I’m at an age, hopefully, where I can tell the creeps from the nice guys. I may only be 21, but I’ve seen enough starers, fondlers, and especially stalkers to know I need to stay away from them. I worry, though, about my sisters, especially one in particular. She’s 16, the blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty that our mother and her father try so hard to shelter despite the many boys that line up on our doorstep to date her. She’s very dependent on others, even in unhealthy situations, so I’ve always wondered how she would handle an unhealthy situation. Besides, I know how hard it is at her age, when attention is very much desired and an older man is willingly providing it, to distinguish a romantic gesture from behavior that should raise a red flag.
One situation I recall from time to time happened when I was 16 and working at my first job. I wasn’t as sheltered as my sister but still naïve about certain things since, unlike my sister, I didn’t have my first official boyfriend until a few months later. Times were slower, or at least I thought so at that age, and my main thoughts were how to escape my job at the crumbling dollar theater where I worked and achieve instant popularity by getting a job across the street at Woodland Hills Mall. Despite this, the theater did become my second home, especially since I could talk freely about no-no topics with my coworkers and could trust them to listen, give me advice, be a shoulder to cry on, and open up to me. Maybe that’s why this new guy threw me off at first.
He was 33. When I was 16, this was old. I know now that most men his age do not look as old as he did. He had so little meat on him that the bones on his face nearly poked through his tight skin. The skin itself resembled a leather wallet. He had a full head of hair but he spiked it to cover how thin it actually was. Since he complied with the hideous dress code, nothing could be determined about how he dressed except his shirt was two sizes too big, but then that was also the style.
He had an excuse for working with the mostly teenaged staff. He came from a poor part of Los Angeles and wanted a fresh start. He bought a map one day, grabbed a bus, and just rode it until he found a city with the right vibe. On his way, he opened the map to notice that not only did Oklahoma have more than one city, but that my hometown of Tulsa had many economic opportunities not found anywhere else. He stopped here, got a job as a manager of a grocery store, and was just working at the movie theater to raise enough money to start his own business.
“Why would you want to come to the city everybody else wants to get out of?” I still couldn’t grasp how he would want to leave Los Angeles, a city filled with rich, beautiful, influential people who held the keys to unlock dreams.
“It’s a death trap. Everybody thinks the same, acts the same, and does the same things. If you can’t fit in, you’re in trouble. You guys don’t care about that, though. As long as you work hard, people are happy with whatever you want to be.”
I didn’t quite agree with him but was excited to have an adult be so open around me. I didn’t think twice about opening my thoughts to him. Why not?
He wasn’t the only older person to work there. Besides teenagers, the theater was a starting-over place for adults or a place to pick up some extra money to help with the tough times. We even had a father figure, or a least he was one to me. He was a former ORU music professor about my mother’s age who had quit the profession the year before to focus on playing jazz music with his harp guitar. He often brought the instrument as a conversation starter.
He didn’t like this new guy, but I didn’t think anything about it at first because he didn’t like very many people in general. He wasn’t afraid to spit into someone’s drink or bag of popcorn if he felt they were being extremely rude or acting immaturely. He said he’d seen this type of guy before but didn’t explain himself further, at least not that I can recall. All he kept saying was to let him know if I needed him for anything. I thought this was goofy but agreed anyway.
One day — not a special day — the new guy and I were scheduled together as ushers. I liked being an usher because in between picking up popcorn buckets and pretending to sweep the lobby, I often peeked inside a theater to watch small parts of any movie I wanted to. I always stayed by the back wall, holding a broom and a dustpan, so whenever I felt a boss coming near to catch me slacking off, I would pretend to have been in there to sweep the floor. I saw the guy enter the theater I was currently in, relieved it wasn’t a boss, and went back to watching the movie. The next thing I knew, tight hands were on the creases between my neck and shoulder blades. He started to massage that area without my permission.
If this would have happened to me now, he would have been given a lecture he would have never forgotten. I was different at 16. Although I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t know whether telling him this would have been an overreaction. All I did was walk away without saying anything.
This guy never got the hint. In fact, he saw this as a cat and mouse game. Every shift we had together as ushers, he insisted on giving these "massages," still giving some without permission, explaining the need for me to loosen up. One time I did give him permission to massage me on the shoulders to try to convince myself that I was overreacting, but I never made that mistake again. I had said yes thinking he would stick with the shoulders, but soon noticed his hands moving downward. They didn’t move gradually either. I asked him to stop one time. He didn’t listen. I then peeled the hands off my hips, shoved them away from my body, and left the theater before he had time to try to convince me again.
Even then, I didn’t tell my bosses but did have the courage to open up to my female coworkers. Apparently, this guy also attempted and/or was touching these girls too. I learned the truth to the saying “power in numbers” that day. We all decided to schedule an appointment with the big boss and try to get rid of this guy once and for all.
I wished I could say it worked, but he didn’t get fired. The guy must have given a convincing story because all he was given was a warning. What made this worse was when he kept touching me, he would bring up “some coward” that made him out to be a rapist and that he wasn’t one, which made me feel too scared to say anything to him. All I felt I could do was keep walking away, tell my father figure, and anytime I felt very uncomfortable I would go to my older male co-worker and let him scare this guy away.
I gained courage when I went to the theater not to work but to watch a movie. I thought he wasn't working that day so I felt safe going to the theater alone. I sat down, got outside candy from my purse, and grabbed my phone to start texting friends before the movie started. Then he sat down beside me. Still, the worst thing to do is to panic, so I stayed. He didn’t do anything at first, but I still stood guard. Sure enough, he touched me, except this time, he grabbed my breast.
“Don’t touch me ever again!” He was shocked when I slapped him in the face.
“It’s a joke!” He kept a smile on his face as I stomped out of the room. “Come on!”
I went straight to my boss stating that I should not have to be scared to see a movie at my own workplace, but was told there was “nothing they could do.” What they did do was make sure we were never scheduled together as ushers again. Things went smoothly for me after that, but I still worried about the other girls. I tried to get them talking again but they didn’t want to talk about it.
He would try to stalk me when I worked as an usher on his days off, but thankfully, the bosses always had another coworker scheduled with me. My bosses also made frequent checks on me that I am now grateful for.
A girl from my high school came one day to see a movie. We ran into each other when she stopped to by some popcorn. We hugged. She promised to visit with me longer when her movie was done, but when she came back, her eyes were wide and her body looked tense.
“What’s wrong?” I gave her a free refill of popcorn.
“One of your coworkers sexually harassed me.” She grabbed the salt shaker and started shaking some out on her popcorn. “I don’t want to come here anymore.”
“What does he look like?”
“He’s skinny with spiky hair.”
I knew then that it was this guy. She had to report it to my bosses. They might ignore me, but they wouldn’t ignore a paying customer. She resisted at first, but after telling her what happened to me, she decided to talk to one that instant. Finally, he got fired. The theater also filed a restraining order against him. He couldn’t be within 500 feet of the theater ever again. Our parking lot often had a police officer parked there, so I knew he wouldn’t be stupid enough to come back.
Despite my discomfort, I know I am extremely lucky. He could have chased after me any of the times I walked away. He could’ve gotten angry and become more aggressive than he already was. He could’ve raped me. He could’ve followed me home on a number of shifts and done a great deal of harm. I’m not scared, but I’m not naïve.
I honestly hope my sister never faces this type of situation, but if she does, I hope she at least speaks up sooner than I did. No one trained me in the right ways to handle this situation and I often felt too embarrassed to speak up. I know now that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about and if I spoke up sooner, not only would this problem have gone away faster for me but also for the other girls I worked with. Don’t wait for someone else to make the move because it may never happen. The only way things changed for me was when I spoke up about it. In the end, a line should be drawn and be drawn as soon as possible.