When I watch Mad Men, I'm taken back to my summer job after high school in the mid-1960s. I worked at an insurance company in midtown Manhattan whose office looked a lot like the set of the popular television show. The men wore ties and white shirts. The women wore dresses and heels — and in the winter, hats. Everybody in the office was white, except for me, and I assume now that I got the job because at least some of them thought I was Jewish.
I worked for a hyperactive office manager who acted like a domineering father to the group of young working-class women who made up the "secretarial pool." In those days before computers and electric typewriters, every office had a typing pool — a group of women who listened to Dictaphones, which were early tape recorders, and converted the instructions and spoken sentences of the managers and sales executives into the documents that went out from the firm. The secretaries also took shorthand, translating the pronouncements of the men into the mysterious lines and curves of Pitman or Gregg, which in turn would also be transformed into letters and other insurance forms.
Almost all the sales guys were from the suburbs of Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut; nobody who could afford it lived in "the city." I was used to hearing discussions about "the element" moving into the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods where their parents still lived. I suspected that my family was part of that "element," although we lived in Manhattan. The office manager was fascinated to learn that my family lived in an upscale Upper West Side building. "Didn't you need references to get into that building?" he asked.
I shrugged. I didn't know. "I don't think so." But when I went home and mentioned the conversation to my parents over dinner, my mother got all excited. "Of course we had to have references. Who does he think we are? You tell him we had references." I didn't understand what she was all worked up about, and didn't tell my boss anything. Looking back, I'm sure the idea of a black middle-class family would have been beyond his comprehension.
The most exotic of the salesmen was a Frenchman, Jacques, who sold insurance to the wealthy. He would spend months cultivating his clients, with his French accent right out of a movie, trying to sell them a $100,000 policy. When someone signed on the dotted line, there was usually a small office party to celebrate Jacques' victory.
My job was to handle staff requests for supplies, keep the supply room stocked and run errands. I soon learned that the women in the office would not go into the supply room with certain salesmen unless I was also there. More than one, a young woman would come rushing out of the closet, her face flushed and her clothes in disarray. The other women would shake their heads. "I told you to watch out for him," they'd say. Or, "He's a wild one, that Bill." Nobody thought about complaining; it was a hazard of the workplace.
The civil rights movement was in full swing, but there was little direct discussion of race or the vivid images of massive demonstrations, beatings and bombings that dominated the newspapers and the evening news. But race came to the office in a very direct way. Toward the end of the summer, as I was preparing to go off to college, we had an opening for a typist, and several women came to take the test, which I administered. One of the candidates was a well-dressed young black woman who exuded quiet confidence. When I finished adding all the scores of the candidates, she had done the best by far. Later, I was in the room when the office manager and the head of the secretarial pool went over the results. The "colored" girl had done the best, both conceded. "She wouldn't fit in," the manager declared. The head secretary agreed. They offered the job to the woman with the second-highest score. That was my introduction to racism in the workplace and how it worked. And I'm reminded of that incident — and my shocked silence — every time I see an episode of Mad Men.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.