Sunday, March 31, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 7. Am I the Oldest One Here?

John Howell-Books
Back when I was in college, I worked in the Financial Aid office at San Francisco State University. I was 23 to 25 years old—a little older than a freshman, but still in the freshness of youth. I remember Edith, who worked in the office with me. She was probably 60 herself—a kind, but significantly overweight woman who had probably been great at the manual tasks of office management at one time, but was overwhelmed by using computers. And this was in the mid to late 1970’s.

I don’t want to be Edith, as nice as she was, but it does seem that I’m now one of the oldest people at work. In a meeting, I look around and see no gray heads—I’m it. I’m now older than the head of the company, older than my boss — and for the first time, I’m older than the president of the United States. I’m even older than my doctor (who replaced the one who retired). 

What does this mean, if anything? When I was young, I thought that the older people were in charge — and respected them. Now, although I actually have years of life experience and am more comfortable with myself, I still feel like one of the kids.

Does being in charge make you “older?” Is it an internal decision to be a parent to those around you? I could be the parent of some of my colleagues. My granddaughter is the age of some of my work colleagues’ kids.

After I graduated from college in 1978, I went to work in a long-established antiquarian bookstore in San Francisco. Just to show how things have changed, here’s how I got the job. I met a woman at a party. I took the streetcar downtown to the employment agency where she worked. I sat down and she opened a metal box with file cards in it.

She pulled out a card. “How would you like to work in a bookstore?” she asked. I said, “Sure.” She sent me over there and I was hired and began my first full-time post-college job at John Howell-Books.

The bookstore was owned and operated by Warren Howell, “the white-thatched dean of western bookmen.” He was about 6-6, solidly built, and used to being in charge. His father, John, had established the business in 1912, and designed and moved it into a quaint location near Union Square in 1924. 

Mr. Howell’s right-hand woman was Sally Zaiser, a gracious and highly intelligent woman who was in the Who’s Who of American Women. She managed the accounting, which was done with a pen in a paper ledger. No, we had no computers there—not even a cash register (we had a cash drawer). 

We did take credit cards. We put the card into a metal sliding device and pulled the handle across it. The charge slip had carbon paper in it, so we had multiple copies. We had to call an 800 number to confirm the purchase.

Sally and I got along just fine, although she and Mr. Howell were both conservative Republicans and I was the opposite. It was a huge change from going to college, and Sally was not much like Edith.

In any case, I realize now that Mr. Howell was 65 when I first started working there—and Sally was 63. That’s essentially my age now. But they were what 60-year-old people were like back then, and were in a different role as well. So — age may not bring authority, even if it does impart knowledge and experience.

Things are upside down now, but I’m OK with it.

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