Last night in a nearby Thai restaurant, we were having dinner with our visiting daughter, a close friend from Austin and our daughter’s college roommate. The restaurant was loud and we were having a spirited five-way conversation — the kind you have to almost scream so you can be heard.
Fine. So, we were all screaming and it was noisy and fun, but I decided to shriek my contribution to the dinner conversation at exactly the wrong moment. “That woman is a bitch!” I yelled, at precisely the minute the restaurant fell silent.
Furtive, embarrassed, I’ve-never-seen-this-woman-before-in-my-life glances around the table. “It’s fine,” our daughter’s friend reassured me. “You’re in New York. Everybody expects that.”
Well, yes, sure. However, not content with having already humiliated myself once in an evening, I launched into a story about the last time I inadvertently commanded too much attention in a suddenly silent room. It wasn’t in New York. It was in Austin, at another restaurant (you can see how I spend my time) and what I said was much more indiscreet.
In fact, I believe the exact words I shrieked were: “Now wait a minute! I had a personal relationship with that dildo!”
My friend Karen, who’s normally one of the most open-minded people I know, turned crimson. “Shhhhhh,” she hissed, looking like she wanted to die or to kill me or both. (Karen! The woman who once got drunk and told Darrell Royal he couldn’t putt worth shit? I have come to the point in my life that I am now embarrassing Karen?) Pat, who was also at our table, just shook her head. Both their reactions made me realize we should probably start drinking again at our weekly gatherings.
Listen, though. You had to be there. You can’t take my words out of context. You have to understand the situation I’d been commenting on to realize how completely appropriate and non-sexual my remarks were, even if the ringing silence was really kind of a bummer.
It was in the 1970s, when I was newly out of law school. I was employed by a law firm for a year, the only woman in a rowdy gang of sexist, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, out-of-control trial lawyers. Well, the only woman, except for another friend, JoAnne, who had a reputation to keep up, and Pat, who’d been hired shortly after me. Pat was about as concerned about her reputation as I was about mine, so we became fast friends.
So, you find yourself in a group like that at a time when women were becoming lawyers in greater numbers, and I guess I’d say you have a couple of choices. You can take the high road. Or you can take the really, really low one.
And some people might say I started down the low road with my written manifesto demanding three good-looking, well-hung male secretaries. But, listen. We had a lot to put up with; it was time to take a stand.
All the lawyers in the office kept liquor in their desk drawers, since it was the seventies and people did things like that then. So I could fit in, I kept liquor, too — a bottle of Jim Beam that often got stolen, then loudly complained about since it was so cheap, so why couldn’t I pony up for George Dickel like everybody else? Anyway, I was looking for my Jim Beam in my drawer one afternoon when I saw the dildo locked into a mousetrap.
Everybody else considered that highly amusing, ha, ha, ha, so I was forced to take the next step, which involved epoxying the dildo onto the bumper of the managing partner’s pickup truck. (I was very careful to make sure it was his pickup and nobody else’s, so checked his car pocket first. When I saw the gun and bottle of George Dickel inside, I knew I had the right vehicle.)
So, you see, I wasn’t lying when I said I had a personal relationship with that dildo. It was all part of being a young female lawyer in the 1970s, battling sexism all over the place, wherever you found it — in your desk drawer, caught in a mousetrap, epoxied to a pickup bumper. I had no real choice.
I also had no choice when I was forced to hire a hooker to interview for a job at the firm, but if you think I’m going to get into that right now, forget it. I’ll yell that story the next time it’s quiet in a restaurant.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)