Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
-T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”
The diner used to be blue: blue polo shirts on the backs of the servers, blue upholstered booths, blue and white tiles in the front, a blue fading carpet in the dining room, blue neon lights, a blue Pepsi machine, and blue paper and plastic cups. Now it was red.
The diner was red because it had come under new ownership. The establishment where I had worked for five years in a constant swirl of revolutions through the swinging kitchen doors; “Good mornings,” “Good evenings,” and “What can I get for you’s,” fingertips burned and calloused by hot plates; aprons brimming with cash and aching arms and legs, no longer existed. And it was partly because of me.
It had all started with a blog post. Two years after leaving the diner, my friend and former co-worker decided to write about the multiple instances of sexual harassment she encountered while working there. She recounted how the cooks had constantly verbally harassed her with “mmmms” and whistles, attempted to kiss her or lick her hands as she reached for orders in the window, solicited her for dates, cornered her in the walk-in freezer, and then retaliated when she refused them. She wrote about how the managers and owners knew about this behavior, but only made minimal efforts to stop it.
Her post became a catalyst for eleven other former employees, myself included, to share their stories. Each reaffirmed what the others had experienced, while adding our own personal brand of horrors: losing thirty pounds over the course of four months from sheer anxiety, managers bragging about how they could make the waitresses cry, being forced to work while ill, forced to pay for customer walk-outs and kitchen mistakes (an illegal practice), rape jokes, persistent requests to bare our breasts, and the barrage of verbal abuse that was so constant that it was perceived as background noise.
This “I” would not recall that the manager that had joked about gang-raping me had told me that he was scared when he lost his virginity and that he was confused when his ex-girlfriend took him into a church to sit quietly; a man who told me earnestly that I was a good person.
Over text messages, Skype sessions, and phone calls, we strengthened each other’s convictions that what had happened to us was wrong, that it simply wasn’t part of the job. We processed that the harassment we had endured overshadowed everything else that had ever happened in that faux silver box or between ourselves and our harassers: “I lived with Paul (one of the managers),” “We all got dinner or drank with them,” “None of us said anything.” We had to tease these experiences out of the tangle of our lives, as if we hadn’t lived them at all.
As I wrote my own account, the “I” in my story would not remember that the manager who had repeatedly asked me if we could have sex was also the man who had confided in me that he was going to see a therapist to try to figure out why he was so needlessly nasty to people. This “I” would not recall that the manager that had joked about gang-raping me had told me that he was scared when he lost his virginity and that he was confused when his ex-girlfriend took him into a church to sit quietly; a man who told me earnestly that I was a good person.
It was painful. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this act of principle informed by everything I had learned about feminism, patriarchy, and the daily abuses of the work place was also an act of betrayal. There was something morally nebulous or even dehumanizing in denying these other dimensions of their character. A sense of justice that refused to be defined or categorized.
This feeling deepened as our stories gained momentum, getting the attention of both the press and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. The words I had written hardened as I repeated them again and again to lawyers who began to investigate what had happened. These men were stuffed into those words, obfuscating the rest of them. Justice required a vision that insisted on simplicity, one dimensionality—a perfect framing.
Months after we had published our stories, The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office filed a gender discrimination complaint against the diner. That same day, the owners informed the staff that they would be closing immediately. From a distance, it was a victory. The diner closing made it clear that this kind of harassment would no longer be tolerated in the state of Massachusetts and the grievances of workers would be taken seriously.
But up close, it just felt as if one system, a set of ideas, had merely defeated another. “Humanity is a cruel idea,” writes the poet, Dorothea Lasky. Patriarchy, feminism, equality: these are all ideas about humanity, codes that inculcate us with notions of what is more free, more natural, or more just. But they aren’t human. In the effort to realize such ideas, someone is always crushed. And the pain from that—no matter the moral justification for the crushing—is still real pain.
Perhaps that is the source of sadness I felt and still feel—that change requires such pressure. I understand James Baldwin’s insistence that there is “never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation [and that] the time is always now,” when he responded to William Faulkner’s declaration in Life Magazine that the South should “go slow” with desegregation. There was no other way that we could have taken this small step forward in changing a culture that largely exploits and harasses its workers without the force of the law. But I empathize with William Faulkner’s fantasy that people have the moral capacity to change from the inside. It requires no betrayal, no breaking, and I wish that could have been how these events unfolded. I wish that there could have been remorse and forgiveness, not just the thin, listless dollars that the defendants will have to pay their victims. I’m sad because I understand—more than ever—that the human condition is often defined by frailty.
When I returned to the diner out of sheer curiosity and perhaps a need for closure, I did not expect to see three familiar faces. Faces of three women I had spent five years working beside. The new owners had rehired them. Seven months prior they had suddenly lost their jobs with families to support and bills to pay. And waitressing is sometimes not even a week-to-week living. It can even be day-to-day, and because nearly the entirety of one’s income is based on tips, there is always the possibility of coming up short.
In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich recounts an episode when a manager accuses a busboy named George of stealing. Nearly positive that her coworker hadn’t committed the crime she questions herself:
So why didn’t I intervene? Certainly not because I was held back by the kind of moral paralysis that can mask a journalistic objectivity. On the contrary, something new—something loathsome and servile—had infected me… I might have regained my crusading spirit. Then again, in a month or two I might have turned into a different person altogether—say, the kind of person who would have turned George in.
I often find myself asking the same question and coming to the same conclusions: Why couldn’t I bring myself to say anything while I was working there? And the more terrifying, whose side would I have been on had I still been working there when these stories rose to the surface? I didn’t speak up then because, at the time, I relied on that job as much as the rest of my co-workers, albeit the luxury of only having to support myself. Because the culture was so normalized, so omnipresent that it was perceived as something to simply put up with. And if I had still been there when the stories arose? I have no doubt that I would have sided with the diner in the interest of the business surviving. To speak out from within and to acknowledge that what we endured was a symptom of something greater, to risk losing our jobs, was simply unfathomable.
I empathize with William Faulkner’s fantasy that people have the moral capacity to change from the inside.
It was only after I left, moved to New York City, and temporarily worked in another restaurant, that I began to understand how horrible the conditions were. That I didn’t have to go to work in fear, that mistakes did not have to result in being yelled and cursed at, that being stared at like a piece of meat was not normal. It was only with critical distance that I could begin to understand the logic of what I had experienced.
But these women I had left behind, these hard working women who waitressed as a career and not as a stepping stone deserved to have justice the most, and yet they were the ones who bore the material consequences when the diner closed.
I cautiously approached a woman I called Mama. We had all called her that because she was the oldest. She has two children. One has severe health problems and the other is autistic. I frequently listened to her stories about the difficulties she had at home, the cost of her hour-long commutes to work, the constant pain she had begun to feel in her limbs from years of hoisting twenty-pound trays onto her shoulders. Once, when my section was slammed, she lectured a complaining customer, pointing out all the tables I was trying to juggle at once. The customer left me an enormous tip.
She sidled from table to table with fresh silverware the way she always did.
“Hi,” I said
“Hi, Liz.” She didn’t look up.
“How are things going?” I trailed off. “I was just wondering because I was part of…”
“I know, that’s why I’m having a hard time looking at you.” Her voice shook slightly. I didn’t blame her.
“You have every right to be angry at me,”
“Why couldn’t you have gone after Coco? Why did you have to go after the entire place? When they told us that we were closing we all cried. I worked under the table, I went on unemployment for six months.”
Coco was the cook that had harassed us the most. I mumbled something about how that was just the way it had to happen. Everything that we had used to define our experience: systems of oppression, patriarchy, feminism, and rape culture were suddenly meaningless. How was I supposed to say that things were better because the Attorney General had come down so hard on the old diner? That her suffering was necessary for a nameless mass of women who worked or would work in the service industry?
Patriarchy, feminism, equality: these are all ideas about humanity, codes to inculcate us with notions of what is more free, more natural, or more just. But they aren’t human.
Logically, it is easy to weigh the two against each other: a couple of lives hindered for the sake of hundreds of others. But life isn’t logical, human relationships are not systems, even if they are impacted by them. The truth is I cared more for Mama than I did for that abstract mass. How could I not with her standing right in front of me, wavering between anger and sadness, telling me about the emotional and financial pain that I had helped cause?
But perhaps that is the burden for those who choose to place their experience within the great frame of politics —to truly understand how hopelessly political the personal is, how they simultaneously explain and contradict each other. To put one foot in the comforting order of abstraction and the other in the dark, implacable chaos that is our humanity.
For a moment, Mama and I entered that human chaos and she gave me a hug, recognizing that we had been friends, that we were still friends. Just two humans throwing off the weight of the words and ideas that were supposed to define us, save us, but will ultimately break us.