What do you do when your apartment-building security is making you feel even more unsafe?
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Something unbelievable happened a few months ago.
The maintenance man for our apartment building knocked on our door. He said he needed to check something and I told him to go ahead. I was leaning over the center island, writing a grocery list, when he barked, “Stay right there!” like my safety was at stake. Then he walked behind me, squatted down, slipped his arms around me from the back and grabbed my breasts.
Even I couldn’t believe it. Not just the brazenness, but the much more logic-busting fact that I am a 52-year-old woman with a plain face and the thickening waist of menopause.
He was younger, an enormous ex-Marine with biceps the size of Easter hams. Something about him had felt odd for a while. He’d been visiting our apartment randomly. Once he brought me a large umbrella for walking the dog in the rain. Shortly after, he came into the fitness center when I was alone and pointed out that when I was on the elliptical, I was tall enough to hug him full on.
All of this was weird, and definitely unprofessional. But I thought he was looking for a mother figure. He liked talking to me about his favorite book, Stephen King’s The Stand. Also his favorite series, The Walking Dead. I had given up after season two, so he filled me in on three through nine. This consumed an hour one day while he was supposedly fixing my stove.
“You better be careful,” my husband, John, said after meeting the guy.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “He’s just lonely. He likes to hear himself talk.”
It was three days later that the man arrived at our door unannounced, crouched behind me and copped a feel. Ellie, our pit-boxer mix who’s sweet as a kitten until someone threatens me—at which point she becomes a killer—eyed us from her bed.
“I just want to see what the dog will do,” he whispered in my ear. “Don’t move.” At which point I realized that if I kicked or screamed, Ellie would lunge at the man and he’d feel justified in using the giant hammer that hung from his belt.
So I stayed perfectly still. I let him do what he did. I was flustered and grateful when he released me and we talked for another five minutes about his daughter’s softball team.
After he left, I texted my friend Suzy and asked her what I should do. Tell John! she answered. I really don’t want to, I texted back. I know, she said. But you have to. Half an hour later she wrote: Damn, honey, I’m sorry. It’s not OK.
This was in late August. The Kavanaugh hearings would happen a few weeks later. But I didn’t need the U.S. Senate to tell me what I already knew. There was no point in reporting this incident to anyone. No one would believe me.
John was, of course, horrified when I told him what had happened, but he insisted the fix would be easy. I should just call the central office, tell them what had happened, and the maintenance man would disappear. Sometimes my husband’s innocence really is not cute.
We argued. I cited decades of experience being female and listed the dozens of ways in which talking about this could make it much much worse. He countered that other women were surely being accosted and it was my duty to stand up and be brave. I scoffed. Let them do it, I said. Let someone younger, more powerful, or more glamorous be the one to report.
“You know what they’re going to say if it’s me?” I asked him. “They’re going to say ‘Longtime marriage, bored, cougar-y middle-aged wife with a husband who travels. Muscular young maintenance man. You do the math.’”
It was possible, I tried to convince John—and myself, that this was just a momentary glitch in an otherwise normal working guy. Maybe it was his ham-handed way of trying to initiate something consensual.
My friend Jeff, a 60-year-old gay man who loves me dearly, actually laughed when I told him the story. “Don’t worry!” he said. “That’s just his awkward pick-up routine. It probably works for him one time out of 10.”
Still. We bought motion-sensitive cameras for our apartment, mostly so we could keep an eye on the dog when we were gone. I quit answering when someone knocked. If we needed to put in a service request, John worked from home.
Once, when I was in the community room of our building the maintenance man walked in and asked, with a wink, what I was doing. I told him—truthfully—that I was reading the apology John Hockenberry had published in Harper’s after sexually harassing dozens of women. The maintenance man laughed and started tinkering with a light fixture. But he watched me steadily until I got up and left.
Then my husband and I went on an extended trip and while we were gone the Kavanaugh hearings happened. John was working all day, so I had time to watch the entire thing. I heard Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and saw Judge Kavanaugh’s response and I believed deeply he had done what she said. Most of the men I know agreed. But when I spoke to other women more than half of them said they weren’t convinced.
“It’s clear she’s a liar,” my mother said when she called.
“I don’t think it’s fair that some woman can make an unprovable accusation and ruin a man’s life,” my cousin commented online.
“That Ford!” sputtered a woman in my yoga class. “She’s awful. And she looks way older than him. Why would he take a chance on that?”
I felt relief that I’d stayed quiet. And I hoped the maintenance man would be gone when we returned.
But after weeks away, we arrived at the apartment to find 50-some pieces of mail in our slot. John was lugging suitcases in and I was opening envelopes quickly when a piece of paper torn from an old-school wide-ruled notebook fell out of one.
On it, someone had written longhand. ATT [sic]: Management The women in this building are being sexually abused by a large maintenance man. I know of two others and he has done it to me, too. You need to make this stop.
It was unsigned.
I showed it to John, along with the envelope that for inexplicable reasons had our apartment number in the address. Had a version of this gone to everyone’s apartment? Did the person who wrote it know somehow that I would relate?
We talked about the options. We could throw it away and pretend it never happened. We could hand-deliver it to the office in the morning and explain that we opened it by accident. It was possible, John said, that there was an identical note in everyone’s box. Finally, we decided to tape the envelope back together and slip it in the box outside our building manager’s door.
The next morning, John called the developer’s headquarters office and asked for the director of our region. He explained our circumstances: the anonymous note, as well as sketchy details about the incident inside our apartment. We’d made a strategic decision that I hated, but strongly endorsed: My husband is a well-spoken 56-year-old white man of means. Even though he wasn’t the one who got groped, I felt he was more likely to be believed.
The director assured John the matter would be taken seriously and investigated discreetly. We were elated. There was power in numbers. Surely the maintenance man would now be held accountable and this would end.
An hour later, she called back to tell us that she had spoken to our maintenance man and determined all the accusations against him were false. “He knows nothing about these events,” she said. “They’re all fabricated.”
I asked if I had been named in the conversation. Yes, she said. No one else was, of course, because the note had been anonymous. But I had come forward and her employee had the right to know who at least one of his accusers was.
“You had no right to do that,” I said. “I live here. He has keys to our apartment. You’ve put me at risk.”
She insisted she had not, because the man was innocent and therefore not a threat. “You chose to get involved,” she said in closing. “Your husband called me making these crazy accusations. Why’d he do that? Huh?”
We sent a letter requesting management waive the hefty fees for early termination of our lease and allow us to move, so I would no longer be living in an apartment to which the maintenance man has a key. The answer was no. We were free to move but it would cost us roughly $7,000. Their legal team had been apprised.
A few days later, John went downstairs to talk to our leasing agent about window cleaning. This was the same woman who hugged us when we moved in, gave us two Turkish bathrobes and a bottle of champagne, and welcomed us “to the family.”
He returned minutes later. “OK, I finally get it,” he said. “I understand how this works. All of our requests have to go through headquarters now. She said the staff here is no longer allowed to speak to us.
I spent an entire day phoning agencies in Minneapolis: tenant-landlord, sexual violence, human rights. I left messages all over town. No one called me back. The police detective I spoke to was iffy on whether to make a long-after-the-fact report; he pointed out (rightly) it would only draw the maintenance man’s attention but probably not result in his being fired.
I also called lawyers. One—a 30-year-old friend of my son’s—listened gravely and listed my options, apologizing, because they were admittedly all bad. He was willing to try for a restraining order but said judges would be reluctant to impose them in the workplace, keeping a man from his job. The more established attorneys I contacted had their assistants screen my story and tell me there was no case, unless I could find the other woman to back up my claim.
The next morning, I went downstairs to get a package. The concierge glared uncomfortably when I showed her my notification then silently handed me a box.
I took it and went around the corner to the elevator bank where I found the maintenance man, waiting alone.
He pushed the button, looked down at me and grinned, “Going up?” he asked.
And here’s the thing: I actually considered just getting in the elevator with him and pretending everything was normal. Then I realized that’s because this is normal. Because #MeToo hasn’t changed anything. It’s only brought what was happening out into the open. And that seems almost emboldening for a certain kind of man.
“Nope,” I said, raising my head and looking the maintenance man straight in the eye. “I’ll take the next one. You go ahead.”
Author’s Note: Several weeks after these events, I called a tenant helpline that led me to MN Statute 504B.206, which allows any resident who is sexually harassed, assaulted or stalked by a landlord or their employee to break a rental contract without penalty. The solution had been there all along, but not one of the lawyers or detectives I spoke to knew. I delivered a third-party affidavit from a sexual violence advocate, a copy of the statute, and a written letter of intent to vacate to our building manager. (We were current on our rent—the only other requirement of the law.) Our lease break was immediate. We moved to a building with a different owner, but only after asking how they vet, train and monitor their staff.
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