Before there were PCs and Microsoft Word, there were ways you could correct your typing errors by relatively crude versions of cutting and pasting. They varied somewhat in quality, and each was pretty time-consuming.
Early in my college freshman year, I developed perhaps the best cut-and-paste process of all time by following a simple multi-step process to correct dozens of typos I made in each of my term papers. This included retyping each corrected word, and using “invisible” tape to cover the typos. After photocopying the pages, I needed to apply White Out to hide the faint lines left by the “invisible” tape, let the pages dry and then make new “perfect” photocopies.
Had I had the money, instead of spending all this time making corrections, I probably would have just hired a typist to produce pristine term papers, while I spent the time that I saved on more worthy pursuits.
I had a friend who supported herself through college and law school by typing term papers for students at Brooklyn College. We had met during our sophomore year when I answered her ad in the Kingsman, the student newspaper.
I had a paper due in just three days, and there was no way I could get it in on time. It was twelve pages long, and my professor expected us to hand in “clean copies.” Even my elegant cut-and-paste technique would not pass muster.
For the then exorbitant fee of a dollar a page, Marla came through for me. A born procrastinator – not to mention a not-so-great typist — I soon became typing dependent. Bottom line: Marla’s typing just looked a lot better than mine.
Two years later, when I began grad school and Marla enrolled in law school, she kidded that I could end up paying for her degree. “Yeah,” I replied. “at the cost of being able to afford my own tuition.”
For a while, my prophecy seemed quite unlikely to come true. My professors assigned much longer papers with at least relatively clean pages required. I found that – except in dire emergencies — I could no longer afford Marla’s fees, which had now more than doubled.
I had become much less dependent on Marla’s help, but we continued to be close friends. Still, she warned me that I would surely need her services when I completed my Master’s thesis.
As luck would have it, my thesis was the last large typing job Marla would take on before devoting all her time to studying for the bar exam. I kiddingly asked if I would need to find another typist after she hung up her shingle.
“Steve,” she said with a big smile, “I’ll always be there for you.”
“What if I actually get through grad school and am finally ready to write my doctoral dissertation?”
“For you, Steve, I’d be honored. Of course, I’m going to have to charge you the same hourly fees I’ll be charging my legal clients.”
“I had better start saving now!”
A month before the results of the bar exam were announced, Marla had already gone on several interviews, but she didn’t get a single offer – or even a call-back. “You know, Steve, it looks as though the law is still a white boy’s preserve, if you get my drift.”
“Well hopefully, by the time you get your results, perhaps even one of the big white-shoe firms on Wall Street will recognize your talents. “
“Oh, they have! Three of them offered me jobs on the spot!” She paused. “They knew how I had worked my way through college and law school.”
“Wait Steve! It gets better! They each told me that if things worked out, in just a year or two, I could become one of the highest paid legal typists in the city.”
“Well, if it gives you any satisfaction, you’d be making more than most untenured college professors.”
“If I can’t get a legitimate offer soon, I’m going to apply at Legal Aid. I hear they’re very fond of Black girls there. We relate so well to the clients.”
“Maybe you’ll like it.”
“Maybe I won’t!”
Marla received one of the top scores on the New York State bar exam. She was third in her class at Brooklyn Law School. And her first – and only – job offer was from Legal Aid.
After she had been on the job for a few months, I asked how it was going. I knew, of course, about the long hours, tough working conditions, and terrible pay. Still, I was surprised to hear her answer.
“My job is like a shit sandwich.”
“Would you care to elaborate?”
“Steve, yuh wanna know what’s wrong with a shit sandwich? Too much shit… and not enough bread!”
“Well, Marla, the next time we go out for lunch, I’ll know what not to order.”
Marla decided to give it one year to see if she could adjust to the workload and the poverty-level wages at Legal Aid. And after that, she reluctantly decided to continue. After all, none of the decent law firms were exactly busting down her door.
Amazingly, I was almost breezing through grad school, and had even chosen my dissertation topic. Perhaps “An Evaluation of the Economic Cost and Effectiveness of the Barbados Family Planning Association” was not the wisest choice” –especially since it would end up being 350 pages long.
There was only one person to whom I could entrust it. Amazingly, Marla agreed. A week before, she had handed in her resignation to her supervisor at Legal Aid. And until she found a better way to make a living, she would reestablish her typing business.
“You know that I’ll earn more than I did at Legal Aid – not that they set the bar all that high.” The two of us then burst out laughing.
She confided that she still hadn’t given up on the law, but she had to support herself in the meanwhile. And she had certainly picked up valuable experience at Legal Aid. If not for the extremely long hours and the poverty-level wages, it really wasn’t such a bad job.
Soon Marla was regaling me with some of her own stories about her more eccentric customers. No longer confining herself to term papers and occasional doctoral dissertations, she took on people from all walks of life. And she even confirmed for me that the widespread belief that most lawyers could not write was completely true.
Her most memorable story was about what would be a self-published autobiography of an older woman who turned out to be prone to making numerous grammatical and spelling errors. Apparently barely literate, she still wanted to tell anybody willing to read it the story of her life.
Even when completely cleaned up, the manuscript would still be utterly unacceptable to any publisher, perhaps even among the bottom-feeders of the vanity press.
Marla realized that if she even took on this job, it would be very slow going. And as they say, “time is money.”
The woman gave her a small advance payment in crumpled one-dollar bills. After she left, Marla began work on the first page, making dozens of corrections, while trying not change the substance of what the woman wrote.
The next day, Marla called to tell her that she had completed just the first twenty-five pages. Could she stop by to see how they looked? They agreed on a time the next afternoon.
When the woman arrived, Marla handed her the pages and asked her to look through them to see if she was satisfied. Marla then went back to work on another typing assignment.
A half hour later, the woman knocked on Marla’s office door. Marla invited her inside and asked her to please sit down. Then she confided, “I wasn’t at all sure that you would be happy with the changes I made.
The woman didn’t say anything for a while. Marla knew that as a very bad sign. If she had been happy with Marla’s work, she would have said so immediately.
Finally, Marla asked if she was displeased. Still, the woman said nothing. And then, she very slowly shook her head from side to side.
“I gather that you didn’t like the changes I made.”
“I’m sorry, but I felt they were needed.”
“Maybe they were. I know I’m a terrible speller, and I know I make a lot of mistakes when I write things. But….”
“But the pages that I gave you? Those were my words. What I wrote about was my life. But this? I don’t write that way. I don’t talk that way.” She paused and seemed to be thinking about something. “You see, it’s is a book about me. And this?” she said holding up the pages Marla had typed. “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about my life.”
There were tears in Marla’s eyes. This was not a term paper. This was indeed a person’s life!
What could Marla possibly say? Now she was shaking her head “no.” Soon she was sobbing.
The woman stood up, and then slowly walked across the room and put her arms around Marla and hugged her.
Finally, Marla stood. “I’m going to type your story exactly the way you wrote it. I won’t change a word.”
A few weeks later, Marla got a call from one of her clients at the other end of the spectrum — a lawyer, who, like many of his colleagues, could barely put together two coherent sentences. He thanked her again for all her help, and ruefully confessed that he had never realized just how bad his writing was before he saw all her edits.
But he was completely puzzled. When he sent her his brief to be professionally typed, he had no idea that she was a lawyer herself. Then he asked around and heard nothing but glowing reports. He even checked in with a couple of her colleagues at Legal Aid.
Marla was very impressed with his honesty, and perhaps even more so by his self-depredation. When she told me about the call, I said he sounded like a complete mensch (Yiddish for a person of integrity and honor).
“Steve, he offered me a job! As a real lawyer! At three times what I was making at Legal Aid! Can you believe it?”
“Sure! And you’ll be worth every penny!” Then we sit there for a while, while I absorbed what Marla had said.
“Steve, you don’t seem very happy about it.”
“Of course, I am!”
“Then why the subdued reaction?”
“Well, how am I ever going to find such a great typist?”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. The third volume of his short stories, To the City, with Love, was recently published.