My butt had been pinched, slapped, and commented upon since I was 13, my pussy grabbed before that. I was used to it.
The owner of the snack shack turned greasy spoon where I worked when I was 16 also owned the only strip bar in my Western Pennsylvania hometown.
“People assume I get a piece of everything that comes through the club, but I won’t touch any of the dancers with a 10-foot pool,” he said to me and another girl one day in the break room “Do you know why?
“It’s just business,” said the girl piously.
“Well, yeah, that,” he said. “But no. Disease. They screw everything that moves and they get diseased. And they don’t take care of themselves.”
No one mentioned his wife, our boss.
“You’re gaining weight,” he told me. “And you know where it’s going? Your butt. You’re lucky it looks good there but don’t gain any more.”
I already considered myself a feminist, and I thought he was gross, with his huge beer belly and greasy blond hair, his braying. But I’d noticed that the unlimited free frozen custard and deep-fried pizza balls that came with the job had packed some pounds on me, and I was glad that in his professional opinion it wasn’t hurting my looks yet.
This was before his wife came to work with a black eye, and then another one. She got a restraining order, which he broke, and another one, which he also broke, and eventually they got back together.
His adult son from a previous marriage moved to town. One day while seated at a full four-top he asked me to turn around. I did. He lifted up the tails of my oversized white oxford shirt and examined my butt. “You do have a nice ass,” he said. I don’t remember whether I rolled my eyes or said thank you. Either way, I shrugged it off. Didn’t mention it to anyone or steam.
I worked there until I went to college. I liked the bustle, the customers, the esprit de corps. I could earn $20 or $30 dollars in tips, a fortune to me back then, although my parents provided for my basic needs. And my butt had been pinched, slapped, and commented upon since I was 13, my pussy grabbed before that. I was used to it. The diner had an extra dash of exotic sleaziness because of its connection to the strip bar, but in its daily workings it was more a microcosm of our town than a deviation from its norms.
I never returned there once I moved away, but I kept on with food service jobs, all of which involved some level of crude sex talk directed my way. I was relieved when it came across as friendly rather than threatening and mean, as with the two jovial cooks at the hotel restaurant in Santa Fe. They’d do little things to make servers’ lives easier, like plate desserts for us even when we didn’t have the required manager’s signature on the ticket, and they sometimes filled shifts with extended riffs on, say, what kind of lingerie I’d been wearing in their fantasies of me last night, competing with each other to see who could come up with the hottest get-up. Every once in a while they’d throw an apologetic-ish, puppy dog look my way. Beseeching me, I guess, to take it all in good fun, this joking among friends.
Which is more or less how I did take it. I was confident that they wouldn’t grab at me, and that they’d probably even intervene if they saw someone else trying to, as the sous chef had once in a walk-in fridge at my previous summer job.
By then I was a way lefty college student, a women’s studies minor who didn’t shave my body hair. I read bell hooks, Kate Millet, and Carol Gilligan. I got in long arguments about the ubiquity of the patriarchy. Off work, I wore combat boots and men’s clothing more often than makeup. I felt like I was putting on a costume when I got ready for my shifts—hair up, lipstick, accommodating smile. I was play-acting. But only sort of. My milieu had shifted dramatically once I left my town behind, and working in restaurants gave me the comforting sense of coming home. I clicked in to the hustle, the repartee between workers, the clarity of the pecking order. On some level I enjoyed the necessity of letting comments or the occasional roving hand slide. It was a relief not to care.
Although, I remember all these things like they were yesterday, so I must have cared more than I thought. But I’m going to be honest with you. When grab-her-by-the-pussy-gate broke, and it looked like it was going to tank Donald Trump, I was mystified. That, I thought to myself. After everything else he’s said and done, that’s what’s going to do it? He didn’t even say it to her.
You can take the girl out of the town, but can you ever entirely take away the effects of the town on the girl?
Though it’s not fair to single out my town. And as we now know, a sizable percentage of Americans were performing outsized condemnation when they answered pollsters’ questions in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape leak. I suppose even that was a small measure of progress. The need to pretend it, as well as to disavow racism. We’ve already rolled backward. Someone I work with looked a colleague of color in the eye and said he didn’t care that the KKK supported Trump, he was still glad he won. Clearly, he didn’t care that Trump had sexually assaulted multiple women, either.
In my 20s, I saw some of my new feminist friends slip backward, too, in their way, which was different from mine, and involved sitting rather than standing at nice restaurant tables. They knew how to laugh quick silver for men who were picking up the tab. They whispered about who was the owner of what (never strip clubs), the president of what, or the son of the owner or president or partner, and they deferred accordingly when they traded in their combat boots for delicate-heeled shoes rather than for fryer-greased trainers. There weren’t really any rich men where I grew up, so it was easier for me to resist playing along.
Similarly, having gone to a college that bragged about its lack of Greek life, frat-style sexism wasn’t hard for me to see and call out. After losing my first office job, I cocktail waitressed at a rowdy bar on Chicago’s Rush Street, the first gig I could find. One night the deejay invited young women to compete to see who could felate a shot glass most convincingly, leading the crowd in an increasingly aggressive chant of “blow, blow, blow” as they did so. The bile in my throat rose quick and sharp. I balled up my apron, handed it to the manager, said I didn’t want to work someplace where this was the entertainment, and walked out.
I quickly found a better job, at a restaurant owned by a Persian artist and managed by his wife. The front of the house was staffed exclusively with cute young women. The chef was a charismatic guy, always joking around, exceedingly ribald even for kitchen culture. One of the servers complained about him to the manager, said he continually made aggressive sexual remarks to her, that he’d backed her up against a wall and pushed himself against her.
“But she’s not even the prettiest girl. There are so many pretty waitresses here. Why would he pick her?” The manager was talking to the bartender, a woman in her 30s, who agreed there was no good reason. They proceeded to rate the staff in terms of attractiveness, sharing information about whom their partners preferred and who the regular clients did.
“Ray thinks you’re the prettiest,” the bartender said to me with a note of accusation.
“Has Jerry ever done anything like that to you?” the manager asked me.
“Grind into me?”
“No, but . . .”
I tried to explain that it didn’t negate the other woman’s complaint, but the manager kept repeating a point: He and I got along. She saw us laughing together all the time. And he got along with the others. The problem must be with her.
In the end, the waitress left, the chef remained, and I kept on.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Donald Trump said to Billy Bush. I’ve replayed that line many times in my mind. “They let you.” What does that mean, to “let”?
Forty-two percent of women voters chose Donald Trump to be our president. More white women voted for him than for Clinton. I’ve replayed that fact many times as well.
The truth is I liked the job with the Persian family. The owner quite obviously saw women as chattel, commented upon us all in that way. I dismissed him as a sexist and felt above him because of this, even as I humored him. Nonetheless I was flattered by his assessment of me, which focused not on my butt but on my profile. “You’re a mountain. You look strong.” This is what I wanted to think about myself: That I was a mountain. I was strong. Slings and arrows pinged right off.
I quit waitressing to take an office job, but I’d stop by the restaurant sometimes. One night I went with a man I was newly dating. We’d met when he was a customer, actually. We sat at a six top with some other employees and regulars and with the owner, who was drunk. He had comments about my appearance, but tonight they weren’t about how I looked strong, like a mountain, they were about how I looked juicy. He reached across and groped my breast, grabbed a whole handful. I slapped his hand away as if it were a tennis ball whizzing at me from the next court over. Then we all sat awhile longer and continued to talk and drink.
“I guess you handled that OK,” said the man I was there with, once we left the restaurant. It was clear he had some major doubts. I suspected he was imagining what he would have done in my shoes. Now it was not my butt that was being rated, but the way I stood up for myself.
I still felt the burn where the owner’s hand had grabbed me.
And yet I also still felt strong, impervious to my date’s implicit criticism. I knew that he was in no position to judge me. The fledgling relationship fizzled.
The truth is, if that boss had been running for president on any platform that acknowledged basic human rights, I would have voted for him against the man just elected without much more than a second thought and the same low, bitter burn of repressed anger and shame I’ve been living with most of my life. I believe it would have been the right thing to do, to put aside what he did to me and how he viewed women in general if it would have contributed to greater good for the many. To me, that qualifies as resilience. It’s also what I’ve reflexively done since my earliest entry into the workforce.
The other truth is, these are the two things I felt most distinctly as I lay sleepless on election night: like I was being kicked in the back and ribs by work-boot shod feet, and the urge to kick, to pummel that worn-down hometown that I hated and loved and that’s part of me and that I want to defend when, as is often the case, I’m with people who have no idea of what it’s like there, both how terrible and how fine.
Male sexual entitlement has affected most every woman I know. I’ve thought about the particular role it’s played in my life each day since the world heard Donald Trump bragging about grabbing pussy. I’m a memoirist who’s published work about issues of gender, sexual violence, and my own childhood sexual abuse, but I refrained from writing any commentary about how my early work experiences intersected with Trump’s brand of sexism. I didn’t want to appear to be chasing an ambulance, I told myself, to be making it about me. And I was tired of writing on these personal, often gendered topics. What I wanted was to vote and to win. A victory finally, clear-cut.
Instead, another defeat. Now I wonder if I didn’t write about Trump’s sexism because part of me was still standing there with my order pad, tapping my foot, and rolling my eyes but half-smiling, too, a good sport just trying to get the job done.
It’s not done. I’m still working. I’m not going to stop until they quit doing it and we quit assuming that it’s just the way it is.
Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, Lit Hub, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor. Born in Western Pennsylvania, she now lives in Evanston, Ill., with her husband and two children.