“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
So, on one of the first nights of my first job, outside of babysitting or cleaning houses, when I was all of fourteen years old, I was trapped inside a walk-in cooler by the chef at a popular restaurant in Detroit. A restaurant now rumored to be frequented by the mob. Go figure. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. About those who have “trespassed against” me.
It was in listening to an interview on Fresh Air the other night (which, by the way, is a very insightful piece on recent news about (mostly) men who have harassed, abused, or violated women in the workplace) that I heard Rebecca Traister refer to the range of men’s offenses–from annoyance to violent crime–as “trespassing.” Good word, I thought. Good word.
Those who have trespassed against me. Well, the list is long. Thus the post, “Yes,” on October 24. That morning I had listed all the trespassers of my life, and I noticed a pattern. When I had said “no” to men or boys they had interpreted that word to mean “yes.”
Upon further investigation–which means writing in my dark morning office, waiting for the winter sun to please rise soon because I am not fond of short winter days—I realized that sometimes my ‘no’ may have meant ‘yes?’ Sometimes my ‘yes’ may have meant ‘I do not know.’ Or I am afraid. Or sometimes, each time, I experienced the confusion of adolescence. It appears, I was not alone. Adolescence, and womanhood, in this world, is confusing.
I do not remember the moment that walking became strutting. Somewhere after I turned 11? Twelve? I do not remember when walking changed from just walking to exhibiting. But it had. And I was cat-called. Followed. I was the recipient of whistles, invitations, inquiries. I was flattered. Being noticed for my appearance by strangers was new, titillating, flattering. It made me feel grown up. Sexy. Pretty. Noticeable. I did not feel harassed or that any trespass had occurred. I believe the following explains why.
When I was seven years old, walking home from school with my sister through the alley that ran east and west along Grand River, we saw a man standing by the fence. He was a stereotypical provocateur, I know now, but then he was just a some jerk in a trench coat who exposed himself to us as he rubbed his hard cock when we passed him. We took off running. We told my brother when we got home. He grew angry, ready to go beat up the guy. “Where was this?”
The second time this happened, I was nine, and in the same alley. And a different man was sitting in a car parked oddly in our path so we could not avoid walking by his open windows to continue on our way. And, as we walked by, we can see that the man, who is staring at us, is also rubbing his erect cock below the steering wheel. We ran again. I don’t remember telling my brother this time.
Perhaps what stopped us from reporting this was that nothing had happened the time before. So an assumption had developed, a precedent had been set: it was a normal occurrence. Us girls were to ‘just be careful.’ AKA the onus is on children to be wary of pedophiles, not pedophiles to be put in jail. This is what happens. Men in the world do this type of thing. Little girls are subject to this behavior. Trespassing happens. And we must forgive according to my Catholic upbringing and praying.
So when I was the ripe old age of 14, and I had seen men’s hard cocks and I had experienced the exuberance of being noticed for my looks, well, no, my assumed fuckability (because man whistled at me until I had boobs and hips as if those, for some, made me accessible), I really didn’t know much about sex at all. I had been provided the mechanics, and nothing more. Again, adolescent confusion.
Thus, my best friend and I researched what we could one afternoon, going through the set of Encyclopedia Britannica at my house, and the Worldbooks at hers. We flipped to the appropriate alphabetical listing each time we came upon a new term. We read all we could on that topic until another mysterious word appeared. Vulva. Erection. Urethra. Coitus. Still mostly mechanics but we were figuring it out. Our Bodies Ourselves was first published in 1971, and that was nothing that we young Catholic girls would or could access at the time.
So experience became the key. Many of our friends had delved into sexual activity and talked in whispers and coded language about who’d gone how far. The ‘bases’ were part of that code, and the boys in the group were braggarts, making coded comments about what they knew or had done, or had tried. They always spoke to this loudly and in front of others.
The girls, on the other hand, kept the conversations more private. Much of boys’ banter was critical, derogatory, and embarrassing. It wasn’t “locker room” talk, per se, for it occurred in front of everyone. And, again, it fed into the sense of normalcy that I had come to understand. Males showed off, bragged, and maintained a level of cruelty on a subject that females took seriously, carefully researched, quietly analyzed.
No, I am not saying that anything ‘saintly’ was occurring with us girls, we were engaging. But there was a very distinct divide in the perception around the sexual and the flirtatious as I observed it. The boys seemed to use it as a tool for disdain and bravado. We girls wanted it for love and affection.
So, it was about this time that I took a job at Chuck Josephs, washing dishes, and then helping Jerry, the chef. One night, he sent me into the cooler for something. I had never been in a walk-in cooler, and I couldn’t even open the door at first. Jerry came up behind me, extremely close, and wrapped his arm around me to show me how to open the door.
I will never forget the warmth and strength of his body against mine. It was the closest a male, a man, had ever been to me, and it was something. Looking back I can honestly say I do not remember feeling either fearful, or in danger, not titillation and longing, but he was warm and strong. Once the door was open, and we entered the cooler, he shut the door behind us and showed me how to get out, by pushing the big metal button.
He explained to me that nobody on the outside could hear me if I was inside, so be sure to leave the door open. And then he approached me, cornered me, in the back of the cooler, explaining to me in somewhat coded language, that ‘all kinds of things’ could happen in there, and nobody would hear.
“Like you could kiss me,” he said putting his arms on shelves on either side of me and coming in close to my face.
I believe I kissed him.
But I do not remember.
If I didn’t that time, I did the next. I definitely remember a kiss. One. At some point. Working beside him as the prep cook, on many Saturday nights, was a long stretch of hours where I cut carrots or peeled cucumbers, but it was also long hours of his noticing and commenting on me, my body, what could or could not happen with us, in the cooler.
And I did not feel harassed. It did not seem to be trespass. This is my point.
It felt normal.
I worked there for several Saturday nights. Then Al Valente, the owner of Maria’s, the pizza restaurant next door, who often came into the kitchen at Chuck Joseph’s and talked to Jerry, asked me if I would like a job at the pizzeria with more hours. I jumped at the opportunity.
The first night on my new job, Al approached me, turned his back toward me, and asked me to scratch his back. I did.
It felt normal.
On every shift for the next few years, I worked with a team of three or four teenage boys, and one of two men. Al or his backup manager, Ken Angelosanto. Al never asked for more than back scratching. Ken was an outright flirt, and like Jerry before him, wanted kisses, and more, and he spent a lot of time with me at the counter in front of the restaurant, instead of back in the kitchen where he belonged. Both of these men were married and had children.
I did not feel harassed by either of them. It did not seem to be trespass. This is my point.
It felt normal.
I was fourteen.
I worked at Maria’s until I graduated from high school. At eighteen my understanding of men, males, and relationships was pretty consistent, and unfortunate, looking back. What occurred was lost on me. I did not know that it was wrong for my superiors to expect physical attention, sexual attention, and for me to offer it as part of my role as their employee.
I was a smart girl. A good Catholic girl. Not saintly, but not innocent either. I did not have sex with these men, but the amount of and the normalcy of the sexual and flirtatious interaction, in retrospect, is appalling. But certainly not news.
I am struck by the use of the word “shock” in the stories that take up the airwaves and blogosphere and print these last few months. I know that what I experienced in the first few years of my work life in Detroit, Michigan was not rare or isolated or new. Surely, surely, we all know this goes on, and we have seen it, heard about it, or experienced it ourselves either as the trespasser or the trespassed.
This is not shocking. It is normal. People in positions of superiority trespassing upon their subordinates is not news. The current headlines strike me as about ridiculous as someone reporting each day that the sun rose.
Yet, I am glad that people are talking about this, I just think we should remove the drama and the shock factor. Let’s admit what we all know, and have always known, these types of stories to be true. And let’s be glad that the stories, not news, are everywhere, and we are currently inundated by them and by how normal it is for men to trespass against girls and women. Women expressing long quieted anger. Men continue in denial.
Keep the stories coming. But let’s get real folks. The content, and the behavior are not news. That women have a platform and are stepping up onto it and speaking out is new.
But let’s not forget that the platform has been hoisted by the media, and the government to some extent, and both are run or owned, for the most part, by men.
But change is upon us. I do believe, change is upon us.