Monday, April 26, 2010

Babs' First Brush with Technology

In 1980, I was hired as a legal secretary. My new boss didn't care about my lack of qualifications, since he was just getting back to work after having been shot in the face by a hunting buddy. Cheney didn't do it, but isn't it weird that this happens to Republican lawyers, like, a lot?

In my new job, I had total dominion over three technological breakthroughs: a beige two-line phone with one of those cushiony ergonomic blocks that were supposed to prevent neck pain, (and did, because they made resting the phone between your shoulder and ear virtually impossible); a powder blue IBM Selectric II, the most exciting typewriter ever invented, (though slightly louder than a good vibrator); and a Mr. Coffee, the greatest miracle of all.

It wasn't long before the phrase “three onion skin copies, please” started to paralyze me with fear.

Here's how it went: a sheet of legal paper, a sheet of carbon paper, a sheet of onion skin paper, another sheet of carbon, a sheet of onion skin, a sheet of carbon, and a sheet of onion skin, all crammed into the Selectric II. This stack was thick enough to separate the carriage from whatever mechanism held it in place. Sheets slipped and slid. I swore a lot.

But the Selectric II was self-correcting! Whoa! You pushed a button marked “x” and the carriage began to type backwards through a white tape instead of a black one, as you simply retraced the steps of your error. Whoa! I changed my white correcting tape much more often than my black typing tape.

Sadly, the Selectric II did not have a mechanism for correcting onion skins and each correction only intensified the mistake on the carbon copy. If you were lucky, you had erasable onion skins. Then you cranked the pages out far enough to reach the error, erased it on all three copies, and cranked the pages back in again, hoping you'd land back in that tiny square millimeter where you began. If you didn't have erasable onion skins, you had to resort to white-out. Same procedure, only instead of erasing the errors on the carbon, you applied the white out and blew patiently on each copy until it had dried before whiting out the next one. You can't do it often—once, maybe twice, per sheet. White-out on onion skin is only slightly less noticeable than duct tape on a run in your pantyhose.

Now imagine this procedure every time you make a mistake, only you have an extremely nervous client sitting beside you who is due in court and desperately needs the pages in your Selectric II in order to avoid some sort of prison sentence. He looked dangerous when he came in, but now it looks like he might end up serving several sentences simultaneously. Your typing accuracy does not increase. You are covered with eraser gunk, carbon smudges, and self-loathing.

I was a such a disaster at this job that when the secretary next door mentioned a new breakthrough called a mag card, it struck even more terror in my soul. I guess I thought technology could possibly get worse than the IBM Selectric II.

My boss didn't have the heart to fire me. But in the middle of a highly controversial case, someone threw a molotov cocktail in his office window, which destroyed his files, but gave him the excuse he needed to let me go. I wonder if he was really that desperate for one...


Grannymar said...

Someone really loved your boss!
I think you were lucky to get out of there. I remember well the dreaded days of carbon paper but I never heard of onion skin.

Babs Jaworski said...

It was the wild wild west--Albuquerque, New Mexico. Oddly enough, my boss went on to become the judge in the infamous "McDonald's Coffee" case. Where he went, trouble followed!

Anonymous said...

Me wants more Babs. Where is Babs hiding?

Susan said...

Wonderful!! My daughter and her friends a few years back scored an electronic typewriter at Goodwill. They were thrilled because to them it was an ancient magical artifact...