Monday, March 26, 2007

Um ... ?

Z. called me "sweetheart."

At Whole Foods yesterday, when we were buying food to take up to the roof for a picnic brunch, he said something like, "the half and half is right over there, sweetheart," or "I'm gonna pick up some yogurt, sweetheart," I don't remember the exact sentence. But it hit me like a tap on the shoulder. Or a poke in the ribs. I felt an urge to make a dry comment about it, but thankfully my wit failed me at the moment. We don't know each other well enough, I don't think, for dry comments about the progress of our relationship. (I use the word relationship in its less fraught sense.)

The word "sweetheart" makes me think of my friend Larry, who I used to proofread with on the graveyard shift at Weil Gotshal & Manges in the eighties in New York. There was a group of us who were temps working through an agency, but we were permanently assigned to this one firm and this one shift. This was in the heyday of big corporate mergers and junk bonds and all that stuff (remember?), when law firms were cleaning up big time, and they hired boatloads of temps who did a few hours of work a week and spent the rest of their time on the clock smoking cigarettes and reading magazines.

Larry was this sort of regular straight guy from Brooklyn. For some reason we became buddies. He used to call the women we worked with sweetheart, and a couple of them really bristled at that. They felt it was demeaning. It seemed affectionate to me, and charming. He never called me, or any man, sweetheart.

But neither am I in the habit of calling a man sweetheart, unless he is "my" sweetheart. Not even my dear friends. Is this deeply ingrained sexism? Or just a natural gender differentiation? My friendship with Larry was the beginning of my consciousness that all these issues of bias and discrimination are more complex than I had imagined. This was around the peak of my ACT UP and Queer Nation days, and probably the beginning of my disillusionment with those circles.

Larry pushed more than one button there. Near the end of my proofreading career, Larry and I hatched a scheme whereby the two of us would jump to a different agency, take our regular gig, and ask for a huge raise in our hourly rate in return for delivering several of our co-workers to the new agency. It worked, but a few weeks later, the economy tanked and all the big New York law firms cut way back on temps.

The scheme didn't seem unethical, just a little cutthroat, but still several people we worked with took a dim view of it. I still believe that those people judged the situation negatively because Larry was Jewish and he was driving a hard bargain.

Anyway. Z. called me sweetheart.

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