At the start of my fourth season working on the mountain, I worked at the Mercantile with two other women. The other clerks were both in their early 60s. One of the women was very sweet and kind hearted. Seldom did a cross word come out of her mouth, and she got melty over the cuteness of dogs and little kids. The second store clerk—let’s call her Butch—was most kindly described as abrupt.
Butch burped loudly and didn’t excuse herself. She raised her voice at children, and her tone when she invited customers to ask questions betrayed her true feeling. Butch was bossy, although all three of us clerks had equal lack of authority in the eyes of the company we worked for. One day when there were no customers in the store, Butch used an obvious racial slur in casual conversation with me, The Big Boss Man, and Sandra the camp host. I was stunned into silence.
Butch was kind to me in her own way, which complicates how I felt about her. She offered to loan money to me and The Man when we experienced some payroll problems. She offered to pick up supplies for us on the weeks she and her husband went to town and The Man and I stayed on the mountain. She bought two copied of my book before she and her husband quit their jobs on the mountain shortly after the Fourth of July. She showed her desire for friendship with me in the manner of an eight year old boy: rambunctious teasing, invading my personal space, tugging on my clothes. I tried not to stand in her general vicinity so she didn’t have the opportunity to get too close to me.
Butch had suffered major health problems in recent years. I suspect facing death had given her a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Perhaps she felt life is too short to apologize for belching like a ruffian or to stifle a racial slur. However, I suspect her bossiness and negative teasing have existed through most of her life.
I first witnessed her exhibiting inappropriate-toward-a-customer behavior on the third day we worked together. The day was cold and foggy. The temperature inside the yurt housing the Mercantile only got up to 42 degrees. Many people had come up the mountain unprepared for the weather. We were doing bang-up sales in long sleeve tees and sweatshirts.
We would have sold more if we’d had sweatshirts intended for men. We had one unisex sweatshirt in Carolina blue (which is sort of a powder blue, if you don’t follow college sports) and a grey one that ran small and was cut for slender curves. We’d seen a couple guys try on the grey sweatshirts that morning, and the larger sizes looked ok on very thin men.
Late in the afternoon during a lull in the customer action, a tall, muscular young man came into the store asking about nearby trails he and his friends could hike. I told him there were no real hiking trails in our immediate vicinity and tried to sell him on a map of the area that showed all the trails and Forest Service roads. The map was a no-go, but the handsome young man politely thanked me for my help.
The young man’s friends had followed him in and were browsing in the store. One picked out a small souvenir, and the other one found the grey sweatshirts. He was very thin, and when he pulled on one of the grey sweatshirts in extra-large, it looked fine on him. It was by no means baggy, but he didn’t look as if he had been squeezed into a sausage casing either. The young man paid for the items, and all three men exited the Mercantile.
The tall young man who’d asked me about hiking trails returned a few moments later. He liked the sweatshirt his friend had bought, and since he was cold he was thinking about buying one too.
I could understand why he was cold. In addition to his shoes and ankle socks, he only wore a pair of tight shorts and a snug t-shirt—no hat, no jacket, no knee socks. I bet he was fully experiencing the chill of the day.
He said his friend had gotten an extra-large sweatshirt. Of course, his friend was six inches shorter, 75 pounds lighter, and lacking developed muscles. No way was the guy standing in front of me going to be able to squeeze into an XL.
I went over to the rack of sweatshirts and found a double extra-large. I handed it to the handsome young man, and he surveyed it skeptically.
You can try it on, I told the young man helpfully, even though I doubted the sweatshirt would fit him comfortably. Maybe he was cold enough to buy a sweatshirt that didn’t fit very well.
He asked if we had a dressing room. I said we didn’t. That’s when Butch piped in.
You can try it on right there, she said in what she probably thought passed for a sultry voice. I’ll watch.
The young man had the sweatshirt half over his head by the time she finished speaking.
Butch! I exclaimed. Don’t talk to the customers like that!
She just smirked.
I had turned away from the young man to chastise Butch. When I turned back to him, he’d pulled the shirt over his torso and by the look on his face, I could tell Butch had embarrassed him. The shirt was really too small for him, although I didn’t say so. He did look like a sausage, albeit a very fit sausage.
The young man decided he didn’t like the way the sweatshirt fit. The over $30 price didn’t help either. As I ran around the store finding less expensive long sleeve t-shirts designed with broad shoulders in mind, he tried to get out of the grey sweatshirt. He had to lean forward and pull it over his head. Of course, his t-shirt rode up and exposed his abs. I looked away to give him the illusion of privacy, but true to her word, Butch stood there and gawked at his every move.
When the young man finally got himself out of the sweatshirt, he couldn’t get out of the Mercantile fast enough. As I showed him other long sleeve options I’d found, he just repeated I’ll pass and I think I’ll pass. The young man was obviously mortified.
I don’t know what Butch was thinking. Maybe she thought it couldn’t be sexual harassment since she was a woman and he was a man. Maybe she thought life is too short to not let attractive young people know she’s looking at them. Maybe she wasn’t thinking at all. Maybe she simply opened her mouth and let some words pop out.
If a man had said such a thing to a woman, it would have been creepy and inappropriate. I think Butch saying such a thing to the young man was also creepy and inappropriate. The reversal of genders didn’t make it ok.