Su Lum: Slumming |

Su Lum: Slumming

Su LumThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado

When I quit college in 1956, I came up smack dab against a number of realities that I hadn’t previously considered, such as, “Now what am I going to do?” and “How am I going to pay for it?”I had worked as a soda jerk and spent a summer toiling in a valentine factory, but there was always school to fall back on until I had defiantly burned that bridge.Back then, the main option and expectation for a woman was marriage, preferably to a guy with a steady income. In the interim, there were teaching and secretarial positions, for neither of which I qualified, or perhaps a job in a retail store, unlikely for an 18-year-old who looked 12, had no social skills and had never touched a cash register. I was paralyzed.Salvation came out of the blue. My father had expressed his concerns about his indigent daughter in the attic to his co-workers at Bell Labs, the grapevine spread, and word came out that there was an opening for a clerk at Grosset & Dunlap Publishing Co. in New York City.Next thing I knew, I was on the train to the city wearing little red heels and the little gray suit my mother had made for me for college and then being taken across a fancy reception area through a rabbit warren of offices on the 11th floor, terrified out of my mind and making it through the interview because someone there who was a friend of a friend of my father’s had recommended me.What I didn’t know was that this job was the bottom-most rung of G&D’s corporate ladder and that the personnel office was delighted to fill it with any warm body willing to take it.It was the perfect starting job. Every day, I wrote down the sales numbers for each of the salesmen in a book, and every week, I added up the daily numbers, and every month, I added up the weekly numbers. Any moron could do it – even I could do it. Today, a computer could do it in seconds.I got paid $50 per week, twice what I had made at the valentine factory. I learned how to operate the telegraph and teletype machines to communicate with “the field,” and I learned how to interact with the four co-workers in the office and how to order lunch deliveries (a miracle) and which buses to take to run errands to far places.The very best thing about that job was that it took the mystery out of the workplace. Work wasn’t something that other people did; work was something that anybody could do. If we think kids aren’t prepared for the real world now, they weren’t then, either. And if I had stayed at that school, it wouldn’t have made it one bit easier. Another good thing about the job was the commuting. I got into the habit of reading the morning and evening papers each way. In 1955, when I was still in college, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Did we know one thing about it? No. We didn’t read newspapers, there was no TV, no one listened to news on the radio – we were isolated in academia in the boonies, as ignorant as lemmings.On the train, I read about the Hungarian revolution, the messages from the people begging us to help them, wondering why we weren’t helping them. I felt like a dry sponge that had suddenly been dipped in water. I soaked in it, opened my eyes.Su Lum is a longtime local whose first mistake was picking the wrong college. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at

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