1979–1981: Biking to Alexandria

Like any self-respecting suburban/small-town kid I got my driver’s license as soon as I was old enough — 16 1/2 in Massachusetts if you’d taken driver’s ed — but I didn’t own a motor vehicle till I was 37, three years after I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. In D.C. I walked, took public transit, and rode my bicycle.

Neither of my bicycle Ts comes attached to a particular event. I got this one, “Up with Bicycles,” in my D.C. bike-commuting days, probably at Lammas Bookstore.

My bike, a blue Peugeot 10-speed, was my college graduation present to myself. I named her Blue Mist II, after the armored Rolls-Royce T. E. Lawrence rode in the desert during World War I.[1] In D.C. I thought of her as my “urban horse”: I was barely a decade out of horses at the time and had no idea that in my 40s I would get back in. I’ve got plenty of horse-related T-shirts and stories to go with them, but you’re going to have to wait awhile till we get there.

Biking to work at Red Cross National Headquarters, first from my Dupont Circle bedsit and then from group houses in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood (which is just north of Adams Morgan, which is just north of Dupont Circle), was easy. Google Maps tells me that my usual route, via 16th Street, was a little under three miles. In the morning it was mostly downhill. I still remember the visceral thrill of whizzing down 16th Street in rush-hour traffic, trying to avoid breathing too much bus exhaust, wearing a dress and (of course) no helmet.

On more than one Friday I biked home up 18th Street in dusk or dark after “processing the week” with colleagues in the rooftop lounge at the Hotel Washington. I was sometimes, I confess, a little tipsy when I set out, but the mostly uphill ride took care of that.

With my promotion to editor, my commute got longer: from Mount Pleasant to Old Town Alexandria by my route is a little over 11 miles. It was a great ride: bike path almost all the way, down into Rock Creek Park behind the National Zoo, a little maneuvering to get past the Lincoln Memorial and onto Memorial Bridge, then down the Mount Vernon Trail (whose official name I didn’t know when I was riding on it) all the way to Alexandria.

I made the round-trip by bike most days if the weather wasn’t awful. When it was, my public transit commute took about the same amount of time. Since Metrorail only went as far as National Airport at that point, the trip involved three transfers, one from the 42 bus to the Dupont Circle Metro station, one from the Red Line to the Blue Line at Metro Center, then a third from National Airport to the Old Town bus, whose number I don’t remember.

Washington was famously built on a swamp. Summers are hot and sultry. Thermal inversions are not uncommon: the exhaust from tens of thousands of cars hangs over downtown, visible to anyone who looks south from a higher elevation. Summer started in earnest not long after I was promoted to Publications, and I kept biking to work.

At the end of the day — quitting time was 4:45 p.m. — I’d be unlocking my bike and someone would ask, “You’re going to bike home? It’s a hundred and five degrees out.” I’d stop at the Lincoln Memorial, a little more than halfway, to drink at a water bubbler, splash my face, and soak my bandanna in cold water before tying it back around my head. (No helmet then either.) The last leg of my trip was by far the steepest uphill, out of Rock Creek Park up to my Mount Pleasant neighborhood. I could, and sometimes did, ride the whole way, going slower and slower till near the top bike and I were in danger of falling over, but more often I’d get off at some point and walk to where the terrain leveled off.

You’ll never guess where I bought this one! I probably got it when I was still an occasional visitor to the island, i.e., before 1985. Kennedy Studios, an art gallery and framing shop that still exists on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, offered at least one other version of this design, with sailboats instead of bicycles.

The morning commute wasn’t quite as hot, but biking more than 11 miles in the humid 80s would leave anyone in need of a shower. Trouble was, there was only one shower in the Eastern Field Office building, and it was located in the men’s room in the basement which was the level you entered from the parking lot where the bike rack was. The women’s room down the hall had no such amenities.

I and a couple of women who liked to run on their lunch hours successfully lobbied management to reserve the shower-equipped men’s room for women’s use for half an hour in the morning and half an hour at lunch. Nice idea, but in practice male employees would congregate outside the door at the restricted times, directing snotty remarks at us and complaining about having to wait to pee.

I gave up PDQ and went back to improvising a sponge bath in the women’s bathroom and changing out of my sweaty T-shirt and into more presentable office clothes. (My concession to being promoted into the professional ranks was to stop wearing T-shirts to work, which I had done on occasion in the training office.)

My other biking-related challenge was more momentous. In summer heat I was biking to Alexandria in rolled-up jeans. This was as clammy and uncomfortable as you can imagine. Why not wear gym shorts? you ask.

Why not indeed. Well, at the time I weighed over 200 pounds. I could wear men’s shirts, but men’s pants didn’t suit my shape so I had to buy pants in the plus-size women’s shops. In the affordable-price range these inclined to polyester and other unbreathable fabrics ill-suited to physical activity, so I stuck with jeans, which could be found in 100% cotton at any size.

I went looking in the plus-size stores for women’s gym shorts. They didn’t exist, not in Washington, D.C., at any rate, not at that time.[2] Plus-size women were presumed uninterested in or incapable of exercise. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that plus-size women’s disinterest in exercise might have something to do with the lack of plus-size women’s exercise clothing. Plenty of men thought any fat woman riding a bike or jogging was fair game for their insults. They harassed thin women too, of course, but with wolf whistles and come-ons, not comments on how ugly they were.

In a sporting goods store I came upon a rack of men’s gym shorts that went up to XL. They looked like they might fit my hips. No way would I have tried them on in the store: that would have meant admitting that they were for me. I might even have mumbled to an inquiring clerk that I was buying them for a friend or a brother. I went out on a limb and bought three pair. I took them home and with trepidation tried them on, one after another. They all fit.

I loved those shorts. One was purple with yellow trim, one green with white trim, and I wish I could remember the third — blue with white trim sounds right, but I’m not sure. Being fat, I rarely wore shorts, period, so the rush of wind on my bare legs as I biked along the Potomac was a revelation. I felt immediate empathy with women of past and not-so-past generations as they shed corsets, voluminous skirts, and skirts so tight they practically locked your knees together.

The fat liberation movement was very visible in grassroots feminist and lesbian communities at the time. It freed me to take these issues seriously, and to look more closely at my own personal history with compulsive eating and getting fat, but the more closely I looked, the most pissed off I got. In an essay published in Lesbian Contradiction in its Winter 1983–84 issue, I wrote that “when I first discovered fat liberation literature, I felt so betrayed. I expected so much but found so many of my experiences dismissed as truisms, stereotypes, and self-delusions.” The essay takes off from that dismissal to warn against the temptation to formulate premature orthodoxies from women’s incredibly diverse experiences, which were being publicly articulated often for the first time.

About a year later my essay “‘Is This the New Thing We Have to Be P.C. About’” appeared in Sinister Wisdom 29. It too takes off from an incident involving fat and fat liberation, and goes a few steps further in exploring the notion of political correctness as understood by feminists and lefties at the time. (Before long, around the mid-1980s, the right wing got hold of it and turned it into an all-purpose slur against anyone who took sexism, racism, and social justice in general seriously.)

Looking back at these two essays from almost four decades later, I detect some clues as to why in mid-1985 I decided to leave the lesbian-feminist community and relocate to Martha’s Vineyard (for a year, mind you: just a year): as a fat woman and as a feminist who took fat liberation seriously but disagreed with its emerging ideology, I was feeling a little estranged from my community. But at the time, biking to Alexandria in gym shorts was wonderfully liberating.


Technological aside: Living in the District and working in Alexandria posed a problem. My bank, Riggs, was in the city, and “bankers’ hours” were still the rule: banks were only open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Either ATMs (automatic teller machines) arrived in the nick of time (which is how I’ve remembered it all these years) or thanks to my new circumstances I realized how useful they could be (now that I’ve read up on the history of ATMs in the U.S., this seems more likely). I used them to deposit paychecks and obtain cash. What I don’t recall is what these ATMs required in the way of identification. Major credit cards were hard to get, and I didn’t have one.

However, in 1979, probably in the spring, my group household moved from the 1700 block of Kenyon NW to the 1700 block of Kilbourne. The move was complicated by the fact that only one of us had a credit card, it was maxed out, so we couldn’t rent a truck — and none of us had a car either. Thanks to the generosity of friends, we managed to move all our goods and furniture from one block to the next in a vehicle brigade that went on most of the day. That decided me: It was time to get myself a credit card.

In those days, major credit cards were not easy to get. Tempting offers did not arrive regularly in the mail. I followed the usual route: using my checking account and puny savings account as reference, I obtained the card offered by my bank. It’s plausible that ATM access was a more pressing motive to acquire a credit card than the knowledge that eventually I would move again and need to rent a truck. If plastic wasn’t required, how did one identify oneself to the cash-dispensing machine? I have no memory of what I actually did while standing at the ATM. If you were around at the time and remember how it actually worked, please drop a hint in the comments.

[1] In 2017 the original Blue Mist, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, made headlines when a team of historians managed to trace the car’s history. That story is told in “Historians Discover the Identity of Lawrence of Arabia’s Rolls-Royce.” Note that the dateline on this July 5, 2017, story is Alexandria, Va. Here’s the tale as wittily told, with photographs, by a descendant of one of the pre-war owners: “Blue Mist – How Lawrence of Arabia Nicked Granny’s Roller.” An earlier pre-war owner went down with the Titanic. After the end of the war, the car was sold to an Egyptian businessman. So far it’s been lost to history. In the summer of 2017, however, it was reported that a couple of Rolls/Lawrence fans in Vermont were building a replica of Blue Mist, with completion expected in 2018. I haven’t found any updates on that either, but if/when I do, I’ll update this blog post. A replica was used in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, but I don’t know how exact a copy it was. For sure it looked the part!

[2] The situation started to improve in the following decade and has improved plenty since then.


1979: I Become an Editor

My first full-time paid job with job title “editor” gave me a career path when I didn’t know what a career path was. I didn’t even know what an editor was. I did understand what editing was, but wasn’t it just something that writers did?

I landed in this job through a series of coincidences any one of which could have turned me in a different direction. The first was getting hired as a clerical at Red Cross national headquarters. The next was transferring into the Office of Personnel Training and Development.

I liked my colleagues in the training office, especially Betty O. and Thom, the work was interesting, but I had a strong hunch that I wouldn’t be there long. When an opening for Publications Editor appeared on the internal help-wanted list, Betty O. and, especially, Thom pushed me to apply. I did.

I aced the editing test and must have done OK in the interview, because I was offered the job. After I started, I was told by one of my new colleagues, somewhat breathlessly, that on the test I had “scored higher than a Harvard Ph.D.” Even then I knew better than to be impressed by this.

I also learned that my soon-to-be supervisors had had to go to bat for me, because the Personnel Office tried to block my promotion. I was jumping from grade 23, in the clerical ranks, to grade 28, which was considered professional: this apparently was not done. The staffing specialist in charge of professional positions demanded that I produce evidence that I had graduated from college, a requirement for grades 28 and up. I took the wind out of her sails by showing up with my diploma, which certified me a 1974 graduate in history of the University of Pennsylvania, magna cum laude.

Thom made me that orange EDITOR shirt to celebrate. He also gave me WHEN IN DOUBT TURN LEFT, which was something I said fairly often, having figured it out while hiking and hitchhiking around Great Britain and Ireland in 1975. Neither one of them has gone out of date.

The publications office, known as Publication Services, was located on the fringe of Alexandria’s Old Town, in the Red Cross’s Eastern Field Office building (which I was told had once been a brewery). In its big, high-ceilinged room, the editors had cubicles down one side and production was on the other. The director and deputy director had offices in opposite corners at one end; the art department was down the hall. I soon presstyped myself a sign for my cubicle: “Cubicle 4, OOPS: Making the Semiliterate Printable.” OOPS stood for Office of Publications Services, which wasn’t quite the official name but close enough.

The best thing about Cubicle 4 was that next door was Sylvia Abrams, editor extraordinaire. She had been an editor in New York before her second marriage brought her to D.C. I am not kidding when I say that working under her wing for two years made it possible for me to earn a living as a reasonably competent editor for 40 years and counting. She introduced me to the University of Chicago Press’s A Manual of Style, 12th edition, which shortly changed its name to what everyone called it anyway: the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s currently up to edition 17, and I’m still using it regularly and still complaining about the lousy index, though I do admit that it’s improved over the years.

Me in Cubicle 4, ca. 1980

Sylvia answered my questions. She looked my work over and made comments whenever I asked her to. She showed me interesting challenges from her own work. She passed on editorial nuggets from her extensive experience. I’m probably part of the last generation to learn editing the old way, by apprenticeship to a master, and till the day I die I’ll be grateful I had the opportunity to work alongside her.

The job was ideal for a fledgling editor in other ways as well. The stuff we edited ranged from bureaucratic forms that required minimal changes to brochures, training manuals, and textbooks for Red Cross courses. In general the authors were not professional writers. In some cases the task of producing a document fell to whoever hadn’t said “Not me!” fast enough. Each edited ms. had to be cleared face-to-face with the writer. This required tact as well as expertise; often it was the less experienced and least willing writers who were the most touchy.

In my more than two decades of freelancing mostly for publishers, I usually don’t have any direct contact with the authors whose manuscripts I work on. Nevertheless, I mentally explain my more substantive edits to those invisible authors and write my queries as if I were speaking them aloud. It’s a great habit for an editor to get into, and for me it started in the Red Cross publications office.

I must confess, though, that like many novice editors, I did suffer from “piss on fire hydrant syndrome”: making changes that didn’t need to be made mainly to prove that I was well versed in editorial esoterica. For several years after I learned the which/that distinction (that for restrictive clauses, which for nonrestrictive), I was a menace with a red pencil.

I was the office wiseass. On one wall of my cubicle I taped the before and after versions of especially challenging sentences. Some repeat writers scanned the wall to see if any of their prose had earned a place on it. Editors and artists all submitted biweekly reports of all the jobs we were in charge of. All that was required was each job’s title and status, and that was all that most of my colleagues delivered. Not me, however. I’ve still got copies of several of mine, and it’s a wonder I got away with that much wiseassery.

But I did. When I left the Publications Office after two years, my performance review was stellar. Wrote my immediate supervisor:

“Projects edited by Susanna Sturgis were frequently highly praised by both the sponsoring offices and Publications Services. She was successfully responsible for projects that involved extensive rewriting to minimize jargon and vagueness. Her sensitivity to logic was valuable.

“Miss Sturgis worked efficiently under time pressure and demonstrated ability to organize and carry out a variety of projects simultaneously.”

Was I really that good? I hope so.

Though I loved the work and my colleagues, I liked less and less what I saw of the way big bureaucracies — or at least this big bureaucracy — operated. The epitome of this was Frank, the deputy director of Publications. Frank was built like the Little King in the old comic strip, only taller. To call him incompetent is too polite. He’d been at National Headquarters for over 15 years, and it seems his spots hadn’t changed in the least. Rather than fire him or get him to shape up, one office would pass him on to the next via lateral transfer or promotion, always with a glowing performance review. At some point the glowing reviews made it impossible to fire him; he was gay, D.C. had a Human Rights Act, and he would have had a strong case for a discrimination suit if anyone had told the truth: he could have pointed to those reviews as evidence that the firing was not for cause.

None of us were sure what he did all day. He would occasionally call one of the editors from his corner office and ask us to look up a word: we had Webster’s Second International (Sylvia’s prized copy) on a lectern at one end of our little corridor and Webster’s Third at the other. Frank, like all the rest of us, had a standard-size dictionary in his office. He quickly learned not to call me, because I’d say I was busy and suggest he look it up himself.

Monday mornings he’d often come round to each cubicle and tell each of us in turn what he eaten at his several-course Sunday dinner. Of course the less reverent among us made fun of him behind his back, but after a while I got fed up. I went round to all my colleagues, asked what they’d had for supper the day before, typed it up, put it in a frame, and left it on Frank’s desk. Thus ended the Sunday-dinner recitations.

After trying unsuccessfully to get higher-ups to take the Frank problem seriously, I gave notice in the spring of 1981. I left the Red Cross a month or so before my 30th birthday, thinking I was going to take a little time off to write before finding another job. That’s not the way it worked out.

Still an editor after all these years, ca. 2014

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1978: ERA March and the Red Cross Training Office

From the back of the T-shirt

The July 9, 1978, march to extend the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was the “largest march for women’s rights in the nation’s history” up to that time. Organizers, led by NOW (the National Organization for Women), were overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large turnout, and the march stepped off an hour and a half late. On short notice, owing to the huge crowd, the police had to close off all of Constitution Avenue, instead of just the anticipated half.

Of course I went. Everyone I knew went. For those of us in the D.C. area, rallies and demonstrations were easy to get to, and get to them we did. We’d often have out-of-towners crashing on our couches and floors. It wasn’t till the Second National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 11, 1987, two years after I’d moved to Martha’s Vineyard, that I actually had to travel to a demo. (Yes, I have the T-shirt, and don’t worry, we’ll get to it eventually.) Massive demonstrations were old hat to me. I had to be reminded how life-changing they could be for first-timers — as indeed the November 1969 March on Washington to End the War had been for me.

The front of the shirt. Is that top stripe violet or purple?

The colors of the women’s suffrage movement, gold, white, and violet (the initial letters of which, I’ve been told, signified “Give Women the Vote”), were much in evidence, on signs and banners as well as the T-shirt. Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party and a key organizer in the early 20th century suffrage movement, had died exactly one year before, on July 9, 1977. By bringing the militant tactics of the British suffrage movement to the U.S. she had helped revitalize and expand a flagging movement.

The British movement’s colo(u)rs were, by the way, purple, white, and green. For more about the suffragist colors, see this article. It doesn’t mention the “Give Women the Vote” connection, which may have well have been invented post facto by someone who preferred violet to purple.

After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, Alice Paul’s focus turned to securing legal equality for women through the ERA, which she drafted with Crystal Eastman (who was, among other things, a co-founder both of the Congressional Union, forerunner of the National Woman’s Party, and of the ACLU) and first introduced in Congress in 1923. It was widely known then as the Lucretia Mott Amendment, after the pioneering abolitionist and suffragist leader. The original ERA was rewritten in 1943 and has since been widely known as the Alice Paul Amendment. The text: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

It’s so unassuming, so self-evident and logical, that it’s hard to credit how revolutionary it remains. Forty-two years after that march, the ERA still hasn’t passed. For a brief history of the ERA, and where it stands now, here’s some background and some FAQs.


I didn’t get this T-shirt at the march, however. It was given to me by my boss at the time, Betty O., director of the Office of Personnel Training and Development (OPTD, aka “the training office”) at Red Cross national headquarters. That’s part of the story too.

As a job-hunting fledgling clerical, I’d been terrified by my glimpse of the typing pool at a big Boston insurance company. Oddly enough, my first permanent assignment at the Red Cross was in the Insurance Office. Here nine employees were crammed into a drab office, most of whose floor space was devoted to file cabinets. At one end the clerks spent most of the day following up on and filing insurance claims of all sorts: worker’s comp, unemployment, motor vehicle, medical, and so on. The other end was occupied by the three professional staff and the two secretaries, the junior of whom was me. I worked for the assistant director, a nice guy who wasn’t all that bright, and the insurance specialist, a woman who was very bright and not nice at all, quite possibly because her two superiors were nowhere near as competent as she was.

The big challenge of this job was boredom. I generally finished my typing and filing in barely half the time allotted, which gave me plenty of time to do Women’s Center work. Like most bright kids, in school I’d developed a facility for what wasn’t yet called multi-tasking: I could do math homework in English class and still have the right answer when the English teacher called on me unexpectedly. Gradually this skill carried over into my non-work life, and not in a good way, like I’d be drafting a book review in my head while in a Women’s Center collective meeting and devoting full attention to neither one.

Gossip among Red Cross clericals had it that the Office of Personnel Training and Development was a good place to work, so when an opening for staff assistant (a clerical position one step up from secretary) appeared on the internal help wanted list, I applied and was hired. I had only a vague idea of what they did there, but this was a good move. Elizabeth Olson, known to all as Betty O., the training director, was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. Born in 1914, she’d joined the Red Cross in 1943 and risen through the ranks, a woman who remained committed to her work and her career even as the postwar tide was herding women of her class and color into the home.

The training office developed and implemented internal training courses for a nationwide organization with four regional offices and myriad chapters, some large and others very small. These ranged from time management to effective supervision to training staffers to teach the various courses. It turned out to be interesting stuff. I had a long-running argument with one of the two assistant directors about the term “human resources,” which was replacing “personnel” in the business world at that time.[1] He embraced it; I hated it, maintaining that it reduced people to the status of widgets.

The training office staff, 1978–79. From left: Betty O., me, Thom, Carolyn Moran (who retired while I worked there), Nancy Addcox, and Priscilla whose last name I forget because she got married and changed it.

We were a small staff: director, two assistant directors, two staff assistants, and one secretary. At this time, many educated women were concealing their ability to type in the belief, often well founded, that if they let superiors and colleagues know they could type, they would wind up doing nothing else. Betty O. could type, but she didn’t conceal that fact because she realized that if she did some of her own clerical work, the clerical staff would be free to take on more non-clerical tasks and contribute to the mission of the office. And we did.

Thom Higgins quickly became my best Red Cross buddy. He was the senior staff assistant, a Vietnam vet a few years older than I. We quickly established that he was gay and I was a lesbian. Personal experience was already teaching me that gay men and lesbians were not natural allies: many of the gay men I ran into were unwilling to consider the possibility that they were sexist as hell, which they were. Thom wasn’t, something he attributed to the fact that he had six sisters and no brothers.

We became the core of a free-floating group that met at the rooftop lounge of the Hotel Washington[2] most Fridays after work to “process the week.” The group included Bruce Bant, an ex of Thom’s with whom he was still close friends, and Charles H., Thom’s current, who was an aide of some sort to some Republican congressman and who could have stepped out of an ad in GQ. Bruce, like Thom, was a Vietnam vet — they’d met in Vietnam, if I remember correctly — but unlike Thom he was career military. He’d recently retired as a sergeant major, having edited Soldiers, the enlisted service members’ magazine, and was now involved in the beginnings of what became USA Today.

I was the radical lesbian anti-militarist feminist in the group. We razzed each other endlessly about politics and the military but were always friendly about it. Although we were in Washington, the belly of the political beast, politics seemed a long way off. One Friday afternoon Bruce produced a Soldiers T-shirt and said he’d give it to me only if I promised to wear it. I promised, and I did, more than once.

Ever since starting the T-Shirt Chronicles, my favorite procrastination research technique has been looking up people, places, and events that my story touches on in some way. Thom died of AIDS in 1988 — I’ve got a story about that, and he comes up again before I learn of his passing — but I had no idea whether Bruce was still on the planet or not. A quick Google search found a LinkedIn entry that had to be him. He was living in Florida. Should I contact him? He probably had no recollection of me, but he might be able to place me if I mentioned the Soldiers T-shirt, the rooftop lounge at the Hotel Washington, and Thom.

Just now I went looking again. His LinkedIn page is still up, as is a Facebook timeline with an entry from February 2020, but near the top of the Google hits was the news that Bruce died in Fort Lauderdale on September 27, 2020. Also among the top hits was a guest column from the March 21, 2010, South Florida Gay News, entitled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Has Been a Complete Failure.” The byline is Bruce Bant, Retired Army Sergeant Major. It’s him for absolute sure. I’m sorry I missed you, Bruce.


Notes

[1] The term itself dated back at least to the early 20th century, but it does seem that it was a hot topic in the 1970s. My tenure in the training office was 1978–79, so it seems plausible that it was a contested term at ARC NHQ at that time.

[2] Now, as far as I can tell, the W Washington, on 15th Street N.W. near Pennsylvania Ave.


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