He was the editor of a well-known men’s magazine. A short man. Not an attractive man. After I interviewed with him I said to my boyfriend at the time, “Why he looks just as much like a turtle as a man can look.”
This was the 1980s. This was my first media job, although we called it publishing back then. I interviewed in a navy linen suit from Bonwit Teller, nude pantyhose and navy pumps trimmed with flat grosgrain ribbons. I was a 22-year-old from Iowa and I thought the look I should be going for was “appropriate.”
Inexplicably, I was hired. And I realized within the first hour of my first day that I had it all wrong. “Cool” was the style that prevailed among the girls on staff. A girl called Muney wore a pink tutu and black motorcycle jacket like Cyndi Lauper. A girl called April, who was whippet thin and wore lank bangs in her eyes, rimmed all around in kohl, wore leather jeans, the first I’d ever seen.
Let’s just say the ‘80s hadn’t yet hit Iowa. For all I know, they never did. I packed up my nude pantyhose on a hot June day in 1985 — the cicadas simmering, invisibly, in the cornfields — and never returned.
Much later, from across the room, the editor raised a glass at my boss. My boss tipped a wintry eyebrow back at him.”
Let’s also say that I didn’t really fit in on staff. There was banter I didn’t quite catch. I was reminded of my junior year in college, spent in France, when my brain was working so furiously to translate that I was always a beat or two slow in responding.
But my boss was nice to me, praising my story ideas (never assigned) and headline attempts (never used). Early one evening, he passed my desk on his way to dinner with the fiction editor, a Southern man in a rumpled seersucker suit. (Is seersucker ever not rumpled?)
“Ever been to Elaine’s?” my boss asked.
“Come with us,” he said, mashing his thumb into the off button of my IBM Selectric.
What followed was a long, boozy dinner at a restaurant even people from Iowa had heard of. Woody Allen stopped by the table. Elaine stopped by the table. The fiction editor left to say hello to someone at the bar and, also inexplicably, never returned. Much later, from across the room, the editor raised a glass at my boss. My boss tipped a wintry eyebrow back at him. And, once again, I was back in France, trying to decode their exchange: qu’est-ce qu’il ce passe ici?
My boss walked me home as a gentleman would, I thought, but then there was an awkward moment in my building lobby.
The awkward thing about it was that he was in my building lobby, when I thought I had extended my thanks, wished him a good night and said see you tomorrow on the sidewalk.
Wait, I thought, finally panicking, did he think he was invited up to my apartment?
My boss pushed the elevator button.
“Going up?” he said.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, although I had no idea why I was apologizing. I ran to the stairwell, slammed the door behind me, and pounded up the stairs in my grosgrain-ribbon-trimmed shoes.
That night in my apartment, door double-bolted, everything that had been inexplicable was finally clear. It wasn’t that my boss saw in me a talented junior editor, a promising young writer, or even a pretty good typist. He was hitting on me. He was abusing his power and in the months that followed he continued to abuse it, disdaining me every chance he got. Now, when I spoke up with cover lines and story ideas and edit-meeting contributions, he frowned, gave his head a small shake, and said nothing. I felt ashamed. I felt as if I wasn’t good enough and eventually I migrated to women’s magazines. Until I was firmly in my 40s and the boss of others, I never had another male boss again.
I have a daughter who works in the media now. Girls like my daughter, yet again, wear tutus and motorcycle jackets and leather jeans to work. They rim their eyes all around with kohl. They call themselves women. They have power. They call men out on their bullshit. On their abuse. And even the young and impressionable editorial assistants from Iowa don’t get followed home by male bosses who mash their thumbs to turn off their typewriters and say, unquestioningly, “come with me,” who mash their thumbs into elevator buttons and say, unquestioningly, “going up.”
Or do they?