me: Are you saying the sex harassment ended your acting career?
she: Yeah-up. But it’s a long… long story.
me: How far back?
she: Grade school–or before. But let’s say it started with waiting tables in the city.
me: You mean, while you were studying acting.
she: During drama school at NYU I worked long hours three days a week to cover my bills and debts. This job was on Bleeker St., just a couple of blocks from the apt I was sharing. It was one of these hip musician places, restaurant by day, bar by night. I started at noon and worked till around one-two in the morning. The afternoons were relatively okay but the nights were… meant running the gauntlet. A touch here, a pinch there, a bit of fondling, sex banter, innuendo, even whistles. At times it seemed a grotesque amount of sexual attention. I guess much of the harassment was verbal, but much too was… well, some of these… frisky operators acted as if they owned me.
Maybe as a mid-westerner I was an easy target, but as suburb guys form Jersey and the Island, they were no great sophisticates either. I mean how many times did these would-be rockers tell me I was “hot” or that they were “horny.” It was creepy… all the moronic pussy and dick talk. “This bitch did this.” “My bitch did that.” “My old lady sucks…” “This chick goes down…” “This chick, that chick” as in everywhere a chick chick. They rapped like this as if I were part of the damn walls. To them it was no more than their next sip of Bud, or their next trip to their overflowing urinals.
At first, I tried to disappear into the corners and shadows, and then to be meaner, and uglier. But they continued to act in this aggressively familiar way as if I was part of some fantasized groupie chorus. I think they were practicing on me in the same way they practiced their guitars… acting out their power long before they obtained it. I swear it was essential to their comraderie too.
Anyways, the job became unbearable, so I quit.
me: Phew! Jesus! No wonder. What about the drama school at NYU… was it freer of this kind of harassment? I hope.
she: Good question! The women’s movement was peaking at this time, you know. So, with each passing day, I think I was becoming more aware of sex harassment, and other forms of socially built-in put-downs. I became uncomfortable aware and cautious of male students, and professors… the classrooms were dominated by male voices and male opinions. But because I could compare notes with my room-mate, I managed it somewhat. But not all of us did. Some dropped out as I did too but only after… well, I’ll tell you.
Let me say though that the men in Drama were in some ways worse than the rockers, just less blatant. Like their professors, who were mainly male, most had big egos, and most aggressively pursued their careers. But, they had less time to hang out, take drugs, and pursue sex. So, in general, for me, it was mainly a matter of second-class treatment, at times seeming laughable to them… and occasional pawing during rehearsals.
me: So, what did you do for money after you quit that bar?
she: Well, my room-mate’s boy friend drove a taxi part-time and seemed to make enough to pay his rent. I needed about 125. a week, and he topped that by a little, so with no time to consider how tough this might be for a woman, I applied for the job and was immediately put to work.
me: Oh my, I bet that job was not the answer.
she: Well, looking back, I can’t believe I was that desperate, but I had heard that a lot of arts world guys drove taxi, so I figured why not. Maybe I figured they would offer a buffer zone, which they did during shape-up. How could they not have when I was the only female driver on the night shift, but as soon as I got into my driver’s seat, the solo aspect of the job rocked me.
It was like this: For at least a month or more I was so beset with the humongous challenge of solving the city streets that I guess I was able to block out all the invasive comments and smooth, phony come-ons. But as soon as I was a passably “street smart” driver, it all exploded on me. I tried to locate the only other woman driver. I thought she might help me cope for a while longer. Maybe she had some secrets… maybe the day shift was far saner–even if less lucrative. But our paths never crossed.
Of course, not all male fares were jerks, but when you’re picking up 40 fares a night, you can be sure to be hit upon at least a few times. What a drag it was… proposition after proposition. I thought: ‘This must be the way the straight guys sexually harass. They want you now or the next day.’ No matter how I huddled in layers of clothes, and no matter how low I slumped behind the bullet-proof shield, the comments–and the groping by an occasional front seat passenger, were once again past my endurance.
Besides this, there were huge porn posters plastered all over the walls of the garage. I couldn’t even imagine that male locker rooms had gutter shit like this… this blatant misogyny shouted: ‘get to fuck out of here; this is male territory.’
Did men own all public spaces, I asked myself? Often aloud. I felt depressed, worthless. Yup, the money was there, but the harassment was too brutal, so despite the pleas of my room-mate to “stick it out,” I quit.
me: But I guess this was not the final straw.
she: No. The final one, the final one. The one that made me beat a retreat to the Adirondacks.
me: And this was the film you had a role in?
she: “Film” yes “film” as opposed to movie. A movie might not have broken me. But this smartsy artsy project did. It was my room-mate’s partner that got me “this gig” as he called it. Said it paid a lump sum as soon as some fancy ass grant came through. But the payment I never got was not, of course, the biggest problem.
The film was one of these sophomoric black comedies which was being promoted by heaps of academic jargon. No plot, of course, stoned out humor, lots of violent and pornographic references, and occasionally more than just allusions. Cultist stuff, aimed at an obsequious “advanced” audience, packaged as avant-garde, I suppose. But all very indie, you understand.
But if acting in this toxic flick was nightmarish, what went down off-camera was worse. Because the director was a total dickhead. He was a sarcastic, devious, self-obsessed grad student surrounded by ego-bolstering males all of whom lorded over the female assistants and actors. I swear it was like a caste system.
His “casting couch” wasn’t in any office, but in his own kitschy apt. in mid-town. He called me there a couple times for “role consultation” He wore these dark wrap-around glasses, and wore a burgundy robe with black trim–and a loose sash. I escaped his clutches the first time, and the next time came at least mentally prepared. At the point when he slithered toward me, I jumped up immediately. But he blocked my path to the door. I tried to kick him, but he flipped me onto the floor. Knowing I was trapped, I stayed on my back and whimpered. He was hesitant for a few moments and then opened the door, stuck his head out into the hallway, and then yelled at me: “Get out of here, bitch.”
That was the end of my acting career. He could have his star billing… his phony, junky “experimental” film, I would not validate either one.
The next day I called home and informed my mom and sister that I was planning to move out of the city. They were so thrilled that they loaned me five times more than what I suggested. Soon after I headed up here, far away from the high rent district, and bought the cabin near the lake. I kissed the ground, yes. And bought a canoe which sure beat a taxi, and built a makeshift studio which put the predatory directors’ pads far behind me.
So, that’s my sex harassment story. I never went back to the city. I settled right here– despite the isolation–and conservatism… well, that’s another story–and yours too. Right now you’re cat and my cats are waiting on us, so they come first.