On nights such as July 12 made sleepless by a day of record setting heat, my mind can amuse itself dredging up memories intentionally forgotten. As I tossed and turned until I was as bound up in the bed sheet as a Mafia hit smuggled from the crime scene in a carpet, my brain drifted back to a life-altering day in 1960 I scarcely remembered.
That August after three years working full time as a medical secretary in a New York City hospital, reporting surgical reports of everything from appendectomies to heart bypasses, and attending evening speed classes at Hunter College, my course instructor deemed my shorthand speed qualified me to work as a verbatim court reporter.
My job interview with a reporting company took place in a downtown office resembling the newsroom in the movie All The President’s Men where reporters Dustin Hoffman and Bob Woodward broke the Watergate story that took down President Nixon.
Roughly 120 typewriters clacked away in one open room as reporters returned from outside assignments to transcribe their shorthand notes. (In my hospital office, I worked alone taking dictation from one surgeon at a time.)
The din rivalled a threshing machine at work on my father’s farm. No matter. The job would pay several times my secretary salary.
My concentrated shorthand practice was about to pay off.
My trial assignment was to go to Boston to report a utilities commission hearing. I had only a vague idea of what a commission hearing might be like, and less acquaintance with Boston or commuter train travel. I had never even been inside Penn Station.
Notification of my trial assignment came late in the day after my bank had closed. I had little cash on hand and as Visa credit cards didn’t begin until 1966, I had no way to get more. I could have borrowed from a friend, but borrowing was not how I was raised.
A phone check assured me the cash I had would pay the round trip train ticket.
Next morning early, I rode a subway to Penn Station. The station was crowded, commuters coming and going, voices reverberating from the vaulted ceiling. A conductor pointed my way to the Boston train and I climbed aboard for the hour long ride with my notebook, pen, and a packed lunch.
How I got from the Boston train station to the hearing venue I cannot recall. Certainly not by taxi, for after buying the train ticket, I had almost no money left. Prospective starvation was uppermost in my thoughts, I’m sure.
The hearing room was immense with tall windows needing a scrub. Men in suits gathered to discuss gas supply and prices, almost a foreign language to me. I was soon flummoxed by the technical terms, lacking shorthand shortcuts to write the unfamiliar multiple letter expressions. Medical shortcuts I’d practised for years were of no help to me.
By the end of the gruelling day, which ran late owing to the hearing’s leisurely start, I was wrung out physically, mentally, and financially. On my way to catch the train home, I bought one Red Delicious apple from a street vendor, all I could spend and still have change for a subway ticket from Penn Station back to my 85th Street Manhattan apartment.
I’ve read of high school grads attending university for four years, earning a degree and amassing $30,000 or more in student debts only to realize what they trained for is no longer what they want to do with their life.
My day long Boston experience convinced me I’d rather work at a lower paying, calmer job I enjoyed and understood near a few workmates than earn bigger bucks in a stressful impersonal zoo.