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Archive for August, 2008

Kay’s First Flight

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In the post about Freddie and truck-stop counter slang I opened a couple of topics without completing them, promising to do so later. Here’s the fulfillment of that promise.

First, about the McGraw-Hill building: it’s still there. I had trouble finding it in Google’s Satellite and Street Views for reasons that will soon become apparent. I was surprised to find that the building is considered an Art Deco architectural treasure by most critics and, as a result, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989. NHLs aren’t knocked down. Here are some views of the building from various sources – there is an abundance of such pictures.

The McGraw-Hill building

The McGraw-Hill building

The top floors and the Logo

The top floors and the Logo

I was surprised by the entrance – I had absolutely no recollection of this gaudy (not Gaudi) entryway. It looks like a movie theater.

I had great difficulty seeing the building in the satellite photograph until I realized that the angle the light was coming from (lower left) was the opposite of the conventional upper right, creating a sort of optical illusion, so I rotated the image 180 degrees and everything became clear. The rounded rectangle in the middle is the cap holding the company logo, the name done in an Art Deco type font.

Satellite View rotated 180 degrees

Satellite View rotated 180 degrees

The Google Street View pictures were taken at night apparently and, until I saw what the entrance looked like, very difficult to distinguish from the complicated collection of structures and construction scaffolding and what-have-you. Finally, there it was, right where it belonged, at 330 West 42nd Street, not far east of Ninth Avenue.

McGraw-Hillentrance today (at night)

McGraw-Hill entrance today (at night)

The brightly lit store on the right of the entrance with the glass revolving door is where the Walgreen’s in the Freddie story was and, from the look of things may still be (or, more likely, a Duane Reade). I think there was another entrance to the store from the building lobby.

Curtis was the reigning McGraw at the beginning of the ‘50s – he took over in 1950 when his brother Jay retired and died in 1953. The McGraws were stalwarts of the Republican Party, friends and allies of Tom Dewey, and so vehemently anti-union that they paid all union-eligible workers over scale as long as they refused to join a union (this is one way unions improve the lot of all workers in unionized trades – and they don’t pay any dues).

At that time McGraw Hill was mainly a magazine publishing outfit. They had some twenty-five magazines, mostly trade journals such as Engineering News Report (which was the merger of the publications of McGraw and Hill when they merged companies), Factory Management and Maintenance, Aviation Week, Nucleonics and others for the chemical industry, iron and steel, coal mining and so on. The flagship, of course, was Business Week – still a major business magazine and still a large part of McGraw’s income.

The staffing for all of these companies plus the headquarters and its support operations must have amounted to two or more thousands of individuals. A very large proportion of them were Catholics. There was a church directly across forty-second street which was heavily attended by people from our building. In the morning when I came to work there would be people leaving the church crossing the street in the middle of the block to enter 330; four times a day, at morning break, lunch time, afternoon break and quitting time people would stream out of the McGraw building, cross the street mid-block and go into the church. It looked like the one building was pouring its contents into the other.

I worked for McGraw Hill Research which was a company within a company like the magazines and book publishing concerns. Its main function and responsibility was to shill for the publications. The staff at the home office was not large, three or four dozen, I would guess. There were people in the field, mainly sales force personnel. The big boss, a man in his late fifties or early sixties, had an enclosed office with his secretary guarding the gate outside of it. I only saw him two or three times. There were three second level bosses, Bert Peller, Allen Cobb and a third whose name I can’t remember. Peller and Thirdguy were typical office politicians, immaculately decked out in their Brooks Brothers outfits, backstabbing each other (while displaying false congeniality) and ganging up to sabotage Cobb when the occasions presented themselves. Cobb was a shirtsleeves sort, stayed out of all the games and just did his job as well as he could – which was usually as well as anyone could. (It’s amazing how frequently this sort of situation occurs. I’ve witnessed or experienced the same scene and scenario several times in very, very different contexts.)

I’m very unclear on the functional breakout among the three or just which of the next level of managers reported to which of the middle managers. I think Cobb was in charge of operations and I know that Fred Holzer, my immediate boss, reported to Allen Cobb. There were two women somewhere in here – Kay something, quiet and self-effacing, who was some sort of office manager, may have reported to Cobb, and Barbara Ruzitsky (a rare sort of name in that building), a classic “Smith Girl” who may have been part of Bert’s staff. My dealings with both of these were on a cordial, even friendly, basis as were those with Allen and Fred. My dealings with Bert and Thirdguy were always at arms length, stiff and formal. (A death notice in the NY Times, Oct. 10, 2006, says Peller was at J. Walter Thompson for 24 years. An epigraph to an article by Peller in Folio magazine dated 1/1/1991 says “Bert Peller is currently a consultant. He was vice president and manager of media for business markets at J. Walter Thompson for 24 years”).

Fred Holzer came to his position as a result of a background with IBM punched card equipment and procedures and no other particular qualifications for the situation he was in. As a result he never felt quite adequate for the job, operated in a state of anxiety all the time, often so much so that he stammered. He was obsessed with the idea that Peller and Thirdguy were out to get him, which, unfortunately, was probably true because it was a way for them to damage Cobb. Quite inadvertently and unintentionally I compounded Fred’s problem as will become clear after I explain my work there. He was my supervisor because I was using the IBM 080 sorter/counter to produce tabulations and he was also Marie-Wilson’s-lookalike key punch operator’s supervisor, obviously.

The job we were working on, which I mentioned in the Freddie post, was a magazine readership survey. As I said above, the department’s responsibility was to promote the advertising business of the twenty-five magazines in the company. In this case they got a group of about a dozen major American industrial companies to pay for the survey which set about “proving” to those selfsame companies that they should only advertise in McGraw Hill’s magazines – talk about slick scams! This was done by creating “duplication” statistics, showing for instance that if you advertised in Factory, there was no sense in also advertising in Mill and Factory (a competitor). They also did “coverage” studies, showing how to reach a wide range of readers with as little duplication as possible or at the lowest total cost.

My job was to do tabulations from a deck of approximately 43,000 cards (the number 42,787 sticks in my memory) by passing the cards through an 080 sorter equipped with optional counters. There is a decent brief description of the 080 in Wikipedia. The first picture is actually of an 075 but it was structurally and functionally identical to the 080.

An 075 sorter, identical in appearance with the 080

An 075 sorter, identical in appearance with the 080

An 080 showing storage bins behind

An 080 showing storage bins behind

By using the selector switches I would break the deck into various subsets and make counts of those and selected sets within them. In this way I could develop duplication and coverage counts.

Someone from Peller’s group would make a request for a “study”. Let’s say for illustrative purposes that they wanted to compare Collyer’s and Liberty Magazine. The request would be given to Allen Cobb. He would ask Fred to estimate the cost which was primarily determined by the number of cards that would have to pass through the sorter. Fred had counts that I had given him from previous passes (if a job required me to first sort/count on column 35, say, I would write down all the hole counts a give it to Fred) or if they didn’t yet exist, we would make estimates based on what we knew of the popularity o the magazines involved.

Nominally, the 080 passed about 400 cards per minute, so the first pass should have taken about 109 minutes. In practice, however, it took quite a bit longer because of card jams and the like. The cards had to pass through a very tight slit at the bottom of the hopper to the chute blades. If the edge in the center of the card had been slightly blunted or the card swollen from frequent trips through the slit or from absorption of moisture from the air or from handling, then it wouldn’t go through and I would have to remove all the cards on top of it, pull the offending card and ask “Marie Wilson” to duplicate it on her 029. If she were in the middle of some other task, I might have to wait until she could dupe my card, get the new copy (which I would check for completeness), put it at the beginning of the deck for the hopper, load it and resume the sort and count. This sort of thing would happen a number of times during a pass.

Much worse were the jams. If a card didn’t fall into a stacker and get out of the way quickly (sometimes the spring supported plate wouldn’t move fast enough, particularly as the pocket was getting near to full) then the card behind it would run up on it, crush it and then become crushed itself and so on. By the time I could push the stop button there would be a dozen or more destroyed cards. I then lifted the glass cover over the pockets, pulled the damaged cards from between the chute blades, flattened them as much as I could and asked Marie to reproduce them. Those that couldn’t be flattened had to be repunched, with the operator reading the holes and keying them in.

Sometimes I caused the jams. Under “normal” operation the machine would stop any time a stacker became full. This would require the pocket to be emptied, cards joggled to line them up, and then stored in the storage bin behind the stacker and the sorter restarted. With thirteen pockets (twelve for punches and the rightmost one, reject, for the no-punches) and 43,000 cards, this would happen very often adding a lot of time to a pass. To avoid the stops the operator slips a finger between two cards in a near-full stacker and pulls the lower stack out with the other hand – this is rather like the diningroom trick of pulling the tablecloth out while leaving the dishes on the table. The only trouble with this stunt was that it sometimes produced a jam.

(Because of all the wear-and-tear on the cards on several occasions I had to have the entire deck reproduced. This was a big job because the Reproducer was a rather slow machine. That, in turn, brought me into contact with the large data processing facility, called the Tab Room, which was run by a Mrs. Pilkington. Tab room supervisors had to be a pretty tough lot, if only because their staffs were a pretty tough lot. Dealing with the graveyard shift often meant dealing with drunks and all the problems they entail. Pilkington filled the bill with some to spare – she and I became quite friendly.

The most entertaining thing I encountered in the tab room was the Senior Tom Watson’s birthday. IBM had a global party for the old tyrant. Every major IBM installation in the whole world was connected by telephone and PA systems so that we could all hear the IBMers sucking up speeches and singing Happy Birthday and the IBM anthem.)

The point of this windy digression is that estimating the cost of a job was complicated by all the unforeseeable mishaps – so a fudge factor was always added. Fred would then give a time estimate for both charging and scheduling purposes to Allen who would pass it on to Peller’s crew who would then decide whether the study was worth the cost. Fred had another problem with the estimates – I often did the job in less than half the time he estimated. I tried to get him to use my estimates, which were based on a mathematical “trick” which allowed me to do a couple of simple pencil calculations rather than lengthy machine passes but he didn’t understand them and he relied on his more “solid” estimates. The net effect of this was to please Peller’s people because of the windfall savings in cost and Allen because it made him something of a hero – but it also meant that Fred’s estimates were deemed untrustworthy.

The “trick” is a rudimentary fact from set theory: the number of elements in the union of two sets is the sum of the number in each set minus the number in the intersection of the two (this is the basis of what is called the principle of inclusion and exclusion in enumerative combinatoric). I’ll illustrate with the Collyer’s Liberty example. Let’s say that Liberty was represented by the 9-punch in col 21 (all the general magazines were in col 21, Life, Saturday Evening Post and so on) and Collyer’s by the 5-punch. The selector on the sorter sends a card to the pocket of the first hole it “sees”. The cards are normally fed nine-edge first. So if a card has a 9-punch, regardless of what others it has, it goes to the 9-pocket. The counters count all the holes regardless of what stacker the card goes to. So, in our example, I would push in the selector switches for the 6, 7 and 8 punches so that no cards containing 5-punches could go into them, run the deck and then, after noting the counts in the counters, would run the cards from the 5 pocket to get the count of (5s without 9s). Now, by the above, the number in the intersection (the duplication) is the original count of 5s minus the (5s without 9s) and the total number of cards (the coverage) is the original count of 9s plus the original count of 5s minus the intersection. So I saved a second pass on the cards that originally fell into the 9 pocket. If I knew that the number of cards in the 9 pocket would be significanly less (from some earlier run) I would turn the cards around feeding the 12 edge first (instead of the 9 edge as God and IBM intended) and sort on column 59 instead of 21 so that the second pass would be the shortest possible.
                                                               *******
Not only was Kay Rooney the most interesting character in that rather dreary office, she had the most character. Kay was Brooklyn Irish, a much more distinct ethnic group then than now, which every New Yorker was familiar with. She lived with her parents, had at least one brother and one sister also in Brooklyn (probably within a couple of blocks of the parents), was a devout Catholic but wore her faith lightly and had the most wonderful sense of humor. Everything about Kay was big. Even in the low heeled shoes she wore she stood about six feet; she was what is politely called buxom, that is she had a shape like a Helen Hokinson matron even though she was not yet 40 years old. She dressed as though she were still in parochial school, white long-sleeved blouses, dark pleated skirts – I can’t remember how her hair looked except that it was pure blond (and not out of a bottle – heaven forfend). When Kay talked she filled the room but I never heard anyone object or shush her. When she laughed she not only filled the room but she made the venetian blinds rattle.
I’m not sure just what her job was. She must have worked for the office manager because she distributed supplies and seemed to spend a part of her day visiting other offices. Not only did everyone in our office love her, everyone in the whole building did. I would see her joshing with the elevator operators only as a girl who grew up with brothers could have; the same went for the counter women in the Walgreen’s and so on.

Kay’s closest friend in the office was the boss’ secretary, Bertha. Bertha was the direct opposite of Kay in every regard: she was petite and demure, always elaborately made up and dressed expensively (but not to my taste); she spoke in a small quiet voice, never seemed to laugh, certainly not audibly. Aside from their friendship, Kay and Bertha shared one other thing: they both had terrible asthma.

One of them heard of a “clinic” in Mississippi that purported to cure asthma by developing a tailor-made syrup just to fit your case, a scam rather like the ones for cancer by the infamous Hoxie. In order to get your prescription you had to go to their resort and clinic, stay for about four or five days (at high prices of course) while they fitted you out with your “medicine” which was also very expensive. The boss gave them a week off to go to but no longer. This meant they had to fly – and neither of them had ever been in an airplane before (not that unusual in 1950) and both were scared to death at the prospect.

The next Monday they were back in the office with Kay describing their big adventure to the entire staff who had gathered around her. She described going to LaGuardia airport and seeing the insurance machines everywhere and feeling that she had to buy some because she was sure the plane was going to crash (about five years later, at the Hungry i, I heard Shelley Berman’s wonderful routine on this very theme). As she stood in front of the dispensing machine, quarter in hand poised above the coin slot she became paralyzed with inner conflict. Who should she name as beneficiary? If she named a brother or sister then the others would feel deprived and her parents offended by the lack of filial devotion and so on. While she was in this suspended state a priest from St. Christopher’s church in Brooklyn approached and asked her what the problem was. After she explained he said “Why don’t you make the St. Christopher’s Building Fund the beneficiary?” “Oh no Father! I couldn’t do that!” Then with a wide, downward sweep of her arm, “St. Christopher himself would swoop out the clouds and knock the plane down!”

Then came her roaring, room shaking laugh.

“You should have seen the look on that priest’s face!”

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