This column will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Once upon a time, in the story that is America, Puritan law forbade any hint of sexuality. If a Puritan woman showed any signs of impropriety, she was scornfully called “light of carriage” and harshly punished.
If hers was a small offense, she may have gotten away with just having some rotten fruit thrown at her, but if the infraction was bigger, say, a shameless display of ankle or engaging in topics unbecoming, she was most likely strapped to a “ducking stool” and basically waterboarded in the closest river. Public shaming was the intention of such an exercise, but it was not always the result. As they might have said back in the day, “stuffeth happens.”
Fast forward 300-plus years and find that a woman allegedly stood outside a drive-thru espresso hut in Puyallup Washington giving little consideration to the fact that the equivalent of a string and two Band-Aids were all that stood between her and the elements. A mother, with child in tow, happened to be driving by the coffee establishment when she saw the nearly bare barista and called authorities.
The incident, which has gained national attention, happened a little over a year ago, but the 19-year-old barista was officially charged Tuesday with indecent exposure.
Oh, if those prim and proper Puritans could see their progeny now, struggling to find a modern definition of decency. “Where did we go wrong?” would most surely be their cry.
The answer lies in two little words: “personal freedom.”
Hey, they brought it up; we just ran with it.
“But what of the commonwealth?’ they might answer.
Since those brave and hearty souls first stepped foot on this continent, America has engaged itself in the effort to strike the right balance between personal freedom and consideration for the commonwealth. Sometimes it’s a delicate dance, and sometimes it’s a smack-down, take-no- prisoners, fight.
Washington’s Barista-gate has us cueing up that dance music once again.
Should these sexpot coffee huts have the freedom to sell coffee in any fashion they see fit without the reproach of those of us who happen to think they are in bad taste? After all, if the Puritans teach us anything, it is that the codes of decency change over time. In yesteryear, shiny buttons were considered salacious. Today, one would have to be wearing ONLY shiny buttons to be considered so.
We might also take into account that community standards can be quite arbitrary. In the America of today, a girl in a tight shirt and short shorts hands out burgers and buffalo wings in a restaurant chain without much derision, while across town, another girl wearing similar clothing, while serving up a hot cup of French roast, is getting today’s equivalent of rotten fruit thrown at her.
During football season, women can be found all over America jumping on the sidelines in less material than it takes to make two dish towels, and most of America gives these girls a red-blooded thumbs up. But if a woman works in an establishment called Java Jugs in slightly less clothing, suddenly county prosecutors are involved. True, the barista in question was showing a little more skin than a cheerleader, but not that much more.
I can’t help but feel sorry for the 19-year-old Puyallup woman who took too seriously the part in her unwritten job description that said she should entice customers and keep ‘em coming back. On the other hand, I can certainly understand the reaction of the young mom who was forced to explain to her child why a woman was out in public practically naked.
I like to think those crazy Puritans may hold the answer. They crossed the sea in pursuit of personal freedom, but they stayed and worked, lived and died, for the good of the commonwealth. Granted, they were heavily influenced by religious fanaticism, and the Age of Reason had yet to dawn, but they understood what it meant to live in community. People on both sides of the bikini barista argument would do well to look to their example.
For those of us who find getting coffee from a mostly naked person icky, and my repulsion has as much to do with concerns of hygiene as it does anything else, I suggest we stay away.
For those business owners who belong to the school of “If you got it flaunt it,” and feel they have every right to ask employees to wear clothing that as my grandmother would say, “leaves little to the imagination,” I ask that they at least think of the commonwealth and tint the coffee hut windows. It’s Puyallup for goodness’ sake, not Amsterdam.
Somewhere between the barista’s gone wild declaration of “Behold, my bare breast!” and the Puritans’ idea of female modesty – a dress that made women look more like a potbellied stove than a person – there is but a wee patch of compromise. I like to think we Americans traverse the great divide and eventually get there.