Nothing Ever Changed
I applied to Hadley’s most popular diner my sophomore year of college. When I got the job I was ecstatic at the idea of having flexible hours and good money while being able to go to class. Little did I know that the diner would consume my life.
I arrived for my first shift not knowing what to expect. I walked through those swinging doors into the kitchen where, for a brief moment, everything stopped. I was greeted by the eyes of about seven men: all cooks, prep cooks, or dishwashers. Their eyes stared hungrily as I was introduced. The smirks began to grow across their faces.
“Hola Mami,” “Ohhh linda mamicita,” I could hear in hushed tones. I thought nothing of what they said in what they thought was secret. I was slightly flattered but nothing more, just ready to get my job done. The rest of my shift consisted of cooks asking seemingly innocent questions like: “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” I answered and that was that.
Weeks went by and the “flattery” did not stop; it started getting more forward and more frequent. Then the head cook decided it was time to make his move. I had been warned by other waitresses to stay away from Coco, “He is a creep…I heard he raped a girl once” and “Don’t let him follow you into the back walk-in freezer; he kissed my neck once while I was in there.” I was hyper-aware of Coco after hearing numerous stories. I knew it was coming.
On this seemingly normal shift I needed to fill the coleslaw. I knew I needed to go into the freezer, but I was wary, having never being back there alone. I headed towards it quietly, not wanting to draw too much attention. I brought with me a container and a large industrial spoon to refill the empty coleslaw. I weaved my way past vats of prep food scattered across the always wet and slimy floor. I walked past the two prep cooks, who spoke no English, but who looked at me and smiled. They were the kind of smiles with a pretense, where they knew something you didn’t.
I proceeded to the freezer. I will never forget that freezer and its distinct smell of raw chicken mixed with a New York alleyway. It turns my stomach to think of it. I pulled out the large Rubbermaid container of coleslaw, careful to not touch the old, and dried crusted slaw drippings on the sides. My task was cut short by the opening of the heavy door, and the entering of Coco.
He had a look in his eye that I immediately recognized as dangerous. He crept towards me like rat hungry for a morsel of food. “Listen Mami I was thinging I take you to the movies,” he got close enough to me that the alarm in my head went off. I said assertively, “No. You are making me really uncomfortable, please leave.” He seemed to enjoy this exchange, like it was a game. He licked his lips at me and took another step. Instinct took over and I held up the industrial spoon defensively. I held my ground making it clear I would not hesitate. “Coco if you don’t back up…” he seemed to take the hint. I saw an uncertainty in his eyes. “Okay, okay, Loca” he immediately left. I sighed with relief and was proud of my reaction, but simultaneously shaken. Little did I know that night would soon become a one of my worst yet.
When I came back from the freezer I was followed by dozens of eyes; eyes tracking a target. I knew they had a job to do, and it was to make my night miserable. Suddenly food starting disappearing from the pass, orders were wrong, and remarks were made just as I left the kitchen but still within earshot. Customers began yelling at me because they specifically asked for food to not be included, the food tasted horrible, the service was slow, and so on. I was heckled when I went back to have something remade, “Why Mami you don’t like me? I mean my cooking, my English not so good.”
That night felt like an eternity. I could handle the cooks to a degree, but when the manager zeroed in on me, his actions soon revealed the reality that I was alone in this. He screamed for me to come get my “f***ing” food and called me a dumb “b***h.” The verbal abuse continued until my shift ended. I was finally able to leave after hours of being berated and harassed by both management and the kitchen staff. I got into my car to finally weep. I could not stop shaking. This was the first time in my life I have ever been punished for sticking up for my basic right as a woman to decline the advances of man I was not interested in.
I continued at the diner for over two years. I became desensitized to the harassment. Although I was still aware of what was going on around me, I was grateful for the days the heat was off me. Working at the diner exposed me to the truth of sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet I was so controlled by the management and owners that I dared not to speak up against the harassment. It was made painstakingly clear that I was a common commodity and was replaceable. I was scared to lose my job; it was good money and I knew getting another waitressing job would be hard to find in a town full of thousands of underemployed students.
It wasn’t until now that I remembered what was said on my initial interview. When I told my interviewer I had no restaurant experience, they said, “We prefer girls with no experience, that way we can train them our way.” What a loaded statement. I can’t help but wonder if they preferred girls with no experience because they wouldn’t need to worry about knowing food safety, labor laws, and sexual harassment training. To a young girl, stepping into the diner for the first time you quickly must learn the Route 9 culture of being chastised, screamed at, and exploited if you want to make a decent wage. At least, that was my experience.
The stories were endless, in fact it became a rite of passage to share your battle scars with your fellow waitresses. The countless horrors I remember hearing are too numerous to share in one small blog post. They ranged from sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and the breaking of various labor laws. On one occasion we were short staffed on a dinner shift, a time where I was still relatively new and was given two sections; the diner was at full capacity. I ran around franticly trying to get all the orders out. I physically could not do it. I had a group of six drunken college guys whose bill came to over $120; they walked out without paying their bill and I was met with the bill at the end of the night. Forcing an employee to cover the operating expenses of a business is not only illegal but it is morally corrupt. So many similar instances to me shed a lot of light on how the diner is run. It is solely there to make money through the exploitation of hard working people.
Another example of the lack of professionalism of the management part is the consistent appearance of a particular diner regular. He was a younger guy who would come in late at night who was good friends with the managers and carried himself as if he was a part of the diner staff. He would usually sit there with his headphones in and laptop opened. On one of my night shifts I walked past him and glanced at his laptop screen. I was appalled to see pornographic images on his screen. I went to the manager telling him that he needed to put an end to that as it was exceptionally offensive. I felt that I had the right not to be exposed to explicit content at the workplace. Apparently, I was wrong. Being friends with the customer, the manager brushed it off laughing, “yeah he loves freaky sh**.” The manager proceeded to stand by the customer looking over his shoulder giggling like a pubescent teenage boy. I was horrified but moved on. What I did not realize that this would not be my last experience with pornography in the workplace.
The cooks on the nightshift would often gather around one of their phones whooping and hollering. I knew they were looking at women, but just assumed they were on Facebook looking at girls. It was not until day when I was waiting on an order and noticed none of the cooks were attentive, instead, gathered around a phone yet again. I proceeded to ask where my pancakes where, when they all started laughing at something on the phone. All of a sudden either the volume malfunctioned or they did it on purpose to see my reaction. But a loud sexual groan that could only belong to a porn star was released. I was horrified, and that fueled their fire. I yelled out “that is absolutely disgusting.” Then the cook turned his phone around to show me the pornographic clip they had been viewing. They all laughed. They built off one another, “you like what you see?” – “How you like to take it Mami?”– “I do this sh** to you too if you like, I’m real good, I make you scream like that.” I ran out of the kitchen with my stomach in a knot. I knew those cooks were fantasizing about me in a sexual way and there was NOTHING I could do to stop them. I had been deeply violated. Once more, the night ended with me weeping in my car.
What is worse is this continued until some of my last weeks there. One of the cooks would tauntingly flash pornographic images at me. When I told him he was a pig and tried to brush it off, the cook would then oink at me when I walked into the kitchen. I told two different managers and they laughed. I told one of the owners, who responded with a simple “I’ll take care of it.” Nothing changed. Nothing ever changed. The constant unwanted hugs that felt like a bear trap suffocating you while you tried to push the sweaty cook away from you, the not so accidental brushes against your hair, the one up and downs examining your body, the whistles when you bent over, nothing ever changed. No matter how much you spoke up you would not be heard. Nothing ever changed.
What is hard for me to understand to this day, is how the owners can claim ignorance to the situation at hand. The diner was wired with cameras, every movement is captured (with the exception of the back freezer). If you stopped working to eat or take a break, and one of the owners caught you, there would be hell to pay. The harsh reality is the cameras that always watched you were not there for your security, but to catch you in a moment of weakness. Never once did I feel comforted that those cameras that they could protect me. Deep down inside I knew that if a situation did arise where I needed the proof, those images captured by the cameras would magically disappear. Just as with Big Brother, at the diner you were always watched, but never watched over. You would be stared at in a sexual way, in a disapproving hostile way, in a critical way, but never stared at as an equal.
Upon graduation I left knowing that I would never have to see their faces again, they would never control me, and they couldn’t hurt me anymore. I moved away and on with my life. It was not until the read the recent blog post of my old coworkers that I realized the diner would never stop haunting me until I took a stand. It would always hold power over me if I remained silent. The harassment and abuse need to end. I challenge my other co-workers to speak up. We need to take back our lives. The place where nothing ever changed needs a change.
My personal thoughts on the blog posts:
The bloggers are strong, they are brave, and most importantly they seek to shine a light in this dark world. They are by definition good people. Yes we did willingly work there. No one put a gun to my head forcing me to work. But I could not leave, not really. I depended on the diner financially. And at the time the option of leaving was not so obvious. It was not until I did leave and reflect back that I realize how truly abysmal the working conditions were for me.
These blog posts are not about a vendetta They are about awareness. This diner has had the liberty of allowing sexual harassment to go on for too long. This is a movement for women’s rights and employment rights. I write to help educate the young girl who applies to any restaurant similar to the diner unknowingly entering into a dangerous world. I write to help all who have been subjected to unfair employment, but most importantly I write for a community that has been betrayed. I am not the bad person in this situation– that would be those who have witnessed sexual harassment but ignored it because it’s not good for business.