The Lost Art Of Classified Ad Taking
Just like that, the tables were turned. The lifelong interviewer was the interviewee.
It happened last week when a reporter came to my house to write a piece for The Virginian-Pilot. She was a summer intern. No surprise there. Didn’t expect the paper to send a grizzled scribe to write a where-is-she-now piece.
(Hey, I’d won a poll! More people wanted to know what I was up to than wanted to know “What’s behind the Attucks Theater?” or “Why does the Berkley Bridge need to open?” But I won with a disappointing 71 percent of the vote. Twenty nine percent of the people were more curious about a drawbridge and an old theater than they were in my whereabouts. Unbelievable.)
The reporter was a sweet 20-something. Smart and professional. She came in with a list of questions in her notebook and began the interview by asking if I minded if she turned on her voice recorder.
“Of course not,” I replied. “I’ll try not to use the F word too much.”
That quote didn’t make it in the story. Another disappointment.
Neither did any details of my very first newspaper job. Our interview didn’t reach back that far. Why would it? The story was about what I've been doing since I left The Pilot.
Pity, because I had a mildly amusing story ready. You see, unlike many of today’s reporters, I didn’t major in journalism in college - shoot, I never took a journalism course - and I didn’t write regularly for the school paper.
Nope, my first newspaper job was as a classified ad taker for The Trenton Times. A job that involved two pieces of equipment: an electric typewriter and a bulky telephone headset.
I’d taken a year off from college and needed a paycheck once all the tourists left the Jersey Shore and after the seafood joint where I’d been waitressing closed for the season. I landed at The Times and spent the better part of a year tethered to a phone. So did about 20 other young women.
One was a rabid Elvis fan. Another was married to Bruce Springsteen's cousin. They were fun girls. Most in their first jobs, right out of high school.
People called and dictated their ads, which we typed while they talked. Then we prepared invoices to send in the mail. The only exceptions were people who lived in trailer parks. They had to pay in advance.
I know. I know. Discrimination. It was a different time.
It was also a time when florists were able to dictate newspaper policy. As it happened, they hated the phrase “in lieu of flowers” which was beginning to crop up in the death notices we took. So a contingent of militant flower arrangers marched into the publisher’s office one day and demanded an end to such heresy. If it didn’t stop, they said, they’d pull their display ads from the obit page.
With that, the phrase was verboten.
We ad takers grumbled a bit about not respecting the wishes of the dead. But we didn’t gripe loudly enough to get fired.
Heck, I was in constant danger of getting sacked anyway. This mostly had to do with classified's bread and butter: help wanted ads.
Back in the 1970s, job vacancies were still segregated by gender: There was “Help Wanted Male,” “Help Wanted Female” and what we called “Combined.” That was, Help Wanted Male OR Female.
I was at the newspaper about an hour before I realized all the juicy jobs were in the males' section.
The Help Wanted Female page contained an anemic assortment of dreary, low-paying, dead-end jobs. Like the one I was in.
Oh, and the combined section? Never had more than a handful of job offerings.
Hey, I’d had two years of college. I’d read Betty Friedan. I could see the injustice. So I decided to try to set things right. One classified ad at a time.
Whenever our supervisor wasn’t patrolling the phone bank, I tried to convince employers to open their jobs to all applicants.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, I think you should run this ad in our combined section,” I’d say sweetly to the Neanderthal on the other end of the line. “Women can drive cabs just as well as men can.”
My technique rarely worked. Sometimes I argued with the employers.
When that failed, I occasionally stuck a plum help wanted ad in the combined section anyway.
I pretended it was a mistake when the advertisers complained to my boss.
That wasn’t hard to believe. I was a slow and sloppy typist who made a million mistakes. Like the time I put an ad in the “Lost and Found” for a missing “Golden Walnut.”
“It was a gold wallet, Kerry, not a golden walnut,” the supervisor snarled when he got off the phone with the walletless person who was ranting about the idiot who took the ad.
As time went on I had lots of come-to-Jesus meetings with my boss. Some advertisers accused me of bickering with them about help wanted ads. Others refused to pay for the ones that ran in the combined section. Then there were typos. So many typos.
“How much longer do you have?” the classified ad chief finally asked.
“I go back to school in three weeks,” I replied with a smile.
“I hope you get some skills in college so you don’t have to come back here,” he sighed.
If someone had told me that summer that I’d spend my entire adult life working for newspapers, I would have said they’d lost their golden walnut.