to me.

This was 1985, before everyone had computers and administrative work was, at least in the Valley, a woman’s job. I was so sure that, because of my gender, I wouldn’t get an interview for an office job, I sent them a resume that didn’t have my first name on it; only my initial. I also highlighted my typing speed. I realize now that this would have made for a great sitcom episode.

To my surprise, I got a callback. The first thing they requested was my first name, and I told them it was Billy. (People always think I’m a girl on the phone; I hate my voice.) I never go by Billy. But I hedged my bets by using the ambiguous nickname, hoping that they’d think I was Billie and not Billy. They never asked what sex I was, and they asked me to come in.

So I showed up early to my appointment, and it was immediately clear that I made the receptionist nervous, possibly because there had never been a Y chromosome in that room before. She was actually shaking when she was giving me the typing test.

After I produced over 90 words per minute for her, she pressed the intercom button on her phone and said, “Billy Wiley is here.”

She gestured toward the door, and I went in. I was nicely dressed in a blazer, shirt and tie, but back office lady looked at me as if I was an oozing, festering, pus-filled carbuncle.

“You’re a man!” she shrieked.

I blushed and said, “Yes.”

“Well I can’t send you out on any assignments,” she said.

“Why is that?”

“Well,” she snapped, “because our clients would just die!”

Even as a person with low self-esteem, I started to get mad. I ground my teeth.

“Why would they die?” I asked her.

“Because you’re a man!” she said, instructing the receptionist, with a sweeping hand gesture, to get me out of there.

I had sunk to a new low. If I couldn’t even get a job at a temp agency, I was unemployable. I went home and moped. Whenever I felt especially blue, I would call my mentor, my Aunt Kay in Denver. She could always cheer me up. She’s the one who once told me, “I’m so old and deaf I can’t even hear myself fart anymore.” She was 77 when I told her about my event at Manpower that day. She was as disgusted as I was. “Did you tell her you don’t need a vagina to type?” she asked.

I laughed. Of course she was right. And when you stop to think about it, wouldn’t it actually be easier to type with a penis?

A few weeks later, a copy shop advertised for a phototypesetter. I hadn’t set type in years, but I was willing to do anything, even the ultra-mundane. I ended up being hired at $5 an hour, a salary approximately two-thirds less than my job in DC. And I was grateful to get it, especially since I was a man and the owner didn’t just die.

It was a tiny shop you could barely turn around in. Like most Valley people, the owner was very religious and insisted on having prayer circles every so often to start the workday off right. He also had missing fingers, cut off during wood shop in high school, and was fond of putting his remaining fingers on some of the female employees who didn’t like it a bit. He also insisted on giving them hugs. He had a violent temper that he would display for his little children, who, along with his wife, stopped by often just to hang out and get in the way. There was always spanking and squealing and yelling whenever they were around. I worked there for several months and hated it.

Because I lived at the poverty level, I supplemented my income by breeding substandard golden retrievers and publishing gay pornographic fiction. One Monday morning my dog went into labor, and I called the office manager (a woman who let herself get touched for money), and I asked her if I could come in late, because I had to assist in the whelping of a litter of puppies. She said, “no problem,” and I guided my dog into the whelping pen and watched the birth of seven hamster-sized puppies. At least one of the pups would have died had I not been there.

When I walked in to work about 11, the office manager glared at me with a frightened look on her face, while Mr. Fingerless came at me, grabbed me by the arm and took me outside.

One of his clients was a numbers runner who every week brought in his pick cards that he distributed to illegal gamblers. The backup typesetter had not been in that day, so there was no one to do that work except Mr. Fingerless. This was basically just typing a few dozen words, printing it out, and giving it to the graphic artist to cut, paste up, and photocopy. To be fair, it was probably more taxing for him and took him a while to do it, due to his missing digits.

He read me the riot act. Words like inconsiderate, selfish, evil, un-Christian, as well as stupid asshole came flying out of his mouth. He told me he was writing me up, and it was going to go on my Permanent Record. Of a company that employed a whopping seven people. How would I ever work again?

I was humiliated. That night I went home and was too unnerved to have fun with the seven new mutts. And for the first time in my life, I let my pride overrule my need to eat. I went in to work the next day and, without any employment prospects, gave him two weeks’ notice. That would give me enough time to typeset a nice resume and embezzle reams and reams of good 100% cotton stock. He was stunned and apologetic and asked me to reconsider.

During the handholding prayer vigil on that Friday (or in his case, half-a-handholding), the boss asked Jesus to guide me to change my resignation decision and stay with his copy shop family.

A week later on my final day, I had failed to hear from Jesus, probably because I didn’t attend church, which had gotten me into trouble before. In an attempt to make me feel worse, Mr. Missing Digits told me that he had given raises to the six other employees that day, and if I had stayed, I would have received one, too. Perhaps Jesus had guided him to be so retaliatory. When five o’clock rolled around, the owner had been missing (like his fingers) for a couple of hours, but I tracked him down, hiding in the dark room, behind a locked door. I banged on the door, and he didn’t answer. I banged again, calling his name. He finally came to the door. I told him I wanted to thank him for the job and that I had no hard feelings and wished him well, even though that was a lie. He wouldn’t even look at me through his tinted glasses.

I got my next job, which lasted only weeks, because I was sleeping with the boss. When he was fired for abusing his expense account, so was I.

A high-paying Fortune 500 company had come to the Valley, and I had spit-shined my resume, which was fraught with hazy recollections and falsified timelines It completely omitted the previous job, and the copy shop job, because you never know when that Permanent Record might raise its ugly, puppy head. But there were tens of thousands of applications for only a couple of hundred jobs, so I considered that a sailed ship.

Once again I was nearly destitute and certainly desperate. I thought if I went over the mountain to the big city of Charlottesville, I would have better luck finding employment. Since I was still a bottom-feeder, I started at the bottom. Driving to another temp agency and pumping myself up along the way, I decided I was going to follow Aunt Kay’s advice if they pulled that “you’re a man!” crap again, because I really didn’t have anything to lose. Driving over the mountain, I rehearsed the line using different attitudes. (Pardon me, but I don’t think you need to have female sex organs to type. You need fingers, not a vagina to type. If you needed a vagina to type, the keyboard would be a lot bigger and curved, like a saddle. I didn’t type those hundred words a minute with a vagina, you know.)

Miraculously, this temp agency loved the fact that I was a speedy typist, even if I was a man, and they hired me on the spot. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to say “vagina” in that office, but I quickly got over it. They sent me back to the Valley to work at the new Fortune 500 company that previously would not hire me directly, and I became, I am loathe to say, a Kelly Girl. But I was not just any Kelly Girl; I twice achieved the rank of Kelly Girl of the Month (possibly the only Kelly Girl without a vagina to do that). That honor came with a ten dollar bonus and a crappy certificate. I wish I still had them.

The pay was still lousy, but the people where I worked were nice. One morning when my boss found out that my golden was having another litter, and I had left the expectant mother alone to fend for herself, she sent me home to assist. Not much later, I got a permanent position there, and overnight my salary tripled.

With my first paycheck, I gave my dog a great gift. I took her to the vet and had her spayed. She didn’t need a vagina to do her job anymore, either.

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