As I punched in at the blue-plated metal time clock, Alistair* strode toward me with his long legs, intoning my name with a sing-song pitch that could turn anything into an insult. My skin crawled.
I slipped my time card back into its slot as quickly as I could, intent on slipping away to the dish room. But I wasn't quick enough. He stepped in front of me, asking me with a sneer what I'd done last night. It felt less like small talk than an accusation, and I didn't understand why. Something in his tone turned a simple question into an interrogation.
Alistair towered over me, his square jaw set in his long face, his limp brown hair falling in his eyes beneath the white dining hall cap. I wanted nothing more than to get away from him.
"Have fun in the dish room," he snarled after me as I scurried away. "I'll send some dirty trays your way." Alistair was a busser, which was a coveted position. Unlike the dish-room people, who were rooted to our spots and spent our shifts wearing plastic aprons that got splattered with other people's half-eaten food, he wore a clean white cloth apron and bustled about the dining hall, filling empty soda machines, and bringing clean racks of dishes and glasses from the dish room into the dining area as needed.
This evening, I was stationed in the dirty section, where we took trays from a conveyor belt, banged them over a trough, and placed them in racks to go through the automatic dish washer. Usually, I preferred the clean side, where you pulled the steamy-hot dishes off the automatic line and stacked them in rolling boxes to be delivered to the food line. Tonight, however, I was glad to be thumping dirty plates over a trough, because it meant I wouldn't have to deal with Alistair.
Whenever I was stacking clean plates, every time he passed through, he found a way to get in my face. He'd "accidentally" bump into me when my back was turned, so that I was in danger of dropping the heavy, stoneware plates and breaking them. While we didn't have to reimburse the dining hall for broken plates, we did have to immediately shut down the line and clean up the broken shards. Fortunately, I'd never dropped one, but that was no thanks to Alistair.
If he wasn't physically invading my space, he was staring me down with a predatorial gaze, throwing off a sneered comment, sometimes half-heard in the din. At least, when I was bullied in grade school, I'd had options. I could run away, or find a friend, or rush to class to sit in my safe assigned seat. But working here, I was locked into one location, designated by the manager to stay a sitting duck for the entire three-hour shift. And since the dish-stacking station was for a single worker, I didn't even have witnesses.
It had gotten to the point where I dreaded coming to work. Each time the weekly schedules came out, I frantically scanned them to see if Alistair was working with me. If he was, my stomach turned itself in knots for hours before I had to turn up. I thought about quitting.
One night, he was waiting for me outside the locker room, right after I changed for my shift. "Nice pants," he snarled, gesturing at my baggy red jersey pants, which I wore because I didn't care if they got covered with hamburger bits and salad dressing.
"Whatever," I threw back, walking briskly past him down the empty hall.
"Why are you walking so fast?" he asked. "Afraid of me?"
Yes, I realized. I felt a desperate need to put distance between myself and this man. My fellow co-workers had already gone upstairs to clock in. I'd been delayed because my locker wouldn't close right. Would anyone even hear me from down here in the basement, through the thick, brick walls and concrete slab floors?
As I picked up my pace, he did, too. My legs no match for his stride at walking pace, I began to run. He picked up the pace, too, and my heart sank into my stomach.
"Stop running!" he yelled. He was only a few steps behind me. In another few paces, he could have grabbed my arm.
As I turned a corner, I nearly bumped into Laurie from the Cook's Help station. We often worked together in Cook's Help at Saturday breakfast, where I got to work with food on the more appetizing side of the process. Even though Laurie and I didn't normally chat much, I cheerfully asked how she was doing. How was the Art History class that she loved to talk about? I steered her into conversation about the Renaissance period as we walked up the steps to the hallway behind the kitchen where the time clock resided. Frustrated, huffing loudly, Alistair ambled past us. He turned to throw me a glare as he passed.
I dallied with Laurie near the time clock, asking her if she'd be on shift Saturday, making chit-chat about the weather, until Alistair had no choice but to proceed to the Busser's closet to pick up his apron and check the clipboard for his tasks.
Dropping my card briskly into its slot, I called "See you later" to Laurie and walked with purpose down the hallway to the manager's office. Knocking on the light-wood frame of her open door, I asked, "Can I talk to you?"
Mrs. Hanlon++ had always intimidated me, with her no-nonsense attitude. Her ash-blonde, straight hair pulled into a long, shapeless ponytail, her large rounded glasses perched on her aquiline nose, always wearing a baggy suit in nondescript earth tones, Mrs. Hanlon clearly had no time for frivolity. Nothing so pointless as a smile ever crept across her thin lips, at least not in my months of being her employee.
"Yes?" she said, with the air of someone who had just been interrupted from something terribly important.
My hand trembling involuntarily, I took a deep breath and muttered quietly, "It's about Alistair."
Mrs. Hanlon's stern visage melted subtly, and I saw concern creep into her eyes. "What about Alistair?" she asked.
"He's -- he's been bothering me," I confessed.
Gracefully, she hopped to her feet, gesturing me to take a seat in the blocky wood upholstered chair in front of her desk, as she swept to the door and closed it with a quiet click.
Back in her seat, she said simply, "Tell me what happened."
The words tumbled out of my mouth: the threatening air he exuded, the way he hovered around me like a vengeful ghost. (In those days, I didn't know to call it stalking.) I ended the saga with, "I didn't know if I should say anything. He never threatened me, or made sexual jokes, or hurt me. I didn't know if it qualified as harassment."
She said simply, "It's harassment if it makes you feel uncomfortable." Reassuringly, she told me she'd take care of it. She promised me that he'd talk to him and that, if he ever did it again, she'd fire him on the spot.
In the weeks after my talk with Mrs. Hanlon, our schedules changed. I rarely, if ever, got a shift that coincided with Alistair. When I did, he looked through me as if I didn't even exist, briskly walking past me, all business. I still got a sinking feeling in my stomach when I caught sight of him, but at least I knew I was no longer alone. Mrs. Hanlon had my back.
Though I rarely think of Alistair any more, I think of Mrs. Hanlon every time the issue of harassment surfaces. I've repeated her words to many people who may have needed to hear them: "If you feel uncomfortable, it's harassment." And while my memories of the exact details of what Alistair said and did to me have faded like a long-ago scraped knee, I can remember the exact quality of light in Mrs. Hanlon's office that afternoon. I can remember exactly what she was wearing and how her face softened, looking at young adult me, a little wavy-haired 19-year-old, trembling in the late afternoon golden sun through her many large windows.
Because of Mrs. Hanlon, the moment that shook me did not break me but only shored up my foundations.
*Not his real name
++ Not her real name
Me participating in the Penn State Monty Python Society's Mall Climb in the spring of 1990 with (left) Damon Buckwalter and (right) Pete Uoth. I don't have a lot of pictures handy from the time this story took place, so it's sort of ironic that the one I do have shows me loosely tied to Pete. I assure you, though, it was consensual, and he and I were just friends. You can see he carefully kept his hands in his pockets.