Self-respect

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I got my first real job a couple of months after I turned 14. I had jobs before then--babysitting, cleaning houses, picking grapes, that kind of thing--but you can't get a work permit until you are 14 in Oregon (is it like that everywhere?), so I never had anything steady.

The job was at the restuarant owned by my aunt and her husband. I started out washing dishes and doing kichen prep stuff, then moved to waiting tables. I hated every minute of it. It's not that the work was hard, although it was--it's that I was much more shy at 14 than I am now, and going up to a table and asking them what they wanted to eat about killed me. Right after I started working there, they added a "sports bar" on to the back, and that made the whole proposition worse--not only did it add to the work load, exponentially added to the come ons by drunk men.

Anyway, I'd been working there almost a year when I was on one busy Friday night. I was hustling around, taking out salads, taking orders, clearing my tables. The owner (my aunt's husband) was in the back kitchen, mopping the floor. I'm not sure why he was mopping the floor, it's the only work I ever remember seeing him do there. Given his personality, he was probably "showing" one of his underlings how to do it correctly or something.

I had a tray full of salads in one hand and had to run back to the kitchen to get Thousand Island, because we were out of it at our salad station. I opened one of the big stainless fridge doors and grabbed a gallon plastic jug of salad dressing and turned on my sneaker heel on the wet floor. The tray went one way, I went the other, and the entire gallon of salad dressing went all over the place. I can remember everything about that moment--what I was wearing, what song was on the juke box, how hot it was in the back kitchen. And mostly, I can remember looking up and seeing that the owner was still standing there, having just finished his mopping. His face was all red and there was a vein sticking out on his head, all cartoonlike. In retrospect, he's a funny picture. Then, he was terrifying.

I don't remember everything he said to me, though. The only parts that stick in my mind are "worthless cunt" and "stupid bitch." I distinctly remembering wondering if he was going to hit me. I also remember that quitting never even crossed my mind--I was just terrified I was going to get fired for dropping that damn salad dressing. I thought my parents would be furious if I got fired.

The next morning I told my mom about all of this. She was sympathetic, and pissed at what he'd said, but didn't suggest quitting. I went to work. About an hour after my shift started, she came in, looking shaky, and said, "We're leaving. You just quit." I tried to argue, but something about the way she looked made me think better of it.

When I got home, I was treated to a lecture that felt like it was hours long and was delivered at high volume by my irate (and most likely drunk) stepfather. All I remember of that is his asking me over and over why I didn't have any fucking self respect. Any self-respecting person would have quit the minute someone talked to her like that, he told me. He was disgusted with me, he'd expected more from me.

In the end, I suppose it turned out OK. I got a job a couple of months later at a much more friendly cafe, where I worked all the way through high school. Nobody grabbed my ass there, and I don't ever remember being yelled at. My stepdad threatened to kill my aunt's husband, who called the cops on him, but nothing happened. My aunt and my mom didn't speak for like a year. Then my aunt (who was being abused, I am fairly sure) finally left the asshole and spent nearly all of her first year alone asleep. Even though there are only three restuarants in the town where I grew up, I haven't been back in that one in over ten years. The food was shitty anyway.

I've wondered quite a bit, over the years since this happened, if it showed a lack of self respect that I didn't quit on my own. I've also wondered if, given the time to think it over, I would have quit on my own eventually. I'd like to think I would have, but I was 14, you know? I've also come to realize that of all of the things that were yelled at me during this experience, it wasn' being called a worthless cunt or a stupid bitch that dug the deepest--it was being told that I have no self-respect.

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April 2012

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