The Power and Privilege Issue

How Sexual Harassment at My First College Job Shaped How I Expected to Be Treated

A former classmate messaged me about a job for a new tropical ice cream company that needed bilingual “sample girls.” It seemed easy, and I’d be getting $9 an hour. What followed was hell.

by Angely Mercado; illustrated by Kitron Neuschatz, and Lia Kantrowitz
16 October 2018, 3:54am

Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz & Lia Kantrowitz 

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Power and Privilege Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

I began college in 2010, only two years after the beginning of the Great Recession.

Before fall classes started, I applied to every store I could find for a retail job. None of them called me back, so I babysat and cleaned houses for $10 at a time to pay for textbooks and school supplies. A semester later, a former classmate messaged me about a job for a new tropical ice cream company that needed bilingual “sample girls.” That’s about all I was told.

It seemed easy, and I’d be getting $9 an hour for weekend shifts, more than I had ever made at the time. On my first day, I took a train to the Bronx and showed up at the designated supermarket. I set up by the freezer section, trying to entice customers over to try out flavors like passion fruit and mango.

A supermarket worker was the first to come by. He asked for coconut ice cream, and I smiled at him and handed it over. He crouched down and tried to eat the sample from the spoon in my hands. I felt my face heat up.

“I’m just joking, babe.” He laughed, winked, then took the sample spoon and walked away.

A few customers later, a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair came over. He took a sample for the little girl he was with and one for himself. He wanted to know how old I was. I’m not very tall, and at the time all I wore was sweats or tights, sneakers, and ninja T-shirts. I figured he thought I was too young to be working as a sample girl.

“I’m 18,” I told him with a smile.

He slowly smiled back.

“So you’re legal then.”

I tried to sputter out a response and felt my face flush. He circled back a few more times. He asked me my name. He asked if I was on the job alone, which I was, but I lied. When my shift was up, I sat in the small, dingy employee bathroom for a few minutes before heading out. I walked to the subway station and looked over my shoulder every other step.

I showed up to my second day on the job and then my third and I kept coming back for the next few months. Each day, I felt exposed when a worker or customer would hit on me. I couldn’t leave the freezer section while I was working, so I tried just avoiding eye contact if I saw anyone ogling. Every time I felt uncomfortable I’d remind myself that I was making more money than I had ever made before; that it wasn’t so bad—I was only being harassed, not touched. Sure, people had gotten in my face, but at least they hadn’t grabbed anything other than my hand.

Before one shift, I forgot to take my makeup off. An older customer leaned in close to my face.

“You have beautiful eyelashes,” he said.

"Every time I felt uncomfortable I’d remind myself that I was making more money than I had ever made before; that it wasn’t so bad—I was only being harassed, not touched. Sure, people had gotten in my face, but at least they hadn’t grabbed anything other than my hand."

I went home and scrubbed the mascara off so hard that I ripped out a few lashes. I started dressing even sloppier and lying about my age, saying I was younger, thinking they’d be less likely to hit on someone underage.

“I like 16-year-olds,” a supermarket worker told me in response.

I kept my hands in my pockets until he left so he wouldn’t see that I was shaking.

But I didn’t quit. Neither did any of the other sample girls I got to know.

Every few weeks, I’d meet up with them to pick up my paycheck and talk about the job. One day our manager, who was also a sample girl and a former classmate of mine, asked us how it was going.

“Has anyone hit on you guys?” one of the girls asked.

“Some guy sniffed my weave—I think he thought it was hot,” another girl said.

I remember her cringing and patting her hair.

“This old dude wanted to know if I was legal,” I told them.

Another girl sighed and said the same thing had happened to her, too. We asked our manager if we could work in pairs, or if someone from the company could talk to the people running the supermarkets. She said she’d look into it, but she never really got a response. One of the girls reminded us that we weren’t actually being touched, and that there weren’t many jobs out there for us anyway.

“That, and I have to buy a MetroCard and my books for class,” she told me. “I can’t just leave.”

We went back to work. Sometimes I’d show up and the samples or the table we were supposed to use wouldn’t be there. Other times I’d call a company representative and ask for help with something and wouldn’t get any guidance. Another girl told me she showed up to an address and it was a construction site. Our manager had to deal with our complaints with little to no help from the company higher-ups. She was pretty supportive and did her best to try to find solutions and help us navigate the different supermarkets, but she didn’t have much control. The job was as frustrating for her as it was for us.

A few months into the job, after several weeks of shifts disappearing, the manager called a meeting and we learned that we had been fired. The supermarkets had not ordered more of the ice cream and we were blamed.

After feeling frustrated and thinking on it for a few days, I messaged the former manager and a co-worker on Facebook.

“I want to write the company a letter,” I wrote.

My co-worker wrote back saying that I should tell them not to send the new sample girls to supermarkets by themselves.

I started drafting the letter, describing feeling uncomfortable after being hit on by (much) older men. I explained how unsafe I felt getting to work with only a few instructions and an address. The document sat on my laptop for over a week before I deleted it. In the end, I didn’t think sending it would change anything. I didn’t think they would consider different hiring practices because a teenage girl had sent them a letter. I didn’t think they would even respond. The company had made it clear that we didn’t matter to them.

Seven years, and several jobs, later and I rarely complain—instead, I panic whenever I have to ask for help or someone notices I’ve made a mistake. That first job made me feel like I won’t get help, even if I ask for it. And it was frustrating to feel so disposable—especially after being fired. It felt like I could be let go if I complained about anything.

“Why didn’t you tell me this didn’t work? I would have shown you what to do,” I remember a supervisor at a later job telling me.

I didn’t have an answer then. I still don’t now. I often just feel lucky to have any source of income, even if the job stresses me out. I often tell myself that sleep deprivation is better than sexual harassment—that being stressed isn’t nearly as bad as having a much older man follow me around trying to grab my hand.

"That first job made me feel like I won’t get help, even if I ask for it. And it was frustrating to feel so disposable—especially after being fired. It felt like I could be let go if I complained about anything."

As a journalist, I wouldn’t complain about being harassed by a source for an assignment. I haven’t complained about feeling unsupported or overwhelmed or undervalued, either. Those things haven’t happened often, and they’re still better than being regularly harassed, I reason.

The experience affected me for a long time, but eventually I realized I shouldn’t brush off harassment. It took deep conversations with friends and several viral hashtags for me to really reflect on that first job— and why I had spent so much time trying not to think about it.

Even now, while working two jobs and freelancing, I remind myself that it could be worse. I could still be handing out ice cream samples.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.