Every weekday, for six months, I reported to a windowless room in downtown Washington, D.C. It contained a conference table and chairs, file boxes, harsh fluorescent lighting and a dozen temporary law clerks just like me. For eight hours each day, we sat at that table reviewing thousands of documents in the file boxes that were stacked high around us.

We were paid only $9 per hour.

It was 1993, and my Navy husband and I were newlyweds. I’d resigned from my job as a litigation attorney in a Pittsburgh law firm, to become a Navy wife. In Pittsburgh, I had a cushy office, a secretary, my Pennsylvania law license on the wall, a decent salary and a clear path to success.

In D.C., I was unlicensed, unemployed and desperate for a job to pay my humongous student loan debts. After a month of searching, an agency called “Law Clerk Temporaries” finally placed me at MCI’s Legal Office with the other temporary law clerks. We were hired to review documents in preparation for a class action fraud case involving 1-900 “pay-per-call” numbers.

During the first few days, we all kept quiet while completing our task, but eventually we began to speak. By the end of the week, I’d formed mental bios of the key players in the room.

There was Tory, an older clerk with a superiority complex that had permission to leave early on Tuesdays to teach a first-year legal writing class at George Mason University Law School.

Corrine, a Columbia Law School graduate, who actually was superior, but remained sweet and pleasant. She’d eventually get snapped up by a good law firm, but I respected her for slogging away for $9 an hour rather than resting on her laurels.

Clayton, a geeky Catholic University Law School graduate with a dry sense of humor and red hair.

Wendy, an accounting major with a huge engagement ring and perfectly painted nails. She spoke often about her upcoming wedding to Joshua and her demanding future in-laws.

And finally, Marcus, a finance major with a flair for pocket squares, pinstripes and wing-tipped shoes. Marcus chattered all day, using big words in the wrong context and leaning dangerously back in his office chair.

I’d go home each night and tell my new husband Francis who said what in the windowless room each day. Francis was entertained, and I was grateful to at least have good stories to supplement my lousy pay.

Eventually, my initial amusement about my coworkers slowly turned to irritation, which was only natural considering the tedious monotony of our work and our tight proximity to each other. In fact, everyone became annoyed.

“I don’t care!” Tory yelled at Clayton one day, before storming out of the room, bellowing, “I’m going to my REAL job, losers!” Clayton grinned, pleased to have pressed Tory to her breaking point.

Corrine was never rattled, but Wendy was in tears one afternoon. “These people are driving me nuts, too,” I whispered to console her.

“Huh?” she responded. Apparently she was upset that the custom wedding yarmulkes her in-laws ordered didn’t match her color scheme.

My last straw came one day when Marcus was yapping away and lounging precariously in his chair with his wing-tips dangling above the floor. “Marcus, you’re full of it!” I finally snapped. Clayton smiled, fully enjoying the drama.

“You’re so hoydie paloydie!” Marcus retorted.

“Wait, did you just call me ‘hoydie paloydie’? I’ve heard of hoi polloi and hoity toity, but ‘hoydie paloydie’? Now that’s rich!” I barked, wishing Marcus’ chair would finally tip over. On the Metro ride home, I wondered, “Is this job some kind of secret social experiment? Are scientists waiting for us to crack? Is the windowless room nothing more than a human petri dish?”

Eventually, we PCSed to another state in which I didn’t have a license to practice law, but I found a better law clerk job, and forgot about my fellow guinea pigs in the windowless room. Strangely enough, I don’t regret taking that first job after marriage. The experience taught me my first military spouse lesson: In the face of less-than-ideal circumstances, there’s respect in just making do.

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