Katharine Valentino, 11/27/2017
Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.
Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money.
Assistant Trainer for the Blind
I was 21 and living at my parents’ house. Mama was to take care of the baby when I found work. In the early 60s, the choices in genteel work for women without college degrees or specialized training were: office worker or sales clerk. Oh, no, not sales clerk again! So, OK, let’s go to the office.
In most offices, I couldn’t be a secretary because I couldn’t “take a letter.” Or to be more precise, I could take the damn letter, but I was too slow getting all those shorthand squiggles on the paper. I never could write very fast. Also in most offices, I couldn’t be a receptionist because that position required “front-office appearance,” and front-office appearance meant no glasses.
I could be a filing clerk, though. Imagine: You pass a skills test timed with a stopwatch during which you arrange fictitious company names in alphabetical order. You pass a clothing inspection: skirt falls to just below the knee, shoes are just like those worn by the mother on “Leave it to Beaver,” white cotton blouse is starched and tucked in. You are ready to spend eight hours a day picking up one piece of paper after another, opening the correct file drawer, inserting the paper in the correct folder and closing the file drawer. The high point of your day is when you get to use your “good penmanship” to create a new folder.
Imagine my relief when a job was posted for an assistant trainer of the blind at the Braille Institute of America in Los Angeles.
What was this job? I stood beside a teenager and touched her hand every time she swung her head back and forth—a “blindism” that is understandable if you’ve never ever seen yourself but that you can be trained not to engage in. I read to a child who was blind and loved Lone Ranger books. I traipsed up and down hallways with people learning to use canes, keeping them from smashing the canes and themselves into walls. I handled the phone switchboard during someone else’s lunch period. I answered questions posed by people whose dogs led them to my desk. And yes, I occasionally even did some dreary filing.
I worked at the Braille Institute for almost a year. It was a low-paying job but fun. Frustrating, though. Without specialized training, which I couldn’t afford because of the low pay, I could never be a real trainer. I could only be an assistant.
My next job was brief. I was hired to be an administrative assistant to a building contractor. “Office work” proved to be little other than answering the phone and taking messages. The “building contractor” proved to be a pimp who had installed his girls in buildings I presume he had built. The calls were almost always from those girls. They went something like this:
“I wanna speak to Bob.”
“Whom shall I say is calling?”
“Whom shall I say is calling?”
“Wha da fuck do you care who’s callin’. Get me Bob.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m supposed to ask who is calling.”
“Fuck you. You get me Bob right now, you bitch!”
Come Saturday, I was quite ready for a relaxing day doing laundry, vacuuming and looking after my son, age 3. About 10:00 in the morning, I got a call from Bob asking me why I was not at work.
“Uh, because it’s Saturday?”
“Shit yeah, it’s Saturday,” said Bob. “It’s not Sunday, so why the fuck aren’t you at work?”
There had been a misunderstanding. For $320 a month I was supposed to listen to people cuss at me six days a week, not five. Well, as I said the job was brief.
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