About a month ago, there was a disturbing occurrence at my workplace, a casual Italian restaurant that offers dine in, carry out, and delivery. One of my co-workers, Kaylee*, came into work visibly upset. I beckoned her up to the bar I was working behind and asked if she was all right.
“Me and my girlfriend broke up,” she said.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who heard.
Sitting at the bar was the brother of the restaurant’s owner; we’ll call him Brian for the story’s sake. And what I want you to do is envision the most overgrown frat bro that you can — no, I’m serious, every stereotype. Hulking, ambiguously around 6’2” with massive shoulders, a slight beer belly, an unnatural tan, a buzz cut, distressed bootleg jeans, a Cubs jersey, and a relationship with alcohol that walks the line between hobby and dependency. That’s Brian.
Before I could even respond to Kaylee, he did. And his first response wasn’t sympathy, comfort, or concern. His first response was, “I think it’s time to go back to men.” He even winked.
For a split nanosecond, time froze around me. I made eye contact with Kaylee and I knew in that instant we were both horrified.
“I’d rather fucking die,” she whispered.
Then the phone rang and my reflexes overrode conscious thought, spinning me to answer it, letting the nettle slip to the back burner of my mind. Later on in the evening, though, Kaylee came back to the front and asked if she could talk to me privately.
In the back, she proceeded to detail two more accounts of completely inappropriate remarks made to her by male co-workers. One delivery driver asked her if breaking up with her girlfriend meant that it was his turn with her. The dishwasher asked her how could she even be gay! and implied that she just hadn’t been fucked right by a guy yet.
Our restaurant is located in a super GLBTQIA+ neighborhood, very progressive, forward thinking, predominantly liberal. Kaylee is not the only queer server at the restaurant, but she is the only open lesbian.
This is what I know for a fact: if any of my gay male co-workers had come in with the same story, nobody would have harassed them. Nobody would have been like, “I think it’s time you get some pussy, son.” The rude, invasive, sexual remarks were solely because Kaylee is a woman.
I could pen a thousand words to describe my rage at the time, and probably none would convey the physically hot anger that overcame me, so I won’t bother trying. Suffice to say: I was fucking pissed. And I thought that I was going to do something about it. I thought I was going to turn around and go give everyone a piece of my god damn mind. I thought I was going to stick up for this younger girl and have her back.
But being able to identify problematic behaviors unfortunately doesn’t give you a spine. Multiple cultural and psychology classes on women, gender, and sexism never imparted actual guidelines on how to act.
I stormed back to the front of house and my wrath shed from me in the face of Brian, now joined by two other overgrown frat bros of equal height and girth. I issued a meager, “Y’all need to stop making comments to Kaylee.” That’s it. That’s all I got out. And nobody even paid attention to me!
I was so disappointed in myself that night. I had a social responsibility right there, and I fucking choked.
Instead, I texted my manager, Melanie. Melanie is who I want to be: a feminist who will act. I texted her the whole story, and the only thing I got back in response was, “i’m going to tear each one of them a new hole this wk.”
To my knowledge, Melanie totally followed through, taking each offender aside individually and privately to let them know they fucked up. The next shift I shared with her, she took me aside, too.
“Look,” she said. “You guys have to start sticking up for yourselves.” I immediately felt an embarrassed blush creep up on my face. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. “Everybody thinks I’m this big bitch,” she said, “but I’m not. I used to be like you, super quiet and shy. But you just have to get over it, because I’m not always going to be here, and you can’t let them walk all over you.”
I nodded silently.
“You shouldn’t let anyone walk all over you,” she repeated, staring at me with an intensity that I think could probably be bottled and used as alternative energy. I could only agree. She was right. I’d been using her ability to be forward as a crutch for myself and I needed to do better.
It’s something that’s easy to say, but sometimes much harder to do. It’s legitimately hard to divorce yourself from ingrained behaviors, from cultural conditioning, no matter how aware of it all you are. But Melanie’s reality check left an impression.
Last Sunday, the evening of the Academy Awards, I was working the front of house again. A couple hours of high-octane activity was dwindling down and one of our delivery drivers, Mike, was leaning against the bar.
“Wish I could be home watching the Oscars,” he said, and I made a vague noise of agreement. “Wish I could be watching Jennifer Lawrence,” he continued, and before I could hightail it out of there, “undress her with my eyes.”
Mike is mid-50s, a father of two girls closer to Jennifer Lawrence’s age than he is, newly divorced, and drives a mini-van. It was not at all what I expected to hear out of his mouth, because his title as a soccer dad had made him safe in my mind. I don’t know why I do this, I don’t know why I deem certain men safe, because I pretty much just get disappointed every time. Like now.
Behind me, I heard Melanie give a derisive snort, and I snapped into action. I pivoted, literally pointed right at Mike, and said, “No!” I was in the middle of taking a delivery order from GrubHub, so I hopped onto a P.O.S. terminal and started tapping away at the screen in the silence that ensued.
After a beat, Mike said, “No? Is that, what, is that not okay?”
“No,” I said again, not taking my eyes off the screen. “It’s not okay.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Mike said.
“I’ll forgive you one time,” I said.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he repeated. “She’s a very pretty woman.”
“She is,” I said. “That’s an appropriate comment.”
“But not the other part,” he said, double-checking. God, it was seriously like teaching a little kid.
“Not the other part,” I agreed. “That’s inappropriate.” I finished the delivery order and finally looked over to make eye-contact with Mike. He did some nod-shrug hybrid and walked away, hopefully properly chastised.
About ten minutes later, after navigating another onslaught of activity, Melanie ushered me aside. “Good job on calling Mike out earlier,” she said, holding her hand up for a high-five. “I’m super proud of you.” I didn’t even know what to say besides a sincere, “Thanks!” I was proud of me too. Starting little is better than never starting at all.
It shouldn’t be my job to educate these guys, especially guys so much older than me, but unfortunately safe space is hard to come by in the real world, especially where you’re not guaranteed to have someone savvy and forward to defend you like Melanie does us. So I guess if my options are either to passively allow men to make me feel uncomfortable at every turn or to call shit out, I’m going to start calling shit out.
Not even just for myself, but so that someday I can be a Melanie to someone else.
* All names have been changed for privacy.
Lo is currently recovering from completing undergrad in the frozen hellscape that is Chicago — ergo mostly equal parts sleepy and hungry at all times. She loves to talk, though, so holla @ badshoe.tumblr.com
Image courtesy of Stephan Geyer,