Judith Arcana, 9/5/2011
Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: Writer/Teacher/other stuff
Contact Information: Judith Arcana writes poems, stories and essays, publishing online and on paper; her books include Grace Paley’s Life Stories, A Literary Biography, the poetry collection What if your mother, and a forthcoming fiction collection called Hello. This Is Jane. Born and raised in the Great Lakes region (where she got an underage work permit at age 15 in Illinois), she lives now in the Pacific Northwest. Visit juditharcana.com.
Ida tells Katie
Ida tells Katie what happened, back then:
I was supposed to go to college like my sister Dell. Dell was the first and she graduated to be a teacher, but then she got married and had five little babies, right in a row – pop, pop, pop, just like that they came. Rena was next and didn’t want to go, four years was too much time for her, but not me. I wanted it. I wanted it. But the Depression came for my turn, honey, I had to make money right away, bring it home. You know, I had ninety-five in Latin. Ninety-five plus. I could have been a lawyer, or maybe an accountant.
But right from high school I took a steno course, six weeks training, every day eight hours in a room with one window – it was hot, so hot in there – this was before air conditioning! I passed a hundred words a minute right away, top speed typing and dictation. They noticed me. I could take dictation from anybody, even an accent. So, right away that July I started at a card company, one of the ones that got really big. But I was steno only for a while. Why? Because pretty soon the vice president gave me private books, ledgers kept in his office. I worked the adding machine but I was fast on paper, even in my head. I did his billing, collection for the biggest accounts. You wouldn’t think big ones would need collections, but they do, honey, they do.
That bookkeeper, the regular bookkeeper, must have been dumb, you know? What did he think was going on, those bills that never came across his desk? My boss gave me money in an envelope (under the table, they call it) so the other girls wouldn’t know. Never work without getting paid for it, honey. Don’t think they’ll take care of you. Over or under a table, get the money. Cash, that’s what you want for your work. So my kind of raise was under the table. The big boss liked that dumb guy, the bookkeeper, and my boss paid me on the side. That’s how it was in those days. It was personal.
My boss said I was the quickest study. He called me a quick study – like an actress, you know? He said I was the smartest girl there. December, he moved me right up, right away I got a bonus; he gave me a special bonus every year I was there. If the other girls found out, they’d be mad, they’d make trouble – but he knew I wouldn’t tell.