“Why were you so angry?” the man asked. “I don’t understand your level of anger.”
He had been a middle-aged blonde and tanned resident of Belmont, MA, an upper middle class town. My College Pro Painters crew had worked on his sprawling older home in the summer of 1987, between my sophomore and junior years of college. That had been my second summer as a franchisee and manager, overseeing a large, motley crew of Irish and American student painters whom I had personally interviewed and hired. I ran a tight ship and held everyone to a high standard of work and behavior. I fired a few people for either goofing around while on the job or being too afraid to climb one of the 32′ ladders, something I covered in the interview process. One of the people I dismissed was the daughter of one of my father’s friends. Favoritism had no place in my tiny, turpentine-fumed empire.
When this man asked about my anger, we were sitting in my college’s campus center during the first semester of my junior year. He had traveled from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to hand deliver a check for, I believe, $5,000 (about $11,000 today), the balance of what he owed me for painting his house. For a long time, he hadn’t wanted to pay, citing defects with the work. While still in the midst of the painting season, I followed the protocol for dealing with a dissatisfied customer: we walked around the property and, on my clipboard, I made a note of every issue that he spotted. I sent a trusted painter, someone who had worked for me the previous year, to fix the problems. The owner still wasn’t happy so I told him I would do the rest of it myself. I recall setting up a ladder outside his house and repairing and re-priming the putty along many window panes, spending at least one full day if not an entire weekend doing so, then returning to paint them. I had been both committed to doing the right thing and also irritated that it occupied so much time.
Even after I had finished and showed him I had fixed the problems, he still didn’t write me a check. That was the first time, after painting dozens of homes, a customer had not paid me promptly. Usually clients were extremely satisfied if not delighted. I waited and then asked again. Since it was a large amount of money and I needed it for payroll, plus the summer was coming to a close, I felt urgency around getting the funds. I asked my manager, also a woman, what to do. She wondered if he wasn’t paying because I was young and female and he thought he could get away with it, something that had happened to her when she had been in my position. She said that one way to get someone’s attention is to put a lien on their house, making it impossible for them to refinance or sell their property until they’ve paid their creditors.
I followed her advice. I don’t remember if I warned him first with a phone call or letter or if I just went ahead. I don’t remember the precise steps involved in putting a lien on a property, except it’s a rather serious thing to do and people don’t expect 20 year old women to do such things. I think I was surprised and startled that, rather than mailing me a check, he told me he would bring it himself. When he appeared, he seemed smaller than I remembered. Stripped of my main prop, the large, rattling white van I drove around in as a manager, I also felt smaller. And maybe he also felt, and therefore looked, diminished because I, barely an adult, had put financial handcuffs on him, thereby shaking his sense of security.
I think he wanted to confront me for, while not exactly ruining his life, having temporarily stained what he might have thought was his good reputation, that of a person who treated everyone fairly and paid his bills on time. Except wrecking his reputation or making his life difficult had not been my goal: I just wanted to get paid for the work. Since he had not responded in a timely fashion to my requests, I needed to get his attention. Had the emotion that prompted this legal maneuver been excessive? Then, I didn’t think I had overreacted. I, a young woman in a man’s line of work, had simply tried to protect myself. Today, I wonder if it’s possible that I resented the class of people this man represented. To my eyes, the daughter of an immigrant and Holocaust survivor, this very comfortably situated man and others like him were practically landed gentry, people who took their position in society for granted and figured everyone else would defer to them. I didn’t experience myself as firmly rooted or that I belonged. It’s possible that, in feeling like the outsider rather than part of the club, I didn’t trust him to eventually pay and I wanted the law on my side, just in case.
I don’t recall if I answered him directly or if I sat there silently and shrugged. How does one account for a level of anger that others can’t comprehend, yet internally feels appropriate? After he handed me the bank check, I didn’t feel like a badass, more like a “sad ass” that what should have been straightforward had turned into a complicated, time consuming and painful situation. I suspect this very old memory surfaced because of some similar dynamics that played out in the far more consequential SCOTUS confirmation hearings. Christine Blasey Ford struggled to be heard and believed by the powers that be in order to protect, not herself, but her country. Yet it seemed that her incredibly brave and highly credible testimony nevertheless fell on many deaf ears. Brett Kavanaugh, a man of greater privilege refused (under oath!) to acknowledge the possibility that his behavior was not impeccable and raged that it was called into question at all, as if he, based on his social pedigree and place in society, should be exempt from scrutiny and deserve the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t know what the result of the FBI investigation or the confirmation process will be. I do know that to be heard and believed as a woman can feel almost impossible, especially if one is saying something that others don’t want to acknowledge. There is a complex conversational calculus women need to solve to avoid coming across as “too” anything (angry, needy, upset, demanding, etc). It’s no wonder more women don’t speak up, whether it’s about something as traumatic as sexual assault or asking, for the third or fourth time, to be paid what they are owed, or to negotiate a higher salary. And yet, when women do find the courage to say something, people often wonder why it took so long.
I wonder when this Catch-22 will be resolved. 2022 has a nice ring to it but it’s likely to take far more time than that.