Feminism

The Worst Waiter in History and the Invisibility of Rape Culture

The other day, I was sitting down to read my daily article digest email, and I came across this article called, “The Worst Waiter in History.” The title grabbed me, and I got my coffee ready and sat down for a fun read about a charmingly rude waiter named Edsel Ford Fong.

San Francisco in the late 1960s was a place for lovers, poets, and peace-makers. Positivity and goodwill were as omnipresent as the fog, and people were greeted with open arms and rosy cheeks. Unless, of course, you were on the second story of Sam Wo Restaurant in the heart of Chinatown.

 

Past steaming woks and chopping blocks and up a narrow, creaky staircase, Edsel Ford Fong — the world’s most insulting waiter — greeted patrons with a “sit down and shut up!”

I love a good character story, and so far, so good. What a contrast to the age of Peace and Love, a waiter who insults his patrons, before being an insulting waiter was actually a marketable skill at a schticky restaurant!

Routinely, he cussed out his customers, sexually accosted female companions, and unapologetically spilled soup across laps.

Wait, back the fuck up. Do you see that part about being sexually accosted is stuck in the middle, between the swearing and the soup-spilling? Sexual assault is not something that a charmingly-mean scamp does. And yet, from the tone of the rest of the article, you would think that being assaulted by this asshole was a compliment!

The article does mostly focus on how rude he was to customers, like how he would fuck with people and make them wash dishes in order to be served, or how he would take away people’s chairs if he felt they were less important than other customers, or even how he would refuse to let customers order the fried shrimp because it was a “rip-off.” In fact, one customer mentions how he frequented the restaurant for years and never got to try the fried shrimp!

The author goes on to say that the restaurant was popular for the food, and eventually for the legendary rudeness of Edsel, who is compared to the “Soup Nazi.” If you’ll recall from Seinfeld, even though the Soup Nazi was known for being strict and rude, his soup was so good that you would pretend you didn’t know your own girlfriend just to get a bowl. I’m pretty sure the chef didn’t serve up a side of rape culture with his food though, so there is that. Edsel’s food was apparently also pretty good, so good that this article glosses over Edsel’s many documented sexual assaults against women, as if they were just some bitter garnish served with the food or one of those weird carrot flowers that you’re not sure whether to eat or not. That’s the only way I can describe what the author writes next:

Edsel was also known for his crass “flirtation:” an entire wall at Sam Wo was dedicated to Polaroid photos of the waiter in various degrees of groping unsuspecting young females. “A charming first date destination if you never want to see your date again,” wrote one reviewer in the late 70s. “My ex-wife ended up on the wall. The groping part was the only time I ever saw Edsel smile. She was not amused.” (The pictures we’ve included in this article confirm Edsel’s perennial smile in the presence of ladies — we don’t condone his behavior.)

(Emphasis mine.) Oh yes, there are many smiling pictures of Edsel in the presence of “females.” And the author has that sentence at the end about not condoning his behavior, and yet he writes about Edsel in such a way as to hand-wave sexual assault. Like, this dude was so obviously a creepy pervert that it had to be mentioned in the article, but oh look over here a picture where he’s not groping a woman! See, everyone’s having a great time at Edsel’s Happy Fun Rape Shack! Where “crass flirtation” equals “photos of unsuspecting females being sexually assaulted!” Why aren’t these bitches amused, can’t they recognize a fucking compliment when it grabs their ass?

Here’s another customer recalling a story:

“He was serving a tourist family, looked down the young teen daughter’s dress, and said, ‘Hmm, nice little apples!’ They stormed out, returned with a beat cop, who gave Eddie a stern talking to and assured the parents that whatever he was saying in Chinese meant, ‘I’m sorry,’ though he didn’t seem particularly contrite. Edsel was certainly not what you’d call politically correct.”

Good ol’ Edsel. So, he sexually objectifies a teenage girl, gets “talked to” by a cop, and doesn’t give two fucks about it. Yep, sounds like someone I would describe simply as not “politically correct!”

Yet another diner recalls a time Edsel kissed his mother, but brushes it off as an inherent part of the man’s character. “If you knew Edsel, he kissed everybody and even got in a few back during his nightly repertoire!”

I guess that’s why this author doesn’t give a damn about Edsel’s groping picture collection, because hey, he probably groped everyone (well, every woman), and maybe he even got groped back!

In fact, Edsel was so fucking awesome, he was immortalized in city murals, and at one point he was quoted on a regular basis in a column in the San Francisco Chronicle by Herb Caen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Good job dudes! As if Mad Men didn’t do a good enough job of killing any nostalgia I had for living in the 1960’s.

On the one hand, you could argue that Edsel was a product of his time and that sexual harassment and assault were not taken as seriously back then as they are now. (I don’t buy that argument, but whatever.) But on the other hand, this article was written on May 26, 2014. That is two-thousand and fucking fourteen, well into what would appear to be the twenty-first fucking century. It is possible to write about a waiter who was known for his rudeness without just glossing over his regular and tolerated sexual abuse of women. And one sentence about how “we don’t condone his behavior” does not grant you a Get Out of Jail pass.

This is how the article ends:

But when she returned in the early 80s, she recalled an Edsel quite removed from his usual bitterness: “I was leaving and for some reason I felt I had to turn around: there he was, at the back of the kitchen, smiling at me. Then, he bowed. I never knew if his anger was genuine or an act, but it was always an experience.”

Yep, this sounds exactly like the ending of an article where some asshole’s behavior isn’t being condoned. Yeah, uh-huh, sure. (Insert Jennifer Lawrence gif here.)

Sometimes, I compare being a feminist to The Matrix, because once you understand the theory, you see injustice everywhere. That’s why I mentioned the invisibility of rape culture in the title, because clearly the author can’t see how clearly he is describing rape culture even though it’s smacking me in the face. And hell, I don’t even think it’s that invisible to people who don’t self-identify as feminists. I wasn’t too surprised to see that a man wrote this article, though. To be fair, the author could have just ignored the stories of sexual abuse, but instead chose to report on them in an honest portrayal of Edsel. However, by equating sexual harassment to “flirtation,” the message the article gives off is that sexual assault is normal and expected. That’s why, to me, this article was not so much about a rude waiter as it was about how some people don’t recognize rape culture for what it is.

Featured image: Edsel enjoying the company of women 

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Mary

Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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7 Comments

  1. I absolutely loathe the “product of their times” hand wave that is used so often. Your Matrix analogy (or rather Sinfest’s analogy) is right on and it can make some things I used to love less enjoyable or even ruin them altogether.

    I came from the 80s but have a real problem with many of the movies that I grew up loving because of the horrific implications that paying attention brings to light, from the kind of icky (Lloyd Dobler was actually a stalker in Say Anything) to the ridiculous (Duckie is seen as some kind of fucking hero for letting Andie actually have her own agency to choose Blane in Pretty in Pink) to the down right aneurysm-inducing (Revenge of the Nerds not only condones spying on, filming, and selling pictures of naked women without concent but actually has a “it’s not rape if she liked it” scene). All that in lighthearted comedies, and that is just the tip of the misogyny iceberg I haven’t even started on the racism (Gung Ho, 16 Candles poor Gedde Watanabe), ableism (A Fish Called Wanda), and classism (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) that was rampant (along with other problems as well).

    In fact I could write a dissertation on Ferris all by itself, but if you’ve ever seen Daniel O’Brian go off on it over at Cracked.com then you’ll get the gist of my problems with it.

    I’m a fun one to invite to movie night.

    tl;dr – Being aware of injustice can make you harder to entertain.

    Here we are now, entertain us. – Nirvana

    1. Shit, I forgot about the homophobia of using the lone gay character as the comic relief (Revenge of the Nerds again, Mannequin). And I don’t want anyone think that I think the only racism in 80s movies was against Asian characters, those were just the two that came to mind because they were the same actor. In fact, in Ferris Bueller the only black people in the movie show up just to dance or to take a car for a joyride.

      I better stop, this has already turned into a list of grievances against 80s cinema.

    2. ‘Product of their times’ might be a valid excuse if we are talking about the middle ages. But that excuse pretty much expired round about the time we stopped torture and burning witches.

      Robert E. Lee was aware that the moral cause of his time was slavery and he decided to fight for the wrong side. We can explain the fact that he was a man of despicable character and moral cowardice by reference to his times but not excuse them.

      As for stereotyping in fiction, authors have been on notice on that since Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and later apologized for Fagin.

      Put it this way, I do not believe that in 50 years time anyone is going to be saying that Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers were great people who were merely a product of their times on issues such as their racism, destruction of the environment, etc.

  2. Good article.

    I have been thinking about the revelations from the BBC which has now been shown to have had an unambiguous rape culture in the 1970s through the 80s. Several celebrities have gone to prison for rape and another is currently on trial. Imagine if Mr Rogers was on trial for rape and Peter Jennings had pled guilty. Thats what the Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall cases are like. Max Clifford and Jimmy Saville always came across as slimy creeps

    But I don’t think the culture is really centered on sexual assault so much as celebrity and the idea that celebrities are so special that they get to break any rules they please and anyone who speaks up is doing something wrong.

    What it comes down to is identifying warning signs. Sexual assault is not a warning sign, it is a criminal offense. A warning sign is a certain type of power relationship in organizations that puts a certain group of people beyond criticism or complaint regardless of their conduct.

    It is easy to see how an organization like the BBC is going to have a lot of staff whose primary job function is to keep the ‘talent’ happy particularly the stars. But what is rather striking about the individuals involved in the BBC scandal is that they were all replaceable. Jimmy Saville is the only one who had a show named after him and there were plenty of people who could have done that particular job better. Saville’s spots in the show were always a drag because he was creepy and patronizing.

    Its usually the mediocrities that abuse the perks.

  3. I grew up in Berkeley and saw reports about Edsel Fong in Herb Caen. My stepfather had eaten at Sam Wo as well, when he worked in the City. I recall no mention of Fong’s sexual hostility, just his belligerent rudeness and performance sarcasm: he would refuse an order for non-touristy Chinese dishes saying: ‘you don’t like that.’

    It IS interesting to hear that the police were called in, at least once, and that they seem to have made at least some try addressing the matter. That undercuts the ‘product of the times’ argument quite a bit.

  4. Recently, on Facebook, I was discussing a news article about flashers . It made me realize just how pervasive rape culture is. At first, I thought flashers were harmless, and that we puritanical Americans need to be less anxious about nudity. During the course of the discussion, I realized that my original view was blaming the victim. One friend used the word ‘consent’, and that triggered my epiphany. ANY sexual contact without consent is related to rape, from flashing, to groping, to rape itself. There’s a published study that indicates some flashers do escalate to sexual assault – http://www.jaapl.org/content/34/3/349.full

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