If you were thinking an insurance company wasn’t an exciting place to work you would be exactly right. But as life would have it you can meet some interesting folks no matter where you happen to be. And even in a place like that there were some folks who entertained me during the self-imposed imprisonment and who also left me scratching my head.
The company was national but the office I worked in was small. It employed a managing officer (Mr. Smith) and four other employees (Verla, Peggy, Betsy, and me). I was the last hired and “low man” on the totem pole. The boss, Mr. Smith, was an older gentleman who reminded me of somebody’s grandfather. He was relatively good looking, had white hair, wore nice suits, and smoked a pipe. Mr. Smith was nice enough if not a bit pompous. The company didn’t advertise (no joke) – rather it depended on word of mouth recommendations. What that really meant was that you had to know somebody who knew somebody in order to be insured by this company. Therefore, customers were mostly elite businessmen and Mr. Smith courted them at the golf course and other Members Only events. And as far as I could tell that was his big contribution to the company. We arrived to work at 8 o’clock sharp. He strolled in around 9 and someone rushed to make him a cup of coffee while he hung up his suit coat, lounged back in his leather chair, and lit his pipe. Of course, he signed and approved things but relied heavily on his long time employee and office manager, Verla, to have already made the right decisions. She fluttered around him and treated him like royalty. Mr. Smith talked on the phone a lot – most of the conversations were lengthy and cordial, never hurried or urgent. He also took long lunches, played golf with important connections, and generally left most days about half past four. Mr. Smith seemed to be a devoted family man with a well-dressed wife, two daughters in college, and a beautiful collie – all the makings of a perfect Christmas card. Naturally he belonged to a Country Club, had season tickets to the symphony, attended local theatre productions, and enjoyed luxurious vacations. What a life, right? I have no idea what the man made but it looked like a pretty penny to me. In comparison, I was hired on at a few dollars above minimum wage. I worked from eight to five o’clock with an hour for lunch and a couple of ten-minute breaks during the day. I was fortunate to have health insurance included with my salary so I wasn’t complaining but let’s just say I worked hard for my money. I was constantly on the phone with clients, writing up claims, and processing new applicants. There was no down time and the claims could be fairly intense. The good thing is that sometimes they were interesting – hearing clients explain their misfortunes could be a hoot – and it beat twiddling my thumbs at my desk or, worse, being unemployed.
I’ve mentioned Verla – Mr. Smith’s right hand ‘man’, as it were. She was smart, capable, had been there for years, and knew everything about everything. She was fifty-something, attractive, lived at home with her father, had a daughter in college, no husband but had a handsome regular fellow. I came to learn that Verla had survived a volatile marriage that had ended when her daughter was quite young. The two of them had retreated to her father’s house. Verla’s mother was deceased. Verla adored her dad and seemed overly responsible for him – treating him as if he were her child even though he was in excellent health and very active. For a long time I assumed that her loyalty to her dad was what kept her from marrying her fella. It turns out her steady fella was also married. So there was that. I learned this from my office mate, Betsy, one day at lunch. What a shock. I mean, here was this woman who looked and acted all prim and proper, doting on her dad and daughter, and singing in the church choir. Now going to church doesn’t make you a saint, I know, but her every appearance was one of seeming to follow all the social rules. And, by my calculation, that didn’t include dating someone else’s husband. But, I for one, was in no position to judge her choices, that’s for sure. It just surprised me, that’s all. Later on Verla herself confided this clandestine arrangement to me and I acted like it was news to me. I also ended up sympathizing with her. According to her, the man was married to a hateful, vindictive woman who refused to give him a divorce. Or that was his story, at least. I don’t know if that was the whole truth but it seemed to work in her world. The man certainly courted her with charm – sent her flowers, called to check in with her on a daily basis, took her to lunch often, and lavished her with thoughtful gifts. I could tell the minute he called – she folded herself inward, her face softened, her eyelashes fluttered, and oh! How that woman could flirt. She used a milder form of coquettery on Mr. Smith every day and he clearly adored her. I never thought I knew the whole story about Verla and her beau. Maybe Verla didn’t know the truth of it herself but it was a love story for sure – as well as bit of a mystery. I wonder if she ever thought of writing about it. I’ll bet she could give Danielle Steele a run for her money.
Next in the office pecking order was Peggy. I suppose there’s one in every crowd. You know the kind. Imperious, narcissistic, sarcastic, two-faced – yep, the one that rhymes with “witch”. The kind of woman that always perplexes me. Mr. Smith liked her almost as much as he liked Verla – even though she was not the least bit coy – sometimes she was downright haughty, condescending, and aloof. It was as if he needed for her to like him. And Verla liked her, too. Betsy, was courteous, as she was to everyone, but I came to suspect that she didn’t care for Peggy any more than I did. I kept wanting to like Peggy – trying to like her – waiting for her armor to crumble and reveal a better person underneath. But she held that shield firmly in place at all times. Then again, maybe it wasn’t a shield at all. Maybe it was just who she was. Peggy was one of those women who looked pretty until you got to know her and then all you could see was her sneering, scornful behavior that completely blotted out her previous physical appearance. I wondered how she managed to find a husband – much less keep him – because let me tell you right now that she wasn’t any nicer to him than she was to me. No kidding. What in the world did the man see in her? I couldn’t figure it out. But over the years I’ve known other women just like her. It still amazes me. If somebody knows the answer please share it with me because I remain ever curious. Peggy also claimed to be religious – but it was a claim without substance, in my observation. Peggy had an absolutely adorable little girl that I sure hope didn’t turn out like her mother. But it was the one subject that I felt on solid ground with Peggy about because like any mother she accepted any and all compliments about her child. It was her only redeeming behavior in my book.
Next in line was sweet Betsy – quiet, seemingly shy, and hardworking. If the office had been a social gathering Betsy would have been the proverbial wallflower – not because she wasn’t pretty – but because she was so soft and hushed that she just faded into the surroundings. Betsy appeared to take no notice of Peggy’s insolent remarks and managed to avoid being in the line of fire whenever Peggy was out of sorts (which happened on a weekly basis). Both of our work mates were prone to intrusive questions whenever Mr. Smith was out of the office – snooping, inquiring. Betsy gave neither of them enough information to use against her. As my daddy would say she never offered them any ammunition – which served her well and was a lesson for me in future work situations. I thought of Betsy as “vanilla”. Well, that is until I attended a rock concert and ran into her with her longhaired hippie boyfriend and her crowd of friends who were clearly blowing it all out. No judgment, folks. I was there with my own longhaired hippie boyfriend and my own wild crowd of people who were having an equally good time. But I must say I’m pretty sure that my mouth dropped open and I was stopped in my tracks when I first saw her. I just couldn’t believe this was the same person. In the office her dress and demeanor were neat, reserved, professional, and fairly unremarkable. Out in this boisterous scene of rock and rollers, drinking beer and partying, she fit right in. Big hoop earrings, hip hugging faded jeans, fashionable halter top with her little belly showing, stacked wooden heels, and a wide happy smile on her face were a stark contrast to the buttoned-up, nose-to-the-grindstone person I knew Monday through Friday. And as surprised as I was Betsy seemed equally as shocked when she saw me. I guess all the ladies in my life had instilled a measure of social etiquette, dress and manners that had camouflaged me more in my office setting than I had been aware of – and that realization gave me a sense of relief, security, and confidence that until that moment I had been sorely lacking. Prior to that very moment every day in that stuffy office I had felt like that dream where you show up naked and everybody’s staring. When I saw Betsy’s mouth open and gaping back at me I realized that maybe I wasn’t as exposed and vulnerable in our office setting as I felt. After our moment of astonishment we both began to laugh. I wondered if she felt as giddy as I did. It was an instant in which we immediately realized that we were kindred spirits – no matter what game we played from nine to five Monday through Friday. What a relief! After that Betsy and I became good friends. We shared lunch together at least once a week and sometimes went out for dinner or drinks after work. We were careful to keep our private lives entirely out of the office – never letting on that we had shared interests, private conversations, and lots of secrets. In fact, we didn’t let on that we even had lunch together. Intuitively we knew that would threaten our office mates and make our work environment more stressful.
Although I remained congenial in that office setting I borrowed from Betsy’s handbook on reticence and curbed my natural outgoing and chatty behavior. It helped me feel less vulnerable and more secure. In the end I felt imprisoned in that place. I felt I was living a double life. And, in truth, I was. I was unable to verbalize it at the time but I felt artificial and disingenuous and stifled. The day I walked out of that office for good I could almost feel my wings beginning to sprout. It was years before I was able to soar with wings spread and free but it was a beginning. I breathed in a huge gulp of fresh air and stepped into sunshine. I doubt any prisoner leaving bars behind has ever felt so good.
*Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent – and even the guilty.