Summer 1995 — Edwardo’s on Chicago’s 57th St.
It was a regular summer weeknight. The Edwardo’s staff comprised mostly of equal parts students from the University of Chicago, local African Americans from the ghettos that surrounded Hyde Park, and not-entirely legal immigrants from Mexico who staffed the kitchen and bussed the tables. We had two waitresses on duty: myself (the UofC student who had just moved up from answering phones to waiting tables) and Lateisha, an African-American woman who came from one of the blighted South Side neighborhoods that surrounded Hyde Park. She had waited tables at Edwardo’s for years. She carried a “Don’t mess with me attitude” and I had no intention of messing with her.
Our shift started at 5 pm and not long after, our first customer arrived: A large African-American family of about 7 people. Edwardo’s waitressing etiquette commanded that the more senior waitress on hand was to get the first table. After that, new tables were to be rotated evenly between the staff.
“You have a table, ” I said to Lateisha as the family stood by the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign at the front of the restaurant.
“Nuh-uh. They ain’t my table. You take them.”
“But they’re first. And you’ve been here longer.” Why the hell doesn’t she want the table, I wondered.
“I don’t wait on no niggers.”
Oh. Ok. If you’re going to put it like that. I guess the table was mine. Like I said, I wasn’t interested in messing with Lateisha. And I wasn’t rude enough to leave a hungry family standing at the front of a restaurant. With my politest, fake-genuine Iowa smile and upbeat tone of voice I knew, I greeted the family, sat them and proceeded to take their order.
And now, here in this little story, if I was a true liberal interested in writing a “Don’t judge a book by its cover”/break-all-stereotypes story, I would write how that family was the nicest family I ever met with the most polite children I’d ever seen and they left me a very generous tip that must’ve been quite a stretch for their most-likely-limited budget.
But that’s not what happened. The family lived up to every stereotype you could imagine for a family that lived in a ghetto and had not been taught — nor interested in — how to behave with decorum and politeness in public. The grown women were rude and talked to me as if I was their personal servant. The children created mess after mess as children are wont to do. There was something “wrong” with every plate of food I brought out to the family. And, of course, only giving a discount for each plate was the only way to “fix” the problem. And, at the end of the meal when that section of the restaurant had been thoroughly trashed? No tip.
Fine, I said silently to Lateisha in my mind. You’re not going to wait on niggers (your words not mine). Ok. But then every piece of white trash that comes in here — they are yours. Every European with the fancy jeans who forgot to read the section in the guidebook that says “U.S. restaurant food is cheap because the restaurants don’t pay their servers” — they’re yours too, Lateisha.
It was not a game of race, but a game of class. It was easy to predict who was going to tip you. Students? Oddly, yes. Many were flush with cash from their parents’ support or had waited their own tables to support themselves. Professors, grad students, etc. Yes, but at a flat 15% rate. Middle-to-upper class African-Americans? Yes, and quite well. European tourists? Not at all. Lower-income whites from the less-desirable white neighborhoods from the southwestern reaches of Chicagoland? Most likely not much, but maybe a token amount. Low-income African-American residents of the Chicago projects. No. And they were going to work you to the bone.
And it was with that single “I don’t wait on no niggers” comment coming from my African-American colleague, my mind began to wake up a little to the fact that the world is a much more complicated place than I was idealistically raised to believe in rural Iowa.
After all, how can race be an issue if you have no concept of race?