When I was young, I was allowed to roam the mountain behind my house. Covered in ancient redwoods this steep ascent climbed about a mile to the summit where I could explore the top of the little ridge that cradled my childhood. The lookouts were endless and offered views that seemed to show the ridges of god’s own fingerprints.
In the time before cell phones I know these excursions caused my mom some concern. Not only where the woods home to mountain lions and rattlesnakes as well as the ever-present black widows (though these were more of a concern in the jumble of my dad’s ‘Clampet area’ down by the welding shed.) Adding to the danger, the terrain itself was far from stable or safe. In high school, a good friend from up the street lost her older brother from a fall on the same ridge we often played on.
Preparation for these trips started with snacks and water but most importantly a 9 inch survival knife, strapped to my waist for easy access. I usually brought a couple other blades or weapons for protection since I was alone. These implements were mostly in case of mountain lions but would serve the purpose should I come across other humans with ill intent.
There were no trails, save the ones made by the forest creatures and it was far more likely I would be menaced by four-legged beast than two-legged ones, still as a girl on my own I took precaution. In that four or five square miles of ravines and outcroppings no one would hear my screams.
I went on these trips blithely, preparing for trouble but never really believing any would befall me. As I entered the woods I would make a silent vow that if something did try to kill or hurt me that the experience would not be an easy one, I would fight till my last breath using every resource at my disposal. I wouldn’t be a victim or easy prey.
In my mid-teens I entered to woods of professional kitchens, a place full of danger and people who would not take care of me. As the lone girl in the room I was often harassed, tested and hazed. I approached that situation with a similar attitude as my solo hikes and made it my duty to take on all comers. Making them think twice about their assumption that I was a thing present for their pleasure or purposes. I would not be given a place at their side, I would have to take it.
I made a career of it.
When the #Metoo phenomenon was exploding, I didn’t bother to make my declaration. I noticed that many of my female chef friends didn’t either. For us, harassment was a way of life. As was taking matters into our own hands. I cannot count how many times I have been assaulted, I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) how many times it happened twice in the same kitchen.
None of my tactics where kind or politically correct. One time I overheard a coworker telling a cohort in Spanish he wanted to bend me over the prep table and have his way with me. I beckoned him over under the guise of needing help, grabbed him in a vulcan neck pinch and bent him over the table, while threatening his rear with an uncut carrot and asking “¿cómo le gusta esto?”- “how do you like this?”
He was also unaware that I spoke Spanish and would take no shit. He did after that and within a day so did everyone else. It is an odd thing to say that after most such incidents my coworkers and I become friends, but it’s true. After all, they could not take the moral high road at my behavior as that was not the path we meet on.
One time, a new coworker placed my share of the kitchen tips on his lap and told me to “come and get them” smirking lewdly. I smiled and told him “wait a second.” Grabbing the nearest butcher knife I approached him and told him to “hold very still” as I used it as a spatula to claim my tips. It was amusing to watch a man of Jamaican decent blanch to a shade of Caucasian. We become good friends.
Any unwanted physical contact was rewarded with instant pain. I have always been physically strong but my blows were never cheap, I didn’t go around kicking guys in the balls. Instead, I reasoned that if you touched me- that part of your body was now mine to do with what I wished. I would grab and twist groping hands until the rest of the body was knee bound, smiling sweetly I would often chide “anything you touch me with becomes mine. Next time I will cut it off and if I’m feeling generous I will mail it back to you. That one was free.”
An important part of this equation is that I am not a flirt. I did not lead men on and then punish them when they followed. I was in a serious relationship for almost ten years during this early period of my career and I was a good and faithful girlfriend. I have always made it a point to relate to men and boys outside of the potential for physical interaction. I tolerated no form of disrespect, verbal castration became my forte. Many men had trouble drawing this line, pouting after I cut them down for an offhanded comment they didn’t think was a big deal. I would help them by pointing out that if you wouldn’t say it to the grill cook don’t say it to me- and we will be just fine.
I would often recount these situations to my parents and my dad would admonish me, saying I was going to be fired. He was a businessman used to having an HR department overseeing employee behavior. I pointed out there was no such department in kitchens and often it was my supervisor doing the assaulting. After a few years of promotion and success; he saw this survival mechanism for what it was, the only option I had if I was going to make it in this industry. I was never fired or even talked to about my actions.
After these initial unpleasantries, new hires with old ideas were quickly corrected- not by me but by the other men in the room. Snide comments and plans of ill intent were met with cautionary rebukes and statements like “I wouldn’t.” My coworkers would not protect me. They knew from experience, I would take care of it myself. They would bluntly state that to try anything in that vein would be a mistake on the part of the greenhorn. Sometimes I think they didn’t discourage it more because it was fun to watch someone else try, and suffer the consequences as I consistently dealt them out. It is in this way I earned the respect of dozens of men over years of service.
Things are different now. As a Chef myself I make sure that things never get that bad in the kitchens I manage. My actions were not recommended; they served the purpose of defending my virtue in a time and place when no one else was going to do it for me. These instances didn’t divide me from my coworkers they brought us into a contract of equality. After we had a few services together, when I had their back and we made it through the weeds to the other side of the night having meet all challenges that the servers and patrons could throw our way, we were bonded in a way that I think only restaurant people understand.
My actions didn’t change who my coworkers were, most were essentially good people. It challenged the way they thought about my place in their world. Harassment was the path of least resistance in that situation, the price I was meant to pay for having entered the lion’s den. When the meal didn’t come easy, when there were actual consequences for their actions they were forced to rethink the assumption that I was there to be their prey.
I feel that is what is happening now. Just in the past month it is as if men and women alike have woken up to the reality we have been living in for centuries. Meaningful consequences and awareness have been brought to old patterns of thoughtless action and behaviors. It is an interesting thing to witness, to have the majority brought into the realities I have been living since my teens. I hope it can be a time of balancing and not over compensating and thus counter balancing the inequalities we have lived with for so long.
I find it heartening that many of the men accused have reacted in much the same way that my coworkers did. Not making excuses, justifications or denials but seeing their actions in a different light. I am heartened that many are stepping up and changing, something I knew from experience men are more than capable of doing when provided the proper feedback and motivation. We must be wary now more than ever not to spoil this fragile new balance.
Balance by definition is a pinpoint in the middle of two opposing forces. It is rarely found by accident and cannot be maintained carelessly. We have to remember that we are in this together. We can be each other greatest allies or the mechanism for the destruction of all the progress we have created. Everyone must come to the table with an open heart so that wrongs can be admitted and forgiven. Empathy must be the order of the day on all sides or this progress with be a temporary respite from the strife our nation was born from. I have said before that this is not a problem that any of us created but rather a system in which we have all been conditioned to participate.
There is an old curse disguised as a blessing that states “may you live in interesting times.” These are interesting times indeed. I am alternately scarred shitless and full of boundless hope. I know one thing for sure, that it is only with compassion and understanding that we can move forward. The rash actions of my youth where not an example of my higher self. They were the actions of someone backed into a corner who’s only options were to curl in a ball and admit defeat or to fight my way out. The fight taught me a lot about the world I lived in but mostly about myself. The first part of this post may seem like boasting but let me assure you my actions had a price, I felt I picked the lesser to two evils but it is true that two wrongs do not a right make.
Take it from me.
There is a concept in phycology called cognitive dissonance. It “describes the feelings of discomfort that result from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance” As a nation we are becoming aware of the inconsistencies in our touted believes of equality and the reality of actions towards our fellow humans. I can only hope that we are in the process of the change needed to achieve true equality. Equality and chivalry are not the same.
My excursions into the wilds behind my home prepared me for a future when I would be responsible for my own safety and progress, through forbidding country that had no care for my frailty. I had to make my own path and reap the consequences of my actions. Often I made allies out of enemies but it was an uphill battle over unstable terrain.
I don’t know if I made it to the top, but I can tell you that I am at a place where I can look back and see more clearly the way I got to where I am. There are many things I wish I could do differently but I can’t take back my actions. No one can. I can only hope those I hurt can forgive me and try my best to do better in the future. Silence disrupts evolution. The greatest achievements don’t come easy. We are all on the verge of something amazing. We must have the courage to take and honest look at ourselves, our actions and beliefs. Together we need to be honest about how we all can be better, kinder and more compassionate. If we can the world will indeed be a better place.
Be well and be kind.