Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Restaurant Etiquette for Negroes: A Life Tutorial

If you believe the hype, nothing better distinguishes a white restaurant-goer from a black one than the amount of gratuity he leaves after the meal. White folks recognize and amply reward the efforts of their humble servants while we Negroes finish our assorted poultry dishes and forget about the tip, or so goes popular conception. I'm not sure whether or not this thinking has any foundation in reality, but as a Negro that's ever eager to redeem his people, I leave generous tips. Twenty-two percent of the check is standard.

Last week, My Lady and I went to Chili's with some of my old friends from college. After a short wait, the friendly hostess seated us at a nice table near the door. The waitress arrived soon after. "Hello, my name is Kelly," the waitress said. She was a young lady of ambiguous ethnic background. "I will be your server tonight. What can I get you all to drink?" We ordered two waters, a lemonade and an iced tea. Unfortunately for us, Kelly's hospitality ended when she filled that order.

She didn't bring out my friend Deebo's Chicken Caesar Wrap when she brought everyone's food, and she failed to apologize or offer an explanation. She just walked away and left Deebo there in a state of wonder, mouth and eyes agape. When Kelly returned, the rest of us had nearly finished our food (Deebo insisted that we start without him).

"There was a problem making your chicken wrap," she said before she left again. A few minutes later, Kelly finally returned with Deebo's food.

"What was the problem," I asked her. "Y'all run out of chicken or run out of wrap?"

She paused.

"Yeah, you just forgot about my man, Deebo," I thought to myself.

On one of her few visits to our table, she refilled my water and Deebo's iced tea, and then turned to my friend, Sean. "You had the lemonade, right?" Sean answered that he did indeed have the lemonade. Kelly then silently walked away without refilling his glass. I guess she wanted to know what he was drinking for her own edification. Or maybe she was just taunting him.

When she brought out the check, the four of us took to the task of divvying up the cash. Somewhere in the process, My Lady pulled a red pen from her purse. "We're striking the chicken wrap from the check," she said. "Kelly can figure out what to tell her manager. I don't think we should pay for it." That proposition made us all a little nervous, especially Deebo, who ordered the wrap. The 250 pound Nigerian has the heart of a saint and wasn't ready to resort to such militant tactics.

"Let's just take it out of her tip," he said in his native tribal language.

"I hate leaving small tips," I replied in English. "She's just going to think that black folks don't leave good tips. You know that's how they think!"

"I feel you," Sean said. "I worry about that too."

"We're probably getting bad service because some other Negroes didn't come out of pocket."

"Maybe they didn't come out of pocket because they got bad service," Kim said.

"Damn, it's like the chicken and the egg!"

"I don't know which came first, but I'm sure glad God made chicken!"

"Shut up, Quint!"

"So what do we do about the tip," Deebo asked.

"Kim, hand me that pen," I said. "Sean, pass me the check. I'm going to write her a note."

"What are you going to say?"

Dear Kelly: I am writing to let you know that the tip is small because your service was sorry, not because we are black.

"There. That's the truth in red ink."

"I just hope we haven't made things worse for our Negro brothers and sisters that may come in the future," Sean said.

"Me too," Deebo said. "Me too."

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Incident

After three months of marginal employment, I'm happy to announce that I will soon re-enter the American workforce. I accepted a staff writer position at a weekly newspaper in North Carolina. I start in October. I'm excited about the new gig, but also worried that my new coworkers won't accept me as one of their own. Unfortunately, my worries are not unfounded.

The paper I'll be joining is part of what's called the alternative press. For the most part, the alternative press (free, weekly, tabloid-style papers) publishes journalism from the liberal/left perspective. The papers are openly concerned with social justice and aren't timid about expressing an opinion or searching for truth, pursuits which are too often taboo at more conventional daily papers. But despite their progressive agenda, the staffs of these papers are almost always entirely white -- there's nary a Negro in any of the newsrooms. It's a hypocrisy that's ironically overlooked because of the papers' liberal politics. "We're good white people because we're liberal," the thinking goes. "We don't work with black people, but we write great things about them."

In my longstanding role as the token black integrator (at papers in New York, Houston and now, North Carolina), I've gotten the chance to give a few of these papers some credibility on the issue of newsroom diversity. Still, I haven't always been welcomed with open arms.

The last day of last November was the first day of my new job at Houston's alternative weekly. After a long day of settling into the new cubicle, I left the office in the early evening to head home. The smog-polluted sky had that beautiful pink orange haze that reminds you of romance. When I left, there were only a few cars remaining in the parking lot. I walked to mine, opened the door and got in. I fumbled around with the removable face for my stereo. I cranked the engine.

Unbeknown to me, one of my new coworkers, a white lady who I hadn't yet met, left the building just after I did. I didn't notice her until I was comfortably in the driver's seat listening to some music, which was probably Outkast. I looked to my right and saw her staring at me from her car, a red Miata convertible, which was a couple of spaces away from my green Honda. She had a quizzical look on her face like she needed directions. After a few long seconds of avoiding her gaze, I let down my window to see if I could be of assistance. She stared silently, penetratingly. I let my window back up, pulled out of my spot and headed for the parking lot's exit.

Before I could reach the street, she swerved her Miata in front of my car to block me. Oddly enough, I thought nothing of it. If she was in that much of a hurry, I thought, she could leave first -- no big deal. But she didn't move; she just sat there. I still figured that she was just a little confused, so I sat patiently. Outkast really soothes the soul of an Atlanta native.

When another few seconds passed without her moving, I tapped the horn a few times. Nothing. Growing frustrated, I tried to drive around her. When I moved, she moved. For some reason, she wasn't letting me out of the parking lot. I let down my window again.

"What's the problem, lady?"

"I'm not letting you out of here!" She screamed.

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm not letting you out of the parking lot with that car. That's my friend's car. You're stealing my best friend's car!"

I paused, baffled, then took a few moments to retrace my steps. I entered the car with my key. I cranked the engine with my key. I played my Outkast CD. Yes, yes, it was definitely my car. "What are you talking about. This is my car!"

"No! That's my friend's car. This is a private lot. You don't work here."

"Does your friend have Georgia plates?" Don't ask me why I tried to reason with her.

"Yes, she does! This a private lot. I've never seen you here before!"

"Today was my first day!" My patience had run out. I gunned my engine and headed directly for her car. Sensing that she was no longer dealing with a polite car thief, but an angry black man, she moved out of my way. I sped away from the parking lot ready to run over the next white lady that crossed my path. A couple of blocks away, the red Miata pulled alongside me. The white lady again stared at me, but this time she was blushing. She motioned for me to let down my window.

"I'm soooooo sorry," she pleaded. "I thought you were stealing my friend's car. She has that same car. I feel sooo bad. Pleeeeeease forgive me." She went on until the light turned green and I drove away.

The next day, she stopped by my cubicle to apologize again. She brought her friend with her -- the one whose car she'd accused me of stealing. They both apologized and apologized and apologized. "We're not racist, we promise. We're not racist!" Of course, you aren't. This is the alternative press.

I hope things will be different at my new job. They better be. I'm not as nice as I used to be.

Black Man of the Week

If you haven't already, listen to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin give the feds a little encouragement.