This post is in response that is meant to build on my friend and former coworker’s post, found here
I apologize for whatever spelling/grammar errors there are. I’m by no stretch as eloquent with words as my former co-worker :p
For approximately nine months, from August 2012 to May 2013, I worked at a well-known and well-praised establishment in Hadley, Massachusetts. When engaging in small talk with new acquaintances, the conversations tended to take the same route. They would casually ask,
“So where did you go to school?”
“Oh, that’s nice, and what did you study?”
“And where do you work?”
I would reluctantly utter: “The Route 9 Diner”
“Oh my gosh I love that place!”
This is where the lump in my throat and the sinking feeling would begin.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, haha” I passively hinted.
“What do you mean?”
Then the decision. I could easily and willingly go off on a rant about this establishment, but I would brush it off because let’s face it, people don’t always want the black curtain pulled back on something they enjoy. They don’t want to hear about what happens behind those swinging kitchen doors. About the unrelenting, disheartening, and perpetual sexual harassment.
It was my first waitressing job ever. I was grateful to have a chance to explore this new area of employment because up until this point, I had only ever worked in retail. I was blissfully unaware of the misogynistic environment that laid ahead.
I began working overnights, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. This is standard procedure for most all new hires. I continued finishing my last semester at UMass, while working 10-6 Fridays and/or Saturdays with a few dinner shifts sprinkled in throughout the week. I noticed almost immediately the differences and similarities between the environments of retail and restaurants, the most notable being the air of ambivalence.
I cannot recall the first instance of harassment I experienced, nor the last. There have honestly been so many they have become lumped together, some forgotten, but here I’ll attempt to highlight chronologically the ones that stick out.
It began almost as instantly as I opened those kitchen doors. I would walk in to be greeted by fellow waitresses, waiters, and kitchen staff. As immediately as the door closed, the coos and comments started, going something like this:
“Hola mami. You look so good today.”
“You have a boyfriend sweetie?”
“Ohhh yessssss. I can be your boyfriend princess. Treat you real nice.”
“I’m good thanks.”
I would disgruntledly reply as I smugly smiled and continued on with my side-work.
Sometimes it would end there. Sometimes another waitress would walk in and become the target, taking the focus off of me. Sometimes an order would be rung in. Sometimes it continued.
I would avert my eyes, as to not “encourage them” and instead dart my gaze trying desperately to lock in with another waitress as if to say, “is this a joke?” only to be met with, “Yeah they’re gross, you get used to it.”
And I did.
I continued to learn the dynamics of this place, and to some extend restaurants in general. I could go on and on about the issues I may have personally had with the establishment itself, about the owners, the managers, the staff, but alas, this is not a story of opinions. This is a tale of facts.
One instance, very recently after I started, stands out. I was in the kitchen by the salad bar. I then needed something over through the narrow pathway between the cooks’ station and the dishwashing area. As I began to make my way over to the walk-in cooler, I was met by the head cook Coco. I was unable to continue to make my way to retrieve whatever it was.
“Come here mami, I wanna talk to you.”
I stood at an arm’s length away, uncomfortably shuffling my feet.
“I want to take you to a movie. Lemme take you to a movie, mami.” I was told as the distance between us grew smaller.
“I’m all set,” I answered.
He then aggressively inched closer and proceeded to put his arm around my neck and say,
“Well just give me a hug, beautiful. You’re breaking my heart.”
This is where I’m ashamed. It pains me to write this, to acknowledge my weakness in this moment. However, with the environment I was around, the other girls I talked to, the jokes exchanged between managers, owners, and cooks, made me question my right to feel uncomfortable. I was repeatedly being told, “They’re annoying but just get over it.”
“It’s worse if you fight it.”
“It’s not that bad, it’s not like they can ever really rape you.”
Or, my personal favorite: “It’s a compliment.”
So I did it. I hugged him. And in doing so apparently gave an invitation to lay a wet, warm, disgusting kiss on my neck. I immediately pushed him away, appalled. In that moment, right then and there, should have been the end of my story. I should have ripped off my apron, thrown it on the ground, and walked out, never to be seen again. I should have screamed. I should have yelled. I should have punched him right in the face. If I was asked before I started what I would have done in that instance, I would have said just that. But there it was, the moment, and I froze.
He then acted as if I had done something wrong “Oh sorr-ree, what you don’t like me?” He insincerely mocked. I continued my walk to the cooler, where I retrieved whatever that things was, and I wept.
Typing the words “I wept,” acknowledging that I cried out of disgust, frustration, anger, defeat, and violation, immediately discredits me to the superiors of that restaurant. The owners knew fully well what was going on, and the only semblance of caring they did was in attempt to subdue any potential lawsuits. It consisted of half-assed, disgruntled, temporary form of actions. They constantly made fun of the girls that expressed discomfort for being emotional and weak. I told a fellow waitress what had happened, hoping she would be as appalled and together we would throw down our aprons. Instead I was told, “Yeah he’s disgusting, just ignore it”
I felt so alone. This moment was discarded and I was expected to forget about it. Well, I haven’t.
I grew increasingly frustrated. I can confidently and honestly say that my moment in the walk-in after my FIRST hard experience was the only time I cried. I grew resentful and angry. At the time of my employment, there were two owners, and three managers. All men. There was a head waitress, however she worked only morning shifts and was never seen by any of the dinner or overnight staff. So essentially, all the new people.
There was only one manager that seemed to be in the same position I was: the position of hypocrisy. Everyone can say he was the only one who genuinely cared how uncomfortable the kitchen staff was making the girls. By far he was the crowd favorite. He was the only higher authority who would listen, show emotion, and profusely apologize. But he has his own issues.
Does he bring up these stories he’s heard, only to be brushed off and mocked by his superiors?
Does he make it known how upset these girls get, and face the wrath of the cooks himself?
They outnumbered him by far. As did the perpetuating other two managers and two owners. Needless to say, we bonded over these feelings of being stuck, being disappointed in ourselves, wrestling with the choice between a decent paycheck and a future reference, and doing what is right. And from these conversations, a romance grew.
With my budding romance, I was curious to see the turn the harassment would take towards me. It started consisting of more passive comments directed towards my relationship status.
“Oh you look gorgeous today, he so lucky.”
“I wish I was him, damn mami.”
With my newfound confidence that comes with the validation of bonding so deeply with someone, I began to become less and less tolerant of these remarks. The comments about my juicy ass, my apple-esque cheekbones, or my tasty ta-tas were all then followed with “Oh sorry, sorry, you have boy now.” My time there evolved.
The ultimate instance of my personal harassment came with time. The cooks proceeded to make comments and remarks about my body and my relationship status. If there’s one thing the owners made clear, it was that all waitresses were expendable. And to an extent they’re completely right. It’s much easier in Amherst to find a naive 19 year old willing to work under disgusting circumstances than it is to find a replacement for a cook who knows the ins and outs of the menu and is willing to work in a gruelingly hot environment for $6-10/hour, for 10-18 hours a day, six days a week. With this taste of expendability in my mouth, I continued about my time there. I began rolling my eyes at their comments. I began sticking out my tongue while making gagging expressions to emphasize how repulsive I found their passes. And with that, I opened up a new door:
“Lemme see ya tongue mami”
It began the way it all did: comments here and there, off-handedly uttering, “I love ya tongue.” Then it escalated. They began holding my tables’ food from me. They would keep the plates just out of my reach until I “showed them my tongue.” When I refused, they would eventually tire, but I myself must admit, when I was obscenely busy or defeated, hearing the roar of drunken college kids entering through the doors, I would show them my tongue so I could receive my food, deliver it to my table, and take the next drink order. This is where I began to break.
I grew so tired of this environment and of being faced with my own hypocrisy.
I tried to “be strong” and not let them get to me. I tried to brush it off so as to not be labeled as another dramatic waitress. I was being told that I’m not in any real danger, they’d never have the opportunity to really do anything.
I began looking for another job. In the time during that process I had, what many, many other waitresses have had: an experience in the walk-in.
The times Coco and others followed me into the walk-in, blocking the door until I showed them my tongue, were so numerous that I doubt I could have kept track if I tried. Needless to say, I didn’t try to keep track because that would be giving it attention, when in all honesty I just wanted it to go away. And besides, I knew I wouldn’t be heard.
But then it happened. One overnight, I was cornered yet again, in the walk-in by a cook. Not Coco, but Chava. He also went with the classic “block the door” technique until I showed him my tongue. I refused, trying to push my way passed him. That’s when he laid his hands on me. I felt two small, cold hands place themselves on each one of my shoulders. I felt myself being pushed back into the far corner of the walk-in. And again, I experienced that moment of Coco kissing my neck. I froze. His hands on my shoulders, him walking towards me, pushing deeper and deeper into the corner, all while uttering those god forsaken words,
“Lemme see ya tongue mami.”
I whisked away, pushing myself aggressively past him, and hurried out of the walk-in, back to the refuge of the cameras. I told the manager on duty, my boyfriend, what had happened. He came into the kitchen to scold the cook, aware that his actions could damage any further working relationship. He firmly told them to leave me alone, which they then did for the rest of my shift, despite muttering things under their breath. I finished my shift in silence.
I retold the story to my then-roommate, another manager, over dinner. He and I used to exchange joking comments about those words “lemme see ya tongue.” I figured if I joked with him about it, I was taking back the power in my mind, making light of the phrase that caused me unrest. When I told him about the walk-in he expressed concern and empathy, then proceeded to say that it was my boyfriend’s job to do something. He said that if it were him, and I were his girlfriend, he would have punched the cook. However, this statement contradicted his continued comradery with the cooks.
Later that week I found out my story had made its way to the owners. My boyfriend was questioned about the event, my roommate was questioned, and the cooks were questioned. I was never once spoken to.
The only action taken was that the cooks had a “talking-to about touching the girls” and for a week or so, they remained silent behind the line. Now that sounds blissful in comparison to the daily harassment, but it went farther than that. They took the “don’t talk to the girls” to the level that a toddler would. They refused to acknowledge my existence. When I attempted to get their attention regarding an order for my tables, they would tell me, “No I don’t wanna talk to you and get in trouble.”
They would purposefully fuck up my food, so that my tables would become disgruntled with their wait-time and my tips would suffer. They then began documenting my mistakes as a waitress in order to attempt to get me fired. When the owners found out about this bag containing a collection of my table tickets they simply told the cooks to throw it away. They knew fully well the cooks were being childish and making my life difficult because I told on them. They did nothing. I was then reminded why I endured what I did. Your job is much easier when they like you. To get them to like you there are certain things you let slide. When you let things slide, you get cornered in the walk-in.
This could be twisted and turned to say that I was being paranoid about them trying to get me fired, but I’m not the only one. Others noticed these consequences, and endured similar ones. Especially my boyfriend. They ignored him, uttered comments under their breath, and rolled their eyes at his requests. I would do my work in the kitchen in silence while they made animal noises passive-aggressively at me and called me a rat and a pussy. Some would even hum or whistle the theme of The Pink Panther while I was in the kitchen, to emphasize that I was a pussy. I was the only one that got to hear that lovely tune, but by far not the only one that had to deal with the consequences of trying to stand up for what was right.
The extent the owners went to when confronted with these tales was to eventually put a guard over the light switch to the walk-in so that the cooks at least couldn’t turn the lights off on the girls when they cornered them. The cooks were never fired. The cook who personally cornered me apparently, after my departure, was “fired” because it was rumored he was drinking on the job, perhaps leading to those hands on my shoulders. He was hired back only a short time later.
Again, I was never once spoken to by the owners. They asked my boyfriend for my side of the story, not me. They told him it was a “he said/she said” scenario and I could be lying and exaggerating. There may be two sides to every story, but that doesn’t always mean both sides are equally right.
Towards the end of my employment there, another waitress was promoted to the position of Head Waitress. One of her first acts was documenting the stories the girls had about their experiences with harassment. She was more than familiar with my plight and the consequences of taking action, because she has worked there for approximately seven years, toggling with either being harassed or debarred. She asked me if I would be comfortable telling my story. I was thrilled. I was so proud of her and the initiative she was taking. I was a bit disgusted it seemed only those who endured these ordeals took them seriously, but I was happy nonetheless. I had hopes of sitting in that office with the owners, and painting the picture of the environment that they have created, perpetuated, and dismissed. Nothing came of her request.
I then quit the diner a defeated human. I went on to work at another restaurant right down the road, and experience similar harassment, not as much from the staff, as the customers. I have since moved out of town, and have attempted to put this chapter behind me.
I have continually wrestled with my decision of silence, validating it with, “they’re still stuck there and I’m not,” as well as the thought that has been ringing in my ears as I write this; “there are still some coworkers there that I really like and truly miss. I wouldn’t want to say something to jeopardize their jobs.” But then I think of the next staff member. I think of the 21 year old similar to myself that may start there next month, next week, or tomorrow. I think of how s/he may be confronted with the hypocrisy I and so many other faced. About how s/he may have the same events play out, eventually leading to a corner in that very same walk-in. So I write.
My amazing former coworkers (some of which I didn’t work with or even know until this all started) that have decided to share their stories: