This is not a happy story.
One day, rather out of the blue, I decided that my teenage lifestyle could no longer be supported by the occasional babysitting gig. It was time I found a real job. Within short order, I was hired to work part-time at a nearby bagel shop.
The shop was a franchise with an absentee (putting it lightly) owner. While we saw him occasionally as he walked his dog, he left the day-to-day operations to a pair of men. One supervised the front of the store, let’s call him G. The other was the baker. Let’s call him Paul because that was his name.
Paul was in his late twenties to early thirties. I was in my teens. However, a pesky thing like an age difference or the fact that he was primarily working with minors never seemed to bother Paul. He routinely made comments that made me feel as dirty for hearing them as the dishes I was responsible for washing.
My duties at the store ran the gamut. I manned the cash registers, prepared orders, cleaned surfaces, and shelved inventory. One day when I was in the back of the store, I found Paul already there, facing the wall with his shirt untucked. No, he couldn’t possibly be…, I thought to myself. Hoping beyond hope for an innocent explanation, I asked him what was doing. He smiled at me and shrugged as if what he was doing was nothing out of the ordinary while confirming it was exactly what it appeared.
Stunned, I found G and told him what I had seen. G’s shoulders slumped. Paul’s behavior didn’t surprise him, it was just Paul’s way and I was told there was little either of us could do about it. Paul’s actions and comments were patterned behavior and the owner’s continued silence proved he was either stubbornly in denial or simply didn’t care. Without Paul, there would be no bagels, at least not until a replacement could be found, which would have required work on the owner’s part. However, G and I, on the other hand, were considered replaceable.
I could have walked out, but I didn’t. I suppose my ego got in the way. Why should I be the one to have to quit? The job was a good one – excepting the one co-worker. I suppose I could/should have better investigated my legal rights or called the health department, but I was a kid and that didn’t occur to me until years later. I suppose I might have told my parents, but I didn’t do that either.
Instead, I accepted most of G’s assessment – that very little could be done. After all, I told myself, it really wasn’t as bad as it could be. I accepted that for all his comments, all his suggestions, Paul hadn’t really done anything except make me feel uncomfortable.
I did not, however, let it go. I continued to look for alternative solutions to my problem. A friend allowed me to refer to him as my boyfriend as if my relationship status might redirect Paul’s attention.
It didn’t. If anything the comments became more suggestive.
I took to volunteering to wash more than my share of dishes as it allowed me to frequently carry several knives in each hand. This worked, but only temporarily. When that wasn’t an option, I tried to stay as far away from Paul as the store would allow.
It wasn’t a big store.
One day, while I was wiping down table tops near closing time, Paul came running from the back, laughing to the point of tears. In between giggles, he told me that he’d peeked under the bathroom door thinking I was the room’s occupant only to find that another woman, one he suspected was homeless, there instead. “I saw everything,” he gasped between chuckles. “Everything!” He laughed again like this was supposed to be funny. As terrible as this was on its own, I also had to ask, “Why did you look? If you thought I was in there, why did you look?” His only answer was more laughter.
As terrible as this was on its own, I also had to ask, “Why did you look? If you thought I was in there, why did you look?” His only answer was more laughter.
I wish I could tell you I left that same day and never looked back, but I didn’t. I wish I could tell you that the unfortunate woman called the police or at least registered a complaint, but she didn’t either. Maybe she, like me, was told there was nothing to gain from complaining. But most of all I wish this hadn’t been the first (or last) time I’d been made to feel at risk in surroundings which should have been expected to be safe.
I can’t go back to that time and demand Paul, the owner, or even G be held accountable for what they said, did or didn’t do. I still feel sick to my stomach knowing when I finally said enough – when I finally did walk out – my absence left another, even younger girl, alone in that store without a friend. I can’t change the past.
But I can help shape the future.
And you can too.
This wasn’t a happy story, but this doesn’t have to be a common story.
If a person tells you that they feel scared, threatened, or abused, don’t belittle them – believe them. Do what you can to understand their fears. Recognize that there might be a problem, even if it wasn’t your experience. Ask. Observe. And above all, listen. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Lend your voice and let those in charge know it isn’t okay. Show the person affected they aren’t isn’t alone and strive for a day when a story like this is the exception.
But whatever you do never, ever, accept you are powerless.