There’s something to be said, when you’re getting ready to fledge, for encountering someone—indeed, being more or less mentored by someone—who is suffering a temporary lull in his or her own career. It’s less intimidating. That’s the main benefit. It can, however, cause a youthful smugness, temporary to be sure, but isn’t all smugness temporary? If not, it should be.
In my case, that someone was a fifty-four-year-old man named Stanley Foster Reed, although he went by variations of that name, for example, the nom de plume Foster Seelye Nader, which he both used as a byline for his own stories and put on the masthead of his magazine. He put my name on the masthead, too, and under it the glorified title of editorial assistant, the better for it to look as if he had a full staff working for him at this time in his tumultuous personal and financial history.
The magazine was called Mergers & Acquisitions: The Journal of Corporate Venture. It had been a brilliant idea when Stanley had founded the quarterly at the start of the decade-long mergers-and-acquisitions trend in 1965. By the time I got there in 1973, M&A had lost many of its subscribers, who either had found other ways to learn about which businesses were buying and selling what, or else had sensed that the trend was waning. That year also was the start of the 1970s recession, a period of economic stagnation in much of the Western world that essentially ended the post-World War II economic boom, the one that had allowed my parents to get a toehold in the middle class and send me and my older sister to college. As a result, facing mounting losses, Stanley had moved his offices from downtown Washington, D.C., to the basement of his house in McLean, Virginia.
That’s where I, as a college senior, had been interviewed by Stanley—he, dressed in a short, white, terry-cloth bathrobe, purportedly because he had forgotten I was coming; me, in the black knit dress I had worn at my roommate’s wedding—and been hired to make sense out of his chaotic files, clip news of mergers, acquisitions, and sell-offs from piles of the Wall Street Journal and other sources, and type his longhand manuscripts. The date of the interview is easy to remember. It was my twenty-first birthday, December 19, 1972. I had been driven out to McLean by my boyfriend in his roommate’s MGB. He was waiting patiently at curbside for however long it might take. (Reader, I married him—a year and three days later.) There had been an initial interview a couple of weeks earlier, with a guy, perhaps in his early thirties, who turned out to be a congressman’s son—he, too, down on his luck—who had said I seemed a good fit for the job but that I needed to come back to be interviewed by Stanley. For that first interview, I had ridden my ten-speed bike, in the rain. The distance was nine miles from my dorm room, I recently checked on Google Maps, but even if, back then, I had realized how far away it was, I doubt I wouldn’t have made the journey. Ah, youth.
The position at the magazine had been advertised in the classifieds of my college newspaper, The Hatchet. (This was George Washington University, and along the same lines, the yearbook was called The Cherry Tree.) Although I was majoring in journalism, I had never written for The Hatchet and did not aspire to. In reporting class, for writing in-class assignments, we were each given a single sheet of yellow paper to roll into a manual typewriter bolted to a desk. We were supposed to start typing a draft, make corrections as we went along or afterwards when we pulled the paper out of the machine. But I didn’t write like that. I wrote rough drafts and then more drafts, correcting, typing, and retyping. I even wrote drafts of letters home. I did not save trees; quite the contrary.
More my style was the assignment to keep a journal for my American Autobiography class, whose excellent syllabus included Lillian Helman’s An Unfinished Woman, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. For one journal entry I wrote of a long, cold series of subway rides that I took from Grand Central Station to visit a college friend in Forest Hills over Christmas vacation. There we paid a call unannounced to the classroom of her former high-school English teacher—I’ll call him Mr. Irving. When he saw my friend, he said one word, “Chinese?” So began my first encounter with egg rolls, wonton soup, and all the rest of it. Having grown up in an Italian-American family, I feared the eating of Chinese food in restaurants or otherwise.
We went to Mr. Irving’s apartment afterwards. It was empty of furniture. He was going through a divorce, and apropos of that, he told us a story about having had sexual relations with his neighbor and being so bored by it that, as I wrote in my American Autobiography class journal, “he fell asleep while still inserted in her.” At the time, I hadn’t found it untoward for a high-school teacher to be imparting such information to his former student and her friend. I also didn’t realize it was somewhat untoward for me to write such a thing for my college professor. There’s the difference between youth and experience.
By my first day on the job at Stanley’s, the congressman’s son was no longer working there. He later came to my dorm room to try selling me cleaning products. Feeling sorry for him, I bought a box of laundry detergent for $5, for me a princely sum. Once, flat broke, I had asked my sister to send me that very amount in the mail from her own college in Baltimore. I was on the meal plan and would not have starved without it, but I desperately needed it for another essential of mine at the time: cigarettes. She did promptly send it in an envelope on which she hand-wrote my dorm’s address. The trouble was, it went first to Washington, North Carolina. Because my sister’s way of writing a D looked like an N, it was a very long wait for that picture of Lincoln.
Since I still had college classes to attend, papers to write, and exams to take before my graduation, the work at Stanley’s was part-time at variable hours and, need I say, not well paid. I can see by my Social Security tally all these years later, I earned a total of $58 a week. I don’t remember the hourly rate that the sum represents, but I do recall that the pay checks were issued by Stanley irregularly.
For a short time I had driven my VW bug to get there. That was why I felt I was able to take the job in the first place. My father had bought the car from a neighbor for a dollar. I had driven it in high school. Over Christmas he and my mother agreed to let me drive it from Connecticut back to college and to use it to get to the job. They probably thought the position represented the beginning of the end of their being in charge of me, which it did. I’d never had much guidance from either of them, and hadn’t asked for it. I had chosen my own college, written my college essay in longhand in pink Flair pen without showing it to them or anyone. I had gone to my college orientation by myself, despite the fact that the summer weekend had been designed for both students and parents. I took the train to Union Station, riding in the smoking car with a number of unpleasant drunks. When I arrived in D.C., I struggled with my suitcase in the days when suitcases had no wheels. I remember how big the eyes of a certain lithe youth’s grew when he saw the bills in my hand. I had taken them out to give him a tip for carrying that cumbersome suitcase to the curbside for me. I had not intended all of the bills to be his. Witnessing the grab and run, the driver sitting behind the wheel of his taxi just shook his head. He had seen the likes of me before.
I parked the car on the street near my dorm. Driving to Stanley’s one morning I was quickly surrounded by D.C. police cars. A similar VW bug had been stolen, but not this one. On my way home another time, I lightly rear-ended the car in front of me and we locked bumpers. I stood and jumped on them to get us loose and apart—naturally in the rain. Another time, after work was done for the day, Stanley had offered us some wine and cheese. I didn’t realize the wine had hit me until on the way home when I ran a red light on Georgetown’s M Street and almost hit a motorcyclist. “You missed me that time!” he shouted, shaking his fist. Like the cab driver, he, too, recognized a familiar figure.
That car was trouble. I was better off on my bike. My parents, even though I never told them these stories, realized it, too, when the car needed a tuneup they were unwilling to pay for. A short time later, my father flew down and retrieved it. I tried not to think that its throwing a rod in the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel was payback.
Wanting to keep my job, I resorted to my bike and the harrowing, helmet-less commute to Stanley’s. The route took me from my dorm in Foggy Bottom, along the Georgetown canal towpath, across Chain Bridge, and up a giant hill. The giant hill, downward, on the way home was the harrowing part, during which I had the realization that there’s confidence and then there’s recklessness. Early one morning on the towpath I saw a car parked up ahead. I had never seen a car on the towpath before. I had no idea how it got there. As I pedaled closer and closer, I saw men, two or three or them, emerge. Workmen, I supposed, until they wobbled. Were the drunk? Had they slept all night in their car? As I drew closer and closer, their arms reached out and lunged for me. I swerved and pedaled harder than I had ever pedaled in my life. When I got to Chain Bridge, a policeman was standing century, manipulating the traffic light to regulate the cars in rush hour. I told him what had happened and what almost had. I don’t think he even looked at me, so intent was he on manipulating that light. Yet now as I recall it, it seems so much like a dream, men moving at me in slow motion, the unfazed cop, I have to wonder if it happened at all.
Stanley, medium tall, perhaps once handsome, but now sporting a bit of pudginess, was literally more bearish than bullish. His smallish eyes were close-set, wary, weary, behind his horn-rimmed glasses. Most of all, he was the kind of middle-aged guy who liked to hold forth. It didn’t really matter what the topic was—he liked to talk—but his favorite topic was himself, on good behavior, bad, or otherwise. For example, he told us he had once thrown a teapot against the brick wall in his dining room, where we at that moment were having the lunch he had prepared. Was it a threat? To me at the time the story seemed purely entertainment.
That “we” at the dining table included two other young women. One was Kathy, Stanley’s long-suffering managing editor, who did the hard work of getting the magazine out, who taught me what I needed to know to do my job correctly, and who rarely smiled. The other was a soft-spoken, single mother named Betsy from Arlington, Virginia, by way of Richmond, who was Stanley’s bookkeeper. Occasionally, too, at the lunch table there was an old geezer hired by Stanley to make cold calls in pursuit of new subscriptions. Once when he saw me pull up in my VW, he jumped out of the way in fake alarm, as if to say, or perhaps he did say, “Whoa! Woman driver!”
In those days I wasn’t eating regular meals. Stanley was a good cook, but to be fair, pure hunger is a big reason why those lunches were so memorable. And it was a hunger felt all the more keenly after the nine-mile bike ride. Sharing food is a classic bonding experience and I doubt I would remember this episode in the early life of my professional career if that sharing hadn’t happened. Mr. Irving, my college friend, and I had shared a meal, but none of us had cooked it.
Stanley invariably served us his simple, pinto bean soup, which he made with rendered fatback. There was no recipe. As he explained it, he just kept adding to the soup pot—more beans, more fatback, and other bits of flavorful leftovers from his other meals. He claimed that some such soups had been kept going for years. I had never heard of fatback. Betsy knew all about it. The South was closer than I thought. In fact, I was in the midst of it, I had been realizing more and more, ever since I first experienced D.C. over that weekend orientation. We also had Caesar salad made by Stanley in the traditional way, starting with a clove of bruised garlic rubbed into the bottom of the wooden salad bowl and ending with scattered croutons that he had made from odd ends of old bread.
By then, his wife wasn’t much on the scene. At least, I never saw her. By this time, she must have had quite enough of him. He was the father of three daughters, but they were gone by then, too. I heard only about one daughter, who was studying comparative literature at Princeton. He was wistfully very proud of her.
When spring came, Stanley gave us a treat for lunch. He cooked shad roe on a plank in his backyard and we ate at the picnic table, probably just as he and his intact family once had done. On another day in spring, the termites swarmed. Although McLean is known to be a pricey D.C. suburb, Stanley’s house was nothing special, a mid-twentieth-century split level. The basement had sliding glass doors that opened out onto the backyard. As Stanley stood in the doorway of the room where Kathy and I worked, the little winged things were all over him, as if he were some kind of saint of the termites. I got up and fled as he laughed at the spectacle—the termites, himself covered with them, me fleeing. When I returned the next day, they were gone.
Except for that one-time, after-work wine, we didn’t ordinarily drink at Stanley’s, but thanks to him, I attended my first wine tasting, at Washington’s International Club. Both my husband-to-be and I were asked by Stanley to assist him at this gala affair that featured perhaps twenty-four tables offering samples. But I don’t remember doing anything much except tasting and afterwards being rewarded with a carton of various wines to take home. Stanley was invited to my husband-to-be’s apartment afterwards, where we smoked pot and danced to an album by America. Stanley impressed us by snapping his fingers, rhythmically stomping his feet, throwing his head back, and shouting “Hey!” tango-style. There were other people there, too, but who were they? Kathy? Betsy? Bob’s roommate, Paul? All I remember is that until it was discarded, Paul vociferously complained on political grounds about the presence of the South African sherry included in that carton of wine.
Some days before the wine tasting, Stanley had offered me a full-time job after graduation and I had accepted it. The trouble was, I had, on the heels of it, received a better offer from another magazine, whose subject was, of all things, model airplanes. In fact, it was a clutch of three such magazines designed for hobbyists, junior hobbyists, and hobby stores that catered to the first two categories. Stanley’s offer had been an annual salary of $6000. I had just rented an apartment above a Greek restaurant on Georgetown’s M Street and moved out of the dorm early to claim it, a month before graduation. Up two long flights of stairs, I carried my bike on my shoulder to this two-room, $170-a-month flat that would have eaten nearly a third of that income—before taxes. The job at the other magazine paid $7000, offered health insurance, and promised a $500 raise after six months. Plus it was in downtown D.C., a much easier commute from my new apartment and not in somebody’s basement.
Stanley had left behind his trench coat on the couch of that apartment. I brought it with me to McLean the next afternoon, when I planned to tell him that I would be taking the other job instead of the one he had offered. To my complete surprise, he had already heard the news. He was on the board of the publisher who had hired me, and they had enjoyed embarrassing him at their board meeting that morning by telling him that they had stolen me away from him.
I was unbothered by his sputtering claim that I would be labeled a “job hopper.” Coolly I replied, “Well, I just won’t mention you on my resume. No one will even know that I ever worked here.” Where does such confidence, such gall, come from? Kathy, who had worked for him downtown but who, after the move to the basement, had dusted off her resume, was leaving, too, but surely she had been able to make her plans known to him more graciously.
At my job at the so-called Potomac Aviation Publications, I learned to proofread, copy edit, and prepare a manuscript for a typesetter—useful skills—but the place did not play fair. Although I got my $500 raise, the management dragged its feet on signing me up for the health insurance. After my marriage, I got on my husband’s plan, but a resentment lingered. I grew dissatisfied, grumpy, and exasperated, especially when one of the editors sent me a Christmas card that quoted a line from the poem “The Second Coming” and attributed it to someone whose name he spelled “Yates.” I had taken the job in May; I left it in February. And perhaps it was no coincidence that in the same month my first freelance magazine article, which I had sold in 1973 while still in college, finally appeared in print and I received my first payment for professional writing. I would have had to leave anyway, in a short while. The company was moving to Colorado Springs, where the editors who were still flying model airplanes could do so with more ease.
As for me, in years to come, I would for a time specialize in writing short stories that featured rude awakenings. A series of them was lying in wait for me. And it would be many more years before I experienced anything even remotely like that youthful, temporary smugness again.