Having a backbone is really a beautiful thing. I remember when I got mine… it was 1988. I had just graduated high school and I was working for this woman who was… well… without getting too catty or derogatory… an over-made-up, tacky, obnoxious, self-important, classless, tasteless, bitchy bottle-blonde who thought her shit didn’t stink. (Ooh, was that out loud?? It was?? Aw, what the hell…) She had one of those names that just sounded that way, too, you know? I won’t say what it was… but you all know the type. Even her signature was a wildly flamboyant always-too-big-for-the-space pile of loops and swoops. And of course… she only signed documents with her own pen. You know the kind… one of those silver ones that looks like a javelin.
I worked for her for about three months. The entire time I endured insults, snide remarks, probing questions about my personal life that were none of her business, and, my favorite part, late evening run-ins with her alcoholic husband. He would show up at the establishment stinking drunk and proceed to move things around, mess with the cash register, bump into things with his lit cigarette, and in general be a pain in my ass. I knew that the next day, she’d want to know why each and every thing was moved, how items had gotten burn marks in them, etc… and if I ratted him out he’d show up drunker the next time. If I didn’t rat him out, even though I’m sure she knew it was him, she’d blame me. In fact, many times when things were broken or missing, she would question me with those fake fingernails in my face, accusing me of being a clumsy idiot who didn’t care about her shop.
There was a pizza place across from her business, and I would go there for lunch. That is, at least, I did for the first few weeks I worked there. They seemed nice enough, the pizza guys. Until one day, one of them said to me: “You really work for those crazies over there? How can you stand it? I don’t know if you realize how messed up they are since you just started, but if I were you, I’d get out of there.” The next couple of times I attempted to get lunch there, they’d heave sighs and look at me as if to say “If you like it there, you must be one of them.” I started bringing my lunch.
After those three months, things finally came to a head. I was standing at the cash register, and she came up behind me and made a face which I clearly saw in the mirror. Then she started sniffing, and finally said “What kind of shampoo are you using?” I said “I don’t know it’s whatever’s in the shower. My parents buy it.” She wrinkled her nose and said “Well, it smells awful. You should buy your own.” That tore it. I shoved past her into the back room, pulled my keys out of my purse and started twisting my copy of the store’s key off of my key ring, the whole time muttering to myself that I’d had it, screw this, no job is worth it, and probably calling her every name in the book, I can’t really remember. What I do know is that she heard me, came into the back room, and demanded to know what I was doing and what I was mumbling about. “If you walk out that door right now,” she tried to warn me, “don’t you think you’re getting a reference from ANYONE here!”
Now, in order to truly appreciate what happened next, you must understand that in my life, up until this moment, I had been the kind of person who would quietly walk away. I’d only ever raised my voice to siblings, and we all know that doesn’t count. I was always the type who, when faced with confrontation, might say a word or two, but generally in a calm manner, and mostly in the hopes of diffusing the situation. See, I was born with broken hips (that will be a post for another day) and because of that, my family had always been super-protective of me. I was something of a chicken because all I ever heard in my life was “be careful,” so I guess I thought something catastrophic might happen if I wasn’t. Still though, I was half Italian, and this day, I found out that I sure as hell had the temper when I was pushed far enough.
I wrestled the key off the ring. Her annoying voice was ringing in my ears and I felt something inside me just pop. It was like the lid had come off a pressure cooker. I saw that happen once; it was a loud, scary BOOM and the lid hit the ceiling in less than a split second. The food that had been inside the cooker went everywhere all at once; I had never seen anything like it. That was how I felt. Yet, in my red-visioned rage, somehow my brain slowed its thought process down enough for me to get out every single thing I’d wanted to say for the past three months. The voice I heard coming out of my own mouth was not mine. It was deeper, it was almost a growl; it was the voice of someone who might bite into you and tear you into shreds like a rabid animal. I was walking towards her… slowly… determined… shaking that key in her pudgy, clown make-up face the way she’d always shook her finger in mine with those ridiculous fuchsia acrylic nails.
“Are you kidding me?!! I don’t WANT a reference from you, you rotten, miserable, bitch! A reference from you would be an insult!!! Just who the hell do you think you are, anyway?! What makes you think for even one second that ANY of the things you’ve said to me since the first day I got here were ok?! You are such a nasty, conceited, rude, insulting, TACKY bitch - I don’t have any idea how I’ve managed to stay here as long as I have! Do you know that the people across the street think you’re crazy? They do! I’m ashamed to go get lunch there because they ask me why I work here. Did you know that? I’M ASHAMED TO WORK HERE!!! I’m ashamed that people see me come in and out of this place because they probably think I’m like you!” I had backed her into the bench against the wall at this point, and was still shaking the key in her face as I continued, “You really think I’d do two weeks notice? You really think the way to get me to NOT walk out the door right now is to THREATEN me?! THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT! You think you own me; you think you own everybody but you don’t. You think you can scream and yell at everyone and treat them like shit and they’ll do whatever you tell them to do, but I WON’T. I’ve had it with your shit. Here’s your fucking key. Good luck finding ANYONE to take this job and last as long as I did around here. You better figure out how to treat people!”
I honestly don’t remember driving home. When I got there, my father, who is my absolute hero in this world, my mentor, my rock, and the person I probably respect the most in life (along with my mother) was standing in the front door waiting for me. Obviously, the bitch must have called. I didn’t know if he’d kill me for quitting my job, but as I got out of the car and saw the look on his face, it was clear he wasn’t angry with me. Two simple words: “What happened?” and I told him my side of the story. He listened, and, when I was finished, he said, “Well, she called and she asked me to have you call her back. I think you should call her, but, why don’t you go take a shower first. Then you’ll calm down and you’ll be able to talk to her.”
The shower did calm me down considerably, and I did call her. She apologized up and down; clear back to my first day on the job, and asked me to please at least work two weeks notice so that she could find a replacement. I agreed to do so; after all, I had to find another job, too. In the meantime, I needed the paycheck. When the two weeks were up, she bought a chocolate cheesecake for my last day, which is my favorite thing, and gave me a nice letter of reference. Maybe my freak out taught her a little something? I like to think so, anyway. But even if it didn’t; it taught me something.
It’s not only OK to stand up for yourself, it’s imperative. You all know I love clichés, so here’s one more for you. IF YOU DON’T SHOW PEOPLE THAT YOU RESPECT YOURSELF, THEY SURE AS HELL AREN’T GOING TO SHOW YOU ANY RESPECT, EITHER.
…..and… once you stand up for yourself that very first time, you realize it’s not all that difficult to do, and you walk through the world with a kind of confidence that you just can’t fake. People can sense that. The inner confidence you have will be enough in almost every situation to keep people from trying to stomp on you, believe me. As for those who take it as a line in the sand – well… let them try and cross it, and then show them what’s on your other side. Treat others as you’d want to be treated, but don’t take crap from anyone. There are people who will cross you in this world, believe me. It’s how you allow them to treat you that determines your situation.
Peace first, and if all else fails, show ‘em who’s boss.