When My Boss Grabbed My Ass in the Ice Cream Parlour
#86THIS: Main Menu
By Clare Downie
In the late ’80s, my Mom was in her 20s. Fresh out of university, and with a “nice perm,” she was interviewing for a job at some advertising office. Just as the conversation was coming to a close, the boss asked her to stand up and “give him a spin.” Dumbfounded, she actually did a 360, but later turned down his offer of employment. (Thank goodness.) I’m able to retell her story by heart, having heard it dozens of times over the years. I’ve always pictured his hands on his lap, fingers interlaced, as the second hand on his watch ticked the longest five seconds of my Mom’s young career. Thirty years later, when it was suddenly my turn to get workin’, I held onto her story as merely an account of an era long past. With that optimism, I went out and got my first job.
The summer I was 15, I was hired at an ice cream shop. I scooped cones, and smiled with my mouth closed. I used unmarked chemicals to wipe scuffs from the shop’s white walls. On a good day, I’d leave early because it was raining. I learned to sleep with my eyes open, and became practiced in the art of pretending to keep busy. I clocked hours, voluntarily rolling waffles cones in front of the hot irons, my back strategically facing the door so I couldn’t stare at the clock hanging next to it. It was there, as I was trying to kill time, that my then-boss came up behind me and proceeded to grope my ass. The shop was busy, and my co-workers were occupied. I clenched my teeth. I pretended not to notice him or his hand. Weeks previous, I had established that my job was exceptionally dull; however, it was in this unforeseen moment, as he squeaked away in his sanitary Crocs, that I decided I wanted to quit. But I didn’t.
My chosen method of action was, in fact, inaction. Even with my obscured 15-year-old sense of self-awareness, I knew his hand’s proximity to my butt was wrong—simply by how uncomfortable it made me. But his misconduct didn’t seem bad enough or worth addressing. By virtue of the latter, I guess at 15 I didn’t think I was worth defending either. In the 2.75 seconds his hand made contact with my ass, my morsel of delicate teenage self-respect had melted away. Like a reflex, I returned to work the next day; my half-lit dignity tucked away in my jean-shorts back pocket. I locked myself in the bathroom, bobby-pinned the hairs out of my face, and proceeded to work the shift—mentioning to no one what had happened.
I was probably in shock. It’s startling to have someone grab your ass, of course. But channeling my 15-year-old psyche, I think I was more surprised to learn that this sorta thing was still happening in the workplace. I wouldn’t have realized this in the moment, but it’s obvious to me now how maybe I’d been holding on to my Mom’s account of the ’80s too tightly. Through her story, I heard a description of the workplace then. I assumed the present work climate must be different—that sexual harassment was now both legally and socially unacceptable. I had previously heard my Mom’s story as an account of the way things were. But then, suddenly, my boss insulted my boundaries and body. My thinking abruptly changed. I twisted my own sexual assault into a testament of the workplace now.
I acknowledged sexual misconduct as simply a part of my new reality. As a working woman, I too could endure the maneuvers of the archetypal creepy boss.
But how the hell did my personal standards dip so low? Did I not expect to be treated with at least a little respect and decency? I guess not. Like my lanky arms and legs, I probably just hadn’t grown into it yet. Now, with even a few years of life experience, it’s easy to pick apart or critique my then-reaction/lack thereof. I chose to stay quiet over my then-boss’s actions, concerned by what my co-workers would think. Who could I tell? What would my boss do to me? Would he fire me? I guess I’m not getting a job reference then, right? My concerns were valid and made keeping quiet an easier choice. There were too many unknowns or what-ifs that framed intolerance as the over-complicated, unattractive option. I tried to let it slide—I chose to accept the way he treated me, thereby accepting future harassment, too.
I can say with conviction now: It was not my responsibility to inform my then-boss that his actions were inappropriate, or “yes, sir, considered sexual misconduct.” I shouldn’t have to ask to be respected by my employer. Those perpetrating and condoning sexual assault must be held accountable; their concrete action and authentic effort is indispensable. But on the other side of 15, I can see where my effort was needed—work that could have allowed this 15-year-old to speak up. I hadn’t come to the conclusion that I could not—and would not— tolerate any amount of harassment. Somewhere on my passage to teenagedom, I lost a piece of my foundation; absent was the confidence to prioritize my well-being. I didn’t feel able to defend myself or justify my desire for respect. Lacking self-worth, I retained space to tolerate the misconduct I experienced. I hadn’t acquired the self-confidence to establish how I wanted to be treated—and to refuse anything otherwise. With both time and distance, solitude and good-company, I’ve built myself up from the bedrock. Into the future, my contribution to the zero-tolerance workplace could be through my inherent zero tolerance.
With 15 fading further and further into the distance, I feel as though I am finally able to hold my Mom’s story under its appropriate light—maybe my interpretation wasn’t too far off, after all. What I heard as merely an account of the past was her implied hope for the future; what she didn’t want any of her children to stand for. These days, whether in regard to Batali, Friedman, or Weinstein even, I look to the beautifully brave women coming forward with their stories and allegations. They are opening the conversation, setting a precedent, contributing to the new paradigm. With this, I feel not only able to talk about my first job, but that the story is worth contributing. Today, I can speak of the time I was a raging teenager, knowing silence is no longer required of me. And I hold on to my Mom’s words as a reminder that even at 15, even then, it never was.
My name is Clare and I'm from Toronto. I just turned 20 and wore a pink, bell-bottom, corduroy suit to my party. I’m in my first year of university—still adjusting to the whole “studying” thing people keep mentioning. In my spare time and not, I love to cook, or at least eat. I try to read, and write about topics that feel important. My personal goals for 2018 are to worry less and dance more.