Bystander

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

~ Madeleine Albright

I know this place. I’ve been there.

It was the end of a long day. I was alone, like always. I wanted to take myself out to dinner. Somewhere nice. I sat in the corner by the door eating the most delicious tomato soup with a side of cheese and crusty bread. I was in heaven, culinarily speaking.

Then an office group came in. Boss, check. Secretary, check. Another older man, maybe the Secretary’s husband, check. 3-4 staff workers all 30 and under, check. All were standing or sitting around a wooden barn table, one you might expect at a trendy, organic, farm-food restaurant. Then the boss makes a derogatory, chauvinistic, comment bordering on sexual harassment to a young woman in the group, loud enough that I could hear it 20 feet away in the crowded restaurant. She took the comment like a champ, like this was not the first time; the others stood by and watched it all happen; no one made a comment about his behavior or his language, not even in jest; and then they went on about their drinks and meal.

Here is what I wanted to do:

What I wanted to do was go over there, hand the young woman my business card. While holding it out firmly in my hand (not yet letting her take it), and looking the boss-man in the eye, I imagined myself saying in a strong, “Don’t Mess with Texas” kind of attitude and a tone that was not loud but sent ripples of “shut up and listen to what I have to say” to those that needed to hear it…

Young lady, you don’t know me from Eve, but what he just said to you and what he just did to you, crosses the line in so many ways. You have a team of witnesses that are probably too scared to stand up for you and I get that.

 Then looking into her eyes with the strongest of sincerity and offer of courage:

If you ever want to take him to court, call me. I will be your witness.

 And then, looking around at each of them to see if I could find a glimmer of empathy:

Who knows, some of your colleagues may stand up beside you and offer their story too.

I did not think I could pull it off as boldly as I imagined myself acting. I was afraid. I did not know any of these people and how powerful they were (or not). By so many perspectives, I was still a stranger in that town.

I was so very ashamed of my lack of courage. To this day, 7 or so years later, I still feel that shame.

Here is what I did do:

I looked over and kept watching the team. The person I think was the Secretary’s man caught me looking. I must have had an accusatory look on my face. Because, for the first time all night, he walked around and stood directly behind the Secretary. Because of this very deliberate and symbolic act and the fact that he held eye contact with me, I thought that this man was trying to tell me that he had to protect the Secretary and that he was doing all he could to stand behind her, to “have her back.” OR…here is another possible interpretation… he was trying to tell me that this had been going on so very long…since the Secretary, now in what I perceived to be her 60’s, had been a young 20’s something assistant.

I felt empathy for the man trying to do what little he could for the people he cared about, given the power dynamic.

I finished my soup. Though it was still delicious, I no longer deserved it and so it lost its power over my taste buds and culinary soul. I paid my check and went straight to hell.

I wonder which level of Inferno Dante would put me on…

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