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You can’t legislate morality

An episode at a bar years ago underscores everything we need to know about Albany’s efforts to curb sexual harassment.

Alcohol in a martini glass.

Alcohol in a martini glass. Photo Credit: iStock

Years ago, a colleague and I hit a swanky cocktail lounge on West 44th Street, a dimly lit throwback to Rat Pack New York.

A prettyish young woman sat in a worn banquet adjacent to us, waiting on someone. She was well dressed, her makeup just so, and I watched, with marvel, at how she nursed a single blue drink in a martini glass as she waited. She was perceptibly anxious; a young woman alone in a cocktail lounge, nervously twisting the stem of a glass, trying not to look awkward. (Yes, it shouldn’t be so.) I could feel her self-consciousness. The whole bar could.

In time, a rather self-important-looking man in his early 30s swept in, apologizing grandly for being late as he introduced himself. He had the stench of a playboy all over him. This was clearly a blind date. I returned my attention to my own table.

But an hour or two later, I could feel anxiety in the room again. And sure enough, there across from us, this young woman sat, again alone and looking out of sorts. A discreet check with the maître d’ revealed that her date had ditched her. He had snuck out of the lounge and into a cab without telling her, sticking her with the bill on top of it. She didn’t know it yet.

I was just married at the time, but I couldn’t bear to watch the inevitable scenario play out. So I asked the young woman to join my friend and me until her date returned and quietly asked the waiter to merge our checks and bring more drinks. (I have three sisters.)

The young woman was delightful. She was from Long Island and out on a date in hopes of finding someone to accompany her to a friend’s wedding a few weeks off. But as time went on, and as charming and distracting as I tried to be, it became impossible to ignore the fact that her date wasn’t coming back. When it hit her, it did so with full force. She began to cry. She physically crumpled from the humiliation she felt.

It was then that I fully came to understand just how lousy men can be to women, and I’m not talking about the guy who skipped out. (With any luck he tripped down a small flight of stairs later that night.) It was my colleague who proved to be appalling. I never saw it coming.

He was highly educated and well respected in his profession, but never much one with the ladies. He saw before him opportunity: wounded prey; slightly drunk and emotionally shattered. He would take full advantage, despite the meanness of it. I returned from a trip to the men’s room to find him sitting beside her, stroking her hands and feigning deep concern.

Everyone has a story — or five — to tell, and I mention this one only because I’ve been thinking about it in light of Albany’s latest efforts to outlaw sexual misbehavior in companies that do business with New York, which is lots of them. It’s good politics, but that’s all it is.

Soon after that night at the cocktail lounge — it was the Algonquin’s Blue Bar for anyone wondering — a sex assault scandal broke out in Albany, where I was then working as a State Senate staffer. It involved a Manhattan assemblyman and a brave female staffer named Charmian Neary who refused to be victimized. Neary’s story made statewide headlines and briefly shined light on a long-unspoken sexual culture in Albany in which married members routinely courted staffers and interns as young as 18.

I’ll never forget the whitewash: Legislative staffers would go through sexual harassment training and that would be that. My colleague at the Algonquin, now a father of girls, would have passed it with flying colors.

There’s no way to legislate decent behavior. But public shaming seems to be doing well. I hope to see more of it coming from Albany.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.

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