Not Yet the Boss of Me

1969
Me in 1969

The Age of Aquarius dawned on my generation with a bowl of granola, a “Make Love, Not War” protest sign, and a birth control pill.

Hugely popular books were Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Joy of Sex, and The Sensuous Woman, offering us heady new empowerment to push puritanical boundaries and discover the pleasures that (thank god!) went beyond those church-issued booklets on “becoming a woman.”

The rules for the guys, however, hadn’t really changed (not since they basically took the liberties to invent them in the first place). As the saying went: “Boys will be boys.” And in the early 1970s, a lot of them were now our bosses. (Not much has changed there either.)

If we didn’t feel any support when we needed it back then, we certainly have it now. We are Woman, hear us roar (finally)! In 1973, I found myself in a near-universal #metoo predicament.

*****

A few months into my third and final year of art school, I decided I could manage yet another part-time job. I turned to the Village Voice classifieds and saw something I imagined would be a perfect fit. Having no previous experience had never stopped me before, and so I circled with a red pen: Cocktail waitresses wanted for new restaurant in garment district. I had lost a few pounds over the summer and my hair was longer, giving me the courage to imagine stepping into one of my teen fantasies—the one where I am soignée and sophisticated, twirling on a bar stool at dusk, the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop and a martini in the foreground.

 
I showed up for the interview and was hired on the spot. However, I would not be serving Manhattans straight up, my witty banter and insouciant smile drawing generous tips and flirtations from charming men. Those three positions went to exotic young Asian beauties whose graceful bodies were perfect for leaning over in their tight, black dresses while balancing a tray of cocktails. No, I was going to be something else entirely, something I had never even heard of— a wine sommelier. For a kosher-Chinese restaurant. I was neither Jewish nor Chinese, and I knew nothing about wine. Moshe Peking now had a goy on staff.

 
The bottle-blonde wife of one of the owners took me to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy my uniform—two suits in polyester double-knit by Act III. The red, white and blue plaid won the dowdiness title hands down. I looked in the dressing room mirror, utterly doubtful, as Elaine adjusted the shoulders.

 
“You know, you were hired because you have a wholesome quality. It will encourage the customers to order bottles of wine for the table.”

 
Next stop was to visit the president of the wine company. This I was entrusted to do on my own. A diminutive yet pudgy middle-aged man ushered me into his office. The windows offered a view of Macy’s and on the streets far below, racks of wholesale clothing shuttled between trucks and warehouse entrances with an urgency that provided the current to this strange neighborhood I had first explored on my high school field trip. That seemed like eons ago. I listened conscientiously while he described every type of wine his Israeli vineyards produced, as he loaded me up with a barrage of pamphlets to study in order to become an expert company representative. I gathered everything together to leave.

 
“Wait a minute, there is something else.” Turning toward him as he lunged—with octopus arms and a badly aimed kiss—I managed to dodge any follow-through to this decidedly unkosher advance. (Was I becoming conditioned to unexpected moves from grown men?) What resulted was an almost farcical chase around the brown leather couch, until I slipped out the door and down the hallway to the elevator. Flushed and angry, my discomfort level was both tempered and confused by a gut feeling that I wasn’t in any real danger, just in yet another predicament where my power as a woman was squashed. (If I wasn’t in real danger, did that make it all okay?) Sexual harassment on the job still offered a blurry definition to me. I never told my bosses what had transpired, afraid I would be fired before my first paycheck. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

 

 

 

 

 

 

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