Temping in the Postwar Era


Genevieve MacDonald of Rowayton, Connecticut entertains us with her epic adventures in the bottom-feeding end of the Office Temporaries racket.

I was pretty sure I was going to be an opera star, so I did not bother to pick up any special career credentials that would help me to get by in life. I mean, beyond my musical education. My father was a partner in a big CPA firm, and encouraged me to become an accountant. “Something always to fall back on,” you know! But let’s face it, once you have the easy life of a CPA, you’re not going to exert yourself to take daily voice lessons or seek out piddly-straw roles with bus-and-truck opera companies, are you? That’s the way I saw it, anyway.

So I did not become an accountant, though I did a lot of accounting work during those long Postwar decades when I was struggling hard to become a star mezzo of the Metropolitan Opera. It was very easy to get a job as an office temporary in that Postwar Era, by which I mean roughly 1950 to 1990. All you needed to do was collect a lot of names of temp agencies from the classified ads, and go visit them.

Most of them were a block or two from Grand Central Terminal, because the buildings there were very old, usually had bad elevators and no air-conditioning, and the rents were cheap. To get a job from them, you basically just had to a) dress up and b) show up. If you were halfway presentable and not too old or fat (I struggled with this much of my life), they might send you out on an assignment immediately.

Dressing up of course changed as the years went by. Usually it meant a skirt and high heels. For a long time in the 50s and 60s it was also a good idea to wear a hat and white gloves. You could wear slacks, I mean trousers, later on, but that tended to send out the wrong message. There was a definite class-divide in the office world, between the women in skirts and the women in pants.

As for the men doing temp work, they were usually assumed to be homosexuals, even when they had wives and girlfriends you might meet at an evening get-together. They were a special case, so when I talk about temps I’m usually talking about female temps. The dress code loosened up as time went on, because it had to. In the early 80s I sometimes saw young women coming in wearing silver-lamé jumpsuits. This looked very weird, but they got work anyway. I guess because they were white.

We had a big influx of negroes, starting in the 1970s, and it was very hard for the temp agencies to deal with them. The clients did not want you sending them a negress for a receptionist or a secretary. Sometimes a Jew would ostentatiously order a colored girl to sit outside his office and be noticed, but that was a special situation. But the bottom line is, if you were white all you had to do was show up and the temp agency would try to find something for you.