My current job is as close to a corporate environment as I’ve ever had, but given that it’s at a nonprofit hospital, most corporate lifers would laugh me out of the cubicle farm. I’ve worked hard to avoid that farm, and Boston has provided me with interesting jobs housed in interesting buildings. My work spaces have been in two former homes, a four-story settlement house, a late 1800s converted warehouse, and a two-hundred-year-old hospital. In my career, I’ve helped celebrate the sesquicentennial at a college, the centennial at the settlement house, and the bicentennial at the hospital. That’s a total of 450 years. I have definitely been around some.
My first job out of college, I wrote for the internal newspaper of that college in a converted large, old house a little way off the main campus. It had a double winding staircase to the second floor gallery, the conference room was walnut paneling and there was a servants’ back staircase. Unfortunately, I worked in a basement room next to the furnace, but at least it was always warm in there. Because the furnace was always breaking down, we also got to know the buildings and grounds staff well, which isn’t a bad thing when you’re a reporter looking for campus news stories. The fact that my editor gave me assignments scribbled on paper with greasy food stains and cocktail napkins with coffee rings was mitigated by the fact that I’m still friends with two people who worked there—war and adverse work situations bond people for life. Plus, I got to walk into a grand home every day, so that was something. I also learned how to pronounce and spell sesquicentennial because of that anniversary (that’s 150 years for all you people who have only gotten to celebrate centennials).
A part-time job while I was getting my master’s degree in writing and publishing turned into my next full-time job at the settlement house. That job had very little to do with writing and publishing. Thus, I fulfilled one of the requirements for being a real writer. You have to have a lot of weird, non-writing-related jobs. I’ll let you know when I find out what the other requirements are. The settlement house was called the North End Union and was a fixture in the predominantly Italian North End neighborhood from its founding in 1892 to its closing in 1998. It was part of a movement begun in this country in Chicago by Jane Addams to help immigrants, the poor, and the generally downtrodden. The settlement houses offered education and programs for kids, parents, seniors that were meant, depending on your politics, to acclimate or assimilate newcomers into the county. The one I worked at had helped many of the parents and grandparents of the people still living in the neighborhood and you could cut their nostalgia with a pizza slicer. By the time I got there, it was struggling to reinvent itself. As one of only two full-time admin people working there, one of the many things I did that was not listed in my job description was letting people walk through the building and listen to their reminiscences of the crafts they did there as a kid, or the sports team they joined, or how they got to go to summer camp. I loved that. Things I had to do that weren’t so fun, but highly interesting, included re-lighting the pilot of the ancient furnace in the creepy part of the basement that I firmly believe had 100-year-old dirt in it. The brick walls had all these shadowy indents which made it look more like catacombs —for all I knew there probably were people buried there. I worked to keep my eyes on the flashlight beam and the pilot light.
A writer-worthy moment came in that job when one of the preschool kids with a hell of an arm, lobbed a rock that ended up dinging a car pretty far away. The teachers left the Union’s information on the car and before I even had time to call the insurance agency, the car’s owner stormed into the building with her boyfriend, the nephew of a known mobster. My attempt to explain to the young lady and gentleman about how insurance works fell on deaf ears, and she demanded $500 cash to repair her car. While I explained she would have to wait a day or two for an adjuster and she would get a check (I helpfully outlined a rectangle with my hands for emphasis), the boyfriend toppled over a supply cabinet onto the chair I had been sitting on and they ran out of the place. I promptly ran into the conference room and started to cry, which is why I can never use this story for that interview question, “Tell me about a difficult work situation and how you resolved it.” I’m sure crying is never what they want to hear. But that wasn’t the last of it. A short while later the mobster uncle came in, profusely apologizing for his nephew. He also wanted to apologize to me personally, but I was still sobbing in the other room. The director, a native North Ender, came in and explained to me gently, but pointedly, that it would be best if I could let him apologize. This is not stuff you ever can find in a business etiquette book, but I pulled my professional self together, prayed I wasn’t too blotchy looking, and accepted the mobster’s sincere apology for his nephew. I never found a way to work the rest of that story into an interview either.
My next job was at the Boston Center for Adult Education when it was housed in an old mansion in the fanciest residential neighborhood. The building has since been sold and returned to a residence. A notch up from the first house I worked in, this one had four stories, a ballroom, and two walnut paneled rooms. One winding staircase led up to the second floor “office” I worked in with three other coworkers. It was the former master bedroom and we kept our office supplies in the master’s wooden, built-in sock and underwear drawer. My boss worked next door, in the anteroom between the master’s and mistress’s bedrooms. We were Downton Abbey cool before Downton. There was also a room called the “scary room” on the third floor, and at least a handful of people had seen the ghost who resided there. Because we dealt with 100s of interesting and creative teachers and 1000s of adult students, there was pretty much something funny and random happening every day. At one point we thought of pitching a show to the network about the place. Today we could totally have had our own reality show. Two stories that stand out for me: the teacher who called to say he had to cancel his classes because he was moving to a tropical island on the advice of his doctor. And the time the ex-hippy pottery teacher, who was trying a new firing technique, lit some dried leaves on fire … in the courtyard.
The move to a health publisher was something of novelty in my career. Up until that point, I’d had only ever sat at and used older, donated office furniture—stuff that predated the Mad Men era and definitely did not look cool. At the publishing company, I thought I died and gone to print. Not only was I in a retro 1800s warehouse close to the water, the office furniture was contemporary and the layout was planned out. Who knew such a thing was possible? I did still kind of miss the built-in underwear- turned- supply-drawer. There was one other downside to the place. In order to get to the office I had to cross a historic and protected channel of water. In the summer is was a glorious thing where you could see cormorants, wood ducks, the occasional swan, and sea jellies floating in after a storm. In the winter… oh, dear god. I’m surprised we never lost a person over that thing. In a storm, the wind would whip mercilessly down the channel, and think of nothing of blowing hapless pedestrians into the chilly water should we lose our grip on the slippery, ice-coated metal railing. But I will say it made you feel alive and grateful to have made it into work and our crossing over war stories were told in Homeric epic fashion at the water cooler.
I now work in a hospital building constructed in 1818, seven years after the founding in 1811. We celebrated the 200th anniversary in 2011. I’m in an office suite in that building, which used to be a ward for patients. Among the cubicles, filing cabinets and printers it’s easy to forget that. Of course to remember, all I have to do is walk up three flights to a room called the Ether Dome, a former operating theater where ether was first used for surgery. Oh, and the room comes with glass cases of, depending on your perspective, the creepiest or coolest old surgical instruments. (I think creepy.) I can also go to the basement, which is much cleaner and tidier than the basement in the North End Union, but all the white paint can’t hide the small outcroppings of rough-hewn stone in the cement block walls. Scratch deep enough, and I know there is 200-year-old dirt there.
So what could be next? Let’s see Harvard University was founded in 1636, but I’d have to wait another 21 years to celebrate their 400th. Maybe I’ll get crazy and find a building that’s only 75 years old–some 1940s art deco perhaps. Seems so modern, but yeah, that could work.
Photo credit: wslmradio.com