In the spring of 1999, as I was nearing the end of my junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, I began to think about how I would spend my summer. Having burned out the previous summer after working sixty-hour weeks as a bank intern during the week and as a banquet waiter on weekends (seventy if you include my commute), I wanted to go about things more leisurely in the upcoming summer. I did not want to be idle (see chapter six in this book for a brief discussion of the distinction between leisure and idleness), but rather have more free time to read the classics and think about the big questions in life.
I was living off-campus and hoped to remain in Philadelphia for the summer. I figured the proximity to campus would be a spur to intellectual enterprise that would stave off the lazy languor of summer. This was admittedly somewhat naïve given that the campus would empty when the semester came to an end, but for me it was all about being on my own in Philadelphia. Yearning for independence, I did not care to return to the doldrums of family life back home in Rhode Island. Being a bike ride away from Center City Philadelphia while nestled in a snug off-campus residence on the outskirts of campus in West Philly, free to roam down Locust Walk and meander through the bookstore and loiter in the library and lounge on the campus greens and exercise in Franklin Field, I had high hopes for the summer. Faculty and students would be scarce, but books and time would be plentiful.
However, my bank account consisted of the meager residue of student loans and savings from my internship the previous summer. I relied on my parents financially only to the extent I counted on them to remain poor so I would continue to qualify for grants that paid tuition and loans that paid for room and board during the semester. If I was going to stay in Philadelphia for the summer and cultivate the mind, I needed a job that would not eat up all my time but would still compensate me enough to eat and pay the rent.
One day during track practice, a close friend on the track team, Rich, was talking about his experience working as a host at a bar and restaurant near Penn’s Landing in Old City Philadelphia called Dickens Inn. Then he made a lewd crack about his manager ‘trying to get in my pants’, but in a facetious way that was aimed at entertaining a small circle of rambunctious college athletes in a locker room. It was not a complaint, but an exaggeration which implied that he and the manager got along well, and that it was of little concern to Rich that the manager was gay and liked to flirt with him. It seemed more a revelation of his comfort level as a straight male than a sign of homophobia. It also led me to assume his manager was a genial guy who knew Rich well enough to know Rich would not take offense to innocent flirtations. Moreover, Rich had the kind of gregarious personality that gave you no reason to doubt his bawdy jest exposed camaraderie with the manager rather than any dissatisfaction with his conditions of employment.
The idea then occurred to me that Rich had agreeable relations with the manager and thus might put in a word for me about being a waiter that summer. I had never been an a la carte waiter before, but I was a banquet waiter the previous two summers in Rhode Island, and I was of the opinion that the shift from banquet waiter to a la carte waiter would not be too big a leap. It wouldn’t be the kind of work that involved reading Shakespeare and Aristotle, nor would it expose me to interlocutors of academic renown, but I betted on the hours being fewer and less regimented than if I were working on the clock in the sedentary confines of an office. Moreover, as the son of working-class parents, I felt I would have better rapport with the blue-collar proletariat than I would have with the white-collar bourgeoisie who graced the carpeted halls and mahogany desks of a staid office building, even if I was often teased by the hoi polloi for being a snotty book smart kid with no common sense.
Thus, I asked Rich if he wouldn’t mind putting in a query about openings for a waiter that summer. He didn’t mind, and sure enough, Rich managed to get me an interview with the manager. One afternoon not long after, I rode my bike from Penn’s campus to Penn’s Landing for an interview with the manager at Dickens Inn.
I entered the restaurant and asked for Gerardo.
‘Hi, I’m Jon, Rich’s friend?’
‘Oh, yes, give me a minute,’ Gerardo said with a smile. He was busy but in good spirits as he hustled around the restaurant.
After a few minutes, he led me into one of the rooms of the dining area that was not being used. We sat down at a table covered with white cloth. The restaurant was themed after the literary works of Charles Dickens. We were now sitting in the Pickwick Room, named after Mr. Pickwick in Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers. The room was small and cozy, set off at one end of the the restaurant by a checkerboard wall of square glass panels and a three-step stairwell.
‘I have to say, I’ve never interviewed someone while he was wearing a hat,’ Gerardo began with a good-natured chuckle.
I forgot I had my baseball cap on. I had a sudden shameful realization that I had come to the interview with a thinly masked presumption that I would be hired simply because I knew a well-liked employee who had put in a good word for me. I was immediately self-conscious about being a nepotism case, and regretted that I hadn’t bothered to prepare or rehearse or dress properly, having complacently thought that the job was in the bag and that an interview was merely a formality.
Gerardo had picked up on my cavalier attitude right away.
‘Oh, sorry,’ I said sheepishly.
Gerardo made light of the indiscretion, however, and proceeded to run through the usual litany of questions: why I wanted to work there, whether I had experience, what my schedule was like. I answered the questions as well as I could, but ultimately boilerplate questions yielded boilerplate answers. I put in a word about my experience as a banquet waiter in Rhode Island, though I was honest about having minimal experience as an a la carte waiter. Not to worry, Gerardo reassured me. I would learn. Plus, my experience as a banquet waiter was relevant because, during the summer, Dickens Inn hosted banquet-style lunches for European tour groups that passed through Philadelphia.
Gerardo broke it all down. The menu, the clientele, the staff, and the importance of good old-fashioned hard work because all tips were placed in a bucket and divided equally at the end of the night. Shirking was not cool.
‘I can’t think of anything fairer,’ I said reflexively. Gerardo nodded quizzically, as if to say, ‘maybe.’ For the rest of the summer, I winced when I remembered that knee-jerk reply, cognizant that egalitarianism undermines fairness more often than it promotes a meritocracy. As I became aware of my own ineptitude as a waiter, I knew I probably went home with more than my ‘fair share’ more than a few times.
During the interview, Gerardo was routinely interrupted by staff. He juggled the intrusions skillfully but at one point he had to get up and tend to one of the many headaches that arise in the restaurant business. I waited patiently.
When he came back, he cut to the chase.
‘I want to offer you a job,’ he said.
‘Great!’ I said with relief. I feared I might be doomed after the gaffe with my hat and the boilerplate answers I gave to his questions.
My summer was set!
He gave me a start date for training.
The first night was a Sunday night. It turned out to be a busy night for a Sunday. I trained with a waiter named Richard (not my track friend Rich) and a waitress named Sheila, an Irish woman whose Irish accent seemed close enough to the British to make her a good fit for a British-themed restaurant in America. I worked hard and the night sailed by. As the night wound down, Gerardo took me aside and ushered me to one of the restaurant’s three bars. It was sandwiched between two larger bars, in a small alcove seemingly reserved for private occasions. It was closed for the evening. Gerardo asked me to have a seat at the bar.
I watched him grab a couple of bottles of alcohol from the shelf. As he turned around with a cork in one hand and a bottle in the other, he launched into a lecture on beers, liquors, and wines. Red meat goes with red wine. White meat goes with white wine. Chardonnay is thick and buttery, while Pinot Grigio is light and fizzy. Cabernet is rich and deep and complements a fine steak, while Merlot is one-size-fits-all. I got to sample all of them. When he ventured into liquors, he let me sip scotch and sundry after-dinner liquors. It lasted a half-hour. I didn’t come out as a sophisticated connoisseur of alcoholic beverages, but it was probably the best primer on the art of drinking I ever received. In a summer I had reserved for Shakespeare and Aristotle and other classics, I came away instead with a private and personalized seminar on drinking as one of my most vivid memories.
Perhaps that was because I also came out of it seriously tipsy, woozy, and struggling to regain my composure.
Though somewhat embarrassed by my intemperance, I also felt giddy, and I remember merrily telling Richard that I was ‘shit-faced’ as we cleaned up after the shift. He laughed and gave me an eye like he was sizing me up. The next night, another training night, I joined Richard and Sheila at the bar after we closed the dining room. There came a moment when the bartender served me up a vodka martini. ‘No thanks,’ I said, to which he replied, ‘it’s on Richard.’ I accepted to be polite, but already feeling a buzz after only one drink, I realized it was time for me to get going. I finished the drink, then stole away and went home.
It occurred to me that Gerardo and Richard (who was also gay) were gauging my pliability to their advances. If I had any doubts, Gerardo soon put them to rest. Gerardo would frequently walk up to me at random moments and pinch my chest nipples. If I asked him a question, he often replied, ‘what’s that, papa bear?’ One night, I was sitting with him and a female acquaintance in a booth after he asked me to join them. He insisted I hold out my glass while he poured wine into it, and in the course of conversation, offhandedly remarked, ‘I’ve already told Jon that I’m willing to pay $60 for an hour with him.’
Did he just say that he propositioned me?
If there still was any doubt, Richard saw fit to tell me one night, referring to Gerardo: ‘you’ve got him in the palm of your hands, whether you know it or not.’ I smiled and continued wiping down tables. Another time, a hostess named Kathy joked about Gerardo’s crush on me. ‘Why do you think you got the job?’ she said. I smiled and continued setting up a table as we prepared to open for the day. Sheila laughed.
Innuendos, chest nipple pinches, and blatant propositions continued throughout the summer. Meanwhile, I grew weary of working as a waiter. Though I had hoped to spend a lot of free time reading the classics and thinking about the big questions in life, I found myself spending a lot of free time recovering from the physical labor of working in a restaurant, while trying to cleanse my mind of threads of customer conversations and the clamor of bar crowds and the irritable grumblings of wait staff and the echoes of kitchen staff banter, all of which competed for space in the real estate of my mind where I had hoped to build towers of ideas based on reading the classics and trying to answer the big questions in life. To put it more bluntly (and perhaps less pompously), it’s hard to think when you’re tired and distracted.
Moreover, Philadelphia in the summer was hotter and more humid than I anticipated, and with a few exceptions like my friend Rich, students had deserted campus. It seemed anyone else in the city was working on weekdays and at the Jersey shore on weekends. The dog days of July and August in West Philly made for a stale and lonesome existence. I had staked my independence by staying in Philly for the summer, happily thinking I would be left alone to immerse myself in cerebral intercourse with the great minds of the past. But my summer adventures became less about vicarious forays in the pages of books and more about real-life encounters with the inappropriate advances of my gay manager.
I dealt with this dismal state of affairs the only way I knew how: sleep in the bed I had made for myself, and wait for the end of summer to arrive. I was here to make money and pay my bills for the summer. I had no need for references and did not care about leaving a good impression. I had no plans for a career in the restaurant business. Harassment? I would roll with it and leave with my tips at the end of the night.
But it did wear on me. The kitchen staff berated me for not learning their shorthand code for all the items on the menu. When a customer asked me for a Long Island Iced Tea, and I said ‘we have Lipton and Nestea but not that brand,’ I was embarrassed when the amused customer had to inform me that a Long Island Iced Tea is an alcoholic drink (Ricardo’s primer on the art of drinking had not included a lesson on Long Island Iced Teas). When a customer asked me for a drink with rocks on the side, I was so absent-minded and disengaged that I went to the bartender and asked for the drink ‘straight up on the rocks.’ The bartender, who had already soured on me as a kid with little common sense, had to decipher what I meant.
‘Do you mean straight up, with rocks on the side?’ he asked.
‘Yes’, I replied, not even knowing what I meant, but relieved that he had figured it out for me.
‘Boy, I thought I’d heard it all until now,’ he said sarcastically.
I laughed. I’d be gone soon.
When the summer finally came to end and I put in my notice, there was no love lost. Much of the staff was probably happy to see me go, or didn’t care. But no one was happier than I was. I was returning to the sheltered environment of a college campus, away from the restaurant life, and away from the inappropriate advances of Gerardo, who seemed to be the only one sad to see me go.
Writing these eighteen years later, I find myself wondering what I learned. I was rather cavalier about the whole experience at the time, far more dissatisfied with the drudgery of being a waiter than I was resentful about being sexually harassed. To the extent I thought about the harassment, I thought it was insignificant. I talked about it with my friend Rich and some buddies on the track team who were around for the summer. It came up in casual conversation with others on the team in the fall. I tried to be like Rich in making a joke about it, a kind of self-deprecatory humor, but it was a mistake. The guys made light of the experience, and my stories became fodder for locker room raillery.
That said, sexual harassment was not traumatic for me. At the time, I did not think of myself as a victim. I did not think I had been severely mistreated. Maybe it was because I reckoned no one would take me seriously if I brought it up, but I buried any residual bitterness about being perceived as Gerardo’s side kick while I worked at the restaurant. I figured that, for most people, especially men, the story would have a sitcom ring to it, and that Gerardo’s behavior was harmless and amounted to nothing more than innocuous flirtation. I also didn’t have the personality of a guy like Rich, who could succeed in making people laugh with him rather than at him about the whole experience.
It is true that the stakes were low for me. I had the privilege of returning to an Ivy League campus in the fall. I did not have a career on the line. I had a whole life ahead of me. The naiveté I exhibited in pursuing this opportunity, and then enduring it throughout the summer, indicated that I was not yet contaminated by the whips and scorns of time that have battered and bruised older and wiser souls. In short, I was just a kid, for whom the consequences amounted to little more than a few demeaning propositions, flirtatious ‘papa bear’ innuendos, and wisecracks from restaurant employees and track buddies. Maybe it deflated my ego, but it seemed disingenuous to consider myself a victim.
Yet Gerardo’s behavior was clearly inappropriate for someone in a managerial and supervisory position. Which makes me wonder: what was it like for women in a world before feminism? We watch the television show Mad Men and are startled by the display of naked chauvinism. But for a woman like Peggy or Joan, this was the hand they were dealt. Early in Season One, when Pete makes a crude pass at Peggy in Don’s office, we cringe at a breach of workplace decorum, but such an expectation of decorum did not exist then. It was not conceivable. There is no sense among the characters that anything anomalous has occurred other than Don’s halfhearted apology to Peggy for an unfortunate case of ‘bad manners.’ Joan never worried about being fired (until the very end of the series); she was much too adept at exploiting the lust of men who were fond of her curves. Secretaries came and went, but as long as they figured out what the men wanted, they were prize employees, and if someone like Jane Siegel took one too many liberties (as when she brazenly led a march into Cooper’s office when he wasn’t there to view the Rothko painting on his wall), she walked diffidently and shell-shocked into Roger’s office after Joan found out and fired her. Jane coaxed her way back into a job simply by appearing before Roger, a partner in the firm, with the look of a wounded puppy.
There was a sense of cultural complacency about workplace harassment and gender power dynamics in the Mad Men world that reminds me of the sense I had at the turn of the twenty-first century that people would trivialize my experience with a gay manager if I raised any concerns about it. But this is not to suggest too strong a parallel between my ordeal and the ordeal of women in a Mad Men world. I had an out. I was an Ivy League student who had no future in the restaurant business. I was also a (straight) man in a (straight) man’s world. Perhaps I would not be so blithe about my incompetence if I were trying to establish my reputation in a new job out of college, but restaurant management was not a glass ceiling I was trying to break. Maybe Gerardo gave me a job and tolerated my incompetence because he was attracted to me, but it was no doubt the case that, had I been a better waiter, I would have been recognized and praised as a fine employee without condescension, which is more than Joan could say when Harry asked her to read scripts, and she did so well that Harry was able to land a client and set his career on track, at which point he discarded Joan and replaced her with a new hire. A male.
Nevertheless, I was embedded in a culture that seemed oblivious to the impropriety of behavior bordering on harassment. Is this what it was like before feminism? Were men and women so immersed and invested in a culture of chauvinism that they could not conceive of a complaint about harassment as anything but the heretical gospel of strange prophets from an alien land? Women have come a long way since the Mad Men era. But we still live in a time when date rape remains a danger. We still live in a time when the President of the United States believes that women let famous men ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’. As a man, I never worried that refusing the sexual propositions of my gay manager would endanger my reputation (though I did not confront him about the liberties he took with my pectoral muscles because I feared it would compromise our vibe of friendly relations), but a woman does not always have the same luxury. To the extent men generally have a hard time taking seriously the reality that certain kinds of advances are unwelcome, and to the extent women worry that confronting a perpetrator would make her a pariah, it’s still a man’s world. My boss was gay and crossed many lines of workplace decorum, but I was still a straight man in a straight man’s world. No one would take me seriously if I complained, but no one would hold it against me either. In a Mad Men world, and even in today’s world, women do not often have the same luxury. People might or might not take her seriously, but she has no guarantee they won’t hold it against her.
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