Saturday, July 1, 2017
How I Came to Work at Scott, Foresman
Teaching Greek tragedy, I sometimes sought to explain fate neither as providence nor predestination, but simply as what one does not know until it unfolds in experience. I asked students to think of how their lives were dependent on chance, not merely their own paths, but even their existence. Had their parents not chanced to meet, through countless events, fortuitous in the sense of leading to their births, they would not be sitting in my classroom. Then I suggested they reflect on the same improbability extending back through grandparents and all the previous generations. In this light each individual’s substantial and indubitable existence was at the same time almost impossibly unlikely and altogether ordinary.
I recall one of John Cage's anecdotes about a woman – I cannot chase it down just now since my copies of Silence and A Year from Monday have vanished from my shelves – o every book less is regretted one day! Cage tells of a woman who had spent her entire adult life in a small New England town. When asked what had brought her there, she said that she had bought a bus ticket when young to the furthest destination she could afford. She never left. Itself implausible, the story is a charming fable of randomness in human life that makes sense to me. In my own life chance has pushed forward quite shamelessly.
During the late sixties, after my university graduation and marriage, the draft was still pursuing me. While the more level-headed among my contemporaries may have pursued professional credentials or begun saving for a down payment, I had dreams of poetry and travel. (Persistent for dreams, these have never left me.) Lacking altogether the career direction that seems to possess most of today’s youth, I realized with some regret that I had to find a job. My hostility to capitalism made most salaried positions distasteful. I would have felt a fraud in any corporate setting, regardless of my productivity. It is often inconvenient to possess values.
My antipathy toward “straight” jobs had, however, a corresponding benefit. Because of the fact that I greeted a host of options with a single reaction (can I carry off the imposture?), I found them all equally acceptable (and equally unacceptable), creating a wide range of choice.
Many of my former classmates stepped into positions open in those days to anyone with a liberal arts degree such as teaching in the Chicago schools or working for the welfare (as it was called). At that time a B.A. was also the ordinary qualification for executive trainee tracks in the business world, so it seemed as though, if Selective Service would just leave me alone, I could certainly find something.
Responding to the random prompts of classified advertisements, I applied all over the place in Chicago: an insurance company or two, a bank, even the Pinkerton agency. I was found to be unqualified as a night watchman by the last, but the bank gave me a job offer contingent only, they said, on my security background check. After a few days they must have heard something, because the offer was withdrawn.
Eventually I found my way to a little one-room employment agency, high in an old Loop office building, the kind with mail chutes next to the elevators in which one could occasionally see letters flash by on their speedy trip from higher floors. This one man operation specialized in placing applicants as writers and editors. The agent’s commission, though steep (more than a month of the worker’s salary) was, in those olden days, paid entirely by the hiring company. The proprietor of the agency sat at a capacious pre-computer desk heaped with papers, one of which occasionally fluttered to the floor as he chewed an unlit cigar and talked. It was the sort of enterprise, I realized, that survived solely on account of this single individual’s contacts and their faith in his judgement. After he had sized me up, he said, “Well, I think I’ve got two good spots for you, one at least, maybe two. Are you willing to write pornography?”
Thinking myself ready for most anything other than manual labor and thinking, perhaps, of Henry Miller and Anais Nin, I assented and, a day or two later, headed out to the west side for an interview at a small company that published three tabloid papers a few notches below the Enquirer and the Star as well as four or five skin magazines (as the pre-pornography genre was known). The production area for the tabloid was a single large room with long tables, more like a lunchroom than an editorial office, with a few glassed-in areas for the head editors. I learned at my interview that my language skills had impressed them. They thought I could scan the heap of equally lurid European tabloids to which they subscribed in search of articles to translate. They were unconcerned about obtaining rights. “Oh, they’re probably stealing from us. That’s the least of our concerns.” I would have the opportunity not only to translate, but to use my own creative powers as well. I got a short course in making stories up from nothing. “For instance, we might run a story with a headline, ‘President Nixon’s Wife Seeks Divorce’ and then quote some unnamed ‘experts’ about potential tell-tale signs. It’s simple to say very nearly anything you like without any problems. Then we could find pictures of each of them scowling and place them together so it looks like they are reacting to each other.”
I did a bit of writing as a sample and had lunch with the staff where I was not surprised to find some interesting people, a number of travelers, artists, poets, and at least one undergoing a novel. I figured I could live with this bunch. The next day I got an offer and asked for a few days to consider.
The following day was the second interview the employment agent had lined up, this one with the textbook company Scott Foresman, famous then for its Dick, Jane, and Sally readers, though it published a wide range of other books, including college texts, and Thorndike-Barnhart dictionaries. This looked very much like a “straight” job. The offices were in a modern building with vast lawns in suburban Glenview, everyone wore suits, and I felt like I had to act a part to make the right impression. To be quite certain I could do that, I took some benzedrines before driving out for my interview. Here, too, my supposed language skills were the excuse for my being considered to work on a series of world literature books aimed at high school honors English classes. That head editor rapidly decided I wouldn’t fit their needs, but I had talked in such a scintillating manner that she referred me to a colleague who was directing the development of a four-year series of books aimed at “inner city” (meaning minority-dominated) schools.
I was to learn that Scott Foresman’s dedication to racial equality was influenced primarily by market forces. Mindful of the civil rights movement but also of Southern states, not a few of which had state-wide text adoption, the publisher had a number of versions of Dick, Jane, and Sally. One was immaculately white, another included darker faces in non-speaking roles, and a third had African-American characters who actually interacted with the angelic suburban stars. There did not seem to be an all-black edition, which must have been an oversight, as all-black schools certainly did (and do) exist. However, the burning cities of the mid-sixties summer riots had unnerved the powers that be enough to call for the War on Poverty and special funding for urban, under-performing, disadvantaged, education. So the corporations responded, and the project for which I was being considered was a result.
Little remains to tell. Perhaps because my recent experience as a VISTA volunteer attested to my suburbanite’s understanding of the underclass, I got an offer from Scott Foresman to be an editorial assistant. I considered. While I felt at home in the demi-mondaine atmosphere of the first option – it would have likely made a more entertaining story -- I possessed just enough prudence to realize that the second would look better on a resumé. So I accepted and spent a few years in a pleasant window office there (though more often hiding out in the carrel at the back of the library), living on very little on Chicago’s far North Side, amassing money to see the world. I learned that among the workers were no less a percentage of artistic, even hip, people than at the disreputable publisher: poets, artists, scholars, some real characters. I found that that to be a high school textbook editor was tantamount to being a high school textbook author. The concept for the series was attributed to a teacher but every word in the finished project, the selection of the readings, the teacher’s manual and other apparatus were all composed entirely in-house. I was told, “There has to be a working teacher as author. He can go and do publicity at professional meetings, but he doesn’t have time to actually write the thing.”
The pace was very comfortable. At least three hours out of four were my own. After a while I joined a simpatico car pool, most of the members of which went immediately to the subsidized cafeteria when we arrived to linger over coffee and pastries before even reporting to their areas. The director of another project hired a new editor, fresh from a spell at the Lama Commune where he had departed after the group failed to accept his suggestion that everyone act out the previous night’s dreams every morning. The fact was that his services were not really needed for six months. I came to understand this lassitude about our productivity when I saw a pie chart of the expenses of publication in which our work was almost unnoticeable among the costs of advertising, salesmen’s commissions, and the actual printing.
When I had to participate in large meetings with marketing staff or potential customers, my boss’s boss, vice-president of editorial services, sometimes made semi-embarrassed but good-humored references to my long hair or my Western boots, but I was never told to conform. I could perhaps have become too comfortable there.
As the time for my departure, known to me but not to them, approached, this v.p. began hinting that there was “something sweet” in store for me shortly. Realizing after sufficient clues that he meant a promotion I kept silent about leaving, thinking that to report a higher title would be advantageous in the future. I don‘t even recall if I made it to the position of “assistant editor,” but I am quite certain it would never have made any subsequent difference if I had.