Why Didn’t You?

You guys, I am exhausted.

It has been three years since I wrote Tales from the Diner.

Hardly a day goes by now that I don’t see someone new accused of harassment, assault, or rape. Sometimes it’s a celebrity. Sometimes it’s your friend. And with each new allegation comes a flurry of defenses and demands: why are we only hearing about this now?

It took me two years to come forward with my story. My silence didn’t make my experience any less real.

So let me tell you– again— why I didn’t speak sooner:

When I began working at the Route 9 Diner I was eighteen. I came from a poor, broken family and had learned to be fiercely independent. I was willing to work long overnight shifts and endure the difficulties of my job because I considered my ability to do so a virtue.  My grit was what kept a roof over my head and compromising that could have had devastating consequences.

Because I was new to this industry, I took my cues from the veterans. Harassment and assault were commonplace and as such, long-term restaurant employees softened their responses. I learned to do the same. The daily whistles and sexualized comments became white noise. After I left, I found myself telling and retelling my stories to people outside the industry to gauge their reactions.  This became my litmus test and it was through these interactions that I began to regain my horror and realize the severity of the conditions of my former workplace.

Still, for a long time I also felt like I owed the diner’s owners and even managers my loyalty. They had drilled into all of our heads that we were nothing more than expendable labor. For those of us who stayed, it felt like a point of pride: We had proven ourselves good enough. We were the new veterans. We were valuable. We lived off the crumbs they threw us: a seemingly affectionate mori from one of the owners, a drink bought by one of the managers, a smile while others got a scowl. In the end, I felt like I owed them.

Additionally, I had no idea what could happen if I went public with my experiences. I couldn’t stomach the idea of being responsible for someone losing their job or being caught and punished as an undocumented worker.  I wasn’t willing to risk the livelihoods of people I loved.

There are still plenty of people who think I should’ve chosen differently. They say I should’ve gone to the police while I was there and that it doesn’t make sense for me to have stayed. But when you exist in a culture where this mistreatment and injustice is deemed acceptable, challenging that status quo and speaking out can be downright terrifying.

And you know what? It was.

I’ve hesitated to write the next part for a long time. I am afraid of deterring the next person who could call out an abuser and inspire others to do the same. I am afraid of accidentally throwing a wrench in the gears of a movement -even on a microscopic scale- that is contributing to an enormous conversation, if not yet a cultural shift. I am afraid of changing the mind of someone who is on the brink of shouting their story and kicking open the floodgates of their own community.

So those of you who have a story to tell: scream it. We need you.

And to those of you who still wonder why we don’t speak sooner or louder or at all: listen.

Here is what happened after I, and many others, spoke:

The first few days after posting our blogs were exhilarating. They spread like wildfire and supporters popped up everywhere. We received media attention and dozens of people reached out to share their own experiences with us. People lauded our bravery and thanked us for the attention we called to a rampant issue in our industry.

Employees who still worked at the diner were quick to try to discredit and insult us. Once we received the attention of the local media, our workload increased sharply. Our social media accounts suddenly required nearly 24/7 moderation and we spent over a week fielding comments and emails from reporters, supporters, and apparent adversaries of “the bloggers.”

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I don’t think I slept more than 12 hours in the week that followed.

 

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To be honest, the backlash we received is unfortunately par for the course in these instances. Still, knowing that there would be recoil to absorb, we cocked our pens and tried to brace ourselves for the kickback.

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People I had never met relished in their attempts to vilify me and the other women who had stepped forward. Whether or not our accounts were accurate became irrelevant and they sought to damn us simply for venturing into the court of public opinion.

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Eventually the publicity died down and business at the diner continued as usual. A new group of students flooded the area and knowledge of the misconduct was diluted and forgotten. Still, behind the scenes, litigation pursued by both the ACLU and the Massachusetts Attorney General pushed forward. I must have told my story 50 more times, paring it down into short, jargon-filled paragraphs, neat and numbered. Meanwhile, the diner’s owners and lawyers avoided cooperating, even deleting the years of footage taken by the 15+ cameras around the restaurant.

Five months after I first posted Tales from the Diner the AGO announced that they had filed a complaint against the Route 9 Diner’s owners and two managers. The next day, the doors were abruptly shuttered with less than a day’s warning to the staff. For those of us on the other side, it was clear that this was a way to quickly stem their cash flow. It was a smart and sinister way to avoid a larger figure demanded of them in what was becoming an inevitable monetary settlement. Their sole objective was to avoid honoring our deserved reparations. As such, they turned their backs on their current staff, allegedly refusing to do so much as offer them a letter of recommendation.

Across the state, I felt the results of this collateral damage in the pit of my stomach. I had wanted to set justice in motion, if only to add to a greater societal conversation. In doing so, I had negatively changed the lives of people I loved.

They were quick to echo and solidify my fears.

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It would be untruthful to say that on some level, I didn’t understand their desire to lash out at us. Despite the dissimilarities presented by no longer working at the diner, a lot of their anguish mirrored my own. I had my own wounds to tend regarding the diner’s closing and the endless strain that is civil litigation. I was nursing the crumbling of once-robust friendships with women whose abuses and pain I had understood and shared. As the weeks and months went on and the time commitment and load of required emotional labor in moving forward with a formal case never eased or subsided, we became resentful of each other and the time we kept for ourselves away from lawyers and press.

As our fortitude waned, the diner’s former staff amplified their cruelty.

 

 

 

 

I don’t believe these situations are ever easy or free from any complexity. That is simply what is offered to us through human experience and our relationships. To think that one could speak of a community staple and its people in a way that so challenges the public’s perceived truth without being prepared to engage in serious labor thereafter was naive. Still, we had no idea just how much work would be required of us, nor just how far the results would reach.

I would like to say that our allies in the legal field were endlessly trustworthy and supportive. Initially, that was true. But after our case changed hands within the Attorney General’s office, so too did our sense of security. We were introduced to a new woman who made us feel as though we were tedious tasks for her to complete; a stark contrast to the previous attorney who had expressed horror at our circumstances and had worked passionately in the name of justice. Our phone calls and emails went unanswered. Despite our persistence, many of us were left in the dark regarding the status of our own case.

Less than six months after agreeing upon a settlement to be paid out to the women involved in the case, one of the  diner’s former owners filed for bankruptcy, relieving him of any further financial requirement to the women he had allowed to be assaulted. The Attorney General’s office appeared disinterested and waited over six months to notify us. They seemed surprised at our upset, and perhaps more so to learn that bankruptcy had been threatened multiple times throughout the initial mediation between the diner and the state attorneys.

In the following months, the Attorney General’s Office continued to ignore our attenot a to contact them. Even calls from even the ACLU were ignored. When we did finally get in touch, the AGO expressed only surprise at the level of public torment we had underwent. Months earlier, we had sent emails full of screenshots, depicting such behavior.

Last spring the recipients of the Route 9 Diner settlement received an email from the Attorney General’s Office. In a final show of poor judgement and unprofessionalism, the contact list was cc’d rather than bcc’d. I now know everyone who is receiving a check in the wake of this litigation. Some of the names surprised me. Some of the names were people who had publicly mocked, discredited, and insulted me and the other women who dared to speak candidly of our time at the diner.

 

 

 

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I don’t doubt for a single moment that the women who slid under the radar to seek their restitution also shared our experiences at the hands of the diner’s management. I unwaveringly support their right to justice in whatever form by which they feel satisfied and vindicated. Nevertheless, I am left feeling conflicted. The work I, and the other bloggers, put into this case was very real. We suffered publicly, endured sleepless nights, missed work, and lost friendships. It is difficult for me to stomach the idea that someone could willfully add to our distress and workload while quietly profiting in the background. We were forced to relive the pain of our time at the diner and we were left bruised. Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s office enjoyed their victory march without so much as a thought to our continued suffering.

These days, I am uncertain exactly how I think justice should look. It would be dishonest to say that I am disheartened at the prospect of the diner’s owner’s bankruptcy, knowing that I will never receive my share of the settlement. Although it was never about the money, I learned to be satisfied with the shallow prize of an abuser’s dollar.

When I originally wrote Tales from the Diner, I ended it with a nod to my sister, saying, “I am shouting now that I have the strength to shout… for god’s sake, the lesson I teach her is not going to be one of silence.” I am afraid that through her witnessing the backlash of my actions, I unwittingly taught her exactly that.

The truth is that despite my once-powerful call to action, I have grown weary of what often feels like minimal results. I have ripped my scabs open time and again and sometimes the only shouts I can muster are closer to defeated, hopeless cries. There is no triumph in my scars.

So now, in a sea of #metoo, I again see the rise of #whydidntyou? Coming forward is bleak and without sanctuary or reprieve. Please try to understand.

 

 

Note: The inclusion of these screenshots is incredibly important to me as a means to illustrate what I and others faced as a result of bringing our experiences to light. I have tried my hardest to protect anyone from unintentional revictimization by editing these pictures as necessary. Jane Dover is a fake name and as such I left those images unedited. 

 

 

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An Open Letter to Johnny’s Roadside Diner

To the Yee family:

My name is Marie Billiel. You have perhaps seen my name sprinkled in the local media throughout the last couple of years in correlation with the criticism and closing of the Route 9 Diner. I posted the original blog post Tales from the Diner that led to many other women sharing their own grisly experiences with the former staff and management during their employment. As I’m sure you know, the details we shared were so appalling that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office took notice. Because of the negative publicity,  the owners made the decision to close, thus allowing your family the opportunity to broaden your horizon within the Pioneer Valley’s restaurant scene.

I know well that the Route 9 Diner’s closing was a loss to the community. During my tenure there I grew to know and love many familiar faces: the many late-night fraternities and sororities who would stumble in at 4am and never seemed to know the size of their parties; the early morning regulars who listened with rapt attention to the goings on of my personal life; the elderly people who enjoyed the ease and comfort in the routine of eating lunch at the Route 9 Diner and taking their leftovers home for dinner.

Because of this, I have routinely championed the opening of Johnny’s Roadside Diner. I was grateful that the building would no longer stand vacant in the Stop n Shop Plaza as a reminder of its quick and sour ending. I was confident that your family would breathe new life into the tired old space.

It is because of this that I am concerned with a piece of information I was given recently. About a week ago the Attorney General’s case against the former owners and management of the Route 9 Diner once again made headlines. As with every bout of media attention, I received hateful messages from former coworkers. At this point  they have become less painful and I recognize that although they are sent my way from a place of anger and hurt I do not have to engage with them. However, one of these messages revealed something to me that makes me feel as though I would be neglecting my due diligence were I to ignore it: I learned that you have chosen to hire some of the former cooks of the Route 9 Diner.

As I’m sure you know, there are many public recitals of the atrocities we were subjected to by the Route 9’s cooks. Some of us were forced to show our tongue before being given our tables’ orders; were regularly accosted in the walk-in coolerand were pressured for dates and sexual favors. Of course, that’s hardly the tip of the iceberg.  It is because of this that I am admittedly uneasy about your decision to hire anyone in their former Back of House.

Allow me to make clear that I in no way attend this to be an attack on your business or your integrity. I do not claim to know who it is you opted to hire nor what your terms were. I was downright ecstatic when I learned that you hired some of the diner’s former waitresses. They were undeserving of the fallout caused in the aftermath of the Route 9 Diner’s closing and I was grateful they were able to once again find a place in that chrome community staple.

It is in this same vein that I must acknowledge that the cooks and dishwashers also experienced their own hardships with the sudden loss of their jobs. I am putting my faith, albeit hesitantly, in the idea that these men, though previously consistently inappropriate and sometimes predatory, have learned that this behavior is unacceptable. I trust that the change in management and corresponding shift in culture sees that the work environment is no longer a toxic and hostile one, but one of growth, opportunity, and safety.

I am leaving behind my dismay and anxiety in favor of hope.

Respectfully yours,

Marie Billiel.

It Never Stops

Two things happened this month.

Two things happened  that reminded me that as much as I speak out, as much as I push back, as much as I try to stand my ground, my body does not belong to me. Indeed, my desires are often irrelevant and my pleasure decided for me. It seems I was created for consumption.

Unsurprisingly, one of these things happened at my job. The restaurant industry continues to be very successful in reminding women that we are mere objects to lust after and harass while breeding men to perpetuate this construct. The restaurant at which I work currently is one of the safest places I’ve been employed. Still, it has its flaws, and it is no exception to the standard Kitchen Culture, despite the owners’ best efforts.

I was confronted by one of the cooks in April. He glared at me out of the corner of his eye as he hunched his gaunt frame over itself to tie his shoe.

“So you’d really never go out with me?” he spat impatiently, as though this was a discussion we’d been having for hours.

What?” I asked, taken aback.

Chris continued his rant bitterly, explaining that he had asked around regarding the state of my romantic life and found displeasure in the results. I stood by and mumbled an apology to his rhetoric.

This interaction marred our relationship, which had previously been friendly, if a bit superficial. As his vitriol refused to wane, so did my discomfort. I was frustrated, not only by being the recipient of such unwarranted venom simply for having a life and relationships outside of my workplace, but by Chris’s manner of ascertaining the details of my life. Never did he speak to me about my feelings or ideas or aspirations or experiences. To him, I was not a sentient being, but a plaything that belonged to someone else.

Over the course of the next few weeks his anger did not subside; it reared its head when I checked my phone for texts or mentioned Matthew near him. But as Chris’s resentment refused to wane, so too did his unwelcome advances. For every scowl there was a plea: “I’ll be good to you. Come on. I’ll treat you right.” The irony was lost on him.

Soon his words and glances no longer satisfied him. One day he came up behind me and begged in earnest for me to allow him to grab my hips. His hands pinched the air as I quickly moved away and gave him a sharp, impatient, “No!” Not long after this incident I found myself trapped by the ice machine as he rubbed his ass on my waitressing apron to the beat of the song playing in the cafe. My threats were immediate and fierce. Still, as he ran to the other side of the kitchen, I was left alone by that ice machine, overtaken by my sense of powerlessness to these situations.

 

*

 

Last week I woke up next to my boyfriend. In the dim morning light our still-sleepy hands found each other’s bodies as we kissed the night from our lips. Slowly, but not without certainty, Matthew worked his way from my mouth, to my neck, to my breasts, and continued downward.

“No, babe. Not now,” I whispered.

“Why?”

Annoyed: “I don’t need to give you a reason.”

He looked hurt. Still, it was too early to have an in depth discussion about consent. I relented:

“Because I haven’t showered, I need to shave, and I don’t feel sexy right now.”

“That’s the reason?” He was skeptical. But after a pause, “I just wanted you to communicate with me, Marie.”

“I don’t need to communicate that to you! I don’t have to fucking explain why I’m saying no!”

Matthew rolled over, taken aback by my sudden fury. I sat for a moment, aware that his questioning stemmed from a place of naivete and not one of dominance or ill will.  I knew his eagerness and commitment to my pleasure and that this situation, poorly handled as it may have been, was a result of that. I sighed, softening a bit, as my hand traced the the curve of his back.

“Babe, listen. Here is my typical day:

I go to work, where I get harassed. I am leered at all day by my some of my coworkers. Then, I walk down the street and get catcalled and harassed in Central Square in Cambridge. Isn’t this supposed to be some sort of fucking liberal bastion?

Next, I go home, and my own boyfriend doesn’t want to take no for an answer. Tell me: when do I get to have autonomy over my own body? When?!

He turned to me, his brown eyes wide and intense, “You do!”

“Do I? Then why should your desires override my consent to my body?”

Pause.

Regret filled his eyes and his apologies were the heartfelt words of someone who has gained new understanding. He laced his fingers through mine as he voiced his last concern, “But babe, that stuff about work? I thought that had stopped.”

It wasn’t often that I spoke to him of the harassment I encountered at work and on the street. The days I came to him, sputtering stories of encounters I had, were the days that I had reached the end of my patience and could no longer ignore it.

“No, Matthew, it never stops.”

 

 

Apparently I’m writing a series on sexual harassment. Bummer.

Related:

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Tales from the Diner

Kitchen Culture: Why I won’t Stop Talking about the Route 9 Diner

 

 

 

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.

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.

Maple Syrup: Let me break it down for you

“I’ll take the blueberry pancakes.”

“Sure! Would you like the real maple syrup with that?”

“As opposed to the fake maple syrup?” Guffaw, nudge, snicker.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes as opposed to fake maple syrup. This may come as a surprise, but there is in fact a difference between the two. Please, spare me your condescending tone because you’re unaware of this reality. I promise you. I promise you that I am choosing my words carefully based on their meanings. So when I ask you if you want real maple syrup, I do, in fact, mean that there exists both real and fake. Honestly.

That being said, I guess I should remind myself that not everyone grew up in New England. I was raised surrounded by hills and forest and long winding dirt roads.  Springtime was signaled by the arrival of the large silver buckets hung on the stoic maple trees that lined our country streets. I remember counting them as we drove home from the grocery store two towns away: one, two, twenty, forty. Soon the nearby sugar shack’s chimney would start smoking and its parking lot would fill with cars. Everyone was always anxious to order off their limited breakfast menu just to taste the maple syrup that was so local it could have been from their own backyard. We craved the sugar candies that were in the shape of tiny maple leaves, always for sale in a gift shop stacked high with pamphlets detailing the process of making the syrup. In the autumn there was always one stand at the local Fall Festival that sold maple cotton candy. In the depths of December we filled bowls with freshly fallen snow and drizzled maple syrup on top.

Granted, my upbringing in the Northeast has provided me with a certain ritualistic Maple Syrup Culture. I have always had what I felt was an inherent understanding of the stuff. Even after encountering it for nearly five years, I am still appalled by the blank stares I get when I explain that Real Maple Syrup comes from a tree. Let me break it down: maple syrup is from maple trees. Table syrup, Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima’s, Eggo syrup, Pancake syrup, and whatever else is from a goddamn factory and is nothing but high fructose corn syrup and caramel color. Maybe I should explain further. Fine.

In the late winter and into the early spring, spikes are hammered into the trunks of mature sugar maple trees to release their sap. Oftentimes, multiple buckets will be hung on a single tree so as to collect the large amount of sap that is readily available. Once the buckets are filled, the sap is boiled down quickly at a high temperature to remove all of the excess liquid. Although it varies depending on the sugar content, it usually takes around 45 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. After being boiled down, it is filtered and bottled. Not all syrup is the same, of course. Not only does the maple sugar content vary by tree, but the syrup itself becomes darker and deeper in flavor as the season goes on. Maple syrup that is lighter in flavor and color is generally Grade A. The darker amber is Grade B and often considered cooking syrup. Fun fact: Most restaurants that offer you real maple syrup are almost always offering you Grade B because it’s cheaper. Fun opinion: You should opt for Grade B anyway, both in cooking and in straight consumption, because the depth of its flavor is much better.

So what of the imitation syrups then? That sweet golden sauce with which you top your pancakes is literally nothing but high fructose corn syrup. Admittedly, there are some syrups that are labeled “maple-flavored” and supposedly those have some actual maple in them. However, most of what you see on grocery store shelves and for no charge in restaurants is good old HFCS. Its “maple” flavor actually comes from Fenugreek seeds, but I promise there are no health benefits this time. That’s it! No fascinating homegrown process here.

And in case you hadn’t guessed, maple syrup is expensive. There aren’t a whole lot of places that are capable of producing it and as the seasons have been pretty screwed up the past few years, sugaring has been pretty difficult. It’s only going to get more expensive from here, folks. So please, spare me the looks of horror when I tell you there’s an extra charge. If you don’t get it, I really won’t be affected. But if you think you can’t taste the difference, your palette is flat out broken.