In light of events this weekend, I’m sharing this story from my youth. Nothing changes. Absolutely nothing.
In 1991 I was working my way through college by working the night shift at a photo processing plant. Y’know, the place where your vacation pictures (or your homemade suburban pornographic images) would get sent to when you dropped your film off at the drugstore. It was a decent gig – if you didn’t mind working in a big windowless building breathing in an atmosphere that was three parts film chemistry fumes. (I wish I could be around when my liver gets dissected someday.) I made pretty good money, got benefits even though I didn’t work 40 hours, and I didn’t have to deal with a retail public.
Since the job was mostly automated, the staff consisted of mostly high school drop-outs and old women who, well, I have no idea why they chose to work there. Because I was able to learn to work at so many stations, I bounced around from night to night printing different sizes on different machines in different rooms. I was the jill-of-all-trades in the photo processing world.
Once of the rooms I worked in quite a bit was the Big Room. The Big Room held three massive printing machines. Hundreds or rolls of film were spliced together on a single roll and then fed through the machine - which would expose the negatives and print the photos. It was a big, noisy space run by three guys. I usually wound up working the automated reprint station that was tucked in a corner of the Big Room for at least a few hours each night.
Two of the three guys who ran the Big Room were G, the son of the plant’s supply buyer, and W, a Thai college student. (Guy number three’s name has faded from my memory over time.) G and I were buddies. He was a kid who was a punk rock drummer and would always ask me if the radio was too loud. Considering that the sound level of the machines in the Big Room were at a hearing-damaging level already, the volume of the radio was hardly an issue, but G was just being sweet. I mean, ya gotta crank Molly Hatchet, right?
W on the other hand was a very quiet and always gave me the impression of being angry all of the time. He rarely spoke and it wasn’t because he didn’t appear to be comfortable speaking English. He was just this weird aggressive quiet guy. Just like those guys you hear about on the news who are always being described by their unsuspecting neighbors as being quiet, mostly kept to himself, and always had a well-maintained lawn.
After a few months of working in the Big Room, I noticed that W would come into the break room not long after I had gone there for my break. It was a typical pseudo-cafeteria – two long lunch tables with a wall of vending machines offering only the finest food you could buy with the change in your pocket. I would usually sit at the table closest to the door and read a book. W would kick the swinging door open and then sit at the other end of the room, always on the opposite side of the table that I was on. He would then pull out his books or homework or whatever and study. I never spoke to him because I have always been my usual self-absorbed self. I didn’t need anyone thinking that I was friendly or anything. Eventually W started abruptly raising his knees under the table to hit it really hard. It was enough force to make a big bang and rattle the table at my end. I thought he was just doing some odd twitchy thing and ignored him. I was and am still really, really good at ignoring people. This continued for months on end. He kicked and I ignored. I never really thought much of it.
I should point out that I was 22 - 23 when this was happening. I was still in the foggy grey area of figuring out that I was indeed gay and coming to terms with what that meant and how it would affect me. Considering that I was still living and working in my quaint suburban hometown and going to school in Chicago, I felt that I was tripping between two completely different worlds – straight suburbia and all of it’s suffocating level of acceptability and the big, bad city where everything was available to me. And it’s not like I wasn’t, er, testing my gayness, because, oh boy, was I. But there are stories I will never tell.
Anyway, one June evening I left work and when I got to my car I noticed something on the passenger seat. I was driving a Suzuki Samurai at the time and its Jeep-like removable soft-top pretty-much threw out any notion of vehicle security. In the poorly lit parking lot I couldn’t tell what the mystery package was but I did know that it wasn’t there when I left the car earlier. I quickly checked the top and found all the zippers and snaps secured. I cautiously entered my car and discovered that the item on the seat was a dozen red roses.
I reacted as any woman who has been given roses does – I was consumed by stroke-inducing rage.
I’m sure that this will be a big surprise to many, but I am not a rose-receiving kind of gal. I was furious. Some asshole had busted (OK, had unzipped) into my car to leave me flowers. I pulled open the card and read:
Just thinking of you.
Fuck. All that table kicking was W’s idea of flirting.
I drove home upset and angry. That idiot had broken into my car to show that he liked me. Christ, what would a marriage proposal involve for this psycho? Grand theft larceny?
Of course once I got home I showed my parents the flowers, note, and explained that they were left in my car and, well, I got nothing. I remember them being nonplussed, almost indifferent. My mom even took the roses and put them in a vase and used them as a centerpiece on the patio table. Lovely.
I went back to work and ignored W. I wasn’t interested in his attention and I was offended on every level by his actions. I figured that any kind of communication from me would only encourage him. I didn’t tell anyone at work about what had happened either.
A week later I went out to my car after work and again there was a package on my passenger seat. I lost it. W hadn’t even worked that night. He had driven out from the city where he lived to break into my car one more time.
Missing you today!
I shoved the card in my pocket. I had had the sense to keep the first one as well. Psychos never seem to care if they leave a paper trail. I grabbed the roses and went back into the plant and showed them to G. I told him how it had happened a week earlier as well. G, thank god, was horrified. He was afraid for my safety. While W was quiet and a bit on edge, he had never shown any signs of being violent, but G checked the lot and then walked me to my car. “I’ll do this every night, “ he kindly said.
The next day I was still upset about the whole mess. I went and talked to my supervisor. She was sympathetic and promised she would talk to one of the higher-ups. Big help that was. The little Napoleon who was the plant manager said there was nothing he could do. The events had happened off-site (since when is the company parking lot off-site? ) and that this was between W and me.
I was quite angry and incredibly upset. I didn’t feel safe. W and I crossed paths all night long and I usually worked in the Big Room with him several hours each shift. I talked to G and he did what he thought he could do to help – he told his father, the plant’s supply buyer, the whole story. G’s dad then went to the little Napoleon and said the one phrase that could kick the little shit into action: “Kris could sue the company for sexual harassment.”
The next day I was brought into my supervisor’s office, apologized to up and down, was handed a copy of the company’s sexual harassment policy, read it, and was asked if I wished to sign a formal complaint of sexual harassment against W. I didn’t hesitate to sign the form. In hindsight I think that I was pretty brave to do that. All I know was at the time I was angry and just wanted W to leave me alone.
A little later I saw W in the same office looking embarrassed and humiliated as he was being told what I had done about his actions. My bosses kept me and W apart as much as they could, but because of my skills I had to work in the Big Room with him frequently. W would throw reels around and slam paper cases around in a display of overly-aggressive behavior. G, the only non-management co-worker who knew the whole story, made sure he never left W and I alone in the Big Room and would walk me to my car every night.
A few weeks after I had filed the complaint, W showed up at work stupid drunk. He staggered around the Big Room and was tossing paper cases around so violently they were smacking into the plexi-glass front wall hard enough that cracks appeared. The supervisors sent him home. But before they did G came running into the darkroom I was working in looking pale and terrified. “Kris! Holy shit! W said he wants to come after you with a shotgun. Jesus! He said he wants to put it against your forehead and pull the trigger.”
Well, of course he did. I rejected a guy who never spoke to me and had broken into my car twice. What was wrong with ME? Didn’t I realize that he was just showing his plummage and I was to be punished for not being seduced by his tactics?
I recall not being scared by this, just resigned. G made sure W wasn’t waiting for me in the parking lot and then followed me home to make sure I wasn’t ambushed. G and his dad shot for sport and I remember that I asked him if he would teach me to fire a gun. He looked at me sadly but agreed. I never did learn, and that I was pushed to want to do that still churns my stomach to this day.
Thankfully a job I had been part-timing at at the university had opened up into a full-time gig and I could finally, after 5 years, quit the photo lab job. On my last night, as I was leaving for the last time, W – who had been laying low since his drunken incident – approached me. He had tears in his eyes and looked extremely frightened and upset. I steeled myself for the worst.
“Are you leaving because of me?” he asked.
“No,” I said. There was a pause and then I walked past him and out the door. It was only then that I realized that those were the only words W had ever spoken to me.