The night I was mistaken for a call girl

Clementine Crawford

Clementine Crawford says that the daily indignities faced by women are being obscured by the emphasis upon #MeToo

15 January 2019 09:30

For the past few years I have been living on a plane between London and New York. Ricocheting back and forth between these two major time zones for work is dynamic and exciting – but also brutal. So creating a measure of simplicity and routine has become key to survival.

I live in London, so when in New York, I check in to the same hotel, stay in the same room, and have been going to the same Italian restaurant nearby for years. It doesn’t take bookings, makes me feel at home, the waiters know my name. I have good friends in New York, but – unless I’m with my boss or clients – I usually prefer to eat alone. Catch up on homework, preserve energy, think of the day ahead. Minestrone, pesto, spinaci, glass of red, early bed. I always eat at the bar, because I like it there. And so I don’t have to navigate a four-seater table solo. And since I’m 6ft tall, it feels good for long legs and better for my back after a long-haul flight.

On my most recent trip, I stepped out of a cold winter Madison Avenue dusk and into in the restaurant’s warm embrace. It was early in the evening and the place was empty. I perched at my favourite seat at the bar and started to respond to all the emails that had arrived on the flight over.

A waiter approached – a familiar face, but oddly hesitant on this occasion. He advised – with evident embarrassment – that I was no longer permitted to eat at my usual spot and that I must now sit down at a table. Confused, but tired, I obliged. A few days later, I returned and the same thing happened.

When in New York, I check in to the same hotel and have been going to the same Italian restaurant nearby for years.

This time, less fatigued, I asked what was going on and was told that now nobody was able to eat at the bar. Company policy. Like the honorary New Yorker that I have become, I gave them my two cents of unsolicited advice: that their decision was a grave mistake; that patrons liked to eat at the bar; that it helped to make the place feel busy and alive.

This warning was heard but politely ignored. I was once again ushered to a table, where I began to mull the implications for future evenings. As I was musing, a gentleman walked in – a regular, like me – and was seated on a stool at the bar. As the evening unfolded, I watched with great interest and gathering fury as they poured him his dirty martini; brought him his breadsticks; adjusted his white linen; dished up his spaghetti; added his fresh parmesan and black pepper to boot; chatted amiably to him over the counter; and rounded off his evening with a limoncello.

In general, I’m not someone who seeks out axes to grind – life’s too short, bigger fish to fry – but this really was testing my limits. I spoke to one of the waiters I knew best, who under his breath warned me that I shouldn’t cause a scene and that there was nothing to be done.

Why, I wondered, was I suddenly being treated so frostily? Surely, in America of all places, the customer was still king – or, in this case, queen? After further interrogation, it transpired that the owner had ordered a crackdown on hookers: the free-range escorts who roamed the Upper East Side, hunting prey in his establishment.

I’m not someone who seeks out axes to grind, but this really was testing my limits.

So now the mystery was not a mystery. I assumed management had decided that upscale escorts working the bar lowered the tone of the place and would be less obvious if escorted behind a table. I’ve since learned that some restaurants use working girls to their advantage: an empty table leaves the net wide open and could attract a more lucrative cover. Empty seats, full of potential, and the prospect of men ordering bottles of Lafitte, as opposed to her slim check for a champagne alone at the counter.

But hang on: did this mean they thought that I was an escort? Or could be mistaken for one? At first, I was incensed. Not because I am judgmental about the world’s oldest profession, but because this treatment struck me as outright discrimination. They had classified me, marginalised me, relegated me to the corner by the loos simply because I was an unaccompanied woman.

My next emotion was unexpected: I found that I was secretly thrilled. Jesus, I thought, I must look expensive. Like sex worth buying. Like one of those groomed women who has time to do Pilates during the day, blow-dry her hair for hours, effortlessly wear a Cavalli catalogue (in London, Celine) and don a Cartier cuff.

Soon enough, however, I was back to incensed: I asked to speak with the owner to try and rectify the situation. Over he came. I explained that I travelled for work and reminded him that I was a regular at his restaurant. That its receipts accounted for half of my personal tax-line items. That it was a brave thing to do, to eat out on one’s own. And this was their response?

He told me that he could run his business as he pleased, and that I was no longer welcome to eat at the bar, only at a table. Things escalated quickly into an explosive argument. I told him what I thought of him in no uncertain terms and departed into the night with a heavy heart.

They had relegated me to the corner by the loos simply because I was an unaccompanied woman.

This emotional slap in the face and Manhattan’s cold street air combined to bring a moment of harsh clarity. All these years we have been battling for a room of one’s own; and, little did we know it, but we are still fighting for a seat at the table (or bar, to be strictly accurate).

All those years thinking I was welcome, part of the family, innocently enjoying my soup and glass of Barolo. But actually, there had always been a subtext: an unspoken conditionality attached to my presence. A sexism simmering under the table cloth that registered the sight of the unaccompanied woman, a woman deploying her own agency, claiming a space for herself, and footing the bill: astonishingly, this was, and is, all still culturally and socially provocative. It threatens established categories.

So when doing an optics inventory on their patrons they treated the single woman in a patriarchal fashion: they automatically objectified, sexualised, put her (me) in a box – the treasure chest of pleasure. Would a man on a business trip, or one who routinely ate alone, have attracted the same attention and treatment?  Well, no: clearly not, because, as I saw, they served him.

Perhaps I am overreacting, but this incident has really got under my skin.  That something like this should happen in sophisticated, modern New York is bizarre, far-fetched, but it did.

And, unfortunately, the more I think about it, the more it all makes sense to me. It’s a small but potent parable of the current state of play between men and women. In essence: conceptually, society is making progress, but is lagging behind emotionally. Yes, there have been many cultural, political and employment-based wins for women in recent years, and female empowerment has rarely been out of the headlines since #MeToo became a hashtag. But day-to-day experience is a different matter. There is a mismatch between claim and reality, and plenty still tumbles into the gap.

All those years thinking I was welcome, innocently enjoying my soup and glass of Barolo. But actually, there had always been a subtext.

Since 2017, the #MeToo movement has dominated everything. A great many men have been called out – in many cases justly so, in others cases not necessarily so. There is a risk of nuance being lost in the stampede. At any rate, all this has been painted in bright colours, declared at high volume, and has erased the grey zone in sexual politics.

And there are many other concerns beyond direct harassment, assault and intimidation. What about the endless little things like mansplaining, man-terruption, unintentional objectification? The times when a man says something like: ‘You wouldn’t know this, as it’s not your area, but I do something called private equity which is… ‘ Dude, I know what private equity is.

In a game of ‘Would you rather?’ I would honestly rather have Trump grab me by the pussy and Harvey fuck me up the ass in a one-time-only shocker, (yes, folks, at the same time, all in one go) than continue to endure the banal, pervasive marginalisation by those men who have survived the first culling. The sexism that still silently seethes in families, office culture, boardrooms, in homes… in restaurants. So subtle and ingrained that it can’t easily be called to account. Can’t be taken to court or to human resources.

Come on, ladies, let’s be candid. A single hashtag campaign hasn’t reversed, and won’t reverse, our fortunes. In fact, one could argue the opposite; many men are now too afraid to make a pass; to mentor or be alone with a woman outside the office; to hire women for jobs in their immediate team as, in this new climate, we now represent a risk that is not worth risking.

Those women who were complicit in hashtag crimes have actually undermined the cause, taken us back years in our endeavor to be taken seriously. To simplify all sexual politics to six letters alone is no more than a sanctimonious charade and ignores the everyday encounters that, in aggregate, make the difference between an equal life and a life in which a woman enjoying a meal on her own is effectively branded an escort

It’s easy to focus on the front-page carnage. But it’s the demoralising experiences of the everyday that really count. In this long battle, the small stuff really is the big stuff.