After our civil rights journey, I took a year out of seminary as part of a theological school program designed to expose seminary students to the real world. The deal was you were supposed to find a real (non church) job on your own and then meet weekly with fellow participants to reflect upon the theological meaning of it. I jumped at the opportunity. I saw this as a chance to get out of the minister track and to make it big in the Big Apple.
And in my case there was some low hanging fruit. One of Davidson College’s chief benefactors, H. R. Richardson, had founded Richardson Merrill, the company that made Vicks VapoRub and other popular medicines. He had retired, was then in his eighties, and needed someone to help him with his memoir. Since my father-in-law was president of Davidson, I had connections and bingo, landed my first big job in the Big Apple as an editor of this industrial icon’s book. It seemed to me to be a perfect fit and the opportunity I had been waiting for. I worked next to his corner office on the top floor of a skyscraper on East 42nd Street. I even had my own spacious office, with a window facing the Chrysler Building, I concluded that miraculously I had become president of a major U.S. corporation. How much easier could it get?
The problem was that Mr. Richardson was never around, and the entire floor seemed like a tomb. After spending several weeks trying to make sense of his generally incomprehensible prose, I met with the old man and showed him what I had done, which included, among other things, correcting his capitalization of practically every other word in the manuscript. “I don’t know what they teach you at Davidson these days, but you are inflexible and you are fired!” he muttered, turned his back and stomped out of my office. I had been there only three weeks.
Okay, maybe this did not turn out quite as I expected, but I knew there were plenty of other jobs just waiting for me. As I left the building, I noticed an employment agency, thought, what the heck, and went in. During my interview, the employment specialist asked me what I had been doing in my last job. I replied that I had been editing a memoir. “Oh,” she said, “the old man from Vicks? You are the fourth person to come in here. How long did you last?” She was not able to help me because they did not handle entry-level positions, so she suggested I look in the classified section of the Times.
My strategy was to scour the classified ads in the New York Times, find the largest employment agency, and offer myself to the New York workforce. One company seemed an obvious choice since it advertised on practically every page. I went there first thing the next morning. While I was waiting to be interviewed, a young woman gave me a questionnaire to fill out, which I brought with me to the interview. The employment specialist introduced herself as Marsha. After noting that there was virtually nothing on the list I could do— stuff like typing, stenography, or filing—Marsha looked me in the eye, frowned, and said, “Joseph, there is really nothing you can do. We have no place for you.”
“What do you mean, no place?” I exclaimed. “I can do lots of things—I am a college graduate, a graduate school student, and I have just been editing a memoir. This is ridiculous!”
“OK,” she replied. “You are a clerk. But we don’t have any clerk openings right now.”
“I am not a clerk!” I exclaimed, almost shouting. I was furious.
Just as I was reporting the humiliating interview to Embry over dinner, the phone rang, and it was Marsha. Her voice sounded much kinder than it had that morning.
“Joseph,” she said. “I am very pleased to say we have a job for you, and it is a very good one.”
“I am not interested in being a clerk, so thanks, but no thanks.”
“Oh, this is not for a clerk. It is for an editor. You did say you were an editor, didn’t you? And you do know all your proofreading symbols, right?”
I had no idea what a proofreading symbol was, but how could I say no? I was to report for work the next day. The company was Spartan’s Korvette’s, which I assumed was a New York publishing house of some sort. I was elated.
When I returned to dinner, I told Embry to forget everything I had just said. The employment agency had recognized my skills after all, and I had just landed a big editing job with a major New York publisher. Not bad, I thought. I am in back in business. The most encouraging thing was that people seemed to instantly recognize talent when they saw it. Embry looked at me with some skepticism but wished me good luck.
The next morning I put on my best suit, got on the subway, and headed to Midtown. The company was located on the sixtieth floor of a sparkling new skyscraper. When I reached the proper floor, the doors parted and in front of me was one of the swankiest lobbies I had ever seen—red carpet, paneled walls, priceless art on the walls, comfortable modern furniture. A huge sign behind the receptionist read “Spartan’s Korvette’s.”
“I am the new editor,” I beamed.
“The what?” the receptionist replied. After I had repeated myself a couple of times, she suddenly seemed to realize what I was talking about. She directed me to go through the door, down the hall, to the fourth door on the right, where I would be directed what to do next.
The décor inside the hall was the opposite of the receptionist area. The walls were gray and bare, and the floor was vinyl tile, not carpet. I wandered down to the fourth door, which turned out to be some distance away. When I opened it, I found myself staring into a room the size of a football field, with rows of gray, metal desks all lined up, almost as far as the eye could see. There must have been a thousand of them, all occupied by busy workers with stacks of paper in front of them along with adding machines and typewriters. The room hummed with the sound of typing and adding machines clicking.
I reported to the person at the front desk, who appeared to be a supervisor, and told him I was the new editor. He seemed as puzzled as the receptionist and asked me to repeat what I had said. “Oh yes,” he replied finally and directed me to aisle D, seventeenth desk. I counted carefully and arrived in front of a plump, small man probably in his fifties wearing a white shirt and loosened tie. He looked up from his desk, which was covered with stacks of paper. When I announced that I was the editor, he pulled over a chair, placed it beside his desk, motioned me to sit down, and handed me a stack of what appeared to be computer printouts with lots of numbers.
After we did this routine for a few minutes, I asked what this was all about, to which he responded, “Wait till coffee break. We are working now, not talking.”
About an hour later—it seemed more like a day—a bell rang. The clicking stopped, and suddenly the whole room was alive with chatter.
“OK,” I said, “It’s coffee break time. What is this all about? What do you want me to edit? And what is going on?”
“You are editing,” he said.
“Well, what kind of publishing house is this anyway,” I asked, bewildered.
“Publishing house? This is not a publishing house. This is the bookkeeping department for Korvette’s Department Store, the second-largest department store inNew York. Why would you think this is a publishing house?”
“Well, they told me that the job was for an editor.”
“Oh yeah, that,” he replied sarcastically. “We always ask for an editor to be sure we get someone who can read.”
I lasted two days.
But my spirits were still high. I knew that the perfect job was waiting for me. Next week: Making It Big in the Big Apple: Macy’s.