I was twenty-seven years old in 1974 when my fiancé, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, died when his plane crashed. Absent a future with Bob, I thought that I should do something serious and responsible about my circumstances, so I took the Typist I test for Onondaga County and prepared to enter the security of the Civil Service system. Onondaga County is located in the middle of New York State—sometimes referred to as the bellybutton of New York—and the county government’s office buildings are located in downtown Syracuse. In February 1975 I was hired as a temporary Typist I to work as a receptionist in the Comptroller’s Office, which was located in the county courthouse.
My co-receptionist, Mary, told me that she had gotten her job because her mother was a schoolmate of Deputy Comptroller Richard Sheeran. One day Mary returned to her desk from Mr. Sheeran’s office and told me it was my turn to go see him, so I did. In his county office in the courthouse, Dick Sheeran told me that I was “on the list” to buy two $50 tickets to the Republican Party’s upcoming cocktail party. I thought he was kidding, so I laughed. It was the 1970’s and I was a self-supporting Typist I. No way could I afford a $100 contribution to anything but my landlord.
The laughter was a big mistake. Mr. Sheeran made a little speech in which he pointed out that my position was temporary and it would be unfortunate if they couldn’t continue my employment.
Once upon a time I had a brief affair with a fellow who had a bad word for everyone. I asked him what his bad word was for me and he replied “naïve.” I was, indeed, naïve but I was also pretty smart and quickly realized that I was about to lose my job if I didn’t do something fast, so I made a pretty little speech in which I said that even if I wanted to [which I didn’t] I couldn’t afford to buy the tickets.
Mr. Sheeran responded by saying that come election time the Republican Party would need people to type envelopes. I politely replied that he might call on me for that, not adding that when the time came I certainly hoped I could avoid the job. Mr. Sheeran accepted my acquiescence then, the purpose of the interview having been concluded, he stood up and said, “Now you can say you’ve had your first shakedown.”
I was appalled that he’d done it and shocked that he’d named it. The point and purpose of Civil Service was to take jobs out of the patronage system. You weren’t supposed to have to pay a political party in order to get a job with the government but that’s exactly what Dick Sheeran had tried to force me to do by threatening me with losing my job.
I went home and called my best friend, a woman ten years older than me who worked as a legal secretary. Her boss was the son of the county attorney and there was absolutely nothing naïve about her. She laughed and told me that’s the way the system works and I should grow up and accept it. We did not speak of it again.
Every morning around 10:00 a.m. the departmental bosses would meet for coffee in the cafeteria in the Public Safety Building across the street from the courthouse. The comptroller, David Elleman, and/or the deputy comptroller would attend. Around noon, Elleman, whose position was elected, would leave the office for an extended lunch. He would return smelling of alcohol and repeatedly put his arm around me and expect me to laugh at his jokes, which I didn’t find amusing.
One day Mr. Elleman called me into his office and told me that I was to go to the Personnel Department for an interview for a permanent Typist I position there. I had the interview with the head of Personnel, Ned Gusty, but wasn’t impressed. Back in the Comptroller’s Office, Dave Elleman asked me what I thought about the job. I said I thought I’d wait for some more interviews before I made a decision. Elleman laughed, put his arm around me, walked me into his office and explained that I really did want to go to work for Mr. Gusty.
I got it. I was not free; I was a slave to be bought, sold or traded at the whim and will of the county department heads. Elleman had traded me to Gusty, for what reasons or profit I didn’t know. I also didn’t know if this was the kind of thing that was worked out at the morning coffee meetings but I suspected it was. I was young, alone and naive, and Elleman was presenting as the avuncular uncle who had my best interests at heart. Maybe he did; maybe he was the good guy who would take care of me. I laughed and said I would call Mr. Gusty and tell him I would like the job. Mr. Elleman metaphorically patted me on the head and I was off to Personnel.
In the Personnel Department I learned how the Civil Service system was supposed to work. The state personnel department in Albany would draw up an announcement when a test was being given for a job category. The announcement would list the duties of the position, the qualifications for taking the test, and the time and place of the test. The announcement would be given broad publication in the county and people could submit applications. If the application was approved by the county personnel staff, then the applicant could take the test.
After the test was given, all the results would be locked in boxes and shipped back to Albany where they would be checked. Then a list, numerically ranked by test score, would be drawn up of all those who took the test. All this would take three months, then the list would be sent back to the county and county personnel would notify all test-takers of where they placed on the list. They would also notify all department heads that now there was a certified list and they were to interview for any vacant positions in their department. So far, so good but this is where local politics comes into play. (To be continued.)