When I was seventeen, I got a job that was perfect for me. It would have been dangerous for me had I gotten it a year or two earlier, and I never would have taken such a job a year or two later. But for seventeen-year-old me, it offered lessons that would change the trajectory of my life, the choices I made and the things I thought about myself.
I would wake up early every morning to a quiet house, before my mom and sisters and four autistic brothers were up inviting noise and needs into the home. Dressed in grown-up clothes (skirts, blouses, and shoes with heels) I would pour myself a cup of coffee and head out to the bus stop with other adults off to start their day. I felt like a woman.
Battling the snow and smiling at strangers, I would pull out a book and read on the hour-long commute through the city of Toronto. Arriving at a square, brick, forgettable building that held the office I worked in I would chat with my co-workers and shrug off my long winter coat, stopping momentarily at the water cooler to grab a cup of water and a snippet of gossip before heading to my desk. I felt like a professional.
I would then pick up my phone and begin to telephone people--mostly widowed older ladies--in the United States and introduce myself as Kim Dawson. This was not my real name, but when I had been hired to work for this company they told me to come up with a pseudonym. According to them it would make me feel more comfortable when chatting with strangers and would also keep me safe. Safe from what? Well, seventeen-year-old me hadn't wanted to ask. She only wanted a job that made her feel like a grown-up. So I would telephone people as Kim Dawson and ask them if they were interested in selling the gems in their possession. I knew beforehand that the names and numbers on my list belonged to people who were in possession of jewels, and it was my job to talk them into faxing us the certificates so that we could possibly turn the gems into money for them. As Kim Dawson I was pleasant and excited for these people who were mostly thrilled at the idea! I felt like a friend.
However, I did have a few questions that began to get louder over time. Why, for example, did we have to hide in the lobby of our building on more than one occasion just because some strange men were visiting the office? Why did we only phone and request certificates from people who resided in the United States? And what was I being kept safe from when using the name Kim Dawson at work?
As a seventeen-year-old who loved the idea of being grown-up, loved being liked (I was quite good at the job), loved being out of the house so that I wouldn't have to do chores, and loved commuting and feeling like an active part of my favorite city, it was easy to ignore these quiet questions. But as they got louder, I became more and more like the me who I was trying very hard to pretend I wasn't.
I started flirting more with the men in the office as a distraction. I would avoid getting home at a decent hour and smoke too many cigarettes in coffee shops. I even started adding a shot of Baileys Irish Cream liqueur to my morning coffee, a sad attempt to remind myself that I was being a grown-up.
Two things happened that made me decide to figure out what we were really doing in our office. Firstly, I made one of my routine phone calls and the gentleman on the other end decided to give me a heads-up. "Kim," he began, "if that is even your real name, you sound like a nice young lady. But what you guys are doing is morally and legally wrong. You take from people who are hopeful and then you take some more. You take until they have nothing left to give. I don't know how aware you are of what is really happening where you work, but I suggest you open your eyes." The fifteen-year-old me would have ignored him and continued with the flirting and high-heeled-shoe wearing. But I wasn't fifteen anymore, and I wanted to not only feel like a grown-up, by to try acting like one too. So, I asked one of our sales guys what exactly it was he did. His honesty and lack of empathy surprised and frightened me.
"It's so cool!" he told me with excitement, "I call these people up and tell them that I have a buyer for their piece, but the buyer only wants to get a set of gems. So I tell them that if they buy the missing piece from someone I have lined up, they can get tons of money. They usually go for it, and then I say--guess what? I can get you even more if you buy this other piece--and I do that until they catch on and stop sending us money. They never actually get anything from us, it's all a hoax, but I'm really good at it!"
I didn't know what to say, and so I just told him I wasn't surprised that he was good at it and headed to my desk. I sat and ran all sorts of justifications through my head. I wasn't in sales; all I did was get the certificates. And no one can be taken advantage of if they don't let themselves. And it's just a job, and I get a paycheck. That's all.
But when one of the bosses-- a very old man with a large veiny nose-- asked if I wanted to ride with him to pick up sandwiches, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I had to get out of there and possibly ask him if there was any truth to what we were doing. However, as soon as we got into his car I knew that I was going to chicken out. We rode in silence to the Deli, and before I could get out of the passenger seat his hands and old man lips were all over me. I just kind of let him kiss me and tell me I was sexy and touch my breasts. Then we got some sandwiches and headed back to the office. I felt like myself.
The next morning I made it to the bus stop, but I didn't get on the bus. I walked to the nearest payphone and called work. I told the receptionist I wasn't going to make it in, I wasn't feeling well. Then I walked to the donut shop near our home, the one where I had gotten my very first job, and ordered coffee. I figured it was time to have a little chat with myself.
I couldn't go back to the office. I couldn't make those phone calls knowing what I knew. And I knew that if the old man asked me back into his car, I wouldn't have the guts to say no. I also didn't have the guts to call anyone--police, FBI--whoever it is you call when you know about illegal practices. Heck, I didn't even have the guts to call and quit the job properly. I knew that day in the coffee shop that I would never go back, but that I wasn't even brave enough to tell them so. I was not feeling very grown-up.
Ordering a second cup of Joe I started to think about a few other things. There were many people in that office that were going to work knowing full well what they were up to. There were people who were happily asking seventeen-year-old girls into their car only to cop a feel and eat a sandwich. I was making an intentional decision not to be one of them, and that counted for something.
And the old me would have gone back, in order to seem nice and like a team player. The fifteen-year-old me would have pretended she liked being felt up by the old man because his interest in her meant she was mature. She would have even thought that it meant he wanted to leave his wife for her. Her head would have been so filled with the need to feel grown-up and desirable that it wouldn't matter if the old man was stinky and ugly and just plain gross.
Sitting there sipping coffee I realized that I was growing-up. That, although I had much more to learn and more stepping-up to do, I was doing the best I could with what I knew, and I was opening my eyes.