OK, so y’all know that I am a circulation clerk at an academic library, right? As such, part of my job—most of my job, really—is supervising college kids who are working five or eight hours a week for pocket money. This is fine; it’s easy work, and I’m pretty good at it. The job is, essentially, being a visible grown-up. There’s a good deal of training and manual-writing, which I can do, and a fair amount of basic circ-work, checking in and out and shelving and so on, but mostly, I am making sure that the young persons show up and do what they are supposed to do. Yes? And provide a grown-up presence in the library, in case that is necessary.
The grown-up presence is really my job. All I have to do, most of the time, is walk around, wear a necktie, and have gray in my hair. The student workers will not be as inclined to chat with their friends and romantic interests if I am nearby, or to slang each other, or ignore the desk. I rarely have to ask them to stop doing something inappropriate; I do my work by just being there. I am Uncle Supervisor. This is excellent work for me, because I do not secretly want to be twenty again, or to join in the lives of the students. I don’t listen to their music or watch their television shows (which aren’t usually on television); I don’t dress like them or speak like them, and I don’t have a facebook account.
I also don’t make the hiring and firing decisions, which is nice for me. The people who do make those decisions consult with me, and I am carefully noncommittal. I have, on a couple of occasions, confirmed that a student will not be missed; I have much more rarely stood up for a student who I think is potentially a good worker. The person who does the hiring prefers, on the whole, to hire women than men, I think on the reasonable grounds that college-age women are more likely to be steady and responsible than college-age men. I think this is true in general for our university’s students, but fails to take into account that a young woman in her sophomore year is likely to remain at her level of maturity for another year, while a young fellow is fairly likely to learn about buckling down right about then, even after a freshman year of slack. But my point here (and I’m slowly getting to it) is that while I am the supervisor on shift, I am not the Head of Department; the big decisions and the discipline are done elsewhere, with minor input from me and the other supervisors. I am in between.
This all means that I am friendly with the students without being friends with them. They know a little about my life (that I am married and have children, that I act in community theater) and I know a little about theirs (where they are from, their field of study), and perhaps we discuss books or art, but I don’t, for instance, know about their romantic lives, or their fights with roommates, or their finances. Oh, sometimes I wind up finding out about some of that, against my will, but on the whole, I keep my nose out of their business. Yes? Clear? Now the tricky bit.
We have a student, let’s call her, oh, you think of a name. Rachel. How about Rachel? We don’t have a Rachel at present. OK, we have a student worker who we’re calling Rachel, who seems to be fairly bright, helpful, pleasant, prompt, all that good stuff. No problems, as far as I know. Our working hours overlap only a little bit; most of her hours she has a different supervisor, but I do see her at least briefly twice a week, and then of course on occasion in the library when she isn’t working for us but for her profs. I have had a few conversations with her, but I would say I know her even more distantly than many of the other student workers. And I certainly have no complaints about her work, which I haven’t seen, for the most part.
I have a complaint about her clothing.
And I should say—I don’t even have a complaint about her clothing, as such. I mean, I am not complaining.
Rachel has a large and well-formed bosom. I have seen pretty much all of it at this point, and I do have to say I’m impressed. It’s not, you know, astonishing. Her breasts are not the biggest of all our student workers; I would guess Rachel has a C-cup, and we have a couple of workers in the double-D region. And all of the young women wear clothes I consider inappropriately revealing. Another of our workers, let’s call her Joan, has an absolutely tremendous bosom, real enter-the-room-before-she-does figure, and about a yard of décolletage most days, and if I were her father, I would prefer she wear high-necked stuff, but she doesn’t, and that’s her business. But Rachel’s outfits show a difference in degree that I think is a difference in kind. This is less like peeking and more like being flashed.
You know about cleavage—there’s the cleavage that is a vertical line, and there’s the cleavage that’s more of a V, and there’s the cleavage which is actually two lines? Where you can see the skin between the breasts? Sometimes women with small breasts have that, but for a C-cup, it usually requires either very good undergarments or really remarkable breasts. Or low gravity, I would guess. Anyway, what I’m saying, with Rachel, there’s the skin between the breasts, the underside of the breasts, and part of the nipple.
Now, when I say, above, that being Old Guy on Duty is excellent work for me, the one thing that I do worry about in that capacity is that I am the kind of Old Guy who likes to look down the shirts of young women. I attempt to do so discreetly. I mean, in addition to our workers, there are the students and faculty; the job does require a fair amount of people handing me books over a counter, which is a terrible temptation for a very susceptible circulation clerk. I am rather afraid of developing a reputation as a Creepy Old Guy, rather than an Avuncular Old Guy, and I hope I have avoided that so far. I am also afraid of actually being a Creepy Old Guy, in the sense that I don’t want to creep these young women out. Partially because of ego of my own, and partially (I insist) that I really do believe that everybody has a right to a workplace that doesn’t creep them out. I hope that my safely-married status is comforting; I am the most married man in the world, as people who get to know me quickly figure out. I haven’t made a pass at a woman other than my Best Reader since I was a college kid myself, working at the circulation desk. I don’t want to do anything with these young women other than look at them on occasion, to the extent that I can do so without creeping them out.
All of which is to admit that I do look down the shirts of my inappropriately-dressed underlings, but I don’t stare open-mouthed, drool running down my chin. I look our employees in the eye when I speak to them, and I don’t make up tasks for them that involve a lot of bending at the waist. You know? I am creepy, but I try to keep it within bounds.
With Rachel, however,it is extremely difficult not to stare. In fact, I wind up staying further away from her, looking away when talking to her, and generally trying like hell not to look down her shirt, because I don’t think I can do it discreetly. While, of course, thinking about it and, particularly when she enters the library, taking a quick look.
Now. On the one hand, I do think it’s her business; she is neither so stupid or so nearsighted that she is unaware that she is showing off, and I actually support her in her right to so choose. On the other, I think it’s a minor mistake—I doubt she realizes that it’s not just the hunky guys in her classes but the creepy middle-aged staff and faculty who are getting an eyeful of skin. Perhaps she does, and either (a) she thinks it’s a fair tradeoff, or (2) she likes showing off to creepy middle-aged people. I have no idea.
The difficulty for me is that as her supervisor, I feel that it would be a good idea if someone told her that she shouldn’t flaunt her bosom quite so much whilst working. Or at least if someone made it clear that it might very well make other people uncomfortable, and that it would be better to use some discretion herself in the interests of workplace amity and so on. But I don’t want to tell her myself. I can’t imagine that conversation going well at all. (Rachel, if I could just have a moment of your time, I just wanted to say I’ve been looking down your shirt, and—) Nor, honestly, do I feel like a conversation between YHB and the other supervisory staff would be enjoyable and free from awkwardness. (Can you tell Rachel to cover her damned tits already?) I think, in point of fact, that any such conversation would be likelier to increase the difficulty of the workplace rather than decrease it.
And, just to embarrass myself further (we’re all friends here, right? We didn’t leave the window open, did we?) I am not altogether sure that want the final resolution of the matter to be that Rachel dresses more sensibly. I mean, yes, it would make things easier for me, but then, you know, in a few semesters she’ll be gone, and I will have an amusing memory, and in the meantime, she really does have a great rack. But when the person who makes the schedule starts asking about next semester, I don’t exactly know how to say I’d like to have Rachel arrive just as I am leaving, please, so I can get one good look without having to deal with the consequences.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,