Member Musings: Iris Shur

Member Musings features the reflections and thoughts of an NPC member. 

Iris Shur

At a luncheon the other day I happened to ask the women at my table to tell me about their first job. The question brought forth great excitement with very happy memories, for the most part. One of the women recounted how she had taught synchronized swimming for her first employment. That was pretty interesting compared to my first job as a babysitter at 25 cents an hour.

I wasn’t a great babysitter. Trying to stay awake way past my bedtime was difficult; I would often doze off. I should have paid more attention to that job, which turned out to be more vital than almost any other. After all, eventually I became the mother of three. Most of my other job experiences did not translate well to motherhood.

At age 15 I was able to get a “real” job as a page in the local library. Do they still call it a “page”? It meant that I stacked the books on the shelves in alphabetical or numerical order. Usually only the librarian got to check out the books. I loved the sound that the machine made as it imprinted the due date on the card. I was so excited when I was occasionally allowed to check out books.

The librarian had a funny smell on her breath, which I recognized probably 20 years later, in retrospect, as alcohol. One of those “aha” moments you get. She had severe arthritis and could barely turn the pages of a book. Outside of the family, she was the first role model of a working woman that I had. I admired and respected her.

Being a page was really tedious. It was never-ending and I used to go to sleep at night alphabetizing books in my dreams. The fun part was in seeing all the books. I was an avid reader and intended to read my way through the library starting with the “A” authors. When that proved difficult, I decided to read all the books by Daphne du Maurier.

The summer after eighth grade my mom encouraged me to take a typing course. The class took place in a woman’s home. This was a good investment for my future since some of my jobs after that were secretarial in nature. I will brag that eventually I was able to type 100 words a minute.

While I was in high school I worked for a man who was writing a book titled The Mind, The Body and the Inner-self. Even though I helped edit the manuscript and repeatedly retyped it for almost four years, I never understood what the author was writing about. I used to take pages home to read to my parents and friends, who found it just as incomprehensible.

Every so often my boss would deem the book ready to go to a publisher. I would finish the typing. He would wrap the manuscript up ceremoniously in brown paper tied with string and go off to the post office. But the next day I would arrive at the office and the manuscript would be back again, un-mailed. He would have already taken it apart. He cut the pages and mixed and matched the sections in a totally different order, adding and subtracting information. And we would start all over again.

Now that I think of it, it seems as if I made up this job out of thin air, but it really happened. The odd thing was that this man, not American born, was ostensibly a builder. That is what it said on the door of the storefront office. But in the four years I worked there I never saw any evidence of home building going on. I don’t think he ever published the book either.

While I attended college, I worked in the laundry in the men’s dorm. It was worth far more than the 85 cents an hour I received, believe you me! That alternated with stints in the dorm post office. Now there was a thankless job. Never-ending huge bags of mail had to be sorted and placed in student mailboxes.

Between my sophomore and junior years of college I was a unit leader of the senior girls section of a camp and in charge of eight counselors. My idea of camping out was at a Holiday Inn. Fortunately, most of my counselors were more mature and outdoorsy than I was and handled their campers well. I was just kind of “there.” Most of what I remember about that summer was a brief fling with one of the male counselors and sitting around the campfire singing “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

During college I also worked for Manpower, white gloves and all. For those of you who don’t know, Manpower, a temporary employment agency, really gave us a pair of white gloves to wear to work. I think I still have my white Manpower gloves somewhere. It was a big deal.

While I was waiting to begin graduate school, I lived in New York City and worked for Manpower there. I ended up at a wool importing company as a secretary. I will never forget the time my boss became very upset with me when I handed him a letter to sign with a typo in the word “wool.”

Those were the days when you had to put in four pieces of carbon paper every time you typed something and corrections were almost impossible, even with White-out. Then your hands would be black from the carbon paper, which would ruin the perfect letter you had just typed. You people out there who grew up on computers just have no idea.

My most interesting Manpower job was as secretary to the production manager of the largest Boston radio station. Apparently there were nine others before me, all unable to withstand the salty language of the radio station personnel. It probably tells you something about me in that I had no trouble putting up with the verbiage.

For about a week at the radio station the announcers and staff talked about the carpenters coming. I thought they were expanding the control rooms. The day the carpenters came I had baked some brownies for my co-workers. An attractive young man and woman stood before my desk in the afternoon.

She said, “Thank you for the brownies, they were delicious.” I bristled. I hadn’t brought them for strangers. “I’m Karen Carpenter,” she continued, “and this is my brother Richard.” I tried to explain through my tears of laughter that I had confused their visit, that of a Top Ten singing duo, with workmen. So I am here to tell you that Karen Carpenter was eating my brownies.

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