When the Da died, we knew the jig was up. That’s when I took the job here at the Bureau. No more the free and easy life living off his largesse like before, no. Popcorn and pie and another round for your man down at the end of the bar? No, no more of that ever more. All of us needed to go out and depend on our own selves now instead of him, and for myself, well, truth of the matter is, I took the first position offered me. Something to do.
I found myself here in the back offices, working for the Deputy Effectuator and all. This is years ago now, back before the bewildering decades of mergers and acquisitions, spinoffs and layoffs that have continued down to the present day;— simpler times, when the Bureau was part of some other concern entirely, some sort of publishing house, or maybe it was financial services.
Suddenly it became common to come to work and find all the previous letterhead gone, removed overnight and a new and unfamiliar outfit seemingly in charge, though the Bureau’s routine was barely affected. Paychecks drawn on a different bank, parking slots reassigned, that sort of thing. For awhile there I remember a fashion for names starting with X, or Z, or some other unlikely letter, and we had a pool, an office pool, you see, where you could wager a small sum on the date a new consonant would rule us.
I operated a keypunch machine back then, a grand old Hammond B3-sized thing the IBM 26 was, gunmetal gray with each and every keystroke giving off its precise, authoritative clunk as the tiny die cut its perfect, miniscule rectangle of a hole in the given row of the given column of the stiff paper stock of the justly famed IBM card. 80 columns, you see, the card automatically advancing as the keys were stroked, each column’s hole representing a letter, say, or a number, depending on which row the hole appeared in.
Up above the space where the card was being worked, where its successive holes were being methodically punched, was a small open compartment, and in it a little drum, cleverly engineered to hold its own IBM card, clipped snug to the drum, you see, the drum turning in concert with the advance of the card below, giving a signal as it did to the machine as each column of the card being punched presented itself, telling the machine exactly how to treat that column.
Say, for example, column 35 was inevitably due to be punched with the code for White, Male, as was the case in those unenlightened times. The card on the drum, you see, could be set to signal the machine that this was the case, and the machine would automatically punch a hole in the appropriate row in that column and move on, saving the operator a keystroke. Every column was susceptible to this treatment: programming, we called it. Clever people in the office knew how to do it, how to reduce to a bare minimum the number of actual keystrokes spent on each card, letting the machine itself intervene as needed, and though I suppose I might have learned how to program the thing myself, it never came to that.
Every day we sent off thousands of cards to be sorted and processed and printed on massive connected sheets of perforated paper somewhere, which then came back to another office in the Bureau for filing.
Those with any ambition at all eventually left the Bureau, happily promoted or just as happily taking another job someplace else. Years passed, a day came when the keypunch machines were dragged away, along with all the related office gear of that once groundbreaking generation of equipment, and staff found itself subjected to training on a whole new set of implements. I do miss the clatter of the old 26, the sight of the snakey cables connecting callers on the PBX, the sudden sharp scent of mimeographs piercing through the permanent odor of cigarette smoke shrouding our daily routine. Ah, well. Those times won’t come again, is what I’m saying.
Secretary to the Deputy Effectuator
Bureau of Lost or Stolen Appellations
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