Sunday, February 04, 2007

Walking on Eggs

A commentary in today's NY Times brings back to memory an event that happened to me nearly thirty years ago.

I was training to become a cafeteria manager. I came to the job with about five years of experience in retail, food and dealing with the public, but the sheer volume of a cafeteria was new for me. A business that serves two thousand meals a day during the week and half again as many on weekend days is a sure place to come across almost every kind of temperament represented in a population. One learns very quickly what to say and what to avoid saying. It is very easy to be misunderstood unless your words are very carefully chosen. And when you live your life in front of that public, everything you do is under scrutiny.

I remember once that the roast beef carver accidentally dropped the slicing knife. I picked it up, wiped it clean with a bar towel kept under the serving line in a container of sanitizing solution, and putting the knife back into service. Shortly a man waiting in line said to me, "Son, that sure didn't look very good."

"Excuse me," I said, "what didn't look good." I thought he might be about to say something about a food item.

"What you just did," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Picked up that knife off the floor, wiped it off with that dirty rag and let her start using it again."

"Oh, I'm sorry," I said lamely, and got the knife and disappeared into the kitchen.

He didn't care that the knife was clean and germ-free. A solution of bleach and water not only sanitizes at a concentration of one tablespoonful per gallon, it usually has about twenty times that concentration and makes your hand stink for an hour after you get into it. He was more interested in not seeing a dropped serving utensil put back into service under any conditions. He wanted to see a "new" one. A fresh knife may have just come from cutting raw meat if it came from the kitchen, but that wasn't the point. It was the appearance of cleanliness that counted, not the reality.

(The same is true of servers wearing gloves, incidentally. People like to see food servers wearing gloves because it reassures them that gloves are cleaner than bare hands. Never mind that a moment before you got there that same server may have handled something truly nasty with those same gloves that he or she might never have touched with bare hands. I have seen a lot of people washing hands, but I have never caught anyone washing their gloves. It is strictly against protocol, but I have seen food servers with gloves using them to handle raw and cooked products with the same gloves which is strictly forbidden. I will say that wearing gloves usually prevents people from scratching their hair, but the use of a cell phone is today's most insidious violation of good sanitation practices in food handling. But I digress, as usual. 'Scuse me.)

The story I was recalling happened one afternoon while I was "working the line" toward the end of lunch. But the event that sticks in memory was just afterward when I was circulating in the dining room pouring coffee for people during their meal. It's a good way for a manager to help out the dining room staff and make a few public relations points at the same time. Chatting with customers and saying "Hello" to the regulars may be a better business builder than food or prices. All else being equal, the manager who greets and seems to know everybody will get the business away from the one who is careless about good PR.

As I approached a black couple the man said to me "I didn't like what you did back there."

"Excuse me, where?"

"On the line. When we were coming down the line you were serving. But when we got up to where you were working you stepped back like you didn't want to be serving black people. Do you have a problem with black people eating here?"

"Of course not," I said. "I'm sorry. I go from one job to the next to keep things moving, but that has nothing to do with you or anyone else."

I don't recall how the exchange ended, but I don't think I could have said anything to overcome what had already been seen as racism on my part. All the energy I had spent fighting discrimination, all the arguments with peers, even parents, about the Civil Rights Movement...all of that was of no value in that encounter with a black couple that didn't know me.

What I learned from that encounter was simple. Thereafter any time I saw a black person in public I had to be extra careful what I said, what I did and how I conducted myself. You can be certain that if a black customer was in the line that I made an extra effort after that to make eye contact, smile and greet him or her extra nice, and not leave any room for misunderstanding. And that behavior has continued on my part ever since.

It is sad and I hate it. But that seems to be the price I must pay for being white in America. There was a time when I expected to see the disparities of race overcome in my lifetime. But it seems that this new political correctness is a wrinkle in the social fabric that I didn't see coming. I now expect continue walking on eggs in public, in the name of good race relations, for the rest of my life.


vietnamcatfish said...

I'm running behind, hoots. Just came across your story.

The food business is one of a kind. And sanitation is big part of that. Our mentality was if you dropped a pan or knife on the floor, you picked it up and rinsed it with hot water.

The health department lady from Hades saw "Angie" drop a pan on the floor, pick it up and go about her bizness.

"Where you goin' with that pan?"

"Uh to the kitchen."

"No you're not. Anything that falls to the floor must be washed, rinsed, and sanitized."

She was so bad she even took the temps of the margarine cups.

I didn't have those problems with black customers like you had, because 90% or more of my customers were of that persuasion.

But today you gotta be careful about what you say and do. Lucy, what happened?

P.S. I had a Bulgarian bartender tell a couple of black female customers ( 50ish ) to go to another bar a little ways down the concourse. Why? Because our micros ( computer that rang up the guests' orders ) was down, and things were chaotic because of it.

Seems they were the only blacks in the store, and they were offended-naturally. The bartender meant no harm but how did they know he was an idiot? I had to intervene and luckily settled them down. They thanked me and said I handled it well. But a situation like that could have blown-up into a huge event.

Take care, v.c.

P.S. I can't believe you picked up a knife off the floor and wiped it with a sanitized? towel in front of guests. Did you ever do that again.

P.S.S. I could go on forever. But it reminds me of the gay asst. manager who was summoned to a guest's table. A complaint.

"These mashed potatoes don't taste good."

He takes one of the forks on the table and takes a bite from her bowl. Now that's taking the bull by the horns.

Hoots said...

Thanks for visiting, Cat. That was thirty years ago, near the start of the learning curve, but it seems like yesterday. It never happened again, you can be sure...neither a dropped utensil nor a PR failure with black customers. (There were other PR failures involving black people, of course, but not related to race. Cafeterias, as you know, attract a lot of patrons seeking champagne service for beer money, which can give rise to reality checks that become PR failures.)