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.

Letters to Colin (4)

Part 4:

In eighth grade I got depressed. Hardcore in-your-face depressed. I specifically remember that it was in March, right before I turned 14 that the heaviness started to hit me hard. I remember because this was at the time that we went to war with Iraq and I was furious. It was the first time I really paid any attention to politics and although I wasn’t particularly well-versed, I knew that I was unhappy with what was going on. I remember nonchalantly mentioning something to my mom about how stupid I though George Bush was and being horrified to learn that my thoughts and opinions had veered off the path of my family’s. It’s not that I ever considered changing my opinions, but at a time when I was feeling pretty disillusioned already, it was a hard lesson to realize that you are a black sheep in your family, even more than you initially thought. The entire experience was very distressing to me, and although now I know it wasn’t the real problem, I kept telling everybody, “It’s the war. The war is making me depressed.”

I found solace in a friend I met in a Lord of the Rings chatroom, back when chatrooms were still a thing. His name was Seth and he was 32. It’s weird for me to think about that now, because Miguel is nearly 30. I’m not sure what I would think if he was conversing daily with a 13 or 14 year old online, and truthfully I don’t know what was going on in Seth’s head, but he was a great source of comfort to me. He lived in New York and had been depressed basically his whole life. He told me I needed to “learn to embrace the things [you] cannot control,” and told me I was wise beyond my years. I felt like, for maybe the first time, someone was really seeing me. My friendship with him felt profound. He gave me music recommendations. I printed out most of our conversations and reread them when I was feeling on edge. I was once having a conversation with my mom and how miserable I was feeling. I don’t think I ever told her I was depressed. I didn’t trust her. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversations about it, but I do remember that they were jerky. There were no connections; no understanding or empathy. She could see my angst as clearly as the day, but she did little to help it. I was barely allowed to see my friends outside of school and although I was 14 my bedtime was still 8 or 8:30. One time I tried to wear pajama pants to school and my mother grounded me for three full weeks. I spent most of my eighth grade year not allowed to use the phone or leave the house. I don’t think my mom had any real interests and hardly had friends anymore, so I was also condemned to her house-bound lifestyle. Anyway, we were once talking about how “angry” I was or something and I quoted something that Seth had said to me. “Where are you getting all of these quotes?” And then she forbade me from speaking to him anymore. It was devastating.

Sometime during this, I developed a pretty hardcore anxiety disorder. A compulsion, really. This isn’t something that I’ve ever really told anybody, but it’s very important to the story. Miguel doesn’t even know this (yet). Do you know what trichotillomania is? It’s basically compulsive hair-pulling, especially in situations of extreme stress. At some point during this terrible year I noticed that some of my hair is a very different texture then the rest of it and began pulling it out. I don’t know why. It was just a thing. But it got really, really bad. I had a really huge bald spot on the top of my head and another behind each of my ears. I didn’t even notice that I was pulling so much hair until much later. By then there was really nothing I could do about it. I always wore my hair up, but as the hair began to grow back it would poke through in these weird clumps of short hair. It was so humiliating and terrible that even now (a full decade later) when I wear my hair down I check the mirror before leaving to make sure I don’t have a bald spot.

This is incredibly important for a couple of reasons:

1. This is one example of how damaging my experience was at the time, even though the effect was mostly superficial.

2. When my hair was growing back my mother would make super mean comments about it. She never asked me if I was okay or what happened or what was going on with me so that that had happened. Instead, if my hair would part because of the regrowth she would sneer, “Oh, I see you have your SPIKES OUT tonight.”

3. Soon, my mother also had a bald spot. For a little while I wasn’t sure if she was just sick and so her hair was thinning, but I’m pretty certain that she also started pulling her hair. This was the first real evidence of my mother’s mental illness, although I have never said this out loud. I really, really believe that she saw there was something wrong with me and that she mimicked my behavior. She’s supposed to be the sick one, you know. More on that later.

As the last few months of the school year went on my disposition grew progressively worse. I was close friends with Delilah at the time and she was in a similar state of angst. Admittedly, I think we worked off of each other. At first we thought it was funny to wear all black because we were essentially becoming the people our families had warned us about. We already felt so detached that it seemed like a good fit to just go for that. We were unhappy and pale and wrote angsty poetry. We questioned the concept of normalcy and listened to Rammstein. I threatened to shave my head or dye my hair pink and my mom told me she’d kick me out.

Towards the end of the year I had my eye on a cute boy named Will. Delilah had the same idea. She moved faster than I did and they “dated” for about three weeks. I was jealous and felt betrayed but said nothing. I still remember the note that she wrote when she broke up with him. It said, “I do know that I don’t love you. How can I love you when I don’t even love myself?” I don’t know what he said.

Around the same time I had to stop speaking to Seth, I began to seek solace in my Uncle Adam, my mother’s brother. There was no particular thing that happened to lead me to this, but he was amused by my 13 year old self tromping around in combat boots and we somehow we connected. My uncle was perhaps also the black sheep of the family, and although we never discussed it outright, I gathered that we aligned ourselves politically. I met Adam’s girlfriend, Emily, and her three children. She lived in the white house right next to the elementary school, where my childhood friend had lived when we were much younger. Emily also took a liking to me and from time to time I would babysit her kids, all of whom were witty and interesting. Emily also introduced me to her friend Alena, who lived on Conway Street on the Buckland side, right next to that old reservoir and down the road from Cricket Field. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Towards the end of my eighth grade year, Delilah and I took a turn for the worse. I don’t know if that’s fair to say. We took a significant turn. One night Delilah smashed a bottle and dragged the jagged pieces against her forearm. We had never done this before. Hearing about it chilled me. I decided to follow suit and began scratching my wrists with safety pins. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the hot June air and was constantly terrified my mother would see. I was uncomfortable with the whole experience, really. It was fun to listen to angry music and be bitter and wear all black, but self-injury was a new line to cross. Finally, I decided to talk to Delilah’s sibling, Aubrey, about it. I called them up and confessed what I knew. They were receptive and concerned and I spent the rest of the night feeling sick to my stomach.

To my relief, Delilah quickly forgave me and life continued as normal. I felt like I had talked her off a cliff and although there was maybe a little residual tension, it was negligible. My cuts healed up, as did Delilah’s. On the last day of school we and a bunch of other friends piled into a van and rode to the house of our friend Jeanne to celebrate the start of vacation. Halfway through the afternoon Delilah took her leave and sat outside in the yard. When I went to her, she refused to speak to me. She barely spoke a sentence to me the rest of the party and soon it was time to go home. Hurt and confused, I left. For weeks and weeks she screened my calls and returned none of them. I was utterly devastated.

My already-shaky mood plummeted. My mother met some guy named Jeff and we spent most days at his house somewhere near Barton’s Cove. He was a fairly standard redneck from what I remember; exactly my mom’s type. He had a son just a little older than my sister, who would have been only four at that point. I resented the time we spent there, but truthfully I would have resented time spent anywhere. I was miserable. I don’t know how aware my mother ever was of this. I think she was so interested in Jeff that she didn’t notice. Or maybe she was just too unequipped to really deal with it or even understand the depth my of unhappiness. I remember that we were on the way to Jeff’s house once and she asked me if I was okay. Or what was wrong. Or something that only barely touched the tip of my iceberg. I’m sure I brushed off her question, unable to properly express myself and also certain she would not understand. I wasn’t so far off: she never asked again. By the end of the summer her relationship had fizzled. He told her they were better off as just friends and she was pretty heartbroken. Although I’m well aware of my mother’s own dysfunction, I wonder how much of a damper it was to their relationship to have an angry teenager around all the time. I actually feel really sad for my mother about this one. I remember that she had this cattail thing we found on a walk that she had carved “Jeff #1” into one day. It’s really painful to have to throw stupid little things like that away and in hindsight I really do feel for her. She stayed in bed for a couple days after they broke up. I think my grandmother may have come to the house and sternly told her to get herself together. I feel for her.

I spent most of my time sitting in a tree and listening to music. I had discovered Nirvana and Tool and Stabbing Westward and the melodies and lyrics spoke to me like nothing I had ever experienced. I wrote endlessly: mostly lyrics to the songs I had fallen in love with, but also a few terrible songs of my own. I also kept a journal on the family computer and I wrote in that pretty avidly. My friends had grown weary of my constant lamenting and one or two of them also began to detach from me. I had little social life at all, save for one friend who lived down the street from my grandparents. We shared poetry we had written and talked about books. One time, in a fitful need to speak to someone who would understand me, I emailed Seth. I had no time to write a proper email, as I was fearful my mother would catch me. Instead, I attached the word document that held all my journal entries from the summer. I spent the next three days in a heightened state of anxiety, terrified my mother would somehow find out I was writing to Seth and using my email, which had also been forbidden. What happened instead was at least as bad.

One day towards the end of summer I got the call I had been wishing for, for months. A missed call from Delilah flashed on my grandparents’ caller ID. I was elated. Hurriedly, I called her up. My heart pounded. “Hey, what’s up?” I was tentative, afraid of exposing my excitement. It became clear that this was not a social call. Her voice was hard; steely. I asked her if she was angry with me, annoyed, furious. In reply: “I hate you.” Her words hit me in the gut. They sat with me and sank me. She told me to check my email and hung up. Frantically, I got on the computer when I got home. I was anxious in all directions: afraid of what the email would say, afraid of getting caught, afraid of learning what I had done to deserve this hatred. In truth, I don’t remember what the email said. I don’t think it answered any questions. Certainly, it didn’t justify the sudden disposal of our friendship. I recall only that Delilah had decided randomly to check my email and saw that I had recently corresponded with Seth. She read my entire journal. She knew everything. She knew my pain and still loathed me for a reason I could not find. What’s worse was that she knew I was going against my mother’s word by speaking to Seth and I spent the rest of the summer paralyzed by the fear that she would sell me out. I was so blinded by my hurt and fear that I hardly even noticed how invasive and terrible it was for her to log into my email. But then, we never notice these things until much later, do we?