Easy Chair — From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

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When I was eighteen, I spent several months working as a bus girl at a diner. It was a cheerful-looking place, facing San Francisco Bay. The kitchen was L-shaped: the owner stood in the short end of the L with the coffee makers and the cash register, and I was often at the other end, by the dishwashing machine, out of sight. In between were the prep counters and an eight-burner stove, where the cook was stationed. He was a middle-aged drinker with bloodshot eyes who would unexpectedly grab me from behind. No one seemed to notice, and in that decade before Anita Hill brought “sexual harassment” into the popular lexicon, I couldn’t articulate that this was something that violated my rights instead of just something that repulsed and rattled me.

After a few weeks of these unwelcome surprises, I made sure that the next time the cook came for me, I was holding a tray of clean glasses. He grabbed me; I yelped and let go of the tray. The shattering glass made a cacophony. The owner, another middle-aged man, rushed over and chewed out the cook — the glasses were audible and valuable in a way I was not.

Underlings get a reputation for being duplicitous because they sometimes fall back on indirect means when straightforward ones are not available. When I was an underling, the only way I knew to make a man stop grabbing me was to trick a more powerful man into laying down the law. I had no authority, or had reason to believe I had none. “When you’re a star, they let you do it” has its corollary in “When you’re nobody, it’s hard to stop them from doing it.”

The assumption that I was nobody didn’t always fit, even in my youth. A decade after I dropped that tray, I was interviewing a man for one of my books. He was married, near my parents’ age, but when we were alone for the interview, he got excited and amorous. I could tell that he regarded our interaction as off the record, perhaps because young women were categorically inaudible. I wanted to shout at him, I am making the public record right now. And yet, had he regarded me with respect, I would have known less of who he was — and thought more of him.

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