Chocolate Angel

Temporary Secretary

I was once a typist for an insurance underwriting company in London called Alexander Stenhouse, LLC. I worked in the Risk Management Department, which had 4 men, a secretary, and a manager.  I was a temp.  The Manager’s name was Reeve Martin.  I typed their risk assessments and correspondence, from industries as diverse as textile companies in Ireland to the London Underground.

As a typist I was phenomenally fast.  In that relatively slow-paced, genteel environment, I fit their American stereotype of stupidly hard-working.  In reality I love language, in all its forms, and getting lost typing dictation was heaven.  Taking the trains into work, getting sandwiches on my lunch hour, working 7-hour days, it all felt to me like the greatest of luxury.

One of the men in the department once explained to me the subtleties of signing off in British business English — ‘Respectfully Yours’ was chilly and indicated a level of ire. Sincerely Yours meant you were on good terms, while Faithfully Yours was warm and while not familiar, certainly favorable.

We got along like that, me and the gentlemen of the Risk Management Department, or ‘got on’ as they would say in Britain.  They loved to say “Have a nice day!” to me in an American accent, like a bunch of corny uncles. They felt some pride of ownership that I could whip out a 20-page technical report in half a day.  My home town, Milwaukee, was known to them as the home of the Fonz from the TV show Happy Days, oddly enough.

I was turning risk management reports out so fast that Reeve Martin was asked by a client what was going on.  The client was a chain of drug stores, and the reports had a lot of similarities to each other, so I created a template and just filled it in with the individual store’s text. “Just hold on to the reports for a few days” Reeve instructed the guys.  They all thought it was so ironic and funny.  I was making minimum wage working for a temp agency in central London called Office Angels.

If a temp screwed up, they’d send a chocolate angel over to make up for it. Once I told a senior executive at the Bank of America that I didn’t take shorthand.  “What can you do?” he asked me, and when I said I typed from Dictaphone, he said that could be arranged.  I thought it was okay, but they must have complained, because he got a chocolate angel by messenger the next day.  I was brought in and told to fake it next time.

You’d come into the Office Angels office each Monday morning, and be sent out on that week’s assignment, somewhere in the far-flung environs of commercial London.  The real test was if you could navigate the maze of London streets with any efficiency.

I’d sit in a chair with the other temp hopefuls, and we’d be ranked in the moment and selected to whatever assignment they’d gotten that morning.  I ended up working at Stenhouse for 9 months, one week at a time, before I was called home to my mother’s bedside, and went back to Wisconsin from whence I came.

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