The Karen I knew didn’t want to speak to a manager — unless it was the manager of getting high. We shared a school bus stop in 1984. I was a twelve-year-old high-school freshman (excuse me, first-year student) and she was a fifteen-year-old high-school junior… who didn’t even go to high school. It was more than a little disconcerting for me to consider, but Karen rode the bus with me to Dublin High School (now Dublin Coffman, 10/10 GreatSchools for “College Prep” but 4/10 for “Equity”) and then took another bus to the Tolles Technical Center in Plain City, Ohio. Tolles was the vocational-tech school run by the neighboring school district; since only about fifteen of Dublin’s 1200 students were on the “vo-tech” path, they double-bused over there every day.
Information on Karen was hard to get, particularly for a twelve-year-old. She would be there at the bus stop every morning when I arrived, despite the fact that the bus stop was literally in front of her house. She was bleach blonde, five foot six, just a little bit too much Appalachia in her face to be classically beautiful, with what looked like a perfect body covered by JC Penney clothing from ten years ago. She always had a cigarette in hand right up to the moment the bus arrived, at which point she would flick it onto the driveway behind her in a motion that was both careless and completely rehearsed. The rumor in our neighborhood was that she was going to Tolles so she could be a hairdresser. The idea that someone could pick a career at seventeen, and that the career in question could be cutting hair, frightened me in a way I couldn’t articulate.
I don’t recall ever speaking directly to her, nor she to me. The next year they added a bus stop closer to my house, which put paid to our daily coexistence, but in the years to come I would occasionally see Karen on a neighborhood street, behind the wheel of her old Datsun or in the passenger seat with some older, scary-looking dude, never the same one twice. An friend of mine who’d been in a few classes with her during freshman and sophomore years, before she left for Tolles, said she was an easy lay. I nodded knowingly, but we both understood that there was no definition of easy lay in the world that included the possibility of lanky, flat-broke kids on $169 BMX bikes.
What happened to Karen? Turns out she is still in Columbus, Ohio. Not cutting hair, but working an entry-level gig in pharma tech. Her LinkedIn profile photo leaves no doubt it’s the same person. Two marriages, two divorces, a couple of wage garnishments when she failed to pay her state taxes or various bills, a lawsuit from king-of-the-in-store-credit-card Synchrony Financial to which she offered no convincing defense. Still a bleach blonde, still looks a little dangerous to my sedate suburban eyes. Fifty-one years old. Hard to imagine.
It’s become popular lately to use “Karen” in a derogatory fashion. It’s the successor to “Becky”, which was the media’s first shot at creating a slur for white women along the lines of other slur names for women of other races. Why did “Karen” stick when “Becky” didn’t? And why is everyone using it? I doubt you will be surprised by the answer.