How to make a change?

To this day, I don’t like to go to diners. I find that the smell of them makes me sick to my stomach. My boyfriend loves them-he has fond memories of spending late nights at a Denny’s with friends as a teenager. So at first he couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to go eat at the diner on the corner of my apartment. After reading the stories my former coworkers have stepped forward and posted, he understands.

I feel the time has come for me to add my own voice in support of those speaking out. I will say to start, that the harassment I experienced was significantly less awful than some of my coworkers. I never had a manager make a pass at me, or say “show me your tits,” as I know they did to many others.

Like many, I started at the diner as a very young waitress, worked there for a while, and then when I went to college they would give me shifts on my vacations. It was my first restaurant job and is the place where I learned I have a pretty high tolerance for mistreatment. I worked through ridiculously long shifts, through knowing that if I took a break I would lose money (the waitress wage of $2.63 an hour is negligible and you can’t take tables on a break), and being screamed at over small mistakes. I worked scrubbing the diner from top to toe when it was dead, knowing that if I looked idle the owners would see it from the cameras that fed directly to their houses, call and instruct the manager to have me do “some fucking work.” And though that mistreatment was frustrating, it still paled in comparison to the treatment the female waitstaff received behind the kitchen doors.

When I say the amorous attentions of the kitchen staff were incessant, it feels like an understatement. There were the whistles, catcalls, pet names and the like. The requests for dates, occasionally being trapped in the walk in refrigerator by a greasy cook who refused get out of your way. The constant laughing and leering and demands for hugs. Once in a while whichever cook was bravest that day would give me “jumper cables” basically creeping up behind me and pinching my waist, sometimes while I was carrying plates. Not only was that frustrating, it seriously interfered with my work. I’m embarrassed to say that for the most part I ignored the unwelcome attention or acknowledged it with an awkward, uncomfortable giggle. I had seen how reporting things to management or the owners led to either nothing happening, or the cook in question retaliating by sabotaging food, essentially garnishing our wages for getting them in trouble. To be honest, the owners and management often witnessed the harassment and laughed at it, or in some cases perpetrated the harassment themselves. It seemed easier to tell myself that it was no big deal rather than to admit to feeling victimized, treated as less than human.

The most memorable moment occurred when I was home and working at the diner for winter vacation. A new cook in the back seemed fine at first, but things quickly got awkward. The kitchen was never heated in the winter or cooled in the summer, so while the dining room was a comfortable temperature, come winter the kitchen was freezing. To stave off the cold I would put my hands under the heat lamps every once in a while to warm them up. Unfortunately, the new cook was unoccupied, and he took the opportunity to make an advance, grabbing and caressing my hands. I asked him to stop, explaining that my hands were cold. He refused to let my hands go until I yanked them away. I continued to put my hands up if they got cold, refusing to be uncomfortable just because this cook wanted to convince me to go out with him. Until the one time he took my hands and licked them. After that I decided it would be easier for me to deal with the cold.

I write this now knowing that I shouldn’t have put up with this behavior. I’m also conflicted about this whole situation. There was at least one cook who treated the girls like they were real people, not just walking vaginas, and he should certainly not be lumped in with everyone else. While the managers and owners participated in demoralizing and abusive behavior, that’s not to say they didn’t have moments of kindness as well. When they were in a good mood, we joked, we laughed, we had a good time. When they weren’t, we cowered. I left on good terms with my former employers and I don’t have any sort of vendetta against the diner. I came forward because I realized that even though I made it through my time at the restaurant relatively unscathed, this behavior cannot be allowed to continue, for the sake of everyone who hasn’t made it out of there yet. The attitudes that allow this behavior are the same attitudes that allow rape victims to be blamed, and women to be paid consistently less than their male counterparts. It comes down to the fact that somehow, in the eyes of the owners, managers and the cooks, we as women were viewed as worth less than the men around us. I did my job, did it well and I don’t I owe anyone anything more than that. I certainly don’t owe anyone my silence.

Let me be very clear-I don’t want revenge. I want everyone (the owners, the managers, the cooks) to be better. I want them to understand how and why the sexual harassment of the female staff is unacceptable. I want some sort of accountability on their part. But I don’t know if that’s possible. The sexism may be too culturally ingrained for them to see us as more than an endless stream of replaceable pawns. Because I guarantee you that whatever they may post or say to cover their butts, the only reason any change will happen is if this scandal affects their bottom line. And I can also guarantee you that they’re sitting in the back office calling us all ungrateful bitches for daring to complain when they so graciously employed us. And I don’t know how to change that.