Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Discomfort Plain and Simple

About a month ago, I found myself out for dinner at an old-school Chicago steak house. An odd place for me for a number of reasons, including the fact that I don't eat steak or beef. But my husband had received a generous gift certificate to this establishment, and so we went.
     This was the kind of place that tried to make you think you were in the "good old days"--that is, before we knew what we know about alcoholism (martinis), lung cancer (cigarettes), or heart disease (huge, fat-marbled steaks as big as your head; butter and sour cream slathered on the baked potato). The days of Mad Men--sexism, racism, political incorrectness, all A-OK.
     I was fine with living these illusions for a few hours of my life--a Disneyland-type experience. But I did not like the illusion carried into the bathroom, where I discovered a bathroom attendant, African American and in uniform. That photo above is captioned "bathroom attendant's work station." I do not think the woman in the bathroom of my steakhouse had such an extensive array of goodies to share with me, but this is the general idea--that she has your hygienic and cosmetic needs covered.
     I had been in bathrooms before with attendants and always found it an uncomfortable experience. Not welcome. Not a mark of luxury. Not an assurance that the bathroom would be kept neat and clean to the highest standards or that if I needed any help it would be available. Although, I now see, these are the reasons restaurants and hotels have such people. Plus, in some places, they might be there to monitor unruly or illegal behavior.
     The restrooms at the Drake Hotel used to have them. And a few other high-class joints that I can remember. They were always African-American women, while the customers were almost always white. They certainly were in that Chicago steak house.
     I knew that it was good, in a sense, that she had a job. And I knew I should give her a tip. But I didn't want to. I didn't want to be part of the whole embarrassing world in which such hierarchies exist--where I was the white woman at the Disneyland steak house being handed a paper towel by a black woman in a uniform. I'm a generous tipper under most circumstance (at least I think so), but I couldn't make myself do it. It would have made the whole experience too real. Which it already was.

2 comments: said...

Your Post reminds me of the African-American elevator operators at J.L. Hudson Co. in Detroit. I was a kid and one of them let me push the floor buttons and recite what was on each floor. It was a thrill for a five-year-old who didn't think about color.

But that was then.

After the initial "wow" about seeing the green phone from our 60's kitchen, and other reminders of that era, we stopped watching Mad Men after the episode where the secretary is given a list of gifts to buy for Chief Mad Man's family. That wasn't the only reason. Just the frosting.

Your experience in the bathroom would make me call someone (in)appropriate at the restaurant, the NAACP, The Urban League - message gotten here.

Fact is the uniformed woman needed the job,but in doing her job, made customers feel guilty for not tipping and going along with this horror.

The worst part of this: Many people like to be waited on in this manner!

As it turns out, there is no free dinner either.

Susan Messer said...

True, re: the no free dinner. Also, after I wrote that post, I was thinking that it was truly a white man's world in those day. They ruled the roost, no questions asked (well maybe some questions, but nothing that couldn't be ignored), and they liked it that way. It's pretty amazing to think how far we've come in some ways (and not in others).