When I went to work at an advertising agency in Manhattan, I was fresh out of college and still incredibly naive for someone my age at the time. I had no idea there was such a thing as sexual harassment.
I’m not being silly about a serious subject. I actually was that dense. In my own defense, I was sheltered from reality by cultural bias. For one thing, I was born in Brooklyn, New York—a whole other world. For another thing, I was told that good little Sicilian girls didn’t leave home until they got married. According to my mother and the other knowledgeable females in the family, only putanas moved out and got their own apartments before they got married. Only putanas shaved their legs before they were out of their teens. Only putanas wore a lot of makeup and tight clothes—without a girdle to stifle the jiggle. Mind you, I was 104 pounds, soaking wet with weights in both hands, skin and bones with nothing to jiggle, and my mother still insisted I wear a longline girdle. Mama mia!
If you haven’t deduced it for yourself, putana is Italian for slut and other nasties. The family matriarchs should have told me that part too, because they made it seem as though putanas had way more fun than I did.
Anyway, I suppose I received a post-graduate education when I started working at the ad agency. I wanted to be a copywriter but was hired as a receptionist. I asked the secretaries about the funny smell coming from the art department and they informed me that the guys back there smoked pot on the job. More questioning revealed that the president and owner of the agency was a spoiled rich guy who lived on a converted Chinese Junk in the 79th Street Yacht Basin, and one of the agency’s vice-presidents was a seedy former B-Movie producer. I was employed in a den of iniquity.
I didn’t have any problems with the agency’s president and owner. Once he learned I was an English major and could turn his error-ridden copy into prose, I became his new best friend and his new secretary (with a tiny raise in pay). He also admired my Brooklyn spunk because I asked for carte blanc when I edited his work.
The Ex-B-Movie Producer was another matter. When I was still the receptionist, he ordered me not to put through any calls from the models he “auditioned” for commercials. I was to tell them he was out and take messages—that he tossed into the trash when I handed them to him. I was uncomfortable with lying to those women and finally told them not to bother calling because he wouldn’t take their calls.
I learned that the scumbag went through secretaries like a dose of salts. His secretary at the time, a very pretty well-endowed brunette, told me that the most disgusting job he gave her was to send his couch cushions to the cleaners after he “auditioned” models. He said suggestive things to her on a daily basis and she did her best to laugh them off. As much as she needed her job, the last straw for her was when he demanded that she pose topless for a magazine ad. She quit on the spot.
I remembered all the sleazy things she told me about her boss. I had a very bad feeling about those things, because her departure left skinny little me as the only female in the agency he hadn’t harassed. I suppose I had a bit of an edge in that I didn’t particularly like my job. I wouldn’t have shed a tear if I lost it, and I was still living with my parents. I could quit too if it became necessary.
The first incident occurred when I was working beside another vice president’s secretary. The ex-movie producer walked behind me and swatted my derriere. Without a second thought, I whirled around and swatted his butt in return. His startled expression was priceless. He pointed at me and told the secretary, “Talk to her!”
She did. She told me, “You can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I asked her. “He did it to me.”
Her reply: “Because he’s the boss.”
At that point, I told her that wasn’t a good enough reason. As I mentioned earlier, I was incredibly naive. I wasn’t experienced enough yet to know I was expected to grin and bear it. So, I told her I wasn’t going to let him get away with any of that stuff. I said I was born in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn babes don’t take crap from anybody.
Soon afterward, the slimy Ex-B Movie Producer called me into his office for a chat. He informed me that it was apparent to him and everyone else in the agency that I was very unsophisticated and obviously a virgin.
I was stunned that he had the nerve to say something that personal and of a sexual nature to me. It’s possible that my jaw dropped. Before I could respond, he went on to say that I should become more sophisticated, more worldly. To do that, I should begin a relationship with someone older and more experienced to lose my virginity.
That did it. I believe smoke came out of my ears and the Brooklyn Babe in me took over. I said, “Who did you have in mind, you? Because if that’s what you want, I don’t need this job that badly.”
I got up to leave his office and clean out my desk but he backpedaled. “No, no. I was only trying to help you improve your image. Just forget I said anything.”
As I look back at my time at the ad agency I realize how lucky I was to escape additional harassment—or worse. It was shortly after that infamous chat with the predatory vice-president that the agency president practically adopted me. The slimy ex-B-movie producer who put the vice in vice-president didn’t bother me again. I suppose the creep didn’t dare.
Nowadays, I wonder how I would have fared if I hadn’t been Brooklyn spunky and an English Major who made the agency president’s work look so much better that he promoted me out of that creep’s reach. Other women the VP swine dealt with weren’t as fortunate, may he burn in hell.