Summer of ’68

As the 6 train chugged past grimy buildings in dicey neighborhoods, I felt I was being safely transited through vast danger zones. In those days before air conditioning, the train’s windows were kept open, so the amplified sound of screeching brakes and rumbling wheels was a constant assault. Mature ladies fanned their dripping faces with magazines; the raised arms of men in white shirts put sweat stains on display. The crowds, the din, the general jostling thrilled and unnerved me. It was the summer of 1968, and I was on my way to my first real job.

It was a countdown to downtown. I boarded the train at the Castle Hill elevated station in the east Bronx. Eventually, we entered a tunnel and made our clattering way under the streets of Manhattan. 125th Street, 59th, 42nd, 14th. At Brooklyn Bridge, the end of the line, I transferred to the 5 train and got off at South Ferry, at the bottom tip of Manhattan. The loop-like configuration of the station’s tracks created gaps between the train doors and the platform. Moving gap fillers, which looked like grilles, squealed into place, bridging those spaces and providing footing for the passengers. After a 90-minute trip, I stepped onto them. It would have been a long, involved commute for anyone. For an unworldly seventeen year old, it was epic.

I would have preferred another lazy, carefree summer, but the pressure was on to fill the months before college with paying work. Peer pressure, parental pressure: what’s a kid to do? I enrolled with an office temp agency and they sent me to the P. D. Marchessini Steamship Company on lower Broadway, where I was to do clerical work and fill in for the receptionist on her breaks and summer vacation.

A Greek steamship company! It seemed alien to a dreamy and bookish teen. Jacqueline Kennedy was keeping company with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis at the time and would marry him in the fall. This lent an aura of glamor to the place, though that was mostly in my imagination. It was, in fact, a small, cramped office, utilitarian, and drab, with black telephones, green adding machines, and gray metal filing cabinets. Only Mr. P. D. Marchessini, a magnate in his own right, had a private office. The managers worked at desks in a rectangular room down a corridor. There was a steady scratching of pencils and ringing of phones.

I was soon to be an indispensable servant of those ringing phones. Right away, I was trained on the switchboard, the type with snaking wires to plug and unplug, a relic even then. The wires were called trunk lines. When a call came in, a little light would shine on the panel. I’d plug in the associated rear trunk line and there was the first connection. Wearing head phones, I’d answer and then connect the caller by means of the front trunk, ringing the phone myself with a squeeze on a lever. This was a new-found power! It took concentration and dexterity to manage the switchboard during times of high call volume. I caught on pretty well. Miss Pomerance, who was training me, seemed pleased.

I preferred the front desk stint over the clerical duties of the back office: bills of lading to file, a card catalog in which I was to note the location of containerized cargo. (I have a feeling that cargo went astray more readily in the days before computers took over from green and clueless temps.) The tasks were dull and rote but they didn’t bother me; it was the social aspects of office life that undid me, at least at first.

I was fresh out of a Catholic high school, where conversation was strictly forbidden for most of the day. In school, attending classes and taking tests had been my “job” and it required total silence. Indeed, the silence was almost otherworldy sometimes. Imagine five hundred girls walking in lines to the auditorium for assemblies, the only sounds a gentle murmur of rubber soles, a rustle of acetate slips under wool uniforms. Visitors from the outside world could hardly believe their ears. Of course students talked to one another before home room and at lunch and during extracurricular activities. But I did not speak much to our elders, the nuns and the lay teachers, and when I did it was with polite formality. Now at work, I found myself surrounded by people I also regarded as elders–bosses, managers, senior secretaries. When they attempted to chat with me, I felt confused and froze.

Luckily, one of the younger secretaries took me under her wing. Veronica, from Staten Island, was around 22; she wore trim pastel outfits and paired pale pink lipstick with a cranberry lip liner, severe and audacious. Veronica made sure I took a full lunch break. Usually we ate Dannon yogurt on a bench in Battery Park, but sometimes we splurged and ate at a table in a dark, moody place called Amber Glow. As the weeks went by, I slowly got the hang of conversation and began to realize that daily life could be relaxed and spontaneous. It could be enjoyed.

And it could be sexy! The spirit of the Mad Men era, soon to peter out, was still in force. A steamship firm on lower Broadway was not as flashy as a Madison Avenue ad agency, with its three-martini lunches and after-hours trysts. Nevertheless, there was a yeastiness to the office. Women wore miniskirts, went sleeveless, and wore high-heeled sandals, exposing toes. They talked about their boyfriends and called in sick with “woman trouble.” One girl had a case of cystitis, a result, she said, of “weekends.” Weekends! Her sly tone when she spoke the word set me musing. Someday, soon perhaps, I’d be curling up with something other than books on weekends.

When I got home at night, I’d go to bed early, curling up with just a pillow, exhausted after a long day and another interminable commute. In that liminal time, between waking and sleep, I’d relive my switchboard motions, inserting trunks and yanking them out, making phones ring as my own ears rang with the memory of screaming train wheels and the high laughter of vivacious young women.

The summer ended. I’d made some pocket money to spend on books and supplies for my first semester at a secular college where I’d style my hair long and straight, and wear bell-bottom jeans, and sit cross-legged on grubby floors between classes. My Catholic schoolgirl propriety had been a heavy lading, but now it was gone. It had been packed off and sent sailing at the P. D. Marchessini steamship company.

**

Kate Bernadette Benedict grew up in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx and now lives in Riverdale. She is the author of Earthly Use: New and Selected Poems, published in 2015. Kate edited the erstwhile poetry journals Umbrella and Tilt-a-Whirl; the archives remain online and are linked from her home page at www.katebenedict.com.

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§ One Response to “Summer of ’68”

  • Raphael Lasar says:

    Another fine, Mr Beller’s Neighborhood piece connecting lines of personal history, cultural times, and bygone technologies nicely.

§ Leave a Reply

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