Working It: The First Sexual Harassment Post or “Yes, His Name Was Dick”

But the idea of more, such as a rape, seemed inconceivable. We were standing in the middle of a supermarket with cereal and produce and frozen peas right outside the walls. The florescent lights were bright as hell.

Yes, His Name Was Dick

When I was a student at Stonehill College in the early 1980s, I had a regular part-time job down the street. I was a cashier at the now defunct Fernandes Supermarket at the corner of Main and Washington.  The area is now a modern mini-plaza with a mini supermarket chain called Tedeschi’s, a mini restaurant called “The Fresh Catch,” some little boutique shops, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. But thirty years ago, the Fernandes Supermarket was the main attraction, and I was a one of their first line cashiers, working 25-30 hours a week. I attended college in mornings and early afternoons, and I worked late afternoons, evenings, and weekends. I always had a lot of cash in my pocket.

I was good at the job and became one of the “courtesy booth” workers. Given the fact that I can be so rude, it was ironic, me in a “courtesy” anything, but I did my best (most of the time) to provide customer service to those needing to buy postage stamps, play the lottery,  or laying down 12 items or less on the conveyor belt.

Tuesday nights were slow at Fernandes. I could literally stand in that courtesy booth for an hour with no customers. When May came around in 1982, and I was sophomore at Stonehill, I decided I would discreetly study for finals while I waited for customers. While studying a book wasn’t very professional of me, I was 19 years old and not very professional. Frankly I was bored and had big tests coming up. I opened a big hard cover book of something: English? Philosophy? Required science for non-science majors?  It was well into the evening, more than 30 years ago, and I don’t remember exactly what I studied that night.  But  I read, I underlined, I highlighted, on a slow Tuesday night, as I waited for customers.

Dick probably saw himself like this guy
Dick probably saw himself like this guy

We had many different front end managers. Mr. Reardon was our main store manager and at night, there was a rotation of men (all men). Tuesday night was Dick’s night. Dick was a tall, awkward, gawky guy, in his early 30s, I would guess, with light brown hair, a left over mustache from the hairy 1970s,  and with a mildly bucked tooth smile. Had he been a good guy, I might have considered his face pleasant. Because he was such an asshole, he impressed me as goofy verging on ugly. Of course, ugly or good looking don’t matter when someone harasses you.

His personality made him look more like this guy.
His personality made him look more like this guy.

“What are you doing with that book?” Dick asked.

“I’m studying for finals,” I said. Don’t think I was a nice, sweet girl trying to explain myself. I was 19 and full of sarcasm.

“Put the book away. You’re at work.” He wasn’t wrong.

“No. Why should I? There’s no one here, Dick, and no one can see the book, anyway, unless they come into the booth.” He’d come into the booth.

“Put it away.”

“No.” And so I didn’t.  Only a 19-year old who doesn’t really need a job could be that brazen. I felt I could speak to Dick that way because our relationship hadn’t been all bad. He’d admired the way I’d handled a difficult fellow employee when I told her, “What works for me is I pretend to be normal. I say normal things. I do normal things. Although I feel like I’m faking at first, eventually, I start to feel normal.”

“You should be a psychology major,” he’d said. I thought he liked me and was just giving me shit about studying in the courtesy booth.

I don’t know if it was that Tuesday night or another night when Dick was managing, but sometime after that incident, he managed to corner me in the fake “office” with no actual ceiling, just the supermarket ceiling so high above. Or maybe it did have a ceiling but for some reason, I remember it only as walls with the color green. We were the last two left in the store and I had just finished counting my drawer. I was preparing to leave. He walked toward me. I had no idea he was walking “at” me.

“I’ll see you next week,” I started to say, and all of a sudden, all 6 feet plus of his tall lanky body was pressing against mine and I had my back supported by the back wall of the makeshift office.

I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what he said. How I wish I did. I don’t remember a lot of fear, but a little of it. I didn’t believe he would really do anything more than what he was doing. Maybe he would try to kiss me. Maybe he would fondle my breasts or try to squeeze my ass. Maybe he did. It didn’t go too far because if it had I would have been traumatized. But the idea of more, such as a rape, seemed inconceivable. We were standing in the middle of a supermarket with cereal and produce and frozen peas right outside the walls. The florescent lights were bright as hell.

At the time, I thought Dick did this because he found me attractive. I was only mildly attractive. I did understand when the fear started to creep in, when he didn’t let me go after the 1st or 2nd or 3rd request, that his actions were about power. Still, I thought it was about attraction AND power. All these decades later I know this was about anger and power. I had angered him when I defied him about closing my books. Perhaps on other occasions when I disrespected him, as we all did.

I also don’t remember how I got away, but I did. He didn’t keep me pinned for too long. Maybe he’d hoped I would respond in kind rather than indicate I wanted him to leave me alone. Maybe in his head, he was “coming on to me” and not harassing me. 

As a young worker in a supermarket, back in the day, I wasn’t aware of sexual harassment issues or laws. Several years later, I would become aware, and take mandatory training in the issues surrounding sexual harassment, after I finished college and eventually began a career working in corporate America.

Back then, I told Steve, another assistant manager, what had happened. Steve was a street smart guy, who treated us all with respect.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, or something to that effect. Perhaps I was more frightened than I recall. I must have been afraid to spend another Tuesday night as the last shift cashier with Dick.

“It will never happen again,” Steve promised. And indeed, it never happened again. I can only imagine Steve spoke with Dick. Dick probably denied doing anything wrong and Steve probably said, “I’ll break your fucking legs if I ever hear you laid another hand on Cindy or anyone.”

That is how we took care of sexual harassment at Fernandes in 1982,  by having a tougher guy talk to the other guy. Eventually, Dick was fired when it became known that each Tuesday night, he exited the supermarket with a cart full of unpaid groceries. 

If you have a sexual harassment story you are willing to share, please do. I realize for many, this is a traumatic experience, and in my own particular case here, I didn’t suffer trauma. I have been lucky in that the times I’ve experienced harassment (and there have been a few), it never went so far as to affect my life or career or my state of well-being. I know for others, the opposite is the case.