Me Too, I Guess?

I walked around my house yesterday with that question rambling through my head. Should I put up “Me Too?”   Do I “deserve” to say Me Too?  After all, my sexual harassment wasn’t “that bad.”  Was it?  I’ve never forgotten the sick feelings, hiding in the bathrooms, running the other way to avoid “him.”   Yet even after all of those memories yesterday, I almost didn’t post Me Too as my status. After all, I told myself, I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t “even” assaulted.  It’s been over 30 years and I found myself a little shocked and saddened by that the reel playing inside my head… “it wasn’t that bad.”  So I sat down this morning and replayed the tape. I have an excellent memory for events, which is sometimes a blessing and a curse. I closed my eyes and remembered.

It was 1985. I was a junior in college desperately looking for a new job. I was working at a fast food chain, wiping off tables, emptying garbage and scrubbing toilets.  And tending to the salad bar.  I despised those duties, and also couldn’t believe the person responsible for the salad bar was the same person cleaning the bathrooms.   A popular record store chain had a “hiring” sign in the window, so I applied.  I went to work for Tower Records. It seemed very strange that my naive and conservative self wanted to work there, but I didn’t care.  I had to leave the fast food world.

It only took me about two shifts to realize that one of my bosses wasn’t “normal.” I was put in charge of the children’s music section, I was a cashier and I started assisting in the classical music department. I really liked my job. I liked helping customers, running the cash register and “busting” an occasional shoplifeter. The job was outside of my comfort zone, but I liked it a lot.

And then it started.   His mockery, the casual comments and the not so casual. The vulgarity, the brazenness and the degradation .  He was the “head manager” of the store, and I quickly learned to avoid him at all costs. My first week on the job a few of the girls pulled me aside for the warning.   “You will just need to ignore him, try to stay away from him, and know it’s just the way he is.  He doesn’t mean anything by it, he can’t help it, he’s a pervert, and just get used to it.”  Eventually all of my female co-workers would tell me the same thing.   It was my first week on the job, and Michael introduced himself.  This included a handshake, a “hello” and a long look from the top of my head, down to my toes and back up again.  He settled on my chest.  “They’re a little small but that’s ok.” I thought to myself, “Ok, it’s that’s not that bad.”  The girls made it sound like it would be much worse.   I didn’t realize at the time but I was conditioning myself to hear and see offensive things, because I really needed this job. I needed the money and I simply couldn’t work in fast food any more.

So I started rolling with it. It started with the swearing. Not normal swearing, but vulgar swearing. Words I won’t type here. There were casual references to women on the covers of record jackets, there were posters with large breasts, butts and varying levels of nakedness hanging everywhere. The “break room” was our back stock room, and “escaping” for lunch was a no go. Michael was everywhere.

I had a system of escape and avoidance. Sometimes I would call the store in advance to find out if he was working, before I got dressed for the day. I made sure to never wear tank tops, always wear shorts that were long enough and never wear a dress if I knew he would be there.   Some days I didn’t care.  I would get angry that I had to dress a certain way to avoid his comments. I would wear what I wanted and on those days I endured him talking about my legs, breasts and butt. I kept telling myself, “it’s not that big of a deal”.  Sometimes he would call me into his office and shut the door behind me. He would ask how I liked working there.  He would compliment my outfit and my hair, and then he would say “You know, I know I am a dirty old man. I know I probably shouldn’t say the things I say, but I know that all of you ladies don’t really mind.  You know I don’t mean it. I think you are all beautiful and I think women’s beauty should be appreciated. If I tell you you have a “hot ass” or “I sure would like to rub up against those” (pointing to my breasts) you know I am just being me, right?”

I would sit there and squirm, and not know what to say because I would actually think, “if he’s trapping me in his office to “confess” his indiscretions it must mean it’s “OK?”   I was 22 years old and I felt disgusted every time I was in his prescence, but the conditioning made it feel like it was my fault. Why would I even bring it up because he’s obviously “just joking.”  I would ask if I could get back to work and he would say “sure, let me help you.”   His office was very small, and he would open the door to the inside, trapping me between the wall and the door.  He would position himself so the only way I could get out would be to brush by him. As I would leave these little “conversations” where he explained what a pervert he was, he would lean in and say “Mmmmmmmmmm” as I got out of the office.

As I write this I feel like people are screaming “why didn’t you leave?”  And my 22 year old self doesn’t have an answer for you. I needed the money. I fully supported myself, from tuition to groceries.  I had friends at the store, I liked the job. He was just something to “deal with.” But eventually the harassment would get worse. He got more brazen, and I got more daring in my ability to fight back. A lewd disgusting comment by him finally led to me yelling at him one day and telling him to go to hell. I felt empowered and strong. He proceeded to laugh. And play off of my comment, “well if I’m going to go to hell there’s no one I’d rather go with than you, and it will be hot down there, so you’ll have to take off that shirt.”  I couldn’t win. It was back to avoidance, never make eye contact, never initiate a conversation, walk the opposite direction of him, try to time my lunch breaks so he would be gone out of the store.

I started dreading going to work. I would be anxious about leaving. I rode a bike to work, and I would ride around the store a few times, taking deep breaths before finally going in. As his verbal abuse escalated so did my confidence in telling him off and fighting back. I was under this false illusion that I had some power. I could go so far as telling him to F-off. I could say that to my boss, and it was ok. It was weird. I could yell at him, call him a dirty old man, swear at him and he would laugh. Always that sick twisted cackle, that made any courage I had built up fizzle and dissipate.

I talked to some of the other girls from time to time. They all said “if you’re not used to all of it by now, maybe you should leave. We all just ignore him, we know it’s part of the job, we know it’s No Big Deal.”

Eventually the comments were daily. Every shift, every hour. Nothing I wore was safe. The conversations were more vulgar, the comments more specific, the nature of everything far more graphic and sexual. I was listening to descriptions of sex acts, amongst men and women who just laughed. My anger and frustration was building. I was shutting down, not talking to my co workers much, trying to keep to myself and just do my job. One day the straw broke. I was sitting in the back room on a chair. I lived in Arizona and it was 115 degrees outside.  My only method of transportation was a bike. So I used a lot of sunscreen. As I write this I feel the wave of nausea, the sweating, the staggered breaths. I think how could I have not known that was a bad decision?  To apply sunscreen to my leg in the back room at a job where the environment was constantly sexually charged.  Where I had endured hours of intense verbal sexual harassment?  I was tired, and I wasn’t thinking clearly.   I squirted a line of sunscreen on my leg between my knee and ankle. I started rubbing it in, when he came around the corner.

He stopped and stared. And then came that tiny smile, that sick twinkle in his eyes. I knew he was ready to launch and I wasn’t wrong.  Two other people were in the room. Why can I remember this so vividly? I can’t repeat what he said because here I sit, 30 years later, and it still makes me shake. Sunscreen is a white liquid substance, and my leg was uncovered. Anything you can muster up in your imagination about a white liquid substance and a naked leg is fair game. He started with his description, and I felt the hot tears rolling off of my cheeks. My chest was on fire and about to burst. I ran from the room, and I could hear his roar of laughter behind me. I ran outside into the hot Arizona sun. I started the rumination in my head. “You don’t walk off a job, you need a good reference, you don’t burn bridges, you be professional, it’s your fault for putting up for this so long, what if you need another job and you can’t ever say you worked here, you can handle it, it’s just words…..”  It was just words. But something inside of me knew what I had always known. No. Just no, over and over again, I started screaming it inside of my head. No, no no.  No more.

I got up and went back into the store. I headed to the back room. He wasn’t there so I asked, “where’s Michael?”  Someone said he was in his office. I went to the office door. He was sitting at his desk and looked up at me. That sick smile still in place. I said “you’re the sickest person I have ever met. You are disgusting and the way you talk to us is bullshit.  I quit. I am never working here again, and it’s because of you and you can go to hell.”

I had come from a very conservative background and all of those words were so far outside of my comfort zone, I couldn’t believe they came out of my mouth.

His expression changed. He looked offended. He said “I didn’t mean anything by it. Go, get out of here.” And he laughed. I walked away, and out the back door and all I could hear was that large sick cackle of laughter. After all, he didn’t mean anything by it.

I’ve told this story a few times over the years, and the reaction is always the same.  “You should have known better than to work there.  What did you expect?  Why didn’t you leave sooner?  Why did you put up with that?  You know you bear some responsibility, don’t you?”

So yeah.  Me Too — I guess.  Thirty years later, and I’m pretty sure it was “that bad.”

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