I chose to move to Portland when I was twenty because that’s where my favorite band, Sleater-Kinney lived. That tells you everything you need to know about my maturity and decision-making faculties at the time.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my life, perhaps become a highly paid feminist thinker or riot grrrl rock critic. Sadly, Craigslist was lacking job listings in both of those fields and most others since it was 2000 and the dot com bubble had just burst. So I took the only job I could get and became a clerk at a large independent bookstore. The gig paid a measly $8 per hour, but came with perks like an established social scene, health insurance, and a sh-t-ton of free books.
My department was comprised mostly of gay guys who were into the Teaches of Peaches and This American Life and since our jobs were repetitive and numbing, we passed the days by chatting about our love lives and the brand-new labor union to which we now belonged. The boys tended to whisper when talking about the union out of fear that they’d be labeled as organizers and targeted by management. I, however, was less discrete because I was blindly confident that there was nothing management could do to me. I was too smart to get nailed. I had recently graduated from college two years early and was certain that I could argue my way out of anything.
Part of my job was arranging displays of art books, many of which were racy, but not in a way that bothered me because I was a third-wave sex-positive feminist who had taken a semester-long course on female sexuality. As part of my class, I’d written feminist erotica and was empowered to squat over a mirror. Accordingly, my displays tended to be a bit risqué, that is until word came down that I had to place all books with nudity in a locked case. Since a huge portion of all art books contain nudity, I approached the female managers who’d put down the dictum, mostly older earthy women with NPR tote bags covered in cat hair — the kind of ladies who still thought porn was oppressive and hadn’t penned any love letters to their vaginas — and asked them to clarify. Gallingly, canonical nudes were okay, but not contemporary nudes, and they allowed hideously violent photographs of car crash victims, but no bush. I made a hobby of creating the most offensive displays possible that still followed their rules. I figured that eventually they’d come around to my way of seeing things and then we could gather for tea and color in pages from The C-nt Coloring Book together.
A few months into the job I got a call at home from a high-ranking personnel manager about a straight guy in a nearby department who was accused of coming on to women in creepy ways. I told the personnel manager, a shiny, fast-talking woman, that my only beef with that guy was over his affection for Garrison Keillor and The Worst Public Radio Show of All Time. Well, that and he leered at me when I was dancing along to “Shake Your Dix” with the gay guys. She then asked me a lot more questions about what the guys and I talked about at work. Because I was so impossibly naïve and certain in my decency, I told her everything. It didn’t occur to me to be paranoid.
The next day at work I was called into a meeting with the personnel manager, my boss, and a union steward responsible for representing my interests, and was given a verbal warning for sexual harassment and improper work conduct. I realized that the reason she called me at home was to get me to say something incriminating — and boy, did I! — but I don’t know if it was in response to a complaint from one of the tote bag ladies or my loud support of the union. Either way, I was on her radar.
I cooled it on the genuinely racy conversation, leaving that stuff for our smoke breaks, but it didn’t matter. That was never the personnel manager’s goal. Soon I was slapped with another warning, this time for saying “f-ck,” as in “shut the f-ck up” playfully in conversation. Later I said, “I like different kinds of books. I’m sort of a slut for books.” This too was determined to be “egregious sexual language” that was “creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment,” though to whom this environment was intimidating, hostile or offensive was never disclosed to me. Nor could anyone explain why the guys were never disciplined for swearing.
Our work area was decorated with a blown up missed connection ad from Willamette Week that read, “You: puking pea soup on Hawthorne. Me: Instantly in love. Call me.” One of the guys confessed to me that he had a dream of spying himself in a missed connection ad so I made it a reality. “You: making displays in large independent bookstore, swinging your foxy gay behind. Me: Instantly in love. Call me.” After he found it, we gleefully photocopied it and placed it on the wall next to the other ad. Though we did this together, it was deemed that only I was creating a hostile work environment. During the ensuing disciplinary meeting the personnel manager of this famously liberal store told me that any references to sexual orientation in the workplace were forbidden.
Over the next several months the meetings, sometimes two in a day, got old, but I refused to abandon my foul-mouthed ways. If the guys could swear without impunity, why couldn’t I? The discipline was flagrantly discriminatory. But as I inched closer and closer to being fired, the head union steward, a soft-spoken guy barely any older than I was, broke it to me that I was a drain on resources, and that when I was fired I could take my case to arbitration, but he didn’t want me to. In arbitration, he told me, one’s character is germane and after That One Time I Kicked a Super-Obnoxious-But-Beloved-to-Everyone-Else Coworker in the Nads at a Party, my character wasn’t going to pass muster. He asked me to please quit and spare everyone the hassle.
Without the union on my side, I was out of options. I quit. I came in as a righteous feminist ready to battle for gender equality. I got my chance to fight and I lost. For my last act of petty rebellion I placed a missed connection ad in the Willamette Week: “You: personnel manager for large independent bookstore with hatred for users of egregious language. Me: ready to talk dirty to you.” My offer was never taken up.