Part Four | Fortune 500 Jobs; Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta (1985-1989)
Scott and I were the same age, but he was on the five-year plan in school. I had blanketed the US with resumes my final semester and came up with two interviews just after graduation. One was with G. D. Searle & Company—makers of Nutrasweet—in Chicago, and the other with Rohm & Haas Company—I had never heard of them—in Philadelphia.
Both companies made offers, but I accepted the position with Rohm & Haas because the money was better ($24.5k vs. $23k) and I wanted to go into sales, not work as a bench chemist. The lab position was about testing the amount of a pharmaceutical drug that had gotten into their rat chow so they would know how much of the drug the rat actually got. What I hadn’t anticipated was that a job selling sheet plastics through plastics distributors wouldn’t be that much better.
The summer I was hired, three other women in their mid-20s were also hired. Affirmative action in action. During my company-paid house-hunting trip, I found an apartment smack dab in the middle of the Center City District, the original downtown of Philadelphia. Located on Letitia Street—between Market and Chestnut, and 1stand 2ndStreets—my loft apartment, filled with furniture from Aaron Rents, had an authentic exposed brick wall that gave it miles of charm.
My new employers had asked if I could somehow manage a car for the first six months during my training at the corporate headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. (I’d get a company car as a salesperson when I got my field assignment.) My dad was willing to offer up his Oldsmobile 88, but my mother scuttled the deal. She didn’t want it coming back covered with scratches and door dings. To her credit, she sewed me a very nice grey skirt suit to send me off with.
For the first three months, then, I hoofed it. Honestly, I was used to that. Besides, the offices were directly across the street from the Liberty Bell, just four and a half city blocks from where I lived. The smells of Philadelphia up close are something I will never forget. As I walked along, it was often ten steps of heaven from one amazing restaurant or another followed unexpectedly by one quick whiff of pure stench.
While working in those downtown offices, I sat with customer service reps and learned the business. Those dear men and women were very gracious in helping me come up to speed. For all my book smarts, I had not an ounce of worldliness. Then for the next three months, I was to commute thirty minutes up the highway to the company’s plant in Bristol, Pennsylvania where I would learn the technical aspects of the product. For that, I was going to need a car.
Fortunately, the company generously offered to rent me a car. When I got to the rental counter, the woman asked me if I would like to drive a TransAm. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?” So there I was, looking cool as I drove about in this huge new world. But driving in downtown Philadelphia was a far cry from what I knew in Rice Lake, which was the last place I’d lived when I’d had access to a car. It was mindboggling to me that there was a stoplight on every single corner!
I was parking in a high-rise parking deck when a stray kitten chose me as her new owner. (Well-known fact: People choose dogs but cats choose people.) My new buddy, Letitia, came to me with a flotilla of fleas that floated off when I dunked the poor thing in sink full of flea treatment. She quickly developed the ability to play fetch with a bottle cap and made me look forward to coming home to my no-longer-empty apartment.
The other presents from heaven that fall were two friends I met through work. One was a guy named Bruce who had recently gotten engaged. But since we were both currently solo in the city, we shared many a meal together. My other friend, Jill, was the first Jewish person I had ever met. Together with her roommate, the three of us would paint that town red.
From Jill, I discovered what many Jewish people do on Christmas: they go to a movie. So on Christmas Day, when she and I went to see the movie A Chorus Line, I was amused to hear the whole theater crack up over a Jewish joke. A few years later, I would attend my first (and so far only) Jewish wedding, enjoying prime rib at midnight since the ceremony couldn’t start before the sun went down. It was a spectacular event.
The really hard part was being separated from Scott. Long-distance phone calls were crazy expensive back then, so our talking time was limited but we still ran up a $200 bill every month. Once a month or so we’d manage to get together, mostly when he’d fly out to see me. One time, he showed up with a ring. I knew it was coming since I’d helped pick it out, and was touched when he arrived having put it in his jacket pocket and then sewn it shut. Hence, we began to plan a wedding.
Planning a wedding, over the phone, with my mother was an instant train wreck. Her over-controlling ways got my hackles up and I called the whole thing off. “You’ll hear about it when you hear about it,” I said, and we hung up.
While talking with one of my colleagues about the situation, I learned that I was living near the “Elopement Capital of the East Coast”: Elkton, Maryland. History has it that back in the early twentieth century, when states like Pennsylvania were passing more restrictive marriage laws, the nearby state of Maryland was not. Maryland had since instituted a 48-hour waiting period, but it still attracted hundreds of celebrants a year (no longer thousands).
Scott and I agreed that eloping sounded like a swell idea. He was coming for a visit between Christmas and New Year’s, giving us time to get our license and then go back for the ceremony. We sealed the deal on New Year’s Day and then celebrated with my friends who joined us to watch the Mummers Parade in the bitter cold.
In May, when I returned to Wisconsin to attend Scott’s college graduation, my parents invited a handful of family and friends to commemorate our nuptials. The highlight was a mock wedding. This was essentially a play re-enacting the eventbased on our telling about the day. My mother had written up an outline for the actors (my relatives) to follow (Scott and I included) with the heading: Outline only—you must improvise!
- Jill & Scott driving to Elkton, Maryland
“Should we / Shouldn’t we?”
- Trying to find Court House
“No, that can’t be it.”
- Inside Court House, running down the hall to find judge.
“Jees, Scott, it’s 10 minutes to 12:00 and this place closes at noon. Hurry!”
- Meet scrub woman in the hall who won’t let them past her mop.
“You guys think you’re going to get married? You can’t get through here.” Then she laughs and shoos them thru with her mop.
- They find the judge who doesn’t know if he had time tomorrow (had married 26 couples today) but tells them to come back tomorrow and stand in line.
- Jill & Scott in line—nervous
Pretend to be talking with the oldcouple behind them who are really
- Judges Secretary come out and calls, “No. 11. Come on, we can’t waste all day.” (She’s a dingy blonde, chewing gum.)
- Into Judge’s Chambers. He asks if they have witnesses with them. No. So he calls secretary and tells her to round up her boyfriend (real creep)
- Judge—“Do you take this woman…You may kiss the bride.” Boyfriend of secretary beats the groom to the kissing of the bride. Secretary and boyfriend get into fight. Bride and groom leave ‘kissy-kissy’
Our mock wedding was hosted by my parents who were themselves now happily re-married. Having originally tied the knot on 8-23-58, they’d re-tied it on 8-23-85. My mother has a head for numbers so this transposition of years quite delighted her. I had come home for the service and celebration the previous fall, and for now, the knot was holding.
Rohm & Haas assigned me my first territory at the end of 1985, which was to be based in Los Angeles and included the northern half of LA, plus Denver, Albuquerque and El Paso. Because I like to be efficient and also because we had so little money, Scott and I used my one-week, company-paid, house-hunting trip as our honeymoon.
Driving around the area in early January with my new sales manager, looking at apartments, I noticed reflectors running down the center of the highway. “What a bad idea! The snowplows will scrape those right off!” When I saw school buses painted white on the top for heat management, I wondered if they were trying to replicate snow. When I saw a place with a really steep driveway, I balked: “But we’ll never get up it in the winter.”
“Jill, this is winter,” Dennis said. “Welcome to LA.”
I truly had had no idea. I thought everyone had four-foot-high snow banks at the end of their driveway during winter months. Now I understood why my college boyfriend Tim had been so hot to move to California. Somehow he knew.
Driving around these cities to call on plastics distributors and end users with problems, I would pull out a paper map and figure it out. The LA map back then, called a Thomas Guide, was a one-inch-thick book. I had a lot to learn but out of sheer necessity, I was coming up to speed quickly. Years later, I would recognize an odd trait of mine, which I wasn’t fully aware of at the time. I didn’t trust the map.
It’s not that I didn’t think it would work, but rather that I didn’t think the same directions would work every time. Strangely, I didn’t believe you could expect an off-ramp to always be in the same place every time you returned to a city. Once I considered this, walking myself through the reality that these things were made of concrete and therefore not likely to move, I inquired within more deeply about where this bizarre notion had come from. In short, it stemmed from my childhood where the landscape was perpetually shifting. One day dad was sober and kind, the next a threatening mess. In my world, the road, if there was one, continually changed.
In addition to learning to drive in a big city, I had to learn how to fly. Regular air travel quickly becomes routine, but it was a tall task to figure out all the moving parts, all on my own. I took up the habit of reading USAToday on the plane, eventually paying for a home-delivered subscription that lasted 18 years. I finally had to give it up a few years ago while living in DC, when the carrier couldn’t for the life of them, find my front door with a paper. ‘But I haven’t done anything else so consistently since 1998!’ I lamented.
On the first of many early morning flights to Denver, I asked for coffee with sweetener from the flight attendant, called a stewardess in those days. Wow. It was delicious and it perked me right up. How had I possibly made it through college without discovering this?
Towards the end of my six-month training in Philadelphia, my managers assigned me a project so they could assess my readiness for heading out into the field. It turns out, not every young woman they’d hired had panned out. My task: Study the market for tanning beds, which require the use of a special acrylic sheet that transmits UV light, then write up a paper on my findings and present them in front of a half-dozen upper-level managers. Apparently I did OK.
My research would take me off to visit various people involved with tanning beds. I wasted a fair bit of time bumping around, trying to get my bearings and calling on places that offered no helpful information. One dead end was a company I’d come across located in, of all places, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Hey, I’m no dummy. I bought a plane ticket home so I could visit these folks. When I arrived at Scott’s parent’s house after the sales call, there was a message waiting for me to phone the office. No one at Rohm & Haas knew where I was and hadn’t heard from me in days. They were in a bit of a panic, but it had never occurred to me to check-in. I thought I was out there all on my own.
Just one year later, I would be transferred to a new eight-state territory based in Chicago. How exciting! But I went alone, with Scott staying back in LA. Being apart for one year had taken its toll. So had my escalating drinking. The slide began in earnest when I was living alone in Philadelphia. Up until then, back in college, I drank like an alcoholic—in other words, I drank to get drunk—just like everyone else.
But now, things had gotten worse. I had started drinking alone. True, I also drank a lot with my new friends. We all did. But there were nights when I was drunk-dialing Scott and sobbing about how lonely I was. It wasn’t easy. To make matters worse, I had found the technical aspect of my new job to be nearly nonexistent. During training, when they touched on the chemical structure of Kydex sheet, explaining that this was what made it so chemically resistant, my ears perked up. “Tell me more about that!” I said.
“Sorry,” the person training me said, “I can’t. That’s confidential.”
The bulk of my job involved entertaining plastics distributors: Chat about business for a bit, then take them out for drinks and a nice dinner, show them a good time. At a trade show in Iowa, I took a group of men to a strip club, and then picked up the tab. Nearly all of my customers were men, and I was young and reasonably attractive. At least I liked to think so, dressed as I was from my extensive wardrobe of good looking suits bought at Ross Dress for Less, most sporting exceedingly large shoulder pads.
Sales meetings were also a good time. Held in nice locations, like Disneyland, they were a chance for me to get to know my sales colleagues, all of them men except for me. We had two women in management, heading up customer service and customer complaints, and they were great. The men were great too, but they were, in fact, all men.
One sales meeting coincided with some or other exciting NFL football game, and the entire group was geared up to watch it in a hotel suite after dinner. I had watched a lot of football by then, and while I’m generally a fan of the game, I’m by no means a serious spectator. The men were. A pool was created, with everyone tossing in a few dollars. The deal was, you placed your guess, but to win you couldn’t go over on the score.
I arrived late to the game, shaving off the time available for talking about a sport I knew little about. (We pom-pom girls watched every game, but we didn’t analyze them.) Stepping into the room, I was immediately asked if I wanted to join the pool. “Sure, I’m in!” I always tried to be a team player. What I had missed, which of course I didn’t realize, was all the talk about how this would be a high-scoring game. I just wanted to come up with a score that was possible in football. Like 7 (touchdown) + 3 (field goal) = 10. So that was my bet, something like 10 to 7.
To everyone’s surprise, it was a low scoring game. And since the winner couldn’t go over, I won! The next morning, they begrudgingly gave me $120 at breakfast—I also hadn’t stayed for the end of the game—and used that money to buy myself a stylish pair of grey winter boots I’d been eyeing but didn’t think I could afford.
At another sales meeting, and for the life of me I can’t remember how we got to this—hint: alcohol was involved—at the end of the evening, I wound up pitted against the boss of our whole group, John, in a career-defying ping pong match. John was a competitive person and I generally am not. But somehow I had managed to admit that I was not skilled at playing ping pong. Or maybe I said I was really good at it. Regardless, there was a ping pong table in the hotel, and the gauntlet had been thrown down. We were all to break after dinner and then meet up a short while later to cheer on John vs. Jill.
To up the stakes—and put John at a disadvantage—the managers involved convinced me to go to my room and change into a tennis outfit I’d brought along, complete with a very cute—read: very short—tennis skirt. I also wore nylons underneath, á la that hot look I’d rocked as a pom-pom girl. Like I said, alcohol was involved. I’d had the good sense to slow down a bit so I could make a decent showing at the event. I mean, these were, in fact, all of my colleagues and managers who were watching.
While not a jock, I do have some athletic talent, so it turned out I wasn’t half-bad at ping pong. A short way into this circus, John realized that in fact, he might lose. To a girl!He started digging deep, so I dug deeper. Halfway through, one of my managers, Don, leaned over to me (now sweating) and whispered into my ear, “You know you have lose this game, right?” It was a close finish, but in the end, John walked away with the crown. And I kept my job.
Return to WALKER