When I was 23, I worked as a secretary and receptionist at a law firm in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Outside, it was the geriatric capital of the nation, with a median age of 55. White headed senior citizens — formerly known as old people — sat on the park benches, feeding pigeons and playing shuffleboard. It was rumored that ambulances and hearses circled the downtown blocks, ready to scoop up the next fatality.
Inside, the office was small and shopworn. The only window by my desk was shrouded with yellowed Venetian blinds and mildewed curtains that probably dated back to the Civil War. Sometimes, I’d pull the curtains back, prop open two of the blind slats and peer outside, where my fourth-floor window looked out over an alley.
I got criticized for that, of course. Something about interfering with the symmetry of the curtains. At that age, in a series of mind-numbingly tedious jobs I considered beneath me, I was always getting criticized about something.
In my previous job, working a few blocks away at another law firm, I had been similarly misunderstood. I usually finished my work quickly there, then plunged into one of the giant paperback novels I schlepped to work. I was in my Russian novel phase then, and Dostoyevsky took up a lot of my time. One day, the boss’s son, Jim Jr., interrupted me in mid-sentence and told me to come to his office.
“You shouldn’t be reading books,” Jim Jr. told me. “You need to be looking busy — with the work you’re hired to do.”
Jim Jr., a loser if I’d ever seen one, clearly had no idea about the importance of being widely read. The trouble is, when you’re 23 you are almost always surrounded by losers and half-wits who fail to realize your brilliant potential. It’s really pretty demoralizing.
The first law firm gave me a lackluster reference for my second, current job. I knew, because I sneaked a look at the file. “She didn’t seem very interested in the work she did for us,” a note said. No shit, I thought.
This second job, though — with the musty curtains and yellowed blinds — I needed to keep for at least six months, since my husband and I were saving up for law and grad school in the fall. I’d learned my lesson about Russian novelists, so I turned on the ancient radio to the Watergate hearings. These were to be about as popular as Dostoyevsky.
“Can you keep that down?” Mr. Gordon, my boss, scolded me. “Our clients don’t want to be upset by politics.”
I grudgingly turned the radio down a tiny bit, since Watergate was proving to be as captivating as any work of literature and I didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
I tried to listen while I thrashed through the newspaper. Since a big chunk of the law firm’s work focused on wills and estates, I had to comb through the obituaries every morning to see if any of our clients had died. Like many other things that happened in the Old People Capital of the Universe — the shuffleboard! the pigeons! — this amused me. Imaging reading obituaries first thing in the morning, along with your first cup of coffee. How deeply gross, how morbid, quel bummer! Like every other person my age, I skipped over the obituary page since it was both depressing and irrelevant.
Forty years later, I’ll spare you the descriptions of how I now carefully pore over the obituaries and how semi-envious I recently felt of two friends who have plots in the Texas State Cemetery (if you have to go — and the evidence seems compelling — it’s a pretty place to take up final residence).
What interests me more is the mind of a 23-year-old. I always think the people my age and older who shake their heads and say if they were young again, knowing what they do now, wouldn’t that be just dandy? miss the point entirely. A vital part of being young is simply not knowing. How can you be burdened by what you don’t know? The world is new and fresh, even if it is peopled by a lot of losers like Jim Jr., and nobody’s ever been young before your generation. If you’ve been lucky in your short life, you haven’t lost someone you loved dearly and you haven’t been shattered by failure or heartbreak. All of that will come later.
In the meantime, the horizon’s enormous — a little too enormous — and your potential is brilliant, even if nobody knows it but you. “What will happen next?” I would ask my 23-year-old self. I’d guessed she would have shrugged and said law school. Well, of course, law school.
More than anything else, that feels like it happened to another person — a time so long ago and so different that going to law school was going to be the answer to all my questions.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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