Online Help

Robyn Weisman


In 1997, after a five-year hiatus, I returned to the law firm of ____, ____, ____, ____ & ____, this time in its downtown L.A. office. I was doing the same basic proofreading job that I had done in New York, but because the office was smaller, I was assigned simple paralegal jobs and held the title Legal Assistant.

That June, one of the few official proofreaders, a kind, well-spoken Vietnam veteran who admired my proofreading ability and complimented me by telling another proofreader that he would want me in his foxhole, went on disability. In his place the legal assistant supervisor, a dull pregnant woman who was probably considered pretty by sorority standards 15 years earlier and who another employee likened to a Polish prison guard at Auschwitz—not fundamentally evil but the sort who loved her job—hired his temporary replacement from a local employment agency.

The temp’s name was Christine, Chris for short, and she was a vaguely Asian-looking though probably Caucasian woman in her early 50s. She had a round, gaunt face with black permed hair and wore glasses with large square frames and swooping end pieces that connected at the bottom of the eye rims. Her rawboned frame suggested copious doses of Dexedrine, as did her non-stop chattering, which assailed me as I tried to redline a 200-page M&A agreement.

The Polish prison guard had informed me an hour into my shift that I was to provide guidance to Chris whenever she needed it, which was why she now sat across from me shooting spittle on my document as she babbled on.

“My daughter lived in Japan for about a year,” she said as I steadied my ruler to underline several lines of revised text with a red felt tip.

“Wow, really,” I said without looking up.

“She considered staying longer. She taught English. They pay teachers well there. They all want to learn English.”

“Really? They do?” I was on social autopilot.

“Sure they do! The better for them to communicate and control us. You’ll see. They’ve already started.”

I glanced up at her. Her views of Japan were as out-of-date as her glasses, and I guess I needed a good look at her to make sure I hadn’t misheard.

My mistake. She took the eye contact as permission to rant. Her four-page proofreading job lay opened at the first original and revised pages, and I thought: How do people get away with doing nothing, while I get blackballed for finishing my jobs quickly and then playing a quick game of solitaire? Why isn’t the PPP spying on her?

“My daughter made a lot of money over there. She makes $30,000 at her job now, and it isn’t remotely the amount she did over in Okinawa.”

“I heard Japan’s a lot more expensive,” I said.

“She was given a per diem. She didn’t have to pay for anything. But she couldn’t live there forever, not with her fiancé waiting for her back home.”

I pointed to her job.  “Do you have any questions about that?”

“Oops, better get busy,” she said, and there was a 30-second pocket of silence which allowed me to finish my revised page 11.

“All the real news is on the World Wide Web. That’s where you find the real scoop and not what the government wants you to hear.”

I nodded, staring down at my document.

“The government just took over a family’s island, just took it over, because this family wouldn’t sell it. The government offered $29 million, but they’d owned it for 72 years, and they didn’t want to sell it!”

“And they were Japanese?” I said, confused by the direction of the conversation.

“No, Americans. I know; this country has a history of squatters, and who knows how this family got the island to begin with, but after 72 years, we can safely say it was their island, and the government had no business taking it away from them. Now they’re homeless! But that’s the government.”

“Sounds like a lawsuit’s imminent,” I said dryly.

“The government has taken over every aspect of our lives! It’s 1984, like it or not.”

I didn’t reply. How many times had pundits, corrupt executives, and schizophrenics told me the same thing? I’m sure our rights to privacy have been irreversibly invaded, but what does that monolith known as “the government” do with all that trivia? It reminds me of Russian censors during Tsarist and Soviet times, the way they’d cross out the obscenity while retaining the satire.

“The way the government controls our lives, I’m not surprised that people want to blow it up.”

I blanched. I suppose I would have expected that conclusion had I been following the conversation with any acuity, but I was just a glorified proofreader trying to complete a redline.

“Not that it’s something I would do, mind you! Not something a woman like me just getting by on temp work would do,” Chris said.

But who better to do it? I thought.

I gathered my pages and told Chris that I was going out to one of legal secretary desks to complete my redline and to page me if she needed any help.

“You’re leaving us?” she said.

“Yeah, this thing’s due by midnight, and then I have to fax it to Indonesia,” I said.

“You left a piece of rice on the table, but I’m sure the next person will pick it up.”

She pointed to the single grain lying at my corner of the table, the lone remnant of my prik king dinner. She had to raise herself from the chair to finger it.

I don’t like you! I thought, as I plucked the rice piece from the table and flicked it into the trash.

During the final hour of my 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift, I manned the word processing desk to cover for the lead word processor, who had taken her “lunch” break. The place was dead. I found a month-old copy of Entertainment Weekly, a double issue featuring “The ‘It’ List, the 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment,” with Uma Thurman on the cover. It should have been titled, “The 100 Flavors of the Moment,” given that most of the featured faces were stars on mildly successful Fox TV dramas, gay-themed independent films, or CBS miniseries events.

Video gunfire startled me from my tabloid revelry. I looked over the word processing counter to see Chris at one of the computers playing what seemed to be a computer game. She immediately turned around.

“I’m practicing my typing!” she said.

“You’re practicing your typing?” From my angle, it looked like an upside-down version of Tetris. I stood and leaned over the counter’s end. Words dive-bombed down the monitor, exploded.

“I have to type the words before they fall to the bottom, or they blow up,” she said. “It’s one of the better ones. Better than Mavis Beacon. I tried that one after a day of shopping, and it kept saying, ‘You’re not concentrating!’ And I said, ‘I know I haven’t been concentrating! I’ve been out all day!’“

I yawned. “I’m sorry. It isn’t you. I’ve been up since 6:30 this morning.”

“I thought I’d fall asleep in my chair just two hours earlier. But I usually get a second wind around this time. And that’s my problem. I should be sleeping all day, but instead I go home, log onto AOL, and exchange e-mails and instant messages ‘til one in the afternoon.”

Words detonated behind her.

“I get tired of answering all the postings, now that I’m training with Helpmates,” she continued.

“Helpmates?” I said, stifling another yawn.

“That’s my employment agency. That’s why I have access to these typing programs. I need to get my word count up to at least 60 words-per-minutes for a permanent position.”

Chris paused her program. When the bombing stopped, I recalled her comment earlier that evening and considered whether this game would start her down the slippery slope to another far-right Federal building bombing.

“I’ll take messages from the leader of my ministry. She looks to me still for leadership and guidance since I’m the one who started the message board.”

“You started an online ministry?” I said.

“Yes, I did,” she nodded with pride. “It’s a Christian ministry for ex-lesbians, women who want to get out of the lifestyle…”

My face went loose, and my cheeks tingled.

“It’s really grown in the last year. It’s so gratifying to bring all these women together seeking solace and redemption.”

I would have burst out laughing, but it was as if I’d suffered a mild stroke. My mouth hung open, while drool gathered at the corners of my lips.

I glanced at the clock and saw I had only a few more minutes before I was free to flee. I retreated to my seat at the word-processing counter and rifled through my book bag for my parking card and car keys.

“You know I also write evangelical literature,” she said. “I’m publishing my first book online soon. It’s a thriller based on Revelations.”

“Really,” the Jewish lesbian said.

“It pulls no punches, but that’s how I am. If I weren’t writing evangelical literature, I’d probably be writing porno,” she concluded.

I nodded like a bobblehead as I made for the hallway.

“Robyn, wait!”

Warily, I turned around.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you. Those are really nice pants you’re wearing.”

When I got home, my pants and I sat down in front of my computer and installed one of those AOL trial membership CD-ROM’s I had stashed under my sink behind the trash. I wanted to find this ministry. My lesbian lifestyle consisted of the occasional issue of The Advocate, a girlfriend with borderline personality disorder, and dinners at obscure barbecue restaurants with my immediate family. I couldn’t imagine why these women were so determined to leave the lifestyle. Had their lives been more boring than my own?

I trolled AOL for nearly three hours, searching through chat rooms, typing in keywords. But I couldn’t find evidence of it, not anywhere.

Frustrated, I slept better than I had in weeks.