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On Penis Drawings and Teachable Moments

Added on by Nadine Friedman.

There's an incident I haven't forgotten from last summer. I was managing a restaurant-  a quick (I didn't tell the owner I planned it to be quick), well paid gig I was generally disinterested in till something better came along.  It was a popular, lowbrow upscale place (you know the type) with an even parceling of the stroller crowd and new Brooklyn money, people drifting out of their brownstones on a Sunday to eat and ask for multiple coffee refills. A sprinkling of hipsters and neighborhood weirdo stalwarts who'd come in afternoons. Very famous people occasionally. Very white. Good tippers.  

This night, one of the female servers had a table of four white, late 20's, 3 men 1 woman; I didn't pay much attention to them (I barely paid attention to anything, just sort of walked back and forth across the floor for 4 months). They'd already paid and left when she came up to me, gaping at their bill. She stood half-shocked, half-laughing, in that way when you haven't yet determined your feelings or decided they are valid. 

At the bottom of the check where they'd signed off, someone had written "I'm not satisfied, M (they used her full name, obviously I won't)... but I could be..." with a smiley face and a large, crude picture of a penis. Then a phone number. She held it to me, unhappily. 

The kitchen staff, three men, smirked and did not see the diminishment, the threat. "It's just a joke, man."

They wrote her first name there, which to me, was a nasty little power exercise. They knew her name when she wouldn't necessarily ever know theirs. They wrote a crude, degrading message to a woman they don't know. She only knew he knew her name and where she worked. The vulnerability and unfairness of that receipt. They tipped well, of course, because she did her job well. They determined her salary, her worth.  

And THIS dingdong. His name, phone number and credit card info right there for me to do anything with. I could do nothing, which is what she asked me. "It's no big deal," she said defeatedly, "I mean, they're gone." The owners wanted me to drop it, because women's well-being and making money don't often pair well. I could take a picture of the receipt, accidentally send it to Jezebel. Or, I could call him; my husband was decidedly against this tactic, because "he knows where you work, why escalate this, it's not fair but please don't CALL him."

The unfairness, the fact that my response was considered escalating bad behavior rather than calling it out, was why I called. 

He was bewildered at first, maybe thinking there was a problem with the credit card. No, I said, but someone at your table left a message for my staff member that made her feel offended, embarrassed and a little afraid. And that's not the kind of people I want around where women work, no matter if you tip 18 or 35% and Love Women or Just Kidding. It was a moment you can forget, I said, but imagine this young woman having to walk away with your awesome tip and your contempt. I reminded him that leaving personal info with this kind of message isn't smart.  I asked him how he felt about this. 

He blamed his friends for writing it, at first. He said he was sorry and asked to talk to her; she preferred not to. He apologized again and again, and said "I would never do something like that, I'm not like that". I recommended he remember that next time he was in a straightforward power imbalance, and do his best to think about another person's welfare. I sincerely thanked him. We hung up. 

For a few days, a woman kept calling to talk to me, but I kept missing her calls and she wouldn't leave a number. I assume it was the one from the table. 

Here's the thing- I knooooow the joke could have been worse, and I'm still using brain real estate for something insignificant in the larger scheme of injustices perpetrated against women. And it wasn't the worst thing that could have happened to her. But these microaggressions and degradations add up.  I don't care if I look like I'm overreacting, or if maybe I don't have a place to make something a "teachable" moment for basically good people, (which I'm sure this guy was). But I do believe that when you're in a position to treat people well or badly, you treat them well. And I saw her face when she got a high tip and a disgusting message with a penis on it. And it's not fair that when someone acts out, my husband has to worry about me, "because we don't know what they'll do." We live on the defense. 

Many tenets of working in the hospitality industry are pretty shitty, based partly on the fact that customers, not employers, decide how much money you make and partly, for reasons like that moment: people are made to feel diminutive, especially women. I've heard terrible stories from my female friends, many of color, who've been treated unbelievably cruelly.  People will impeach your personal space, snap their fingers at you, yell and then, worst of all, determine your income. It's the same for all servers, but women have it especially tough, because we deal with an sense of non-safety EVERYWHERE we go. My husband is used to me defriending over hashtags or confronting misogyny on the street or calling strangers and giving my full name to talk about penis hieroglyphics on a receipt. I have to deal with the reasons they happen.  I'm not even sure this warrants writing about, but I'm still thinking about it. 

You take those small moments or they turn into larger things, policy things, things you eventually end up petitioning against.  Be safe about it, but take those small moments to let people know it is not ok, and fuck anyone listening who'll tell you you're overreacting.