Note: Please excuse the unintended racism. The writer was born in another country.
I will use the word they used then, understanding that it is now perceived to be demeaning, though at the time, it wasn’t. The word I am talking about is “secretary.”
My first secretary at Universal, Marti, viewed her secretarial position as a steppingstone to the higher rungs in the entertainment pantheon, and after me, she indeed did move up to an executive position at one of the subsidiaries of the Disney Corporation. I know that, less because I assiduously followed her career than because she once got us free passes to Disneyland.
My subsequent secretary, Astrid, who was with me for six years before retiring, was the prototypical old-time secretary – but not so old-time, because during the actual old times, the secretaries were men.
Astrid took shorthand, which, since my daughter had no idea what that meant, I shall explain. Shorthand is an abbreviated symbolic writing method that allows secretaries, for example, to take down dictation faster than if they had to take down the actual words. During rewrites of sitcoms – this was before computers – a knowledge of shorthand was essential for annotating all the joke pitches as quickly as they were suggested.
Astrid aspired to be nothing other than a secretary. She had impeccable handwriting – she was, on several occasions, recruited to participate in movies, her delicate hands and legible cursive responsible for numerous love letters and suicide notes. Astrid also had dogged Scotland Yard-level detective abilities. Whenever I asked her to track down someone I wanted to speak to, her tight-jawed response was inevitably, “If he lives, I shall find him.” And inevitably, she did.
Today, the “Writer’s Assistant” monitoring the joke pitches has aspirations in a writerly direction themselves. Astrid’s preeminent intention was dutiful service and competent stenography.
So summing up to that point, my secretarial experience – not me being a secretary but me having a secretary, though I imagine you got that without an explanation – included one striver and one lifer.
And then there was Alfie.
In 1994, after more than eight years at Universal Studios – an extended tenure in my line of work – I relocated to Paramount Studios, invited to work there by the Paramount President of Television, who himself had relocated from Universal Studios – where he had originally hired me – a couple of years before.
When you arrive at a studio, first, they give you an office, and then, they give you a secretary. The office assigned to me was long and narrow – they had apparently knocked down a wall between two boxy offices and redesigned it into a long and narrow one. It was like writing in a bowling alley. Not the whole building – one alley.
All Paramount office structures are named after former studio stars. My office was situated in the Clara Bow Building. In her heyday in silent movies, Clara Bow was known as “The ‘It’ Girl” – a 1920’s euphemism for “extremely sexy.” I liked having an office in “The ‘It’ Girl” Building. I felt a jolt of excitement I would never have gotten had I been housed in the Jerry Lewis Building. There was the responsibility of maintaining the “‘It’ Girl” reputation. Who knows? Maybe some day, I’d be considered “The ‘It’ Guy.” (“Not hardly”, snorted the imaginary John Wayne in my personal “Judging Center”.)
So I’m sitting alone in my new (to me, though the threadbare carpeting told a different story) office, eyeing a sheet of paper, listing the names of the secretarial candidates I was about to interview, along with their corresponding “Appointment Times.” There is a gentle knock on my door, I say, “Yeah?” and in comes an attractive woman of the richest of color, of (I am speculating here, though I have no carnival experience in “Age Guessing”) early middle age, a woman whose bearing and presentation instantly trigger in my mind the words “confidence” and “style.”
This was Alfie.
Alfie informs me that she is a studio “Temp”, assigned to deploy to the ante-office and answer the phones, while I proceed with my Secretarial Search. I’m going to jump ahead at this point; otherwise, you will be impatiently ahead of me. Unimpressed by all the secretarial applicants, I instead selected the “Temp.”
Neither a striver nor a lifer, Alfie’s attraction to secretarial work related to the reality that it was a job. Though the fact that it was a show business job was not entirely irrelevant. In her earlier days, Alfie subsequently informed me, she had been a significant player in Deney Terrio’s ‘80s variety series, Dance Fever, as a dancer and as a dance deviser.
From a skills standpoint, and from a passion-for-the-calling standpoint, Alfie would never make me forget Astrid. A non-participant in the rewriting process, Alfie was more of a legitimate “Personal Assistant”, doing was what required to keep the office running smoothly, as well as providing for my necessities (Read: ordering lunch) and wellbeing (Read: morale concerns.) This included hours-long conversations when I was between projects and had little to do. At that, there was no comparison.
Alfie was magnificent company.
First – and fortunately though this was hardly a dealbreaker – Alfie too believed that O.J. Simpson was indisputably guilty. (The trial broadcasts droned on daily in my office for months.) Once, while driving me to a consulting job on The Larry Sanders Show, an African-American cab driver took me seriously to task for maintaining such a view. Had my “Personal Assistant” harbored similar beliefs to the cab driver’s, the “office vibe” might have been a seriously impaired.
Alfie told me stories of her upbringing in rural Texas, most memorably about a time when she and her playmates took pity on her uncle’s pig during a sweltering heat wave; they showered the pig with cold water, and it immediately died from the shock. I also recall – and this is a mindset entirely absent from my Toronto upbringing – an argument among her friends could be settled simply by one disputant asserting, “It’s true. A white man said so.” That statement of dubious assurance elicited a deeply troubled Canadian wince.
Together more than four years, Alfie was there for me, and then some. One evening, with me mired helplessly in a late night rewrite session, Alfie volunteered to drive to my house to assist my home alone then young daughter Anna cope with an exploding hot water pipe that had flooded our basement.
But what stays with me most – literally because I still have them – are the gifts Alfie presented to me on birthdays and Christmases – intuitively appropriate, unerringly tasteful and artistically unique. Everything she did had a flourish and a flair. She could have been much more than “just a secretary.”
And to me, she definitely was.