It was my second job.
I’d spent that summer working for a small veterinarian. Cleaning cages. Feeding animals. Answering phones. Light cleaning. I’d come in on Saturdays to help out. Then on Sundays to work alone. They were technically closed but someone had to be there in case of an emergency.
One Saturday, they needed assistance while putting a dog to sleep. And I knew then the job was not for me.
My father brought me up to the local pet food store. This was prior to the national chains really taking off. We owned several dogs, and the store was just blocks from our home, so he’d become good friends with the owner. I had a brief interview and was hired, at the age of 15, for my second job. One that would accommodate my school hours and not ask me to deal with euthanizing animals.
I was trained on the register. On signing people up for a rewards program. I was taught about all the various products the store carried. The owner believed in natural products, and really pushed people to invest in higher quality food products for their pets. He kept a huge list of rescue organizations specific to different breeds at the front of the store because he believed in adoption and refused to sell animals. He taught me about restocking and inventory and providing exceptional customer service.
He also taught me how he liked his shoulder and back massage.
The stock room was in the basement of the store. He showed me where everything was kept and was clear that I was not expected to pick up or carry the fifty pound bags of dog food up the stairs to the store when they needed restocking. He would always take care of that.
And then I would give him a massage.
He always restocked at night. When the store was quieter. Customers were less likely to come in. But even if they did, the massage took place in the back of the store. Back behind all the shelving. Back where there were no windows. He’d hear the bell above the front door as it opened and stood up quickly from his chair to go attend to the customer.
Nobody ever saw.
And I never said a word.
I hated every second of it. My skin would crawl. I’d get nauseous. I hated the scratch of his sweater beneath my fingers. I hated the skin between his collar and the base of his hairline. A constant fear that my fingers might slip and touch that skin, might cause him to think I enjoyed this or wanted to provide something more than a back and neck rub, ate away at the air in my lungs. I loathed the back of his head. There were nights I went home with my face aching from cringing and my fingers aching from squeezing.
I thought at times that if I really was good at it, if I really made his shoulders feel better, it might end quicker.
I stood there almost every time that I had to work until closing and, when I could no longer stand to look at the back of his head, I stared up at the ceiling willing someone to come into the store with the power and energy of every single cell in my body.
But I never said a word.
Because I needed that job. I was young. I thought maybe this was just what one had to do in order to keep a job. I’d spent my life being silent and quiet and shy and working at keeping my father, my abuser, from getting angry. Or angrier. And this guy was his friend.
I didn’t always stay silent, though.
Three jobs later . . .
This time I’m nineteen and working at a motorcycle shop that contained a clothing boutique. My father was gone. My boyfriend had left me. I was free and single and surrounded by men on a daily basis. I started experimenting sexually with a much older man I worked with. A man everyone there warned me against, but who did things to me none of the boys I dated previously had ever done. I was feeling bold and brave.
I wore short skirts and tight shirts. Thigh highs and high heels. All of which were encouraged. This was a motorcycle shop, first and foremost, and sex would help sell t-shirts and leather jackets to all those guys who sidled over to say hi and ask my name while their hogs got oil changes.
My stock was stored back with the parts behind the parts counter. All of it on shelves. Some of which were seven feet tall. I needed a ladder to reach that stock. And Ben always managed to appear when I sneaked back there to restock. Just to see if I needed help.
The only help he provided to me was when I had to climb the ladder.
“I’ll keep that steady for you,” he’d say with a smile.
Though he never held the ladder.
His hands always landed on the backs of my legs. Upper thighs. Not quite all the way under my skirt.
But not quite below the hem of it either.
it took a few weeks, but this time, I felt more empowered. I felt braver. This time, I said something.
I went to the general manager. A man who’d always been kind to me and made me laugh. I told him what had been going on. I told him I didn’t want it happening anymore, but that I didn’t feel comfortable telling Ben when the two of us were alone in the tightness of a stockroom aisle. Hidden behind high shelves.
I told him I wanted him to speak to Ben. And that I didn’t want to have to discuss it with Ben.
The general manager seemed sympathetic. And concerned. He would take care of this, he assured me.
The next time I worked a shift with Ben, he cornered me in the stock room.
He wasn’t loud. But he was adamant. I was wrong about the whole thing. He was a married man and he needed this job and I misunderstood the whole thing.
He kept at it until I apologized to him. Only after I apologized was I allowed to pass him and exit the stock room to get back to work.
With the eyes of Ben, and all the other parts guys he took turns whispering to, watching me from across the store.
We keep telling these stories. We keep responding to cries of, “Why now? Why is she only speaking up now?” We keep explaining what it means to be at the mercy of a man who holds power. What it means to want to keep your job. Not just keep your job, but keep it and be able to work in relative comfort and safety.
Harvey Weinstein is a high profile example, in an industry I can bet is teeming with examples just as horrific. Or worse.
But sometimes Harvey is the guy in the pet store. Or the bike shop. Or the local accounting firm.
Harvey Weinstein attacked and threatened in pricey hotel rooms around the world.
But often the attacks and threats and gropes and grabs take place desk-side. In musty stock rooms. Beside frying oil.
We go home tired and wrung out and sometimes those feelings have nothing to do with the physical labor of the job itself and everything to do with the fight to maintain our personal space and our dignity and our safety.
This is not an issue for women to resolve.
Men need to answer some questions.
Like, why they think this is ok. Why they aren’t recognizing how inappropriate and abusive this behavior is. Why they think they are entitled to treat women like this.
Years later Jacob hired my younger male cousin. And years after that I worked up the nerve to ask if he ever gave Jacob a back rub or shoulder massage. The look on his face prior to him responding verbally was enough to let me know he’d never been asked.
I’d like to ask Jacob why.
And when they’re done answering all the questions that begin with, “Why . . . ,” men need to answer all the ones that begin with “How?”
How are they going to confront this in their communities? How are they going to ensure it doesn’t happen to any woman?
Not just their daughters, wives, sisters.
How are they going to work on this issue?
Because this is not an issue for women to resolve.