MAXWELL:  Service with a sneer

8/2/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Anita Taylor, a divorced mother of three, is a proud African-American. But she, along with dozens of other blacks interviewed for this column, hates to shop or otherwise do business in St. Petersburg’s black community. She simply cannot tolerate the widespread rudeness and general lack of professionalism.

Typically, after getting off work at 6:30 p.m., Taylor stops at either the Winn-Dixie grocery store on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street S or the Food Lion on 34th Street S. in St. Petersburg near her home. Even as she pulls into the parking lot of the stores, she braces for a humiliating experience, she said.

“I go into Winn-Dixie and spend my hard-earned money, and these people _ I mean black people _ do not even greet me or anybody else, fellow black people,” Taylor said. “They never say, “Thank you. Have a nice day or whatever.’ Sometimes they don’t even tell you what your total is. You have to rely on the computer or the cash register to know what you’re paying. Or you’re standing in line, and you’ve got to listen to the cashier and the bagger waste time talking about what they did the night before. They don’t pay attention to their customers.”

Taylor and others complain also that black workers at Publix near Coquina Key treat customers rudely. Taylor said that on several occasions, she _ the lone customer _ has waited for as long as 10 minutes at the bakery counter while the clerk talked on the telephone with friends. A black manager at the store acknowledges that many of his black workers, especially the teenagers, are insensitive to customers.

A technician for Biomedical Housecalls in Tampa, Taylor, 38, was born in Dothan, Ala., and reared in St. Petersburg. She recently bought a modest house on Coquina Key, a racially integrated island south of downtown St. Petersburg.

On evenings that she does not cook, the family grabs something from a fast-food restaurant. Service is no better and often worse at these places if they are in the black community, she said. She and her children have been mistreated, for example, by black workers at the McDonald’s, the KFC and the Wendy’s in or near the area where riots destroyed several businesses nearly two years ago.

One of her worst experiences occurred earlier this year when she and one of her daughters went to the Wendy’s on 34th Street S. They took their place in line at 7:50. When the line had barely moved after 25 minutes, Taylor noticed that only three employees and a manager were operating the place. She and other customers began to complain. She suggested to a server, a black male, that someone should have calmed emotions by explaining to customers that the store was short-staffed, perhaps even offering a free soft drink for their patience.

“He told me that if I didn’t want to stand in line I should leave,” she said. “I told him that he had the wrong attitude, that we were his customers. I admit that I was angry by now. I asked to speak to the manager, who was black. She walked away, telling me she was busy. The guy waiting on me went so far as to say, “If you don’t want to wait in line, you can take your ass home and cook.’ ”

Denny Lynch, vice president of communications for Wendy’s International, acknowledged that the 34th Street S store, which does a high volume of business, “gets some complaints but not enough to make them stand out. Excellent customer service is a daily priority and a challenge. We train our employees to treat our customers special. What the employee said to Miss Taylor does not represent the way our employees are trained. We make mistakes, but we correct them as quickly as possible. One mistake is one too many.”

Black workers were remarkably rude at the Pizza Hut on 34th Street S, which ended up closing. A spokesman for the company said that the store will reopen in a few weeks _ minus table service. All food will be carryout. Taylor is not surprised.

In these and similar incidents, Taylor believes that she sees the source of what ails St. Petersburg’s black community and those elsewhere: a profound self-loathing that has caused African-Americans to act harshly toward those who look like themselves.

Black customers, therefore, willingly and silently accept nasty behavior from other blacks. “We must get out of the mind-set that bad service from our own people is okay,” Taylor said. “It’s not okay. I’m so concerned about it that when I receive good service from a black person, especially a young person, I compliment them.

“I went to Publix near Coquina Key last Sunday, and a young male cashier said, “Hi, how are you today?’ When he was done waiting on me, he said, “Thank you. Have a nice day.’ I told him that I was proud of him. But what he did was not exceptional. That’s just how it should be. That’s your job. I did not tell him that, though.”

St. Petersburg’s black community has all of the symptoms of an abused spouse, Taylor said: In other words, blacks have been cruel toward one another for so long that we have internalized the belief that such cruelty among ourselves is normal. When we accept this treatment, we, in turn, treat other blacks likewise, she said.

Besides rude behavior, black residents encounter many other manifestations of this internalized abusiveness. Taylor said that most businesses in the riot zone are not well-kept. Many mom-and-pop restaurants, for example, have dirty floors, shabby furniture and walls needing fresh paint. Landscaping is virtually nonexistent, and the sidewalks are filthy. Chain restaurants are no better.

“You couldn’t get away with this stuff on the north side,” she said. “White people won’t tolerate it. But because we’re black, we allow these things to happen to us on this side of town. If people can get away with it, they’re keep doing it to you.”

The abusiveness and its acceptance also show up at the gas pump. Every station on M.L. King Street S _ the very heart of the south side _ requires prepayment.

“That means that I’ve been labeled a thief even before I steal,” Taylor said. “I went off one morning at the Chevron station because I don’t appreciate that. I told the owner that he had no reason to believe that I’m a thief. He said, “I understand what you’re saying, but put yourself in my shoes _ where you lose $30 to $40 a day because these people drive off without paying.’ I am still insulted. I feel abused. These other blacks think that prepaying is normal. I do not.”

Taylor is insulted also because all of the fast-food restaurants close their dining areas early, at least two hours before the businesses shut down for the night. “You can’t sit down and eat a meal after 9 because you’re in a black area,” she said. “We let them do that. If McDonald’s wants to close their lobby at 9, then how about we just not go there?”

Even more insulting are the thick Plexiglas windows separating customers and staff inside the restaurants, Taylor said. “It’s not normal,” she said. “We’re being caged off like animals because of where we live. In the same way, Walgreens put up a fence around their store, and Badcock has those metal roll-up doors that make the place look like a fortress. I’m insulted.”

Another double standard, which most blacks on the south side see as normal, concerns the Walgreens on Dr. M.L. King Street S and Central Avenue, where mostly blacks shop. Both stores require a deposit to get film developed. The ones serving mostly white areas do not require a deposit.

Needless to say, Taylor is livid. “One day, I asked the manager in Central Plaza why I had to pay a deposit,” she said. “Do you know what he said? “Because it’s predominantly black, but if you went to 49th Street N, you wouldn’t have to leave a deposit.’ ”

And try as you may, she said, to find an automatic teller machine near the riot zone. The one near Bayfront Medical Center shuts down at 9 p.m.

What about pizza delivery in the black community? Because of real violence or perceptions of it, few companies will risk sending drivers there. “Can you +really blame them?” Taylor said. “Nothing is normal about this.”

Nor is anything normal about law enforcement’s apparent acceptance of drinking alcohol on south side streets, Taylor said. “I don’t want my children seeing grown men walking up and down the sidewalks drinking liquor,” she said. “Why do we accept this kind of behavior? I hate it.”

As the mayor and others dream up exotic schemes to improve life on the south side, they had better include bona fide seminars on courtesy and professionalism, Taylor said. Until blacks stop abusing one another and stop accepting such behavior as normal, we will never overcome the abused neighborhood syndrome. We will continue to receive inferior goods and services.