Fea

My sister turned seventeen today. I cannot imagine this girl, nine years my junior, reaching an age of such autonomy. I remember the days I was able to hold her in my weak 11-year-old arms. I remember taking her on ice cream dates when I got my first job. And as we grew, those intimate days faded into ones of distance, heartache, and angst. And now we exist on opposite sides of the state and I don’t call enough. I am wary of the intricacies and pitfalls that exist in our family dynamic and from Boston I wonder, “Have I taught her enough?”

I have been back from Israel for six months. I have settled down, as much as I am capable, in an apartment, in a job, and with a boy whom I love. Behind the scenes, the consequences of outing the Route 9 Diner have continued to play out. For the first time in years, I feel satisfied and sure.

But something happened last week:

I had been saying for months that I disliked the leer of one of the cooks at my new job.

“He’s harmless,” my manager told me.

“He’s lecherous,” I always readily responded.

And for months my manager was right. Or at least, we were both right.

In the last month, he stopped eyeing me and began speaking to me.

Fea,” he’d say as I dropped off dishes out back.

“Fea,” as I collected silverware to be polished.

“Fea,” as I exited the restroom.

Fea, Fea, Fea, Fea.

As much as I disliked these unsolicited comments on my appearance, I accepted them as harmless and allowed him the liberty to continue making this joke although it was at my expense. I told him he was rude, he laughed, I left the kitchen. For weeks this persisted as background noise. But last week, the tone changed:

“Fea, you have Facebook?”

“Yup,” I prayed he wouldn’t send me a friend request.

“I see your Facebook,” he tells me.

“Yeah, you saw pictures of me and my novio?” A warning.

“You novio es feo!” he spat before offering his reassurance, “but you look good.”

At first I didn’t realize that he openly admitted to snooping through my Facebook photos in his spare time. And the truth is that I may have missed this entirely, had I not had a second encounter with him that day.

“Fea, get me a coca,” he told me after coming into the dining room at the end of his shift.

Unbothered, I acquiesced and bent down to reach into the fridge for his soda.

As I handed it to him he sauntered towards me and gently swatted the back of my thigh with the rag in his hand. “Estoy mirando,” he said quietly, “you’re beautiful.”

Taken aback, I mumbled a quick thank you, hoping he would leave.

I stood in stunned silence, angry and ashamed. For a moment I had been brought back to working at the Diner and felt powerless to the cook’s blatant harassment. I contemplated brushing off the moment and ignoring my discomfort.  I considered the repercussions that would be dealt to me in retaliation.  I feared reporting it to my managers and being brushed off; what if my habit of being so outspoken about matters of sexual harassment has backfired and I am not taken seriously because of my willingness to cite any instance?

I have spent the last six months calling on women to speak openly of their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. I have advocated for an end to silence, yet I still find myself gagged with the fear of the consequences of my voice. Someone is bound to notice I’m the common denominator in all these instances, I tell myself. But this is not true: the common denominator is this pervasive culture that this sort of behavior is not only tolerated, but acceptable. This is why we must break our silence.

Have I taught my sister enough? I don’t know. Even I fall victim to my own apprehensions and reticence. But we are in this together.

Keep speaking.

Keep listening.

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Kitchen Culture: Why I won’t stop talking about the Route 9 Diner.

It seems like I hit a nerve.

In the months that have followed my publishing of Tales from the Diner, I’ve received more attention than I ever anticipated. As a writer, I feel satisfied; I got my 15 minutes of fame and all of the views and shares I could hope for. As a writer, I am proud and I am content. But this is not about me as a writer; this is about me as a victim of sexual harassment and assault. This is about the many women who have shared this experience, which is one that is unfortunately not limited to the Route 9 Diner.

There were three main responses to my post:

The first was one of gratefulness. I cannot begin to count the number of responses I received, not only from readers local to the Hadley area, but internationally, who thanked me for sharing my experience. I was contacted by many young women who worked at the diner after I had moved to Boston, retelling their own stories and thanking me for sharing mine. I have heard more accounts of restaurant sexual harassment from women around the country than I know how to stomach. Both men and women have thanked me for pulling back the curtain on the severity of what goes on behind kitchen doors at their favorite cafes, diners, and late-night burger spots. Their gratefulness is matched by my own; knowing that people are unaware and eager to hear our experiences and to make choices based on the information relieves me and encourages me to keep speaking. The stories we have to tell are important. We cannot be silent.

The second response was one of anger and resentment. For the most part, this reaction came to us from current employees, many of whom we witnessed enduring incidents on par with our own. Out of the 13 accounts that were written, three were taken down or left unpublished due to the current staff’s aggressive response. I had screenshots of my facebook account posted with commentary and I was slandered in a variety of places by staff members I’ve never met nor interacted with. My friends received harassing texts and facebook messages in response to their own accounts. Some of our former co-workers were bullied into dissociating with us.  We were told that we asked for the harassment and assaults and that the men who did it were only acting like our older brothers. The weeks that followed my coming out about the horrendous environment of sexual harassment and misogyny at the Route 9 Diner were difficult, but the truth is that the rabidity of these responses only solidified my stance that it was time to talk about what happened to us. There was no more room for silence.

The last kind of response I read was one of acceptance and complacency. For me, this is more disturbing than the blatant aggression of the Route 9 Diner staff. More than once I read a comment on a blog post or a news article citing “kitchen culture” as the reason for the abuse; “that’s just the restaurant industry.” Even now, as I tell my new employers the horror stories of the walk-in cooler, they nod gravely and remain grim but unsurprised. It’s easy to pass off the anger of my former coworkers as misguided or deluded, but the widespread acceptance of rampant sexual harassment and assault of female restaurant workers is egregiously problematic and inexcusable. It is this acceptance, this unspoken green-light, this established and unquestioned kitchen culture that is most disturbing to me. This is why I will keep speaking. This is why I will not be silent. This is a conversation that we need to have.

Speak. We are listening.

Tales from the Diner

I have a secret. I have kept it for years. It is the kind of secret that you don’t dare tell, if not for fear of the possible consequences, for fear that no one will listen. Both outcomes are unwelcome and damaging in their own right.

My friends and I have shared this secret and all its grisly details over eager sips of coffee after long overnight shifts, our voices heightened in our rage and our exhaustion. I had hurriedly whispered conversations with my coworkers during hasty smoke breaks and bathroom trips. These were girls with whom I had nothing in common – save our employment and our secret. Sometimes we exploded. Sometimes we wept.

It is not that I am weary from this business of silence; I have not broken. But I realize now that I have no reason to let my anger lie dormant. The injustice has become unpalatable.

For five years I worked at a popular all-night diner in Hadley, Massachusetts. For five years I was sexually harassed on a near-daily basis.

My introduction to this behavior was almost immediate. Within my first month, I found myself being yanked to the back room of the kitchen, towards the walk-in cooler. After a week of my soft-spoken refusals, Emilio, a cook nearly twice my 18 years, intensified his efforts. Like a predator, he waited until the midpoint of my overnight shift, when everybody else had gone home and my manager’s attention was held rapt by the late night tv reruns.

He strode out from behind the line, blocking the narrow path between the dishwasher and the refrigerator, “C’mon, baby. Let me give you a kiss.” It was not a suggestion.

His hand, which he had reached out in some semblance of an invitation, closed around my wrist. His grip tightened with every step I dragged my feet. His fingers were snakes: coiled and unyielding. I tried hurriedly to regain my strength and my voice as we neared the walk-in cooler.

Finally, with the space between me and the cooler reduced to only two feet, I found myself: “Fuck off!” I pulled away and raced out the backdoor of the kitchen where I was met with the few lingering tables in the dining room. I searched their faces, wondering if they had heard my shout. Their expressions remained unconcerned as they giggled drunkenly over their milkshakes. I am not sure if I was relieved.

I crossed the dining room towards the front of the restaurant, my hands still shaking behind my back. I found my manager’s body draped across the counter, her unwavering stare focused on the years-old show that filled the unpopular 3 am television slot. Her laughter came out in harsh cigarette-stained breaths.

“Emilio’s such an asshole,” I tried to sound casual, “he just dragged me to the walk-in to try to kiss me.”

“What a pig,”  Jessi scowled before turning her attention back to the tv.

I was relieved to find that the incident was passed on to the senior manager, Nikos. When I came into work the next evening he sat me down in the furthest booth and asked me to recount what happened. His brown eyes wandered as I repeated my story. When I was finished, he looked back to me and said, “Well, I really do apologize for that.” It was the same practiced line he used with unhappy customers. Still, I was grateful for the acknowledgement.

The owners never spoke to me regarding this, although I presume they witnessed everything when they checked the cameras’ footage from that night. Emilio continued working his shifts.

The truth is that there was such consistent harassment from the cooks that in the next few months it became background noise. I grew accustomed to being greeted by a chorus of “mmmmmmmmm” when I entered the kitchen, complete with licked lips and hungry stares. There were days that it was more bothersome than others. Some days the cooks would be angry and tell me, “no tienes tetas,” when I asked for my tables’ food. My days were so commonly punctuated by stares and sexual comments that I wrote it off as part of my job; it was just another bad tip or difficult customer. I spent shifts coaching a coworker on the many reasons she should leave her abusive boyfriend. I told her to stand up for herself and that there was no reason for her to endure the things she had. Then I walked over to the window to pick up my food, narrowly avoiding having my hand licked. There wasn’t so much as a flicker of awareness of my hypocrisy.

After a year of working there, I found myself in another precarious situation. I had graduated to daytime shifts and worked with many of the diner’s veterans. Carlos, who was at least 40, had taken an instant liking to me. “Hey precious…” he cooed when I arrived in the morning. “For you? Oh yes, anything!” he simpered when I asked him a question. I told myself that if I regarded his flirting as being harmless, it could only be harmless. I was too new to the shift to realize that he was purposely doing this in front of the waitress he was sleeping with.

One day, Carlos followed me into the walk-in cooler and set his gaze firmly on my lips as he approached me. I could hear the prep cooks snickering outside as they turned the lights off.

Then on.

Then off.

Carlos stood between me and the door. “Can I bite your dimples? I love your dimples, Maria.

I declined nervously, his pockmarked face only inches from me.

I didn’t tell anybody immediately. Part of my assimilation into life at the diner had been realizing and accepting that things like being trapped in the walk-in sometimes just happen. When I mentioned it to Jessi and Nikos they seemed unfazed. At the moment it seemed that anything regarding Carlos was deemed as part of his relationship drama, of which I had unwittingly become a part. Days later I was asked, “If you don’t like Carlos, why did you grab his dick?” I had no idea where that rumor started. No one was interested in what happened to me. Carlos was not punished.

Eventually in my tenure I became less complacent.

On my 21st birthday I reluctantly agreed to work the 6am shift for Yael, the head waitress and my neighbor. I was greeted warmly by Marcos, Yael’s husband, who was cooking that morning. He congratulated me as his arm found its way around my shoulder, pulling me in for a hug. I reciprocated unenthusiastically. As I tried to release the embrace he pulled me closer. He relinquished his hold only when his lips had found my neck, leaving a trace of saliva that I could not unfeel.

“Elias, can I talk to you?”

The owner looked up from his paperwork expectantly.

“It’s about Marcos.”

He furrowed his brow as he agreed to speak to me in the office – a rare occurrence for the waitresses.

After listening to what had happened, he sighed. “This isn’t the first complaint I’ve had about him.”

“I know.”

“What do you want me to do?”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. “Elias, that’s Yael’s husband. They have three children. Yael is my friend. Don’t ask me to make the decision about what happens to her family.”

He nodded gravely and agreed.

Nothing changed. Nothing, unless you count the small addition to the lightswitch by the walk-in cooler, that now prevented the light from being turned off. But when had anybody at the diner ever been afraid to harass us outside of the dark?

It has been nearly two years since I left that job, and there is hardly a week that has gone by that I did not consider writing this. As I became more serious in the endeavour, I began to consult friends and other former coworkers. Together, we unearthed a mountain of experiences that were both horrendous and routine:

“One time Nikos made a joke about raping me.”

“One time Carlos oinked at me for an entire eight hours.”

“The other manager, Bobby, used to constantly text me, ‘show me your tits.’ He even wrote it on my facebook wall. When I told him to stop he told me I probably had gross elephantitis tits.”

“The cooks used to refuse to give me my food unless I showed them my tongue.”

“Marcos used to massage Emma even though she told him to stop multiple times and one time he bit her neck.”

“Carlos kissed my neck.”

“One of the cooks cornered me in the walk-in and when Bobby found out he told me to get over it.”

“Both the owners, Elias and Andreas, used to laugh at the comments the cooks would make about the waitresses’ bodies after they left the kitchen.”

I have always known that this behavior was unacceptable. I have understood that it’s unfair that it happened and I have wished that something had been done about it. However, I was also a young adult with no support from my family, and I prided myself on my grit. I was grateful for my reasonably-lucrative job, where I had become a shift staple, in a difficult economy. I naively accepted the entire package.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that I don’t actually owe my previous employers anything. After five years of good, full time work, they were not doing me a favor by continuing to employ me; it was only a natural business relationship. I believed that because they liked me, I must not betray them. But now I ask myself: how much could they have really liked me if they allowed their staff to repeatedly sexually assault me?

I can aver that the environment at the diner is no different today than it was when I left. My silence will achieve nothing except to protect and perpetuate the things that are allowed to happen there. I refuse to participate any longer.

Some days I am ashamed that I did not stand up for myself. It is difficult to forgive that weakness. But I am doing my best to make up for it. I am shouting now that I have the strength to shout. I am encouraging everyone else to share their stories. I have a beautiful, impressionable 16 year old sister. And for god’s sake, the lesson I teach her is not going to be one of silence.

Note: all names have been changed as a super nice favor, but if you’re interested, I’d be happy to disclose the information privately.

UPDATE 10/29: My amazing friend Jaime Young has written an account of her own experiences, which I highly recommend you read. Check it out. This girl is my sounding board and plays a very central role in encouraging others to find their voice.

UPDATE 10/30: Another waitress has bravely shared her story.  Also, I find this one particularly hard-hitting, as she explores not only the sexual harassment, but the really awful way the owners treated the waitresses. Oh, and yet another waitress has spoken out.

UPDATE 10/31: Another account has come to light, this one also exploring the verbal abuse and poor food safety. 

UPDATE 11/1: For everybody following these updates, this is a must-read account by a former manager. And this one is an account of a waitress who started working there in 2007. This is not a new issue.

UPDATE 11/2: The accounts of the terrible working conditions just keep coming.

UPDATE 11/3: And yet one more  former coworker has added her voice.

UPDATE 11/4: After an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, another waitress has stepped forward.

UPDATE 11/6: Another former waitress has written her account, trying hard to emphasize that nothing ever changed.

Thank you to everyone for the support. It is so appreciated.