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When You See a Stranger Being Creepy in a Bar, the Worst Thing You Can Do Is Nothing

Advice from a bartender on how to make bars a safe space for workers and guests

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I hope no one orders a Screwdriver from me ever again.

I don’t have anything against vodka and orange juice, except that, well, it’s vodka and orange juice, more of an act of desperation than an actual drink. But Screwdrivers, for me, are different.

A Screwdriver is what I tell women who look like they’re being made uncomfortable by a man, be it a friend, a boyfriend, a date, a random dude at the bar, to order from me if she’d like me to make him go away.

I started bartending in 2010, when I was 22, long before the #MeToo movement swept across the country, through Hollywood, and into kitchens and the restaurant industry. Then, the staff-on-staff sexual harassment policy was well laid out in an employee handbook: Do not make your coworkers uncomfortable with weird jokes, inappropriate comments, and/or uninvited touching. Please sign, date, and understand you will be fired, immediately, if you mess this up.

We all know that in the world of bars and restaurants, that didn’t work. The wave of prominent chefs and restaurateurs “stepping away” in 2017, along with the public, if hollow, apologies from them — Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Charlie Hallowell, and John Besh — screamed loud and clear, Houston, we also have a problem.

Bars and restaurants are not just workplaces; they are not merely home to staff. Restaurants and bars are intentionally constructed spaces meant to welcome, host, and embrace people; dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, not just in a single night but at the same time. Where else do people voluntarily brush elbows and start up conversations with strangers? Where else can you go, alone, with no activities planned, and end up making new friends?

It’s an extraordinary phenomenon, but it’s also an extraordinary privilege: By being in a bar, you have made yourself part of a community for however long you are there. There are rules, standards, and expectations, one of the simplest being do not sexually harass or assault anyone. But it must go further.

Within the space — both physical and social — that is a bar, every single person has not just the ability to stop a potential assault, but the responsibility, too.

As a bartender, I consider it just as much a part of my job to be on the lookout for sexually predatory behavior as I do to keep an eye on how intoxicated someone is. In many ways, I have the advantage: In addition to serving everyone at the bar, I can see everyone at the bar — and I have a great excuse to eavesdrop. I also know from my experiences as a woman what unwanted male attention looks and feels like.

If I see a man approach a group of women and insert himself into their conversation, I’ll be sure to walk by and check in with them, even if their drinks are full. If he goes to the bathroom or steps away for a minute, I’ll ask the women if they’re having a good time, if everything’s okay, often with very pointed glances at the man in their midst. If a man physically invades a woman’s space by leaning over the back of her chair, or turning in his seat to face her, putting one arm on the bar in front of her, the other on her chair and she moves away from him, I know to say something — and I do.

I’m almost always told, “Oh, yes, we’re fine, thank you,” on that first pass, and when I am, I always make sure to say, “If that changes, you ask me for a Screwdriver and I’ll take care of it, okay?” I don’t get asked for a Screwdriver very often, but the option always stands.

All of this can be nonverbal, too, like making eye contact with someone and flashing them a quick thumbs up. I’ve had bartenders do this for me when I’m sitting at their bar and the ubiquitous creepy drunk guy leans in a little too far. When I smiled and returned the thumbs up they nodded and let it be, but were sure to walk by more than I know they would have otherwise. It can be a quick and easy, “Hey, how’s your night going?” to the woman — to anyone — who may look like they’re less than at ease in their surroundings. I am pretty darn good at this. Part of my job requires me to be comfortable with confrontation, with the possibility of feeling awkward.

As much as it’s my job to be aware of and intervene against predatory behavior, I can’t be everywhere at once, I can’t see every interaction between guests, and I’m not the only one who can — or should — intervene in these situations: If you can work up the nerve to ask a stranger in a bar for their phone number, asking how someone’s night is going to rule out the possibility that they’re experiencing unwanted attention ought to be a breeze. You don’t need permission to speak up as a witness to creepy or predatory behavior; if you see something, say something. Someone’s safety is always more important than blushing because you’re feeling weird about talking to a stranger.

But what to say?

Many people know firsthand what unwanted sexual attention feels like. I find checking in on other women pretty easy. A simple “Hey, you cool?” is a low-stress move with uncountable benefits. I understand that it might be harder for men to do the same. But you know what I also understand? That if women are experts at recognizing predatory behavior because they are often targets, men are experts in recognizing when a woman is not interested because, if they’re into women, odds are they’ve been shot down a few times. Gentlemen, you have the same ability to read body language that I do.

Intervening doesn’t have to be confrontational. You know what I’d love, when I’ve got a guy hounding me for my phone number and just won’t let up? Another man to engage him in conversation. To just walk over and say, “Hey man, what’s your name?” This takes the attention off of me, lets me move away if I want to, lets me find my friends, if they’re nearby, lets me, most importantly, know that you are not on his team, you are not his friend, and that I don’t have to be afraid of you, too.

The best part of that move? It’s just as effective if I’m working.

It’s a sad reality of tipping culture that my income is very often tied to how much I indulge the people sitting at my bar, and some men enjoy taking advantage of that dynamic. There are only so many variations of smile-and-laugh-and-walk-away from comments like “You’ve got a great grip on that bottle,”Bet you can do a lot of other things with your hands,” or “I’m just gonna keep ordering this beer so I can watch you bend over and get it each time.”

I’m usually pretty comfortable telling these people to can it or GTFO. If I’m not, I can request that a male coworker or manager take care of the offender’s side of the bar until they close out, but if I’m working solo and overtly intimidated by a guy at the bar?

If I’m working solo, help me out, friends. Especially if you’re the only other one at the bar. Sometimes all it takes is a look: Lock eyes with me for a minute and look toward the offender and then back at me. That nonverbal support speaks volumes. It lets me know you see what’s happening and that you’re on my team. It tells me that you’re aware I shouldn’t be left alone with this person and that, if you can help it, I won’t be.

Because, unfortunately, even if I do have a coworker or manager to call for assistance in dealing with a troublesome guest, it may not be a realistic option. Staff-on-staff sexual harassment in restaurants is well-documented, but what isn’t often talked about is what, if anything, a guest can do if they see something going down between coworkers.

In my experience, there aren’t many opportunities for even the most unabashed, vocal ally to step in, because this type of behavior takes place either behind the scenes or well after we’ve closed for the night.

But, if you do see something problematic occurring between staff members, addressing the target, not the offender, is most helpful. For one thing, it will be less confrontational; for another, not knowing the exact relationship between two staff members could lead to workplace repercussions — lost shifts, lost job, increased harassment — if the aggressor knows they’ve been outed. If that sounds like the same approach you’d use to talk to someone in an abusive relationship about said abuse, it’s because it is: The parallels between workplace harassment and domestic abuse are striking.

Is this a lot of responsibility? Yes, it is, but it’s a shared responsibility, one that each and every one of us ought to knowingly shoulder.

When I go to work, I’m not just there to make drinks; you could teach a monkey to do that part of my job. What I’m really there to do is to create an experience, to facilitate a particular atmosphere and energy, help foster a sense of belonging for everyone who walks through that door.

I don’t have to explain this to you, though, because when you go to a bar, you’re not just there for a drink. If all you wanted was to cop a buzz, you’d stay home; it’d certainly save you money. Bars are about more than alcohol; they’re about being a part of something.

Bars are, most accurately, about community, and communities only thrive when all its members adhere to the same codes of conduct, when everyone is held to the same standards. As inhabitants of that public space, that social sphere, we all know what is and is not okay.

It’s up to all of us, then, to keep what’s not okay out of our community. There’s enough out in the world to put us down and make us afraid; it’s what’s out there that we’re so often trying to escape when we pull up a seat at our favorite bar. Bars are what we — as staff and as guests — make them.

Friends, let’s make them as safe as possible.

Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based bartender, writer, and snack enthusiast.
Sarah Robbins is an illustrator, printmaker, and book artist living in Baltimore, Maryland.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan

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