Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dining in the Public Square

I was all set yesterday to watch the pivotal third game of the NBA playoff series between the rising Cleveland Cavaliers and the veteran New Jersey Nets when the wife calls and says in unusually peremptory fashion, “I’m finished. Come pick me up.” She had been coaching high-level business executives in one of the region’s leading business schools and was ready to grab some personal time.

So I cut short my undisclosed shopping mission and rushed to University Circle to pick up my beloved. The weekend half gone, she was now ready to plan the rest of it. I listened deeply to discern and quickly sort the priorities: she needs to eat immediately, she wants to order flowers for out-of-state delivery on Mother’s Day; and she wants to recreate in some fashion.

My mind simultaneously googled the options seeking locations that combine likely eateries, florists, movie houses, shops, etc., trying to determine whether to head up to the Heights or downtown. In a secondary calculation I conceded the game to connubial requisites and hoped to store up marital chits for use when the playoffs get to crunch time.

We motored through downtown’s eating districts and cruised through Tremont and Ohio City, talking and relaxing before crossing back over the Detroit-Superior Bridge, finally settling on a Public Square eatery we used to patronize several years ago. I dropped her off in front, insisting she go inside and get seated while I sought a nearby free place to park.

[One of the benefits of low-density downtown Cleveland for the street-wise is knowing where you can park for free. In this case, it was less than half a block away.]

When I entered the restaurant, two very young pale women were guarding the hostess station. I indicated that I had come to join my wife. “Oh yes,” said one, more to the other than to me. The second hostess proceeded to lead me towards the booth area.

I found my wife with an affect that only I know indicated she was mildly distraught. She is sophisticated and graceful beyond words and quite self-controlled, so there was no readily discernible sign of her reaction to the way the restaurant's protocol had pigeonholed her.

After usefully informing the hostesses upon entering that “my husband will be joining me”, she was led on a convoluted route around the outskirts of all dining areas, past the kitchen doors, ending finally — voila! — next to the only other black diners in the place.

I had gotten my first glimpse of the diners in the adjacent booth as I was being led to join my wife. I saw a fellow on his hands and knees, his feet sticking out of the booth into the aisle, apparently in the process of retrieving something from under his table. I am a naturally curious fellow so I looked in as I went past, not knowing at that moment that these people were to be our virtual dinner companions.

I say virtual because their conversational volume invaded our intimate space in the next booth, a top-off condition when added to the in-your-face view of the service area that was also gifted us by the hostess.

By the time I was seated, my wife had already inquired if seating was available in other booths in the mostly empty restaurant. “No” had come the instantaneous and unequivocal reply.

I absorbed the substance of all this, first from my sense of my wife’s discomfort and then from our quiet exchange as we deliberated on our response. Midway through that process, our waitress re-appeared to solicit our beverage order. My wife asked for coffee, and I, focused on the issue at hand, tabled my response. The waitress gathered enough from our demeanor to depart with both the coffee order and an understanding that her customers were neither ignorant or accepting of the disdain with which they had been treated to that point.

She soon returned, perhaps after checking with the hostess station, to advise that a reservation had “just been canceled” and began to scoop up our water glasses and escort us to another booth away from the megaphoning diners. The view was much improved as well.

The rest of the dining transpired without incident; the service throughout appetizer, main course, and dessert, was exemplary, and appropriately rewarded.

You cannot be married to a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior through whose blood courses much of the history of the civil rights movement of this nation, and treat this experience without careful dissection.

We — the waitress, my wife, and I — all knew without discussion that the waitress’ transparent white lie was a miniscule fig leaf to cover her institution’s palpably ingrained race and class practices.

You might wonder whether your faithful scribe and his bride are overly sensitive, attuned to see slight and insult where none exist. Fair question. Under what circumstances would you as maitre-d have paraded a guest by the kitchen and then segregated her and her husband in the most unappetizing, out-of-sight, loudest area of your three-fourths empty establishment?

I add that the situation was resolved satisfactorily without any sense of helplessness or victimization on our part, without finger-pointing or blaming, and without ever naming what was undoubtedly taking place. The intelligence of our waitress helped her to recognize a problem and initiate action to ameliorate it.

Although there was neither confrontation nor overt acknowledgment, there was nonetheless a whole series of embedded social exchanges in this dining excursion. The entire experience was a visceral reminder of life in Cleveland, where the most Herculean efforts to rebuild the economy will fail so long as cultural attitudes remain mired in rustbelt thinking and actions. Our community will get ever more coarse and ossified unless and until we find ways to transcend its indignities and create environments of respect and hospitality.