Me Too

October 17, 2017

“Me too” (or “#metoo”) became a two-word hashtag used on social media in 2017 to denounce sexual assault and harassment, in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The phrase had been used more than 200,000 times by October 15, and tweeted more than 500,000 times by October 16. The hashtag has been used over 600,000 times on Facebook, resulting in more than 6 million discussions about sexual abuse and harassment. Alyssa Milano encouraged use of the word as part of an awareness campaign to show the scale and ubiquity of the problem, and many notable individuals have contributed.
from “Me Too (hashtag),” Wikipedia, October 17, 2017

It was 1963, the last day of my tenth grade year, the year I began to write and Sister Kilian encouraged me, the year I thought seriously about becoming a nun, the year I turned sixteen. In those days I rode a city bus downtown after school and then transferred to an uptown route to get me the rest of the way home to Fifth Street. Sometimes I joined friends for a soda at Davenport’s, sometimes I went to the public library on Front Street, sometimes I wandered around alone in Capitol Park. That day, though, for reasons I cannot now remember, I walked into the F.W. Woolworth Store #59 on Market Street, intent on applying for a job.

The store is long gone, obliterated in the downtown revitalization movement of the 1970s that gave Harrisburg its Strawberry Square. There’s a popular restaurant and bar there now, but I can still see the tan and beige facade, the conventional doors that you had to open and close yourself, the counters of cosmetics and school supplies and sewing notions and costume jewelry that occupied the first floor. A book rack and news stand were to the right of the door, and the lunch counter was on the left, toward the back. That’s where I headed first.

Former F.W. Woolworth building, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, replaced in the 1970s

I sat on a black swivel stool at the long counter. I ordered a sandwich (probably a BLT, on toast, with chips) and a Coke from the perky waitress. A man — I don’t know if he was already there when I sat down or if he came later — was to my right. He had stringy white hair with some streaks of faded yellow in it, and a rheumy right eye. He wore a plaid shirt and pants held up with suspenders. I remember the suspenders. He reminded me of my Uncle Jim, who was about sixty at the time.

I suppose I had conversation with Mr. Suspenders, small talk. Nobody talked about Stranger Danger then, and after all, we were in a well-lighted, busy public space. I may have confided my desire to apply for a job. When I was nearly finished with my sandwich, I asked the perky waitress how one went about seeking employment there. She directed me to the personnel office, in the basement, back beside the bathrooms. (I knew where that was. In those days it cost $.10 to get in to the bathroom, which had several stalls. Some girlfriends and I had been reprimanded by an employee for using just one dime for all of us.)

Mr. Suspenders said he would help me find the personnel office. He followed me from the lunch counter to the escalator, which was in the middle of the store. I stepped on first, and he took the next step. We were the same height, so this made him rise only a little behind me. As we glided down, he put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed. Then he moved his hands down my arms, to my waist, and then my hips. As we got off the escalator, he gave my hips a firm press.

I was startled, and terrified. I moved quickly among the racks of hanging clothes and around the tables stacked with folded shirts and pants. He followed me. At the alcove where the offices and the bathrooms were I pulled my wallet out of my bag, fished out a dime, slipped it into the slot, and told Mr. Suspenders I had to go in there (I did) and thanks for helping me find the office and goodbye now, the last two words probably lost on him as the door clicked shut behind me.

I stayed in that bathroom a long time. Eventually I heard a coin rattle in the box and the tumbler turn. I stuck my head out of the stall as another woman came in. I tried to peer into the store area. Finally, I slipped out and moved swiftly to the office, where I applied for a job. I was hired on the spot, for 20 hours a week at $1.00 per hour, 10% discount on all purchases. I would spend the next ten or so weeks in that basement, ringing up purchases of clothing, toys, shower curtains, and lamp shades.

I never saw Mr. Suspenders again, although his image and his touch on my shoulders and my hips haunted me. It was not the first time something like that had happened to me, nor would it be the last. I didn’t tell anyone about this, or the others, for many years. It’s one I can talk about now, here, more than half a century after it happened, albeit still with “tighter Breathing/And Zero at the Bone.”




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