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 1st and 2nd Streets—my loft apartment, filled with furniture from Aaron Rents, had an authentic exposed brick wall that gave it miles of charm.

My new employer 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 event based 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!

Day before:

  1. Jill & Scott driving to Elkton, Maryland
    “Should we / Shouldn’t we?”
  2. Trying to find Court House
    “No, that can’t be it.”
  3. 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!”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Wedding day:

  1. Jill & Scott in line—nervous
    Pretend to be talking with the old couple behind them who are really nervous.
  2. Judges Secretary comes out and calls, “No. 11. Come on, we can’t waste all day.” (She’s a dingy blonde, chewing gum.)
  3. 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)
  4. 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.

[Addendum of Sorts, from my mom about “Planning a wedding, over the phone, with my mother…Her over-controlling ways…and we hung up.”: I made several large red and green plaid tablecloths for the expected reception, believing the wedding would be here around Christmas time. (I found them the other day in the bottom of the Christmas decorations box.) Jill was so far away. I thought I should do something, i.e. tablecloths, for the wedding. Music? Food? I don’t know what I was pushing, but if being married in Rice Lake was what she originally had in mind, I really blew it.]

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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