By Arlene Mandell


I was living in a tiny room in a boarding house in New Jersey during the divorce process from my off-the-wall, self-destructive husband of 22 years. In Florida, my father had just passed away; my mother was depressed, in dire financial straits, and overwhelmed. I had no sisters, brothers, or family; there was no one to turn to but myself to survive these colliding situations. First step: find a job.

“Proofreader Wanted” appeared in my small town community newspaper. Bingo! I went for an interview the next day. The manager was adamant, he wanted someone with experience. I had none as a proofreader but justified my other qualifications: college-educated, excellent speller, had taught several years in the New York City public school system (not revealing it was kindergarten).

He then held up the previous week’s newspaper in front of my face. An ad for a sale on men’s clothing read: “TWO SHIRTS, TEN DOLLARS,” only the “r” was missing from “shirts.” I stifled a laugh. He said he was losing thousands of dollars in advertising revenue because of typos like that and MUST have someone with skill in the field. He walked me to the door, thanked me and said goodbye.

However, I didn’t leave but instead wandered through the honeycombed building, peeking into printing rooms, chatting with employees, and, unintentionally, bumping into the manager. He asked why I was still there. I told him I was curious about the company, then said goodbye, once again, and went home. An hour later the manager called, offering me the job. It was to begin the following Monday; I’d be proofing advertisements only, no copy. Perfect opportunity for a beginner!

The first week went smoothly. The rhythmic sound of presses rolling, the frenzy to meet deadlines, working with a team; I loved it and was delighted when staff referred to me as “the proofie.” Weeks later, the manager strode into my room and heartily shook my hand. He was ecstatic; there had been no typos and the refunds had stopped cold. I was “in.”

Months passed happily in my new-found profession, when to my dismay a larger newspaper bought us out and let everyone go. I quickly found another job at Macmillan Publishing reading tax and legal forms. Every “i” HAD to be dotted; every “t” HAD to be crossed. There were twelve of us in the proofroom seated in vertical rows of four. Each form was read and re-read by everyone in the row, then packaged up and taken to the editors’ room for a final reading by them. If a typo had gotten by, we were excoriated mercilessly.

The exacting nature of this job was tempered by “Mitzi,” a provocatively dressed, middle-aged woman in the last seat of my row. Mitzi switched into aggressive flirt mode whenever the strapping young maintenance man clattered into the room with his tall ladder to repair the multitude of fluorescent lights covering the ceiling. He just couldn’t seem to fix them properly, which called for frequent return trips; the comic relief was a welcome interlude for all of us!

As soon as I saved up enough money, I relocated to Miami to move in with my mom. I told her we would now take care of and look out for each other; a timely decision, as she was aging and in poor health. Once settled, I quickly applied to a large newspaper needing a temporary substitute for their lone proofreader on sick leave. The interviewer was impressed to see “Macmillan” on my resume and hired me on the spot; I was relieved he didn’t ask for details.

This was now the “real deal,” proofreading copy as well as advertisements. I soon discovered and became increasingly alarmed at how much I did NOT know. I summoned all my brainpower to catch the errors, while discreetly jotting down what I didn’t understand. Fortunately, I produced a typo-free weekly edition but worried about my serious lack of grammatical knowledge. Once the regular proofreader returned, they let me go.

All during that time, I was attending a weekly talk group to meet new people. One gal taught at the local high school. I asked if she could put me in touch with an English teacher for a tutorial. She did, and I arranged a visit ASAP to the teacher’s home. Arriving with my copious list, I was assured by her gracious welcome that I had come to the right place. We spent hours pouring over every point, after which she showed me the 502-page “Gregg Reference Manual” by William Sabin. I could tell this would become my proofreading bible, purchased the book, and went home with confidence tucked under my arm.

Over the next few months, I zealously digested the manual, then sent out resumes; I was ready. Fortuitously, a proofreading job on a travel magazine became available. I jumped at it! Over the next ten years, I also became their research editor, photographer, slide cataloguer and caption-writer. I traveled with publisher and staff throughout the beautiful Bahamas and Caribbean Islands. In addition, my photographs appeared in, and on the covers of, our growing array of colorful magazines.

It was also grueling work with long hours under intense pressure when “in production.” Missing a deadline meant losing a contract with the country whose tourism magazine we were printing. However, the rewards were immeasurable and the culmination of a long string of opportunities that had come my way. And, to think, it all started when a typo changed my life…