Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had just graduated from college with a BA in Communications from Towson University in Maryland and was seeking employment in New York City. Like all suburban born New Yorkers, I headed back home to commute into “The City” for work. I spent the summer looking for a job. During that time, my friend and partner in crime, Carolyn and I, scoured the Want Ads in the New York Times (yes children, this is what we used to do back in my day). We also went to the beach and made it home in time to watch General Hospital. Ah, the simpler days.In between signing up with employment agencies and interviewing for real jobs, I also temped on Long Island (pronounced Lawn Guyland for those non natives).
My dad asked a friend who was a VP at a large cable company in Manhattan to meet with me for an informational interview. Walter was a classmate of my dads and they’d been buddies for over thirty years. I dressed in the only suit I owned and grabbed the train into The City. I learned a lot about suits by owning that first one. It was white and it was linen. Was I channeling Mark Twain? With those wrinkles, I never bought another linen suit again, in any color.
I met Walter in his spacious corner office. He asked me about about my college degree and what I was interested in pursuing work wise. I told him that I was interested in TV and Film. At that time I thought I wanted to work on the production side of the business.
After a few minutes, of discussion, he suggested that I tell my dad to send me to Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School to brush up on those skills. In retrospect, I must have had a dumbfounded look on my face. Hadn’t we just discussed my college experience? I knew I had to start at the bottom, but he was saying secretary like that was it, there was nothing else for me. I totally respect anyone who wants to be an assistant or secretary — it is one of the hardest jobs out there — but that’s not the career path I wanted for myself or expected others to tell me would be my only option.
It never occurred to me to ask Walter if he suggested secretarial school to men he interviewed. He was of the Mad Men generation and it was doubtful he saw women as anything else but assisting a man. When I got home that night and told my dad about the conversation, he went MENTAL. I swear his head was going to spin off!
I ended up signing with Career Blazers employment agency and met my career counselor, Fredda Brotza. A short woman with a thick Brooklyn accent, she pulled no punches and told it like it was. Fredda sent me out on an interview for a receptionist position at PBS. As soon as the elevator doors opened my gut said I’d be working there.I had a great interview with the lovely office manager, Mary Ann. A day later Fredda said that they wanted me to come back for a second interview with the Director and Associate Director.
Donning my white linen suit, I had another great interview. I thought I’d nailed it and they’d be calling soon with an offer. A week passed, and nothing. I called Fredda daily for updates. Most of the time she didn’t take my call. Then on a random Monday, I got through to her and she said, “ it’s between you and another girl and frankly I think they’re gonna go with her.”
I was so bummed. As I paced the living room in my pajamas, I kept thinking there was something more I could do to land this job. I thought about a singing telegram, then seriously considered it. I opened the yellow pages (the book with pages, not the website) and found a local company that when I called they referred me to another company in Manhattan. I dialed (on a rotary phone hanging in our kitchen) and spoke to a terrific lady who when I explained I wanted to send a singing telegram in order to land a job, she loved the idea, but then said “the only problem with that is if the person you want to send it to is unavailable.” She did have another idea though. A Brownie-Gram. She described it as a large brownie wrapped in cellophane which included a note card and had several balloons tied to it including one mylar star that could be written on.
I went bananas! On the star I told her to write “PLEASE HIRE ME!” and on the card “I’LL MAKE THIS JOB A PIECE OF CAKE.” I gave her my credit card number for the $36 charge (a lot back then) and hung up. I continued pacing the house in my pajamas with no one to talk to except the cat, who somehow kept me positive. There was no way I was going to tell anyone what I had done in case it went bad. At 3:12PM the phone rang. It was Fredda. “I can’t believe you did THAT!” she yelled. “You should have called me first though. They want to see you tomorrow.” It turned out that their coordinator had given notice as well, so they figured they could pick a candidate from the receptionist pool.
People are funny. When I met with the crew at PBS again, they were all smiles and loved the brownie. Except one who said that I should have made it without nuts (seriously? A) I didn’t make it and B) Don’t effing eat it if you don’t like nuts!).
I got the receptionist job and the other woman I was competing with landed the coordinator position. It was all good. She stayed for one year and then I was promoted. Mary Ann, the office manager, became a great friend of mine who has since told me what happened when the cake arrived.
She left it on Harry’s desk. He was the boss. When he returned from lunch, Harry asked her “am I supposed to be bribed by this?” She said “YES, she really wants the job!” Everyone who worked on that floor ended up going into Harry’s office at some point that day to tell him to hire me. One man, Tom, even went so far to say “by golly Harry if you don’t hire her I will!”
This story is about taking chances and not letting others fit you into a box. If I’d listened to Walter, I wouldn’t have followed my dream of working in TV and Film. If I had called Fredda first about sending the brownie, she would have talked me out of it and made me question myself. If I hadn’t taken the risk, I wouldn’t have gotten the job at PBS. No risk, no reward.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized taking chances is harder because there are the inner voices of negativity telling me I’ll fail (don’t worry, they don’t speak to me often and I usually tell them to shut the hell up!). But we also have people who dissuade us from trying something new. “Oh you can’t do that, because you’re too old or too young or <fill in the blank>.” They box us in and make us believe it’s impossible. And we seem to believe that if we try and fail, then we’ve just failed. If that were the case then The Wright Brothers would have never flown and Edison would have never created the light bulb. Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb before getting it right!
Our society makes us believe that failure is not an option, when in fact it moves us closer to our goals by the process of elimination. We eliminate the processes which don’t work in order to find the one that does. So next time you want to try something risky don’t let negativity from within or from others stop you from taking a chance. What you end up creating could illuminate the world.