I’ve been distraught over an incident—at least, I consider it an incident—that occurred a couple of weeks ago, when Andrew, Maddie, Drew, and I met Andrew’s sister, her husband, and their two daughters for breakfast at a restaurant on Route 1. The gathering began quite pleasantly. The children, ranging in age from fifteen months to seven years, were cooperative, quickly entertaining themselves with coloring sheets and crayons and building towers of Half-and-Half singles. The menu offered Sourdough French Toast. Our waitress was conversational and relaxed. We hadn’t seen my sister- and brother-in-law in a while, and we were looking forward to catching up. But by the end of our meal, my heart was reverberating and my fingers trembling with the metallic burn of disbelief. Yes. It upset me that much.
I’d like to think that I’m pretty tolerant of others. My parents raised me in a liberal-minded household, teaching me to treat all people with kindness and compassion, an awareness of their struggles, an understanding of the circumstances in their lives that might lead them to make certain choices. As an adoptee, maybe I internalized an awareness of the diversity of how families are formed, and how one’s identity can be shaped by factors beyond the realm of his or her control. Because my biological backstory has always been different from most of my friends’, I have always tried to remember that everyone else has a backstory, too—one that has impacted his or her sense of self and world view. This is how I frame my expectations for behavior in my high school classrooms. “Don’t assume you can say anything to anyone,” I warn my freshmen and juniors. “You don’t know what the person sitting next to you has endured. You don’t know what he’s coping with right now. You don’t know who he is, exactly, when he leaves this campus every afternoon. So speak to each other with sensitivity.” When they deviate from this mantra, I’m there to remind them of it. And I’m no angel every minute of every day, either. But a voice inside is constantly reminding me to re-evaluate my judgments and reconsider my attitude.
So, the story begins with my husband’s aversion to coffee. (Most people find his disdain for it to be funny, considering he spent seven years working in public relations for Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts.) When we venture out for breakfast, he has to gear up for the multi-faceted challenge of 1) daring to request hot tea, 2) managing his reaction to the flash of confusion on the server’s face, and 3) maintaining a steady flow of refills from said confused server, who ultimately visits the table multiple times with two steaming carafes o’ joe, one regular and one decaf, but never thinks to ask whether Andrew wants another Earl Gray. Once, when we went to IHOP, our young and somewhat airy server said that she needed to go find a tea pot first. Every now and then, throughout our meal, she would stop by at the table to fill us in on her hunt, droning, “I still can’t find a tea pot.” And she would wander away with her zoned-out eyes, obviously altered permanently from this out-of-the-ordinary encounter. Andrew never did get his tea that day.
On this particular morning, at this particular restaurant, Andrew’s renegade position at the table was no different. Our waitress was perhaps in her mid-fifties, clearly seasoned in the food service industry, jolly but with a snappy edge. She engaged with each of us, including the children, as she wound around the table, taking the coffee and chocolate milk orders. When the waitress looked at my husband and poised her pen over her pad, he started with his typical apology.
“I’m sorry…but I’m going to be that guy,” he said. “I’ll have a cup of tea, please. I know—I always make trouble.”
She cocked her head. “Tea!” she said teasingly. “Well, that’s just so gay.”
Wait a second. I sat up straight and stared at her. She couldn’t possibly—no. No one who had any sense of decorum would turn something like that into a joke, let alone a person who was a professional, on the job.
After a stunned moment, Andrew laughed feebly, clearly uncomfortable. I wanted to leap across the table—unfortunately for me and fortunately for her, I was sitting on the opposite end—and wrestle her into a chokehold. I thought, she’s going to retract that, right? I mean, she’s going to fall all over herself apologizing. There’s really no other option, here.
She chuckled. “Oops!” she said, and clamped her hand over her mouth. “I probably shouldn’t say that, should I?”
My nose and eyes were smarting. My heart was revving up, like it did when the emotional part of me had recognized an injustice and knew that I should react, but the logical side of me needed time to process and decide on the most effective course.
“And…do you have skim milk?” my husband said. I could sense that he was cringing inside over what the waitress might say next.
“Aw, geez. Skim milk? That’s even more gay!” she said, and giggled.
I was looking at my sister- and brother-in-law, who were looking up at the waitress; their expressions suggested that they were undergoing the same internal dialogues as I was. We were all sitting there, polite half-smiles cemented to our faces.
When the waitress finally jaunted away, we adults shifted our eyes around at one another.
“Did she just say…what I thought she said?” I asked.
Everyone nodded slowly.
“That was awful.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Who does that?”
Now, my defenses were shooting up like porcupine quills. Nothing that our waitress did for us from that point on was going to be acceptable. Not that she would continue commentary of that nature, I convinced myself, as she had to know that she had just crossed a very provocative line.
Yeah—no. She wasn’t finished.
After bringing our beverages and then forgetting to bring me sweetener for my rapidly-cooling coffee, the waitress returned to take our food orders. Once again, she revolved around the table, approving of our selections—“Good choice, good choice. You won’t be disappointed” (too late, lady)—and accommodating the children’s requests for chocolate chips in their Mickey Mouse pancakes. My gaze on her as she neared Andrew could have seared off her head, if I had been closer to her and blessed with superhero powers. Andrew ordered the Sourdough French Toast, as I had.
“Sourdough French Toast,” the waitress said. “Got it.” She paused to jot down the phrase, then flopped her hand at Andrew and affectionately touched his shoulder. In a slightly higher-pitched voice, she added, “Are you sure you don’t want an egg-white omelet? With feta and tomato?”
My eyes widened. I slammed my fists down on the table, sending my silverware clattering to the rug and lukewarm droplets of coffee into the air, and stood.
“You,” I growled, and shook my finger at her. “You are a disgrace, making a mockery of people who are gay. You are creating a hostile atmosphere when you should be focusing on doing your job well, because that’s where you are: at work! I can’t control what you believe and what you say outside of this place, but while I’m here trying to enjoy this breakfast with my family, you will not make me squirm with your bigotry!”
Well, that’s what I wanted to do. But that gauge of logic within me that I mentioned before was alerting me to keep my head down and just get through the ordeal, at the risk of causing more unpleasantness for everyone at the table, who had simply wanted to come out to delight in some camaraderie and eat French Toast to die for.
Once again, we all had to grin wanly as though we found the waitress’s perpetuation of this tasteless humor to be clever. Go away, I screamed silently. Just go away and save yourself now! I was already planning my visit to the restaurant’s website to leave feedback. Each time the waitress resurfaced to check on our needs, she would quip another little joke to Andrew. When she did eventually qualify her offer for more tea as “serious—really—would he like another cup?”, it was too late for Brownie points. I thought about insisting to Andrew that we leave diddly squat for a tip…but that whole internal gauge thing held me back again. I had a tendency to get riled up and push my agendas too far.
We all discussed the matter further outside of the restaurant. What if someone in our family were gay? we protested to one another. How could she say things like that to a customer? Wasn’t that one of the weirdest experiences you’ve ever had eating out?
As far as I’m concerned, it shouldn’t matter whether any of us had a gay family member, friend, classmate, neighbor, or student with whom we shared a specific context. This woman’s conduct plagued me not because I personally know individuals who are gay, even though I do. It’s because everyone deserves to experience the same courtesy as any other human being. She was not only promoting a stereotypical gay persona, but she was also making that stigma something to laugh about. In doing both of these things, she was implying that being gay is something undesirable, something that people wouldn’t want to be. To pester my husband with this kind of humor meant that she had assumed that he wasn’t gay, and therefore the joke was fair game. If she had truly thought he was gay, she would have known instinctually not to label him, out loud, in public, while she was working and representing her employer. She should have applied the same level of good judgment to either scenario, whether her customer “seemed gay” or not. And she committed a shameful faux pas when she decided that our group would appreciate what she believed to be her playfulness and wit.
I understand that I should probably apply my theory of tolerance, of kindness and compassion, to this waitress as I would to anyone else. I don’t know how she was raised. I don’t know who modeled for her, or didn’t model for her, the art of tact. I don’t know how any of her past experiences made her feel about herself. But anyone who lives in our 2013 American culture, especially in Massachusetts, should know better.
I realize that two weeks ago during breakfast at that restaurant on Route 1, I got off easy as a parent—while the waitress indulged in her schtick, the four children at the table innocently colored in their black-and-white figures of bears and bunnies, paying no attention. But a time will come when they will be old enough to absorb a dialogue like that one, and I will need to prepare myself for taking more immediate action, for practicing what I am preaching now.
I am proud that Andrew and I are trying hard to nurture our children to regard others with a flexible definition of individuality, beauty, and humanity. While we will not always be able to shield them from others’ ignorance, we can try like hell to negate its power.