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Archive for May 26th, 2007

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One of the first jobs I had after I returned from the University of Chicago to New York was at McGraw-Hill Research the market research department of the very large magazine and book publishing company. It was a temporary job paying a dollar an hour for a 35 hour week, which, believe it or not, was considered rather good starting pay at the time.

The job was to process responses from about 43,000 respondents in a magazine readership survey. The respondents were people who were influential in buying goods and services such as purchasing agents, VPs from appropriate departments and so on. It was sponsored by about 10 of the very large industrial firms at the time, such as Alcoa, US Steel, Dupont, Goodyear, Union Carbide and others like them.  There were about seven or eight of us who were hired to prepare for the inputting of the data to the tabulation process.  We were given about a 10 page list of magazines and associated with each magazine name was a punch position on 60 columns of an 80 column card, so there was provision for 720 magazines. We were also given an eight and a half by eleven pad of images of an 80 column card.  We would take each response, find each magazine named in the response, find the right column and spot and blacken that spot on the graphic representation of the punched card. 

They sat all of us around a large conference room table right in the middle of the department office. It was tedious, mind-numbing work and I tried providing some relief by telling stories and jokes and making wise-cracks out of any opportune remark or event. Our group enjoyed this but it was irritating the other workers so that I was shushed or mildly reprimanded a number of times. There was one keypunch operator to create the cards from the forms. She looked exactly like Marie Wilson of My Friend Irma and was just as dumb. There were several other people who were interesting, such as the wonderful Kay Rooney, and there was a typical office political battle going on which I will talk about in a separate post. When the job was done, in a month or so, the temps were let go but I was retained for a while longer to do the tabulations on an IBM 080 sorter. I’ll take that up in the next post as well.

A couple of weeks after I started a new woman was added to the group. She appeared to be rather older than myself and the others in the group, was dressed in an ill-fitting tweed suit, had no make-up on (which was unusual in Manhattan at that time), hair not well combed and had a load of musty looking library books under her arm. As she went past me, I ducked my head to see the titles of the books. All I could make out was Robertson’s History of Scotland, an eighteenth century classic. Clearly this was no ordinary novice clerk.

During a break I introduced myself, commented on her reading matter and we were soon chatting away like old friends. She was English (of course), “born within the sound of Bow Bells,” that is, London Cockney. She had gone all the way to a Masters degree from the London School of Economics (in Medieval Economics!) on scholarships, had been bombed out twice during the Blitz. Her name was Winifred Scott-Fleming, married to Angus Scott-Fleming, a Chartered Accountant, and was called simply Freddie. She was among the most admirable people I have known. We became good friends during our time at McGraw.

Angus and Freddie lived near the Long Island Railroad’s train yard and the crashing together of trains in the middle of the night would cause a WW II reflex response: she would get up, still half asleep, put on a robe and slippers, pick up the dog and start out the window – until she realized where she was. One rainy day she asked for a favor. She was to meet Angus in the catalog room on the first floor of the New York Public Library and return some books. I took the shuttle across 42nd street because I lived on 84th street near First Avenue and would use the east side express to go home. She asked me to take the books, give them to Angus and tell him she would be going straight home. I asked how I would identify Angus in what was sure to be big crowd (avoiding the rain) and she said don’t worry, you’ll know him when you see him. She was right. In the middle of the crowd there was his head, a head above everyone else, topped with a black bowler, a brief case in the right hand and a brolly hooked over the left forearm.

The last time I saw Freddie was at her office in her new, permanent job. She was on the staff of the Secretary General of the United Nations developing an industrial coding system for emerging nations, a very complex task.

In the McGraw-Hill building, that awful looking green thing on 42nd Street near Ninth Avenue (I couldn’t find it in the Google Satellite images – it has probably been replaced), the ground floor contained a Walgreen’s, complete with a long lunch counter. Many of us used it for coffee-breaks, breakfast or lunch. The servers behind the counter used truck-stop slang for calling orders to the cooks or each other which was very entertaining for the customers.  One day Freddie asked me what an English Muffin was. I explained it was an American invention, never seen in England but that it was quite good. She asked if I would share one with her, apparently afraid to undertake a whole one by herself. We went to the Walgreen’s and I ordered an English Muffin. The toaster was at the far end of the counter so our waitress called for one to be prepared: “Burn the British!” 

It is impossible to describe the look on Freddie’s face.

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