Measuring Time By The Page

GS-3: That’s my designation. Government-ese for clerk-typist. The National Institutes of Health is crawling with GS-3’s this summer of 1960, most of us working to fill the time and make some money between college semesters. We draw pitiful paychecks, working at expendable jobs. Mine seems the most expendable.

I work in Building Ten, the main hospital building on the NIH campus. It’s impressive, huge, bustling with doctors, nurses, scientists–and college students, like me, lucky enough to land here for a summer job.

Lucky?  Well, a little luck, and a lot of pull; my father is with the Veteran’s Administration. He yanked those strings and before I know it, I’m sitting behind a metal desk in the Department of Sanitary Engineering. Lucky me.

Or so I think. Until the first week is over. What did I do that first week?  Not much. And that’s the way things have continued. There are four of us in this barren, green-and-grey office: Me, the Chief of Sanitary Engineering, his aide, and the secretary. And what do they do?  Not much, either, it seems to me. The Chief dictates memos to the secretary who gives them to the aide for additional information who gives them back to the secretary for correction who gives them to me to type.

That’s what I do. I type. On a manual Royal typewriter, banging out those memos: one original, six carbons — two blue, two pink, two yellow. When I make a mistake, which is often, I erase the original with the round pink eraser on the little wheel with the whisk attached, then erase all six carbons with the softer eraser that looks like a pencil with a whisk for a tail. Then I type the correct letter and hope that it’s lined up in the right spot so I don’t have to erase it again. I spend my days erasing mistakes. Sometimes the finished memo looks so bad that I have to do it all over again. On those days, I feel like I am truly earning my $92.50 a week.

The secretary is Joanne, a frazzled brunette with frizzy hair and an unfortunate complexion whose office is a dismal cubby off The Chief’s office. She emerges periodically to give me directions and to complain about her skin which she says should have improved by now since she’s in her 30s. Her eyes have that glazed look I am beginning to recognize in government employees who aren’t sure why they’re doing what they’re doing, except that they get a good pension at the end of doing it.

My desk is right at the entrance to the Department of Sanitary Engineering, which consists of two rooms, unless you count Joanne’s cubby. I share the front office with the aide, Mr. Rutherford, Just-Call-Me-Bob. He’s 36 and jovial for a divorced person, and shares his girlfriend adventures with me. This weekend he is (heh, heh) taking his Latest to Ocean City for a (heh, heh) little romp, and his pink snub nose fairly glows in anticipation.

When things are dull, which is all the time, we shoot paper clips at each other with rubber bands, but not when The Chief is in the room, which isn’t often. Mostly he sits behind the closed door to his office, and those memos just keep rolling out.

Even though I type them, they really don’t say much, stuff about sewage and pipes and ground water, or Instructions to Employees which don’t seem to be that instructive. Some days I type pages and pages of numbers, which are the worst. Then I have to put the original and five carbons in big envelopes and messenger them to other departments, and file a copy for us.

At 10 am every day, Joanne and I go down on the service elevator to the cafeteria to bring coffee and sweet buns–fat, warm, swirled with white icing–back up to the office. I unwind the tender bun at my desk, nibbling it to make it last because when it’s all gone, there’s nothing left to do but lick my fingers and type another memo.

You can fall asleep in that office, and Just-Call-Me-Bob does sometimes, face down on the papers spread out on his desk.  It’s my job to answer the phone (“Sanitary Engin-EER-ing”) but when Just-Call-Me-Bob is making Z’s, even the phone’s ring doesn’t wake him up. I fall asleep myself sometimes, lulled by the hum from the fluorescent light overhead, but I need to stay alert in case The Chief comes out of his office or somebody comes through the door. When they do, it’s my job to say “May I help you?” although it’s usually just a messenger dropping off memos from other departments.

I am getting lots of reading done this summer: Dostoevsky, Thomas Wolfe, Ayn Rand. Fat books. But not too fat to fit in the top drawer of my desk where I keep them so I can real quick slam it shut if someone walks through the door. Just-Call-Me-Bob doesn’t mind if I read as long as there’s no memo to type, and so we pass the days: reading, sleeping, firing paper clips.

I eat lunch with a couple of other GS-3 summer-jobbers. We go to the cafeteria where we feel inferior to the kids who are working in lab jobs. They are science students and wear white coats, while we are marked as lowly clerk-typists by our regular clothes and our ignorance of petri dishes.

Sometimes after lunch I go up to the patients’ sundeck and get in some tanning time with other GS-3s. We talk about work and boredom and what we’re going to do when we break out of here. There are usually a couple of patients in pajamas and robes sitting quietly, staring out at the sunshine. I say hello, but don’t ask them what’s wrong or why are they here. They’re here because something is wrong that can’t be fixed anywhere else.

One day I see a girl, very pale, very thin in her summer cotton dress, about my age. She’s reading War and Peace, which I’ve started a couple of times, one of those fat books I plan to get through this summer. I say Hello. She smiles, looking very Audrey Hepburn in a flowered scarf that’s wrapped around her head. “How’s the book?” I ask, and she says, “Long.”

I sit down on the cement ledge and dangle my feet. “I tried to read it but just can’t get into it,” I say.

“I have lots of time to read,” she says. Her skin is  translucent as milk glass, and the veins in her hands are sea green.

“Me, too,” I agree. “If I’m not typing out these incredibly stupid memos, I’m filing them. I mean, you could die from boredom here. What department are you in?”


“At least that’s interesting.”  Oh, boy, a lab rat who thinks I’m a cretin who can’t get through War and Peace. “I’ve read three books since I started work last month,” I say lamely.           Her long thin hands with the sea green veins close the book, then open it again, smoothing down the pages. “I’m trying to stretch this out,” she says, “but I’m afraid I’ll be done with it before my treatment’s over.”


She’s a patient.

“Oh.”   Now what do I say?  Good luck?  Enjoy your stay?  What escapes before I can shove it back is, “Well, I hope you’re not finished before the end.”

“There’ll be other books,” she says.

I nod, too mortified at my own blunder to speak, and wave goodbye. I scurry back to my office, to my desk, to my drawer that hides a book I can read when things get too dull and work gets too boring and the start of my real life seems too far away. And when I’m done with this book, there’ll be another, and another. I’ll have a lifetime of books to read.



St. Petersburg Times/Sunday Journal 8/4/02