MAXWELL:  Supper with a serving of racism An attachment to the notion of loyalty

2/4/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As I write, I feel dirty from the stench of racism _ acquired on Monday night at Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar at 5353 S Tamiami Trail in Sarasota.

A former colleague from my college teaching days, a Jewish woman, and I went there to discuss a highly successful national mathematics program that she directs. She was in town for a two-day conference. I wanted to talk with her because I intend to write about the program and arrange a meeting with the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times.

Upon entering the restaurant, I saw no black people. Suddenly, the place fell silent as a sea of white faces stared at us. Our waitress reluctantly seated us.

She asked if we wanted drinks. I said that we would have a bottle of Merlot. The house brand is Corbett Canyon, one I had never had.

“May I taste it first?” I asked.

“No,” the waitress said, in a hostile tone that surprised me.

“Miss, I’m not going to pay $12 or $14 for a bottle of wine that I can’t sample. May I taste the Merlot?”

“No,” she said, indicating that she would return for our food orders.

My companion, who travels the nation and regularly dines out, was outraged. “I don’t believe this,” she said. “I’ll bet that if I ask to taste it, she’ll let me. She won’t refuse a white woman.”

She waved the waitress to our table. “I want to taste your Merlot. If you sell it by the glass, I can certainly taste it.” The waitress promptly left, returned with an opened bottle, poured a finger and set the glass in front of my companion.

“My friend ordered the wine, and he’s the one who wants to taste it,” my colleague said, handing the glass to me.

Feeling the sickening weight of outsiderness, I wanted to leave. I remained calm, however, tasted the Merlot, which is quite good, and ordered a bottle. From here, matters deteriorated. As she took our orders for stone crab, the waitress could not conceal her contempt for me and, of course, the white woman brazen enough to be with me.

While we waited, our waitress chatted with other waitresses and bus help. Several passed our table, staring. Soon, the manager prowled the floor, surreptitiously glancing at us. Our waitress and a bus worker openly laughed at us after she had brought our food. After awhile, the bus worker came over and reached for my plate before I was finished. I let him take it away rather than cause a ruckus.

My companion could bearly control her anger. I struggled to conceal my shame. Whenever I am the victim of a racist act, I feel more ashamed than angry. We watched as our waitress let white customers automatically sample their wines. I made sure that the waitress saw me observing her, which had no positive impact on her. She grinned while giving her white customers the superior service the place is known for.

“I don’t believe this,” my colleague shouted. “This is racism.”

“I don’t believe it, either,” I said, wanting the staff to know that I, too, was offended. The white couple behind us, angry at my companion and me, walked out before ordering. The man hurled a racial epithet over his shoulder.

We paid the bill, and my colleague insisted on seeing the manager, which I said would be a waste of time because he would turn us _ the victims _ into instigators. He did exactly that, feigning incredulity and voicing faith in his staff’s professionalism.

I knew the technique well: Demonize the nigger, get him to become loud or violent, then call the cops, who will gladly drag the black troublemaker off to jail.

Avoiding further abuse, I walked out into the rain and waited for my colleague.

If the restaurant’s policy is to keep out blacks, the staff succeeded with me. I will never return to Phillippi nor recommend it to other African-Americans.

After saying good night to my friend, I drove back to St. Petersburg, hurt and ashamed. My sense of self had been assaulted by strangers who know nothing of my life, my modest successes, my love for America and hope for a society free of racism.

When the Sunshine Skyway Bridge came into view, I realized that I, an ex-Marine and world traveler, was crying. Back inside the safety of my home, I showered for the second time in four hours, trying to wash away the foul experience, to restore my sense of self.

I studied my black skin in the mirror, trying to see what the waitress had seen, trying to understand racism and the acts of deliberate cruelty that it produces.