Why you should care
Beware of adult men who talk too much about sticks and balls.
In 1992, when I was 16, I got my first job at a record store. I loved so many things about it, but mostly I loved the people I worked with. For some reason, they treated me like I was one of them — like an adult.
My manager was a pretty, blond 20-something who talked to me as if the 10 years she had on me were negligible. Going to work was like being paid minimum wage to listen to new music and hang out with the cool girl at the back of the bus who shared her secrets about life and boys and sex. The store became the place I felt most at home, a port in the storm of my otherwise mundane and annoying high school experience. I hoped my boss would teach me about dating and how to be cool like her.
One afternoon my mom brought a family friend, a Major League Baseball player, to the store. He was in town to play a game. I don’t think he was recognizable to most people, but he carried himself like the superstar he thought he should be. Upon his arrival, customers and co-workers alike took a collective deep breath.
It had been several years since he had played for his old team, the Pirates. But when I was in middle school, I’d had an innocent crush on him. When he walked into the record store, I realized I still did. He was tall with dark, slicked hair and sparkly eyes. When he smiled he looked like someone who was about to get away with something.
I guess he was hitting on me, but the words coming out of his mouth, in purposefully hushed tones, painted vivid pictures of things I did not want to see.
My mom chatted with my manager at the front counter while the baseball player and I were at the back of the store. I was alphabetizing cassettes in the subgenre of alternative metal. I was so excited to see him, but I was no longer a smitten middle schooler. I guess he was hitting on me, but the words coming out of his mouth, in purposefully hushed tones, painted vivid pictures of things I did not want to see. I had thought he might talk about his wife, who had been so kind to me when we all lived in Pittsburgh. Instead, he wanted to talk about things that knocked the wind out of me.
I could see my mom and my manager at the front of the store — so I focused my eyes on them. My manager was talking with her hands; my mom was beaming. They could see us from where they stood, but they couldn’t hear his whispers. Everyone just kept smiling, including me. I didn’t know what else to do.
After they left, my manager put her arm around me. “You have a crush on him, don’t you?” I shook my head and burst into tears.
I had seen my manager use her looks, her sexuality, to manipulate the regional manager. She would surreptitiously wink at me when she was playing the “dumb blonde” for him. She seemed to enjoy that her intellect and business acumen were underestimated because of her looks, and she knew exactly how to use that to her advantage.
I couldn’t tell her what had happened because I didn’t have the language. Also, she couldn’t possibly understand what it felt like to be violated by someone’s words. Men, and the stupid things they said to her, were nothing more than fuel to her. But I told her anyway, because I didn’t have anyone else to tell.
I still feel bad for having underestimated her.
She listened to me croak out words I hoped made sense, and then she let loose with a tirade unlike any I had ever heard. I learned about male pigs and scumbags and feminism and the women’s movement. Prior to this outburst, she had reserved her most passionate speeches for things like “the Bangles vs. the Go-Go’s” and how she wasn’t being paid nearly enough, despite regularly beating the daily sales goals.
An hour later, when the baseball player called the store, asking for me, my manager offered to take the call. Buoyed by her anger and an unconventional pep talk, I took it myself.
On a good day, the back office felt like a cinder-block janitor’s closet; on that day, it felt like a jail cell. His disembodied voice picked up right where he had left off. My eyes watered as he talked about his fantasies and asked me about mine. I didn’t rage. I demurred; I pretended not to understand. I didn’t understand. It seemed like only moments before my fantasies had involved my very own Barbie Dreamhouse. The things he was talking about didn’t even sound appealing.
After the call, my manager considered sending me home, but instead she kept me close to her for the rest of my shift. She taught me in one afternoon what a decade at an all-girls school had yet to convey: I was a gendered person. Twenty-five years later, my manager’s exact words are lost to me, but her message is not: She urged me to define my sexuality for myself, before someone else did.
At 16, I wasn’t ready to be seen as a conquest for adult men, but girls don’t get to decide when that switch is flipped. And she taught me to look over my shoulder. It didn’t matter how safe I felt at the record store — my own personal secret enclave with the cool girls at the back of the bus. After all, it took only one asshole to puncture that protective bubble.
No one I knew talked about rape culture in the 1990s, but we were living in it. The best we could do was pass each other the secrets to survival.