My first job in Pittsburgh was at Silky’s Sports Bar and Grille in Squirrel Hill, over 13 years ago. I was more than familiar with the grab-ass antics of the kitchen because I had worked in them since I was 15. The seemingly innocent games and pranks pulled as teenagers grow increasingly sinister in hindsight as I get older, but at 21, I hadn’t quite caught on to how deep the rabbit hole of toxic masculinity and sexual violence goes. I’m still learning.
One of my main co-workers spoke in crude dick jokes, homophobic cracks, and the thinly veiled racism that Western PA excels at. After running the gauntlet of high school, where I had been repeatedly physically assaulted for being a “faggot” and at one point groped and briefly stalked by another boy, I was not having any of it. “That’s just my humor!” the other line-cook protested. The Kitchen Manager looked at me expectantly, then turned his head and gestured as one of the servers walked up the kitchen stairs to the balcony. She had worn a skirt that day, and her hand was desperately yanking it close to her legs. The Kitchen Manager turned back to me, grinning, and then rolled his eyes when I didn’t let it drop. It was months before most of the staff heard me talk. I was known as the quiet lesbian before I opened my mouth. I used to be shy.
I left the job shortly after, working up the street at a now-defunct sports bar, reveling in the one-person kitchen and significantly better pay. The bartender was a low-level coke dealer, blowhard, and racist misogynist. The clientele was a series of people who grow up to be the train-wreck Aunt or Uncle at a wedding. I was generally content to stay in my bubble in the back, but would often stick around and have a few drinks after work. The bartender was an insecure bully, who not only told everyone he owned the bar (he did not), but would heap abuse on someone at a moment’s notice, particularly if they were a woman. He seemed to take special delight in raining hell upon a woman he obsessively referred to as “Jess the Mess”, often driving her to tears, while pouring her another drink. A true student of Tucker Max, and a master of negging. By the time I left, vowing to never work a kitchen job again, they were dating.
Six months later, I found myself bartending, after three years of begging the bar down the street from my house. I thought I knew what I was in for, as it was my local hangout. At the time it was a somewhat rough place, albeit sleepy, still recovering from a reputation as a coke den. Further into the confidences of the regulars and owners as a bartender, I found I had only scratched the surface. Photos taken in confidence were currency held up to the protesting hand over my eyes. More than a few times, I had to warn patrons to stay the fuck away from my friends or my house when they followed my female roommates home, one of whom worked at the bar with me. Slowly, with the help of my roommate and myself, the bar’s clientele skewed younger. This made some things better, this made other things worse. I kicked a lot of people out of that bar, many times in the name of making patrons safe. It was like building on sand. I worked my way up and then out and into a job that required tax documents, and slowly, my time at my old haunt dwindled.
The new gig was more of the same. The co-owner had foisted his young and conventionally pretty daughters on the restaurant for the summer, and they allegedly worked as hosts. I’ll never forget when the co-owner forced the GM to send another host home for wearing something he had deemed inappropriate, though I believe it had more to do with her aesthetics overall. Certain resumes or paths to advance often magically find their way to the top or bottom of the pile. “You know that’s the same kind of shit his daughters wear,” I said. “Shut up,” hissed the GM through gritted teeth. Picking your battles is a talent some people have a flair for. I didn’t last very much longer at that job and was generally happy to have been largely ignored by ownership during my time there. If I were a woman, I would likely have had attention showered on me by the chef-owner, whether I wanted it or not.
The next job was going to be different; management was almost entirely female. It was different, in a lot of ways. In others, not so much. I remember a BOH friend in tears more than once after being berated by the chef-owner. She was repeatedly ground down by someone who should have been nurturing her. I’ve had her food multiple times, and she’s truly gifted, but even if that weren’t the case, no one deserves that type of abuse. The chef-owner pulled the same act on another co-worker after she handed in her notice, cornering her in an empty restaurant to let her know she was nothing without him, “Just a shot and a beer bartender”, myself and the other bartender handed in our notice immediately. We were disallowed from finishing out our two weeks.
All of this information slowly piled up for me, sparking whole rooms of lightbulbs. I started watching more closely, trying to be more proactive, trying to be a good ally. There’s more I could and should have done. There was, and still is, a sense of powerlessness. The world of restaurants is largely a boy’s club, and you can bet that for every accusation of sexual harassment or general abuse that comes to light, there have been thousands swept under the rug. People in the restaurant industry develop a sort of fatalism that’s powered by the need to eat.
A true and honest reflection of a Job Description for any position in a restaurant should include fielding unwanted physical contact, demeaning commentary and a general lack of respect. They never include that in the interview, especially when an amorous hiring manager runs the hiring process more like a dating app than attempting to professionally staff a place of business. I started to understand that there were countless trees falling in the forest, but the system had put earplugs and gags on all of us. If you just looked around, however, it was almost like watching a tornado cut a swath through the trees. When the entire environment is so toxic, from co-worker to customer, from FOH to BOH, it’s very tough to imagine, let alone see, a light at the end of the tunnel.
At my last job, I did see a glimmer of something I know we all want. A series of events happened, and if we can, as a community, work together to make these things happen consistently, the next generation’s Job Description won’t be missing anything. They will have a safe place to come and provide for their household, something we all deserve as human beings.
A female guest had been laying it on thickly with one of our servers, just across from my station. As he continued to deflect, she ratcheted up her assault, finally telling him that she wanted to eat sushi off of his naked body. Completely shaken, he immediately told the GM. She quietly told him to get a cigarette and then focus on his tables in another section. She printed the check and calmly dropped it on the table, the needle scratch to the giggles that suddenly ceased. The table was politely asked to leave. The woman protested, and at one point tried to get behind the bar to appeal to one of the bartenders, but was blocked by our GM, who began to break down exactly what had happened in quiet professional tones. Because of the guest’s maneuvers, this exchange happened in front of two women seated in my section of the bar. After the guest had thrown her own friends under the bus, eventually leaving in a flurry of tears, the two women who had borne witness complimented my GM on her skill at defusing the situation and creating a safe workplace. One, a psychiatrist, was especially impressed with her diplomacy. We bought the women a round for their troubles.
It’s not enough to call out wrongs when we see them, we need to have and be advocates. So much is covered or hushed up. When the agency of one is impinged upon, it’s an attack on all. It takes a great deal of courage to approach management to begin with, and the lack of action on the part of management accounts for so many suffering in silence. The situation is compounded when it’s management or owners that are preying upon the staff.
The guest is always the focus; they are how we keep a roof over our head. Our co-workers are a necessary part of a team that keeps that roof in one piece. Neither is worth sacrificing the safety of the restaurant community.
The guest is not always right. Coworkers are not always safe people to be around. Taking a joke is very different from being violated. Everyone in the industry has to be willing to take a long hard look in the mirror and work at pulling us out of the muck and the mire we’ve all taken for granted. It’s not something that’s up for negotiation. We can do better, and we will.