A few recent Facebook posts — a beautiful photo of my friends Susan and Noel, a gorgeous photo of a bouquet of birthday flowers from the ever-sweet and thoughtful Alison, and birthday greetings from the always-kind and gracious Eileen and Viv — gave me a joyful feeling and took me to a time and place that now sadly seems far, far away. It was a place that I feared would never make me happy. And yet it did, It made me very happy indeed, and all because of a special gift. The place was One Penn Plaza, New York City. The time was 1988. And the gift? Well, let me tell you about it.
After a few alternately fun and stressful years as an advertising copywriter for a computer software company in Fort Lee, New Jersey, I was handed my walking papers. The company had been sold, and my job moved to Long Island. I was frankly ready for a break, and had no interest in attending the free career counseling offered by my former employer. The former head of my department knew better. “You need the money, Mary Ann,” she said one day after summoning me to the career counseling center. “Let’s send out your resume.”
We snail-mailed my resume and cover letter in response to an advertisement for a direct mail copywriter with the legal and accounting reference publisher Warren, Gorham, and Lamont ( known less formally as WG&L and most popularly among employees as Wiggle). Two weeks later, I was wearing a new suit and meeting the Human Resources Director and then Jim, the newly promoted Advertising Copy Director and a very polite and serious young man. They both impressed me from the start, and I guess it was a case of vice-versa. I was hired, and would be starting in a week.
I became excited by the prospect of beginning my new job, and pleased that I would be working in the city again. My workspace would be on the 40th floor of an impressively tall building that was a focal point of the New York skyline and in proximity of Macy’s, Penn Station, and the Empire State Building. And you know how it is once you get the “nod.” You never think to ask too many questions about who you will be working with. Well, at least I don’t. I was on a “just hired” high, and figured that I could dot the i’s and cross the t’s at some other time.
And that’s how it was, until the Human Resources Director phoned three days before I was due to start. “Mary Ann, I need to tell you something important.”
“Yes?” I asked, not really wanting to know.
“The two copywriters who work there right now, that you would be joining, are very tight.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, my stomach clenching.
“Well, I hired you because I know you can handle it — but I would feel very badly if I did not give you a heads-up.”
“Thank you,” I said numbly. And as soon as I hung up I thought I had figured out what she had meant. I was most likely facing a situation where two women had gotten very chummy and would be wary of another woman in their midst. Were they nasty? Gossipy? Gossipy AND nasty? I had frankly been afraid to ask.
Immediately I reminded myself that I had managed to make female friends at every place I had worked, despite being sometimes faced with a cold front. “I can handle this,” I thought.
I knew the rules, after all. Brush up on celebrity gossip so you have something to talk about. Read a few fashion magazines, so if they are into shopping you can keep up a conversation and maybe even be invited along on a shopping trip. Read Money and Time magazines in case they are into investing or current events. You don’t want to seem like a dummy or an airhead. Dress sharp, but not TOO sharp. Don’t be a threat. But don’t be a pushover, either.
That first day of work, fortified by a stylish but not overly “look at me” ensemble and accompanied by Jim, I nervously entered my new workspace — it was a large room with four cubicles, and mine was the first one on the left. I made the turn through the door, ready for the “once over” from one or (ugh) two women. And then I turned to my right and received the shock of my life.
Standing across from me was the most adorable man that I had even seen. He looked like a young Anthony Hopkins, and he was gazing at me wide-eyed. He was sharply dressed and appeared very shy. Frankly you could have knocked me over with a feather. One, or most likely both, of my coworkers were men? What a hypocrite I was, pretending to be a feminist but thoroughly believing that “clannish” meant “women.” I was even more shocked that Noel was holding a beautifully wrapped gift. For me?
“I’m Noel, ” he said. “My wife Susan made some candies, and thought that I should give them to you,” He had a beautifully smooth British accent — which belied his obvious discomfort. “So here you go — a ‘welcome’ gift.”
I took the package, and at the same time I tried to read his thoughts. Noel was actually pretty transparent.
“Why did Susan make me do this? I am mortified.”
“I thought all of those candies were going to be for me”
“I can’t believe Jim hired a woman.”
“This is going to change everything for the worse, I just know it.”
Peter, the other copywriter, came into the room shortly afterward and — like Noel — was haltingly polite. After introductions were completed and it seemed like I was settling in nicely, Jim headed back to his office. Like Jim and Noel, young Peter looked like he had stepped from the pages of a J. Crew catalog. Like Noel, he was guarded and I could sense his unhappiness. Like Noel, he tried to make small talk that went pretty much nowhere. You could have cut the tension with a knife. It didn’t help that when a young man named Bill from the production department came into the room and began to share a funny story, Peter and Noel immediately ushered him into the empty back cubicle.
“We can’t do that stuff anymore,” I heard them warn him.
“Why not?” Bill asked, puzzled.
“Because Jim hired a woman,” they said.
“Ohhhh, Bill said,” and the three of them peered around the cubicle wall in my direction. They looked dejected. I suddenly felt sad as well, and ate one of the candies. Damn but they were good. I liked this Susan. But I did not like Noel and Peter. And I did not like myself, for feeling as though I could never fit in and wanting to run out of there as if my hair was on fire.
Later on that day, things were continuing in the same vein. Noel and Peter were practically tripping over themselves to be polite and helpful, but I could sense their disappointment. Jim stopped in and said he was very happy to have me there. I looked over at Noel and Peter, who appeared somewhat less thrilled than Jim. And later I heard them calling a former co-worker, a man — naturally — on the phone. “Can you believe Jim hired a woman?” they asked in a stage whisper. “I can HEAR you,” I wanted to say. Instead I ate more of the candy.
And that’s when it hit me. Maybe it was a sugar rush, but it gave me a moment of clarity. Noel’s wife Susan knew just what she was doing when she sent him to work toting a box of homemade candy. She knew what I would be up against. Noel had most likely confided his fear that my hiring would change everything. And those were the words that resonated. “How it would change everything.” I did not want to change everything. I liked fun. I liked jokes. Why was I sitting there like a frightened child, when the last thing in the world I wanted was to have the label of “stick in the mud” thrust open me? I looked at the box of candies. I saw them as a sign that Susan believed in me, and was on my side. And this gave me the courage to do what I needed to.
I stood up from my desk and approached Peter and Noel after they finished the phone conversation with their former co-worker. “You know, I’m not here to put an end to your fun — no matter what it entails,” I said firmly. “I enjoy a good laugh as much as anyone.”
“Well, we had a female copywriter here years ago, and we were told that she did not quite get the other copywriters’ sense of humor,” Noel informed me.
“Rumor has it that things ended badly,” Peter added ominously.
Noel regarded me coolly, but I could see that I had given him a glimmer of hope. Peter looked amused, as though he could not wait to see what would happen next.
“Try me,” I said. So Noel told a joke. And I laughed until I cried. And then I told one. Noel and Peter laughed until they cried.
I am happy to say the laughs continued through the years, until I took my pregnancy leave in 1994. My camaraderie with Noel and Peter and Jim — and with “new” Peter, who replaced Noel when he moved up and out and ironically was a former coworker of mine who I adored — got me through some tough times and frankly made coming into work every day an absolute pleasure.
I ended up making terrific friends throughout Wiggle, some of them for life. We were a merry group, and practical jokes –often at my expense — and jolly fun abounded.
Looking back, I can scarcely believe that for a few anxious hours I feared that working for Wiggle would be, as my father would say, a “flop.” A thoughtful and meaningful gift from someone I had never met somehow turned it all around. It seemed like a miracle.
And so, in the grand scheme of things, maybe the best gift you can give someone is finding a way to let them know you believe in them, and that you are on their side no matter what they are up against. It really can change everything.