Trigger warning: This essay contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.
I see him around often, the man who sexually harassed me or men that look just like him. Honestly, most men look just like him because people like this man are generic. There was nothing special about his face, his hair, the clothes he chose to put on his body for a day of sexually harassing a 20-year-old girl at her job in a grocery store.
But it is his stature that haunts me. It is his presence that I see around town. I don’t remember the color of his eyes or what he was wearing, but I remember how I felt when he stood next to me. He was tall, the perfect height to loom; his walk, slow and intimidating like a character in a zombie show; his voice, a drawl, though he had no reason for it. He was from a city in the Pacific Northwest, a place of liberal, elite men who think they treat women as their equals.
I felt his stare long before he thought I did. He knew I was alone as much as I knew I was alone; he sensed it in me. After choosing the perfect bottle of .79 cent water to accompany his cheap malt liquor in a paper bag, he crept toward me. Drinking in public is illegal here, and I subconsciously banked it as the reason I could have anyone forcibly removed from the store. I knew that the public drinking law held more weight than any of my complaints about what he’d do or say to me. I was preparing, my hand ready to grab the phone.
You cannot legally drink in public, but you can legally sexually harass a college student at her night job.
You can legally shrug off a threatening comment by pretending you were unaware that it was offensive, that you were drunk, that you didn’t mean anything by it, that you weren’t going to follow her home when she left the building to walk the mile home.
You cannot be arrested for your suggested intentions.
He wanted to know where I was from. I said, “Here.” He pushed. “Born here? Raised here?”
“Why?” I was young, but already worn from years of customer service.
“You don’t look like you’re from here. You’re dark. You must tan. Or you’re something else.”
“You’re a mulatto, aren’t you? I can tell. You’re strong too.”
He looked me up and down when he said it. He licked his lips when he said it.
“I can tell that you’re strong.”
When I slammed his change down on the counter, we could both see my hands shaking. I needed another customer, or one of my coworkers, or someone.
There was no one around.
“Get away from me.”
“But I didn’t do anything; I am just giving you a compliment.”
I picked the phone up, called up front, told them I was walking out the door if someone didn’t replace me back there. Though I needed my job, I would have gladly gone into more student loan debt to avoid that interaction. I would have swallowed my pride and borrowed money from my best friend-roommate if it meant never having to set foot in that store again.
Two people rushed from the back to fight him out of the store. I remember their names, their faces.
I remember how it felt to have them just believe me.
One of them hugged me, causing tears to spring to my eyes — like when someone asks if you are okay when you are definitely not okay.
My supervisor asked me if I’d like to go home. I really did. Though I used to track my hours so closely, the $34.50 I would lose from my paycheck was worth the comfort of a shower and my bedroom.
I still see him all of the time, or I think I do.
It happened more than a decade ago but I remember his voice, the way he tried to tower above me, his condescending and offensive word choice, the fact that I really do believe he thought he was complimenting me. He was easily 55 years old. I was 20. Worse things happen to people all of the time, but what could have been has always stuck with me. Lately, I’ve thought more about that harassment than I have in years.
I used to walk home from work. My town felt small, felt safe. In the years to come, I would be threatened by men; I would be followed home twice. I would be drugged in a bar; I would be called a tease and a prude, a slut and a bitch. At 20, I knew there was more to come, but that moment is what I always remember first.
This is my #metoo.
Men have an enormous responsibility to speak up, to call out their friends, to check themselves, to realize their actions. That is especially important to discuss in the context of #metoo — but it always should have been important.
We need to hear more conversations about the customer service aspect of sexual harassment. Women and female-presenting people are not at their jobs to meet you or to please you.
If you are a man, you need to realize that commenting on a working person’s appearance, staring at her for too long, watching her when you think she doesn’t know you are watching her, is all inappropriate. Your actions go far beyond “just looking” or “just talking.” I was only trying to make my rent. I did not deserve to have a completely life-altering experience, one that still terrifies me years later.
Take your groceries and go, dudes.
Men need to be much more aware of how they interact with working people. This all happened at a grocery store, but I left that job to be a barista — and I still endured endless sexual suggestions and unwanted advances for years until I left customer service entirely. It’s completely inappropriate, and it needs to stop.
That man reminded me of a man I used to see in a dream, a man who walked without bending his knees. He walked slowly, but I always knew he would catch up. I couldn’t scream, as you often can’t in the deepest part of your subconscious. He was old and walked big and long; I was a child. I hadn’t had that dream in years — until a few months ago.