Sunday, August 4, 2019

Are You Being Served?

Low unemployment in a service economy often means no service...

As I noted in The Angry Coast, the folks on the West Coast have a reputation of being all laid-back and hip and liberal.   Well, that is, except for the ones who have the reputation of being conservative - of which there are a large number.   Remember that Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, not Massachusetts (actually, the latter would be Mitt Romney, so go figure).

Some folks hear we are from Georgia and visibly bristle.  Trump Country! Rednecks! Republicans!   When it comes to profiling and stereotyping, the left engages in it as well as the right.   While Trump did win Georgia, Hillary scored 45% of the vote - nearly enough to win, by Beto standards.   That's quite a sizable number of people in a "Red State" who voted Democratic.  And of course, Virginia went for Hillary - and Obama, twice.  The "Solid South" isn't as cohesive or monochromatic as it looks.

But it is interesting how people treat you differently based on perception.  And in recent years, there have been reports in the press where people allege discrimination based on race or religion or whatever.   Most of us shout down these reports as exaggerated or overblown - people trying to shame a major restaurant chain or company by magnifying incidents to make them seem prejudiced.

Discrimination does happen, however, and sometimes it is so under the radar you don't notice it, or you think you notice it, but you don't want to think about it.   I've heard the story from some black friends.  They are middle-class people like myself, professionals, who have odd experiences when they go out to eat or engage some other service provider.

Joe and Samantha go to a chain restaurant as a special treat.  Like I said, these are middle-class people, dressed nicely and not dolled up in some "gangsta" outfit that some folks (white or black) like to wear as part of some self-destructive role-playing.   Now, going to any restaurant is a bad bargain - you can make the same food at home for half the cost or less - often far less.  So when you go out to eat, it is to have something special and have it a special experience.  A restaurant meal is not just refueling your body - or at least it shouldn't be.   Sadly, too many people do just that, using restaurants as kitchens, as I have noted before.

Joe and Samantha arrive at the restaurant and there is no one at the hostess station.  They sit on the waiting bench and just as Tiffany, the hostess, arrives, Brad and Janet, who are a young, attractive, well-dressed white couple breeze in and Tiffany grabs two menus and says, "Table for two?"   Before Joe can say anything, Tiffany whisks them off, calling over her shoulder, "I'll be right with you!"

OK, Joe thinks, maybe it was just an error.  Bad timing or something.  Tiffany assumed that since Brad and Janet were closest to the hostess station, they were first in line.   And maybe Brad and Janet thought Joe and Samantha were waiting for the rest of their party.   It isn't a racial thing, Joe chides himself, you're just reading too much into it.

Tiffany returns after a few minutes and says, "How can I help you?"   Now right there is what the young folks today might call a "micro-aggression."   Tiffany rightly assumed that Brad and Janet entered the restaurant to have a meal, and immediately seated them.   But for some reason, she does not make that same assumption about Joe and Samantha, instead asking them how they can be helped.   Perhaps they are making a food delivery?  Wanting to post a lost dog poster in the window?  Or maybe applying for a job as dishwasher?   "We'd like a table for two," Joe replies.

"Um," Tiffany looks at her planogram map of the restaurant, which is marked up with grease pencil.  She has a reservation coming in ten minutes and the rest of the tables are full.   "Let me check," she says.   Joe again tamps down the suspicions in his mind.  The white couple is seated, the black folks are "let me check."   He glances at his wife, and she gives him that look.  "Maybe we should just leave," she says, "We can go elsewhere."    So, she's thinking it, too, Joe muses.

Tiffany returns, carrying a damp rag.  "I just cleared a table for you!" she chirps, and gets two menus and leads them to a booth in the back of the restaurant, by the kitchen, bypassing Brad and Janet who are laughing and enjoying a glass of white wine.   Joe and Samantha sit down.  The table is damp and the plastic-covered menus are damp from Tiffany's wet hands and rag.  A busboy comes out of the kitchen, the kitchen door banging into the back of the booth.  "I'll get your server for you!" Tiffany says, leaving.

Of course, the rest of the evening falls along similar lines.  Their server is lackadaisical about serving them (but attentive to Brad and Janet).  They wait ten minutes before she even shows up.   Their order arrives wrong as well, and is cold.   It's not a racial thing, Joe keeps reminding himself.  Or is it? 

It is, it isn't and yet again, it is.   It wasn't like the restaurant was named "Kathy's Kountry Kitchen" with the "K's" all painted in contrasting red.  It wasn't like the serving staff wore hoods.  It wasn't like they had a sign out front saying "whites only."    And it wasn't as if the wait staff didn't like blacks.  In fact, some of them were black, or had friends who were black, and if asked, would not admit to being racist.   But often these things are subtle, even within one's own mind.   We gravitate toward younger, more attractive people, subconsciously.   The whole "Betomania" thing, for example, is based not on his experience or policy positions, but on reporters and followers (men and women) gushing about how handsome and Kennedyesque he is.

And we also believe, whether we want to admit it or not, in stereotypes.   Servers and salesmen have stereotypes about certain races and types of people being big spenders or cheap tippers, and subconsciously, they act accordingly.   You fawn over the table of people you think are going to tip well, and ignore the ones who think are going to be cheap.   And you may not even know you are doing this.  Or maybe as a server, you spend more time with the table with the cute young man (or woman) at it, because, well, they're cute.  Discrimination is not always based on race, but on a whole host of factors.  Whether you are in a restaurant, a car dealer, or before a judge, it pays to be young, beautiful, wealthy, white, and also a sympathetic character.   That, sadly, is reality, now and in the future.

We've noticed this in our travels, and like Joe and Samantha, wonder whether we are getting shitty service because the server is an idiot, or because we are older, or gay, or overweight, or what.   It is an insidious thing, when this occurs, because you find yourself wondering what the heck is going on and why.  Why does table 2 get great service, but table 3 get treated like dirt?

And it could be random chance.  Or maybe you remind the server of their ex-boyfriend, ex-husband, or abusive father.   Or maybe they are just having a bad day.  Or maybe something you said as offhand banter offended them.  Or maybe they don't like having two men eating together in a Christian establishment.

Yea, the gay thing.  I realize that some folks find it icky.  I understand that.   And as I noted in another posting, I think it is a great public service when these folks put the Christian fish symbol on their businesses, so I can steer clear of them.  I'd rather not engage with someone who is going to subliminally mess with my mind and provide shitty service.  I'd rather avoid from the get-go.

Restaurants use other symbols and code words.   "Family restaurant" is one of them, a phrase which on its face makes no sense.   Yes, there are "family-style" eateries, where you sit at a big table and pass around plates of food, but those are falling out of style these days, likely due to health codes and everyone wanting something different.   So the term "Family restaurant" is sort of like the Jesus fish to us.  Technically, it means, "an eating establishment that serves relatively simple food at reasonable prices, and welcomes children as well as adults" which also is the definition of the term "Bistro" which has less baggage.  And by the way, it is illegal to discriminate against people based on age, so saying you have a "non-family restaurant" would get you into trouble.   But either way, the prospect of screaming kids is not something that sounds like a special meal to us, so we steer clear.

"But Bob, you're imagining this!" people cry, "there is no discrimination today!  It's all in your head!"  And yet, when you are at a restaurant, or a bar or a wine-tasting, and the server walks right by you, even though you were clearly there first, to serve a young, attractive-looking heterosexual couple, you have to wonder.   And you have to wonder (and maybe sympathize) with a restaurateur who doesn't want two flaming queens sitting in the front window, scaring away all the "family" business. Hey, he has to make a living, right?  Hippies, fags, and negros - served out back, please!

It is funny, but you can fly under-the-radar as gay, until your partner shows up, and people get the idea.  Sometimes they don't - and even try to rationalize things.   At an RV park, people ask, "Are you brothers?  Fishing buddies?  What?  Where are the wives?  Left them at home, eh?"   They don't want to think about maybe it is icky gay people.  And I guess I don't blame them for that.

It is the same with Joe and Samantha.  They don't have "black-sounding" names, and when Joe sends in his resume, he gets a job interview with a tech company.  When he shows up for the interview, he can see the HR person sort of jump a bit when he first sees Joe.  "So, you're Joe," he says, clearly not expecting to see a black coder applying for the position.   Racism can be a very subtle thing.

It reminds me of our experience at the naked drive-in coffee shop.   The lady was very nice.  She wore this fishnet thing - not a stocking, more like a hammock - and you could see all her bits and bobs.  Nice bits and nice bobs, too.   I complimented her and said the folks back home would never believe this, and she said, "Well, you can take a picture, I'll cover up the naughty parts!" and I demurred.  "Oh, you don't want your wives to find out!" she said, at which point, I mentioned that Mark was my "wife" so to speak.   She laughed and admitted that she herself "likes girls" and she was much more relaxed with us after that.  I thought it was funny that I can still "pass" as straight, even with a Lesbian.

But this does create problems.  I have had situations where I have met a woman and we've had a nice conversation and I thought that was all it was, until she drops hints that maybe she is looking for something else.    I feel bad that maybe I lead them on, and it certainly is embarrassing for them, hitting on a gay man.    Maybe I need to wear the equivalent of the Jesus fish, just to avoid confusion. 

So what is the point of all this?   Well, to begin with, when you hear stories about discrimination, don't discount them.  It happens.  Then again, it is inevitable, to some extent.   The best thing to do (in my opinion, and on a personal level) is to avoid people who don't like you.  Don't give your money to someone who hates you, or even ignores you.

Second, avoid eating out in restaurants, when you can,  Not only is it expensive, it is usually disappointing for the money involved.  It seems that $50 is the new $25 these days, and a restaurant meal now costs a lot more than it did a few years ago.  The labor market is tight, so restaurants have to hire whoever they can and pay them whatever they want (or what Bernie Sanders says they are worth) and you can't fire them (because unlike you, the customer, their rights are sacrosanct).   So in this labor-shortage economy, expect shitty service.   Your best option is to simply consume fewer services.  It just leads to a lot less grief all around.

As I noted in a previous posting, it seems that brick-and-mortar is dying of a self-inflicted wound these days.  They stock less and less stuff, but helpfully offer to order things online for you (as if this was hard to do) so you can pick it up at their store (because that's better than having it delivered to your home).   The associates are rude and condescending, and how you are treated is going to be based on your age, race, and appearance.

Meanwhile, the computer at Amazon doesn't give a rat's ass about your race or religion or sexuality, age, appearance, or whatever.   You are just a credit card number to them, an order to be filled in the exact same manner as everyone elses' at the same price.   And you wonder why online shopping is so popular.   You don't have to be a sympathetic victim to get service with a computer.   When you buy a car using an online pricing service, you don't have to deal with the salesman's preconceived notions about what races will pay what - or how women are to be treated differently than men (hint:  not better, usually!).

Which brings us to misogyny.   Yea, that is the ultimate prejudice, and I am sure any woman reading this has similar experiences when dealing with service providers - wondering whether they are being treated poorly at the tire store because they are a woman?   Or the experience at the car dealer when they are asked whether their husband needs to approve the purchase of the car?    Again, it can be subtle, or not-so-subtle.  You might think you are imagining things, or then again, maybe not - and that is the worst of it all.

I am not sure where I am going with this, other than being ignored at a restaurant and a "wine tasting" sort of browned me off a bit.   And again, you wonder whether it was just shitty service or something more, which drives you nuts.

We tend to bail on restaurants and other establishments, when we see this going down.  It can be a function of just bad service - the classic "bad Feung Shui McDonald's" where you go in, and people are angrily waiting for food, and no one behind the counter seems to be getting anything done (they are likely high).   If you are seated at a restaurant and wait five minutes or more without seeing a server, maybe it is time to pack it in - it ain't gonna get better.  Trying to make a bad deal into a good one, never works out, even if you are "right" and they are "wrong".