The $62 no-meal, or Racist tacos in Ogunquit

Daily racial microaggressions are a part of my life and pretty much a part of most Black people’s lives in America. It is the price we pay to live these lives in these containers which are called Black bodies. If I wrote or even thought too hard about the majority of these uncomfortable moments (from asking for my ID when half a dozen white people in front of me weren’t to expressing surprise I run an organization or actually live in Maine to strangers touching my “exotic” hair without warning and so on and so on and so on…) I would never get anything done. Yet there are the moments that are feel so vile, so uncomfortable and so utterly dehumanizing (even if they are “micro” in nature) that they create doubts within myself, and then I do share. I share to reclaim the humanity that racism attempts to steal from me; I share because whiteness says I don’t have a voice, but it is a liar.

Labor Day weekend is the last great hurrah of summer for many of us; while I am not much for holidays, I do however, have a few traditions that I have created over the years and heading to Ogunquit, Maine, around Labor Day is one those traditions. Being a town that is known for being open and accepting to the gay and lesbian community, and as a member of a marginalized group myself, Ogunquit has often been a space in Maine where I feel moderately comfortable. Which is why what happened last night to my family really shocked me (if you follow my Twitter feed @blackgirlinmain, you can read the detailed account that I posted the evening of Sept. 4). But as shocking as it was, it was also a reminder that Maine in 2016 under the leadership of a governor who makes openly racist statements and an entire nation in the era of Trump might truly not be a safe space for Black and Latinx people.

After tooling around and checking out the sights and taking a couple-mile-long walk along the coast, the dinner hour came and I realized that the kiddo and I and my co-parent needed to eat. Now that the picky eating tween finally eats tacos, we decided Bandito’s, the local Mexican spot in Ogunquit, was our dinner destination. After a 20-minute wait for a table, we were seated and that is when the evening started to get curious. It took the server a good 10 minutes to come over to greet us; in fact we weren’t even sure who our server was as we saw several and the place was packed. Given that we had waited 20 minutes to be seated, we were pretty ready to order.

Now I know the place was busy and having been a server during my college years, I still recall what it is like to have the dinner rush.  It’s intense. That said, personality goes a long way. When our server finally comes over, she is an older white woman, which is to she is at least my age though she could have been in her mid 50’s, too. Our server seemed frazzled from the moment she came to our table to take our drink order, when I asked if they provided chips and salsa (most “real” Mexican joints put that on the table for free), she gave me a funny look, so I asked if I could order chips, salsa and guacamole. Not really anything too weird yet, though some kind of warmth or “I hope you weren’t waiting too long; it’s really busy tonight” would have been nice. At this point, though, it’s hard to tell if she’s just an non-personable waitperson or otherwise. Ten minutes later, our drinks and chips arrived and she took our dinner order and, well, that is when the experience started to go downhill.

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The “salsa” that came with the chips we ordered at a Mexican restaurant. Shoulda taken that a sign right there…

My daughter the picky eating tween wanted the steak taco plate but with nothing on the tacos but meat, and with flour tortillas not corn. The server looked exasperated and then suggested that my daughter order the kid meal. As my co-parent told her, our daughter didn’t want a child-sized portion; she just wanted very plain tacos on flour tortillas. Then I asked, wondering if there was some kind of no-substitution policy or everything was pre-mixed, if we could order plain tacos. Our server said we could, but at this point, the exasperation in her voice is clear as she tells us she’s not sure how to write up my daughter’s order. My daughter piped up and explained she wanted the adult taco meal because the kid taco plate was one taco that was ground beef but she preferred the steak and that she was hungry and needed more than one taco. I finally suggested to the woman that she write the order up as naked steak tacos. After sighing and rolling her eyes, she said she could try that and she took the rest of our order. In hindsight I should have known this was as sign of trouble but the reality was that we were hungry, we had already received our drinks and chips, and we were committed to the meal…or so I thought.

Twenty-five minutes passes. This isn’t odd; the place is busy. I understand that. But our server has not not only not come back with our food, she has not come back to ask if we are okay, do we need drink refills, or to tell us that the food is coming soon. During that time, the co-parent and I are watching her bring drink refills to other tables, we are watching her put on a smile for other tables (whether fake or not, it was only those tables with all-white customers getting that smile). While the co-parent and I are no longer a romantic unit or a co-habitating couple, after 22 years of knowing each other, we still know what these moments bring, especially when we realize I am the only fully and immediately identifiably Black person in sight in the entire place.

Finally, as I see our server at a nearby table, I call out to her “excuse me and how much longer is this going to be?” At this point, we have been in this restaurant around an hour between the various waits from the time we entered the door, and given that our total order was a taco plate, chicken enchiladas and a burrito, busy or not this was feeling like an awfully long time. The server tersely and irritably tells us she will go ask in the kitchen. Ummmm, part of being a server is knowing what is what and conveying that to the table. I know this stuff happens and I hate to see servers get slammed for things they can’t control, but keeping tabs on your tables is a must, checking in is common courtesy, and personality goes a long way. She’s met none of those three criteria so far.

When our server comes back empty-handed and explaining our food is almost ready, I tell her to just bring the check for what we have consumed so far, because this is just too much. It’s not because of the wait; it’s because this woman just left us in a huff a couple minutes earlier when we’ve been nothing but polite (The closest I got to anything snarky was that I did make a remark right before we placed our order about the “salsa” for our chips [that photo above], asking, in a skeptical-sounding voice, “Is this actually the salsa?” and she simply answered “yes” without showing any curiosity or concern with what should have been a response like, “Is there something wrong with it?”…again, yet another sign that our comfort and satisfaction, unlike that of any other customers we’ve seen her interact with, is not high on her priority list.)

Less than two minutes after we say we no longer want our food and we want the check for what we have drank and eaten so far, our waitperson returns carrying the food we said we didn’t want anymore, accompanied by an white woman around the same age as her, who (although she never identified herself) was clearly either a manager or an owner of the place. We immediately say, “We don’t want the food anymore; we’re not happy with our service” and this new woman’s response is, quite atypical of any restaurant manager I’ve ever encountered, to immediately say “You owe us $62 for the food.” No “What is going on” or “How can we make this right” or anything that I’ve experienced before. Just a demand that we pay for the food that we just minutes earlier said we no longer wanted. At this point, my daughter is getting anxious, my co-parent stands up and tells the manager/owner/angry white woman that the service was really poor and we just don’t want to eat here. The manager proceeds to tell us that they are busy, and a back-and forth ensues, including my co-parent noting we were treated disrespectfully and wondering aloud whether it had anything to do with me and his daughter being the only non-white patron and this not exactly being the first time, and the woman immediately saying, “Why would that cause you to be mistreated?” It is clear that despite our dissatisfaction, there is going to be no attempt to find a middle ground and we have to pay for an entire meal we are not going to be eating.

I just wanted to pay for the drinks and chips and move on, and my co-parent starts whipping out the cash and leading our daughter out of the restaurant as our waitperson’s 20-something-looking daughter, also on staff and watching this, complains “That’s my mother you’re accusing” and angrily tells him and my daughter to shut up and leave (which they are already doing). I’d normally be happy to follow them, but instead I find myself the center of attention and now I’m explaining that frankly I feel like the server gave us poor treatment and that maybe just maybe it was because I am Black. 

The manager woman then proceeds to tell me, among other things that seem to indicate that possible racially biased behavior toward me is impossible and a fantasy in my head, that no one at the establishment could possible be racist because they have Black people working in the kitchen. She then offers to take me into the kitchen to meet the Black people back there. To say that I was caught off-guard would be an understatement. My co-parent has already hustled our daughter out of the fray but I’m still there getting tag-teamed on how racism is impossible while I finish settling up the tab and making sure the cash on the table gets into their hands, since it was clear that if we argued the tab, odds were high they’d call the police on us. As I was paying the bill, I told her that I would be writing a review about my experience and she laughed at me, with a chuckle and snide look, “Go ahead”

I settled the tab and for the first time ever in my life left no tip (I generally leave 10% for surly service, 15% for simply bad service and 20% to 30% for average to great service) and walked the walk of shame out the door. Another meal ruined by racism, but this time, unlike so many others, accompanied by a very public display and outright nastiness by the manager and staff.

In tweeting about the ordeal, I worked out many of my initial feelings about this exchange but this morning, it hit me (just as many online pointed out to me since I tweeted) that this is not typical restaurant behavior.  No, they are right: It isn’t. It doesn’t escape me that none of the usual niceties were extended to me. No offers to correct the situation at all or at least show some interest in why I was unhappy. Instead I was treated as a potential criminal and payment was demanded for a meal that yes, I ordered but didn’t really get (no matter that it was brought; I’d already rejected it and asked for the tab by then). When I spoke up and mentioned racism as a possible reason for the shoddy service, they deflected, which in the era of many white peoples discomfort and confusion over racism, is the new norm. If someone says race might play a factor, angrily chide them for bringing up racism or playing a race cards and then offer up as proof of your innocence, that you have a Black “friend” (who in most cases is just a Black person who works at your company and you occasionally trade words with), a Black in-law or kitchen help that’s Black. As if knowing Black people or paying them to hold jobs out of sight of the customers means you can’t possible have anything against Black people.

The thing is that I think these women are not intentional racists. They probably don’t think of their actions as racially biased. But I do think the server held biases that affected her interaction with us. The myth that Black people don’t tip runs rampant in the service industry. So, while she was flustered and slammed, she could muster up enough energy to fake it with the other tables but with me, she assumed she would get no tip so she gave me no effort. The manager/owner, instead of seeing a middle-aged family unit saw a white man/black woman and made assumptions about us, including assuming that I have no voice, thus her laughter when I mentioned I would be writing a review. My intention had been to given them a 1 on Facebook not write a piece about it as I am now, but on thinking back how racially insensitive and racially tone-deaf their responses to me were, I felt more needed to be said, in part because I see and hear about this happening more since our openly racist governor took office in 2010 and since Donald Trump started peddling racism as a way to mobilize support. They’ve mainstreamed racism again and emboldened people to “stand up” to Black folks and other people of color and “speak their minds.”

Choosing to speak up myself in these moments feels loaded for me; after all, there was no satisfying resolution. I likely changed no hearts or minds on the restaurant, I was berated and belittled, and we were out $62 for a meal we didn’t eat. But with a tween girl who struggles to find her voice and to sometimes speak up for herself, I am increasingly aware of what I am modeling for her. Do we keep quiet when we know we are being mistreated or do we risk creating a commotion to stand in our truth?

Lastly, in a town that is known for its open embrace for marginalized people, receiving such shoddy service and treatment scares me. In the past week in Maine, many people of color have spoken out about the fear of what it means to be Black in a state where our governor states racial lies as facts. Given that both the server and manager/owner appeared to be working-class white women…and yes, I know I am making assumptions…I wonder, are they feeling emboldened by the seductive dog-whistle politics that passes as truth in 2016 for so many Americans, from people running for office to conservatives commenting on TV to the people who support them?

No tacos, no enchiladas and no burritos for us. Just a forced payment and a walk of shame. But I spoke my truth and while I won’t let one bad experience keep me from Ogunquit in the future, I do worry about the coming weeks and months and year and even decades in this country. I fear we are moving towards a racial point of no return.
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