I’ve been thinking a lot about my past life as a secretary in big pharma. I’m trying to write an essay about a temp I knew who was sexually harassed, and in this season of Weeds, Nancy has become a different kind of drug pusher: a pharmaceutical sales rep. I’m also eternally grateful not to be working in that industry anymore, in any capacity, and while this may be burning my bridges, I say: burn baby burn.
I never planned on being a secretary, and certainly not in big pharma. I was and always had been a writer. But, freshly returned from a teaching stint in China, with only a useless creative writing MA under my belt, I didn’t know how else to earn a living. I didn’t want to teach again, and although I had a YA novel gig lined up, it certainly wasn’t enough to live on.
Becoming a secretary made perfect sense. I was neat and organized. What I liked best about my one year editorial assistant stint was the clerical stuff, and I was good at my job as a meeting planning assistant. Plus I wanted a job that I didn’t take home with me so that I’d have energy to write.
At the time I was living in New Jersey with my parents. I thought I’d live at home until my boyfriend (secretly my fiance) and I moved in together. Of course I’d get a job but my mother seemed to think my living at home equaled not working. “When are you moving out?” she kept asking, which perplexed my Chinese friends and my Korean fiance, whose parents would have preferred they live out home until they got married.
My parents didn’t have internet at the time. I had to look for jobs in the – gasp! – newspaper. It seemed easiest to go with a placement agency. I spent almost an entire day there being tested on Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. Then for a week I was sent on a million interviews, many of which were back to back and on opposites of Manhattan. I had multiple recruiters vying to get me placed. Their commissions depended on it.
In the end it came down to three companies: a big advertising agency, a pharmaceutical giant, and an investment firm. I never heard from the advertising agency. The recruiter guessed they thought I would get bored and leave. The pharma giant and investment firm made offers, and I had to decide. While the investment firm was fancy – the office was one big open space with floor to ceiling windows – it also seemed rather scary. People got crazy about their money, I knew, and I didn’t know if I wanted to deal with that. The pharma place seemed more comfortable. One of the managers was working on something similar to what one of my former companies did, and my father worked as a scientist at another pharma company. It was familiar territory.
By my last interview I was fed up. The person kept me waiting half an hour, then asked a bunch of contradictory questions, one moment wondering if the job would be too easy for me and then asking if I’d be able to keep track of people signing in and out of the office. By that time I had already made up my mind.
“You know,” I said in the middle of the interview, “actually I don’t think this will be a good fit, personality-wise.”
Burn baby burn.
Joining the company when I did was probably a smart move, unbeknownst to me. It was the late 1990s (right after a certain little blue pill went to market) and the team I had joined, marketing, had an enormous budget. It didn’t matter that we didn’t market the little blue or any pill. We had a budget and we had to spend it.
I liked my job in a lot of ways. It was easy and there wasn’t a lot of pressure. I liked helping my bosses track things in spreadsheets and prepare meeting materials. When they were away, I could spend the whole day surfing the internet, chatting with other secretaries, and working on my writing. Plus at the time there were a lot of perks. We could order entire vats of bottled Poland Spring water that we’d keep under our desks; the gym was super-cheap; and you could go for days without paying for a meal if you kept a lookout for leftovers from meetings. One assistant, George, was the free food-finding expert. He must have spent half his day wandering the buildings (there were two that were connected, plus two more that were not), seeking feasts. When he found something good, he’d make his calls and the news would travel, and soon, like hyenas in stretch-pants, the secretaries would descend.
The holidays were my favorite. There was an all-day party at the Waldorf-Astoria, plus individual team dinners. Marketing agencies, eager for our business, showered on us ridiculous gifts: champagne, wine, cookies, chocolates, gourmet food baskets, baskets of Harry & David fruit. I gave most of my gifts to my parents, who always appreciated something edible and free.
In some ways though I hated my job. Scheduling meetings was a pain in the ass, especially if you had flaky people who didn’t update their calendars. Making travel arrangements was boring, and dealing with food for meetings was downright humiliating. (Especially maddening were managers who’d hover and drool as I was carrying a heavy tray of sandwiches, and not lift a finger to help.) Also while my managers at the time were cool, they didn’t seem to get that they couldn’t “lend” me to other managers who simply didn’t like their secretaries. I had to deal with incompetent secretaries, snotty executive assistants, cold callers who felt they could talk down to me because I was answering the phone for my boss, and, perhaps worst of all, too-big-for-their-britches MBA interns who had the gall to send me out an errands (and in the rain, no less).
But I never thought about getting another job. I always assumed that I’d become a best-selling novelist and would be able to quit my job altogether. I imagined being able to rub it in everyone’s faces. It was what kept me going.
Up next, Part 3: Movin’ On Up.