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Jim Kenyon: Here’s a Tip, Guys: Cut It Out

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

A regular customer wants a hug from his waitress before leaving the restaurant. A stranger writes his phone number on his check. Another guy tells everyone at his table — and within earshot of their female server — that he frequents the establishment because the women who work there are “so hot.”

In a Quinnipiac University national poll last month, 60 percent of American women voters said they have experienced sexual harassment, most frequently in the workplace.

So why should the Upper Valley be any different?

Judging from the above anecdotes that women shared with me last week, I’m guessing it’s not.

After hearing news of the firing of Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor over sexual misconduct allegations — but before Geraldo Rivera’s comments on women “criminalizing courtship” — I stopped by a half-dozen Upper Valley restaurants and bars to talk with female employees.

I don’t mean to single out the food and beverage industry. From what we’re seeing nationally, inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct is a problem in just about every work environment, including the newspaper world. The New York Times recently suspended White House reporter Glenn Thrush after he was accused of making drunken, unwanted advances on women.

I started out interviewing waitresses because, as Washington Post columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote last week, they are “constant targets” of sexual harassment. “To get decent tips, they learn to put up with obnoxious abuse and worse,” vanden Heuvel wrote.

A tweet by author Barbara Ehrenreich, who writes a lot about the struggles of low-wage workers, was also telling. “Our current sex harassment discussion is woefully class-skewed. Too much about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers,” she wrote, after Sen. Al Franken’s inappropriate sexual behavior became public. (Or maybe it was comedian Louis C.K.’s. I’ve lost track.)

I didn’t want the women I interviewed to run afoul of their bosses or customers for talking with me. So I offered not to use their names or mention where they worked.

The one thing the women had in common: a thick skin.

A 28-year-old bartender-turned-waitress told me about working at a restaurant in Woodstock. A regular at the bar was always asking her for hugs.

At first, she ignored him. But when he didn’t get the hint, she responded, “My boyfriend probably wouldn’t appreciate it.”

In the restaurant business, it doesn’t pay — literally — to get into confrontations with male customers who make inappropriate remarks, a middle-aged waitress said. “I just laugh and walk away,” she said.

A restaurant manager, who is now in her late 30s, recalled her days as a big-city cocktail waitress when she was the recipient of a “slap on the butt” more times than she could count.

“You let them know that it’s not OK,” she said. For good measure, she’d warn guys that if it happened again, they’d be dealing with the bar’s bouncer.

Since moving to the Upper Valley a few years ago, she hasn’t encountered male customers who can’t keep their hands to themselves.

Here, she said, it’s more of a “persistence thing.” Customers make unwanted advances or offer inappropriate comments, thinking it’s OK because they’re in a social environment rather than a workplace.

“People say things when they’ve been drinking that they wouldn’t say when they’re sober,” she said. “But it shouldn’t be an excuse.”

It’s important to establish boundaries with customers, a bartender said. Male friends who want to hug when they see her on the street or at a party are fine. Just not when she’s working at the bar.

“If other guys see one guy doing it, they think they all can,” she said.

In talking with younger waitresses and bartenders, I found that a customer’s age becomes a consideration. When an older guy tries to flirt, “it’s just creepy,” a waitress said.

A 24-year-old waitress in Hanover told me that she once accepted a date from a Dartmouth student at work, and everything was fine.

Another 20-something waitress told me about a senior citizen she had served numerous times. When he asked her to join him for lunch at a restaurant across the street, she figured he was lonely and tired of dining alone.

But during lunch, “he offered to take me on vacation.” She politely declined, and changed the subject.

The owner of a restaurant and bar told me that when an older patron crosses the line with a young female employee, she makes it a point to intervene — discreetly. “If that was your daughter, would you want someone acting like that?” she asks.

But after 20 years in the business, the woman said, she warns waitresses and bartenders just starting out that — sadly — they will have to put up with comments that might not be tolerated in other lines of work. “If you are easily offended, this is probably not the business for you.”

That’s not a calculation that men have to make in that, or any, line of work.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.