It was 1980, and she was out of work. She had left her previous job which paid peanuts to sell advertising specialties and had fallen on her face. What was she doing selling anyway when she knew she couldn’t even sell ice in the Sahara?
Oh, never mind. This job was truly novel, and she was ready for the adventure. She would be the communications consultant with other team members assigned to short-term projects advising clients on business processes.
Not that she was especially qualified to do this. It had been less than 10 years since she graduated college, and it wasn’t as if she’d been electrifying the world with her business acumen. She did have eight years of experience, surviving in an apartment that consumed one-third of her paycheck, working for weekly and daily newspapers and serving as public relations coordinator for a well-respected non-profit that barely paid more than minimum wage.
This new job was different. Her colleagues would come from all over the country. Every Sunday, she would fly out of her home airport and meet them at the airport closest to the project site.
Flying was not what it is now. There were few luggage restrictions. It was the policy of her company never to check baggage; the team leads didn’t want to have to wait for luggage pickup. It was “life in the fast lane,” and there was no time for slow-pokes, dawdlers, and timid people.
So every week, she parked her car in the long-term lot to meet her plane, a cross-body tote filled with toiletries, grooming necessities, and reading materials across her chest, a hard Samsonite briefcase dangling from her left arm, and a garment bag filled with a week’s clothing dangling from her right.
At 5’1”, she was a miniature packhorse waiting in line for her tickets and boarding passes and running for the gate.
When one is not quite 30, single, and has not had the means to experience much of the world outside her home county and nearest city, the chance to fly around the country on someone else’s bank account is an alluring adventure.
Before she signed up with the consulting firm, she had asked the recruiter about working hours. He had said that the project team would work the same hours as the client. This seemed reasonable at the time, but she quickly learned that what he really meant was that the client had a 24-hour day, and so did the project team.
She also quickly learned why job turnover was 150%.
It was a lively lifestyle. Her weekend ended Sunday afternoon or evening as she watched the landscape of her home become small, a miniature world of buildings, countryside, rivers, and ribbons of road soon disappearing under a blanket of clouds.
Minutes or hours later, the lights of her destination appeared in the distance and then grew larger, taking her to another place and another world.
Upon landing, she followed the etiquette of reasonable people disembarking from cramped quarters, but few could appreciate the bulk around her middle as she struggled with her three pieces of luggage and shuffled down the narrow aisle in coach. Sometimes a kind person less “vertically challenged” would have to help her get her bag out of the overhead compartment. Sometimes it was awkward being short.
Her teammates gathered in ground transportation while the team leads queued up at the rental car counter. There was always a hope that one of the leads had arrived early, had already procured a car, and was ready to drive those of us present to the project hotel.
Whether at the airport or at the job site, she was always ready to take the project car back to the hotel for a treasured bit of free time before bed.
She never cared for smoking on the plane, but somehow the faint smell of old tobacco soaking the carpets, curtains, and bedclothes of her hotel room seemed less offensive and even rather homey. Forever she would link that smell to the adventure of travel and opening the door of her hotel room to discover the place that would be her temporary home.
Working long hours doing tedious work in a confining project room was the price she paid for the experience. Only once in a while did she have an opportunity for creativity or imagination. She was hired to design employee communication programs, but she received little support. Her management and the client’s liked to talk about promoting management-employee communication and an atmosphere of trust, but it was evidently something they really didn’t want to try. Once in a while, there was some headway to be made, some team leads and clients who were open to dialogue, but much of the time not. She thought that management and employees were working for a common goal. She expected loyalty to be a two-way affair. It was impossible not to become cynical. Or even more cynical.
Most of her team members were hired, not to make work life better, but to streamline processes. In other words, lay people off. This was not what she understood when she took the job. Maybe she was just naïve. This was one of the many reality checks she had along the way. She didn’t consider herself part of the bloodletting; she saw her job as a way to try to make life more pleasant and work more meaningful for her clients – employees and managers alike. Perhaps she was way beyond naïve. Perhaps this was a fantasy that had no place in the business world.
It was chilling to hear a team member say, “I laid off 30 employees today, and tomorrow I’ll lay off 50 more” with such callousness that she wondered whether it was just bravado that she was hearing or sincerity.
To deal with people so dispassionately, as if they were merely cogs in a process, was disagreeable, unpleasant, and the antithesis of the values instilled in her as a child by parents who tried to live by The Golden Rule. She didn’t want to hurt people; she wanted to help them.
Regardless of her efforts to project herself as a woman on a different mission, the employees of her clients thought otherwise. She was much more intimidated by the quiet man who asked her whether she liked seeing people lose their jobs than by the loud fellow who aimed his forklift in her direction.
With so many hours of work and so many days away from home, the project team sometimes went crazy on Thursday night in anticipation of a shorter workday and the trip back to the airport and back home on Friday afternoon. It was common to celebrate with a party. Nothing elaborate. Just pizza and alcohol in someone’s hotel room.
Not that alcohol was only a Thursday-night thing. Some team members spent most of their days at the worksite and most of their nights at the hotel bar. Gaining twenty pounds was part of the company culture. Getting warnings from one’s doctor to quit if over 40 years old was another.
So was being hated by the client’s management and employees alike. After she left the project, she ran into one of her old teammates who told her that one Friday afternoon someone had welded the trunks of the project cars shut while management watched from the office windows. The project team had only discovered this when they raced to the airport and attempted to retrieve their luggage.
The only friends she and her team members seemed to have were at corporate headquarters.
For a year, she flew out on Sundays and flew back Friday nights. She managed to hang in there longer than most, and that was some kind of achievement. What she had taken away from her year on the road was worth the tedium of hours of number-crunching.
First of all, there was the experience of working for the likes of Tootsie Roll, General Electric, Rand McNally, Electric Hose and Rubber, Ciba Geigy, Timkin, the US Postal Service, and Scovill. Most of these jobs required going onto the shop floor, and she enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells of production. The creation of something useful or satisfying from raw materials.
She had worked on a production floor before, but this opportunity gave her more insight into the different cultures, environments, and processes of business.
There was more. From the window of the project car, she saw the stars piercing a broad black Nebraskan sky. The railroad tracks ran straight into forever, and the sunset filled a sky that was more immense than the golden plain that fell off into the horizon. Seventy miles to a small airport on the Platt River. A ribbon of road with no traffic. Passing few trees, no towns. Tired team members anxious to get home. A six-pack of beer on the front seat. Things were different in 1980.
Two visits to Seattle in September and January. An accumulative month-and-a-half. The weather was never anything other than beautiful. She and her team member Marilyn had a lot of fun their first weekend there. Throughout her life, she would have friends who would induce her to shop and spend money. Marilyn was one of those friends. She had a hard time getting that boxed 21-inch doll in the plane cabin, along with the tote bag, garment bag, and briefcase.
Pike Street Market bustled with life, noise, and smells of the sea. The boardwalk on Puget Sound offered seafood and novelties, ferry excursions to Vancouver and British Columbia.
On a clear day, Mount Ranier appeared like magic in the distance from downtown Seattle. The next day, it was gone, hidden by cloud and haze.
Grass as she knew it didn’t grow in Burbank, California. There were, however, plenty of swimming pools and lots of lanes of traffic. Los Angeles was huge, bright, intimidating.
She nearly missed the plane in Reno because she had a whim to take a taxi to the casino first. It was a strange whim because she had no intention of gambling.
When she worked night shift, she and her team members spent the afternoon by the pool on the roof of the hotel, talking, drinking, and smoking, discretely ignored by the hotel staff. Things were different in 1980.
She drove her own car to Bucyrus, Ohio, the Bratwurst Capitol of the World, and marveled as the autumn colors in the leaves grew more vivid with each week.
One time, she found a team lead in an obliging mood and borrowed the project car for a road trip from New Haven to Cape Cod. There, she met up with her friend Terri for a weekend of seafood and sun.
Sitting in the back seat of a project car filled with team members who were little more than strangers, both sexes, all ages, everybody singing “Fun, Fun, Fun!” along with the Beach Boys on the car radio. Yes, not all of her colleagues were as hard as nails.
Her work philosophy was simple: if she had to work, she might as well make it an adventure. The tedium of hours spent in someone else’s pay pales in her memory while the good times live on.