I grew up knowing this: it's my body and no one has the right to say or do anything that makes me feel uncomfortable. My mother tried to build a protective wall around me by hammering in this message repeatedly.
By the time I was 14 and started waitressing, I'd heard it a zillion times: "It's your body and no one has a ...."
"Well duh, Ma," I'd interrupt. "It's my body. Like, whose else would it be?"
My first week waitressing, I got the warning. It's the same warning the congressional pages got about Representative Mark Foley, the same warning people all over the country give newcomers every day: "Look out for so-and-so. He's a creep."
I can't remember my first creep's name. I can't remember his name for the same reason that the warning is so ubiquitous: because no one does anything about sexual harassment. There have been so many creeps since my first creep that their names all blur together. So many leering co-workers, groping college custodians, obnoxious dates, and hinting bosses. It's hard to keep track.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. At the restaurant, I avoided... let's call him "Mark." He was the cook, so I had to be friendly. As long as I stayed away from the walk-in freezer in the basement, I was safe. I saw the other waitresses race up the stairs carrying bins of lettuce or tuna, swearing and grabbing napkins to wipe Mark's smelly kiss goo off.
They were older than me, and they put up with it. But I knew it was wrong. Like a 4-year-old acting out an imaginary battle with the bad guys, I decided that if Mark pinned and groped me, his ass would be out of a job and in court.
Be gentle: I was only 14 years old. What did I know?
So it happened. When I talk about it now, it's hard not to be cynical. I resort to arm's-length patter, something like this: "He followed me into the walk-in, delivered the typical false-friendly remark, made a creepy anatomical observation, and engaged in the obligatory groping and kissing." And that's what it was. At the time, however, I was terrified, and there was nothing arm's-length about it.
"Here darlin', let me give you a hand with that." Mark grabbed the big white bucket of chicken salad from off the shelf above me and swung it down to the floor. I froze. He pushed me against the shelves.
"Ooh, why you're all skin and bones. Well, not all bones, hmmm?"
I snapped out of it and shoved him away. I found the boss upstairs.
"What were you doing getting chicken salad?" he barked when he'd heard my story. "Next time, send a busboy."
I summoned my courage and said something about sexual harassment being illegal.
"Mark has been with us for a long time," the boss said. His eyes transmitted a dual message. A) In contrast, I'd only been there one summer, and B) I had lied about my age to get the job, and he knew it.
"Watch your step," he seemed to be saying, "or you'll be out of a job."
Representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) says about Speaker Hastert's handling of the Foley scandal that at least nobody died. Though he's taking a desperate, election-year swing at the Dems by way of Chappaquiddick, this comment echoes many employers' pervasive callous disregard for sexual harassment. At the risk of sounding maudlin, although I didn't die either, maybe a part of me did.
I didn't quit the job. I never told my parents or got a lawyer or anything like that. Instead, I turned my powerlessness into bitter resignation, bitching about Mark and my stupid boss during breaks with the other waitresses, all of us blowing smoke rings and jingling our tips.
In my late teens, sick of kissing ass, I got a job as a short-order cook at a huge International House of Pancakes. Thirteen waitresses. Eight cooks. All of them male except me. The checks came in by the handful, and we sweated and cursed trying to keep up with orders for pan sands, silly 5s, Mile Highs, and 9-on-3s. The best part? Bossing around the waitresses.
"Baby, I'm thirsty," I'd say. "Not a freakin' glass! A tray! Half waters, half Cokes." The waitresses rushed to fill a dishwasher rack with 10 glasses of water and 10 of soda. We cooks gulped them down and yelled for more.
The power alone was exhilarating. If I'd been attracted to women, I like to think I wouldn't have been all creepy and groping. But who knows? A big power imbalance like that shot through with sexual tension must be a rush.
As it was, I was too busy defending myself from the constant pantsing, a restaurant kitchen ritual saved for the rare female cook. Every day I wore two or three pairs of white cook pants tied so tight they dug red dents in my skin.
By the time I met fat Charlie the cook, I knew the deal. Eighteen and supporting myself by waitressing at a fancy hotel, I knew there is no protective wall between pervs with power and the rest of us.
"Give Charlie a hug," he'd say, gumming a damp cigarette. I did, but found a way to keep my pride.
"You're a disgusting pig," I'd say. "The only reason I'm anywhere near your stink is I need my order now!"