For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
With ridiculously unfounded optimism, I had sent off my resume to Viva magazine (notorious sister publication to Penthouse), and had been miraculously summoned to an interview with Ernie Baxter, the managing editor, who ever more miraculously, offered me a job. I just had no idea what the job was.
“Oh, I thought I told you. The job is secretary to Kathy Keeton, Viva’s publisher,” Ernie said.
I squeezed out a smile to hide my disappointment: I had expected to be offered at least editorial assistant. I had not a single secretarial skill and no idea of what a publisher did, but it was a job at a magazine, a magazine I loved. And my artist boyfriend Michael and I were stone broke, with no idea of where next month’s $400 rent would come from.
“Sure, yes, when do I start?”
“Right away. Let’s meet Kathy first.” Ernie hauled me up by my arm and my head swam. What was happening? Ernie seemed nonchalant about hiring me to work for someone else. What if this woman hated me on sight? We headed down the hallway, Ernie clasping my elbow as if I were a reluctant three-year-old. A glass enclosed cubicle held a sullen brunette woman who waved us into a large corner office.
The gray industrial hall carpet ended at the door of this office, and a thick swath of white shag, soft as fleece, began. The office was lit by little gilded lamps set on little gilded tables. Before a white and gold brocade loveseat was a low gilded coffee table and a silver tea service. Behind a white and gilt spindly-legged French Provincial desk sat an older blonde, her long hair held back in what looked like a painfully tight pony tail. She was dressed in an outfit that made my own inappropriate garb (sleeveless tunic, harem pants) seem as conservative as a lawyer; she wore leg-hugging ivory silk pants and a plunging halter top that looked like two scarves tied together, showcasing breasts that had no visible means of support despite their impressive size. I had often read the phrase “dripping with gold and diamonds;” now I got to see it in real life.
“Gay Haubner, this is Miss Keeton, the publisher of Viva.” I flinched at Ernie Baxter’s faux pas, as Miss Keeton, without rising or acknowledging the slight, offered me a jewel-encrusted, perfectly manicured hand.
“Miss Keeton, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said, trying to will saliva into my mouth.
“She’ll be great as your new secretary,” Ernie said, as he passed her my portfolio. Kathy glanced at it, asked me several questions about Oui’s circulation and ad sales, none of which I could answer, and handed the portfolio back to me.
She said, “I hope you can start right away, ah, Gay?” I nodded confirmation that was my name. Ernie Baxter, bowing and scraping, dragged me off by my elbow again, and I spent the next hour in a small interior office covered on every surface with files and papers, added my own filled-out forms to those piles, and found out that I would make $12,500 a year, and have health insurance and two weeks’ vacation. I was a grown-up.
I spent the next day smashed in with the sullen woman in the secretarial fishbowl, who took me though my duties, the most important of which was to always address my new boss as Miss Keeton.
Miss Keeton rarely wrote letters. My bad dream the night before of having to take dictation in shorthand, which I did not know, and then losing my pencil and then discovering I had no pants on, thankfully was not a premonition.
Because of her other job title, Miss Keeton did, however, receive a lot of mail, letters with “Kathy Keton, Penthouse Associte Pubisher,” written in block letters or childish scrawls on envelopes stamped with a prison or army base as the return address. Hundreds of strange lonely men just picked her name off the Penthouse masthead and assumed that she could arrange dates for them with Penthouse Pets or that that Kathy would become their pen pal.
And there were the phone calls. Back in those days when even a professional office phone system was only a slight improvement over two tin cans and a string, there was no voice mail, no direct numbers. The airhead at the switchboard, who had her job solely because she was the girlfriend of the Penthouse treasurer, automatically put through all the calls to Kathy Keeton, even the collect ones from penitentiaries.
“But you have to answer every call,” the sullen woman instructed. “And,” she added with a shudder, “you have to be nice to them.”
“Also,” she said, “the religious nuts who call threatening to kill Miss Keeton or blow the place up? Don’t worry about it. Nothing’s happened yet. Those guys, though, yeah you can hang up on them.”
I was given a few additional instructions that did not have to do with dealing with crank calls and letters. By noon I was on my own. Miss Keeton was out that day, so all I had to do was keep track of the few legitimate callers, writing down their name, phone number, and message on a small pink “While You Were Out” slip and skewering the paper onto a wicked looking spindle, an oddly satisfying action.
In the afternoon, a few members of Viva’s staff who passed by my enclosure stopped to introduce themselves. I met the “smart cookie” new senior editor, Gini Kopecki, who was dressed in non-designer jeans, wore not a lick of makeup, and had long hair of an indeterminate color parted down the middle. I met Debby Dichter, the assistant managing editor, diminutive and dark and frantic, who came by every hour with her arms full of loose glossy magazine page proofs for Miss Keeton. I met the art director, Rowan Johnson, a shaggy South African, who showed up roaring drunk at 3:30 under the impression that he had a lunch date with Kathy.
At five, I picked up my purse to go home, infinitely pleased with myself for landing this job and already wondering how long it would take me to be promoted to editor.
Ernie Baxter blocked my exit.
“Let’s go for a drink and you can tell me about your first day,” he said. I wanted to go home and celebrate with Michael in our new apartment, a minuscule one-bedroom hidden away in a Chelsea mews, the second floor of a carriage house, with six-foot ceilings and a floor that slanted so much a dropped orange would roll from kitchen to living room.
“Sure,” I said, “That would be great.”
We went around the corner to Bill’s Gay Ninties, a below-sidewalk-level bar that was weirdly outdated even in 1977. Bill’s Gay Nineties was decorated like a phony saloon at a Colorado tourist attraction, a really down-on-its-luck tourist attraction that only survived because it happened to be up the road from the Cave of the Winds or Estes Park. It was a maze of small rooms, with dingy red-flocked wallpaper and dusty chandeliers, staffed by bored waiters in striped shirts, suspenders, and sleeve garters. The bartender had muttonchops and a handlebar mustache.
One drink, I thought, and some gushing about how grateful I am, and I can go home. Ernie let me rattle on and on, and even though I didn’t want it, a second drink appeared before me. I was struggling to get to goodbye, see you tomorrow, to escape from this creepy place, where gray businessmen drank alone and “Sweet Georgia Brown” crackled out of a shitty speaker.
“So,” said Ernie Baxter, “You like the job.” I thought I had made that clear over the past half hour.
“Oh, yes I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you…”
“You can show me.”
I knew what was coming.
“Why do you think I hired you, Gay?”
Because I can write? Because I put down good money, month after month, to read Viva? Because I dress like Miss Keeton’s poor relation?
Somehow my second drink had disappeared and a third one had taken its place.
“I hired you because I want to go to bed with you. So if you like your job and want to keep it, you know what to do.” Ernie Baxter sat back and looked at me, a raven eying a semi-squashed bug.
This was not the first time I had received a tit-for-tat offer, though never so explicitly. I couldn’t even flutter my eyelashes or act as if I didn’t understand what was going on, my usual response.
“But…but…I have a boyfriend!” was the only thing I could come up with. This got a laugh and a reprieve.
“Okay,” said Ernie Baxter, finishing his drink and then mine. “Maybe not tonight. I’ll give you a few days. Remember, there are plenty of other girls who want this job.”
I stumbled out of Bill’s Gay Nineties and found my way to the subway and the sweet Chelsea apartment that had claimed all of our savings. Michael threw open the door, beer in hand, and swept me up in a ridiculously happy hug. “How was it? Is it great?”
“Yeah it’s really, ah, good.”
I tried desperately to think of something amusing or interesting that had happened, but all I could visualize was an image of that message spindle, with me impaled between pink paper slips. “Kathy — Miss Keeton — wasn’t there. I met some nice people. The guy who hired me took me out, I think I drank too much. I have to go to bed.”
All night I lay in bed like a plank of wood reliving the past two days and wondering what I had done wrong. That stupid outfit. I should have worn a business-like skirt and a white blouse with a peter pan collar, like the brunette I replaced. With a bra underneath! I had to go buy a bra. No. That wasn’t it. It was because my writing portfolio was full of nude photos from my Oui magazine gigs; Ernie Baxter must have thought I was coming on to him. Maybe it was something I said? I looked up at the ceiling, which was a few feet about my head, and tried to recall every word I had spoken to Ernie Baxter. I felt guilty and ashamed.
But I went back to the Viva office the next day, back to my little fishbowl. I had decided that when Ernie Baxter came by, twirling his mustachios and demanding his droit de seigneur, I would clutch my bosom and shout no, no, a thousand times no. I figured they’d have to pay me for two days anyway, and did long division on a scrap of paper to see how much that would be. At ten, Miss Keeton showed up and requested a cup of tea and a pack of Virginia Slims. At noon, Ernie Baxter appeared and glowered at me as I handed him the tower of magazine pages Miss Keeton had spent the morning marking up with red pen. At five, I checked the halls to see if the coast was clear and skedaddled home, where I lay awake a second night.
A few days passed. I tried to avoid Ernie Baxter. If I heard his voice in the corridor, I picked the phone and held a one-way conversation while scribbling “crap crap crap” on a message slip.
Somehow I still had a job. I met the other editors and the extremely well-dressed and desperate Viva advertising saleswomen, and a sweaty, unhappy circulation manager. Rowan Johnson, the drunken art director, introduced himself to me several times. I spent a few frantic minutes searching for Miss Keeton when Bob Guccione called, and then was mortified to finally find her in a stall in the ladies. I opened sticky letters from Joliet and waited for one long-winded dirty phone caller to run out of steam so I could say, “Thank you for calling!” and hang up. I reminded Miss Keeton of appointments with her hair dresser, dermatologist, astrologer, interior decorator, and jeweler. I fetched packs of Virginia Slims and made cups of tea. After Miss Keeton left for the day, I went into her office to remove and file every paper from her desk; she liked to start fresh every morning. I looked at that empty white desk and wished my mind were as blank.