Tuesday, November 2, 2004

How Sweet It Wasn't

I found an old book in my bookcase the other day. It was called, “How to Get Ahead With Your Boss,” and was published in 1960.

As I flipped through the pages, I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the advice the author gave. The one that struck me the funniest stated: “Did you have a good idea today? Did you do something right? If you did, it was largely because of your boss and his good management of you. Pass all of the credit onto him and he’ll be only too happy to share it with you. Do NOT try to hog it yourself! So start thinking of what you did today that you can credit to your boss tomorrow morning.”

The more I read the book, the more I was reminded of my first full-time office job, which, coincidentally, took place during the same decade in which the book had been written. Maybe if I had taken the book’s advice and buttered up my boss more, I would have lasted longer than four months at the place.

After high school, I attended a computer college. Computers were the size of gymnasiums back then and used punch cards, which basically were cards made of oak-tag that had a bunch of holes punched in them. The holes formed patterns that told the computer what to do. I had heard that computer programmers earned big bucks, like $10 per hour, which was a small fortune back then, so I took every programming course that was offered.

Fresh out of computer school, I landed a job at a large company that supplied wholesale groceries to stores. The company also had a state-of-the-art computer, which I was dying to get my paws on. The personnel manager told me that I wouldn’t be starting out as a programmer, however, but would work my way up to the position in a short time if I proved to be a good employee.

Well, my job turned out to be a punch-card reader. For eight hours every incredibly long, dragged-out day, I just sat there looking at the holes in the cards. I had to make certain that the girls who worked at the keypunch machines, which punched all of the holes, hadn’t made any mistakes. By the end of the first day, my eyes felt as if they’d been popped out of their sockets and rolled in salt, and then reinserted. The worst part was that I was earning less than $2 an hour.

Because my job was so boring, I was easily distracted. If someone sneezed, I was the first one to yell, “Bless you!” just so I could hear my own voice. And if I overheard any of the office girls talking, I’d stop what I was doing and eavesdrop on their conversation, just to break up the monotony.

My boss, however, felt that my hole-reading was beginning to suffer, so he did something he thought would improve my concentration…he banished me to a private room where he thought I wouldn’t have any distractions. Of all places, he banished me to the candy display room.

So there I sat, the biggest sweets-aholic since Willy Wonka, alone at a table in the middle of a room that was lined with shelves that displayed just about every brand of candy ever created. I stared at the boxes of Sugar Babies, red licorice and Junior Mints and wiped the drool from the corners of my mouth. I walked over to one of the shelves and inhaled the intoxicating scent of Hershey bars and Almond Joys. I couldn’t have been more distracted if Elvis Presley, wearing only a thong, had come strolling into the room.

It didn’t take long for the isolation of the candy room to begin to drive me crazy. I even began to hear the candy talking to me…“Come on, Sally, open one of our boxes and sneak a few candies, then put the box back. No one will know the difference. We’re only display boxes, so no one’s going to buy us anyway. Our candy is just going to rot and get wormy if someone doesn’t eat it!”

Thus began my life as a secret candy-snatcher. Staring at holes in cards all day wasn’t quite so bad when I had M&Ms and Hershey’s kisses to ease the pain. The only problem was, I soon began to gain some serious weight…and a few zits.

There also was the constant stress of knowing that at any time, there was the remote possibility that one of the salesmen might come into the room to show the candy to a prospective buyer and in the process, would pick up one of the boxes and discover it was empty. Then he’d turn to look at me, see a telltale smear of chocolate on my face and faster than I could say, “Nestle’s Crunch,” I’d be standing in the unemployment line.

After I had been at the job for three months and my clothes were so tight, they were beginning to cut off my circulation, I asked my boss when he thought I might be able to start programming.

“It won’t be much longer,” he said. “Just hang in there, okay?”

So I hung in there another month. Only two things kept me from screaming and tossing all of the punch cards out of the nearest window: the supply of free candy and the fact that I was going to be a $10-an-hour computer programmer in the very near future and never would have to stare at a bunch of holes again.

One Friday afternoon at work, after I’d just stuffed a Tootsie Roll into my mouth, the biggest bigwig at the company, “El Presidente,” came walking into my room. I swallowed the Tootsie Roll so fast, I nearly needed the Heimlich maneuver. Next to him stood a young, dark-haired man.

“We have decided to hire another computer programmer,” El Presidente said. He had my immediate attention.

“This is my son, Norm,” he continued. “He really wants the programming job, but doesn’t know a thing about computers. I was told that you know a lot about them, so I’m going to have you teach him how to program so I can put him in the position as soon as possible.”

I just stared incredulously at him. But back then, just as the book, “How to Get Ahead With Your Boss,” said, good employees didn’t contradict their bosses or their godlike wisdom, so I just nodded and forced a weak smile.

And later that afternoon, when the clock struck five and my day of hole-reading was over, I grabbed a family-sized bag of jelly beans, walked out of the front door…and never returned.

Believe it or not, I never so much as looked at a computer again until 30 years later. And now, for some reason, whenever I’m near one, I get a wicked craving for Milky Way bars and Snickers.