(Photo: Denny’s, circa 1967)
Walking into Denny’s restaurant, all I could think about was that burger. I was probably five years old. Maybe a year older, I cannot remember exactly. What I did know was that I wanted that burger and fries more than anything else in the world – something starkly different from the style we would get at home: a huge ground beef patty in between two slices of Evangeline Maid white bread. Even though there was more meat in the homemade version, somehow I always felt cheated.
But not tonight.
We ordered. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have to wait for what seemed like an eternity – like the last time we were there. Took about an hour for our food to arrive. My dad chalked it up to a busy night. Nothing more, nothing less. At least that’s what he was sanguinely trying to convince himself of, I’d imagine.
This night, however, while anxiously waiting for my food, I looked around the restaurant full of white people and spotted a Black family seated on the other side of the dining area. I leaned over and whispered to my older brother, “Marcus, look. There’s some Black people over there.” The same type of occurrence would happen when we were at home and saw a commercial with Black representation run across our TV screen. Almost to a tee. I’d yell, “Hey, Marc! Look! A Black commercial!” He’d come running into the living room from across the house, arriving just in time to see the young clean-shaven Black brother with the closely cropped afro smiling and holding up a can of 7-Up – or whatever product they were pitching at the time. I proudly pointed at the screen. Cheesing. There just weren’t that many appearances by Blacks in prime-time advertisements back then. We pretty much had to rely on Ebony and Jet magazines in order to see any faces that looked like ours.
The luminosity of my eyes quickly gave away my glee. “Yeah, I see them,” Marc said nonchalantly. About that moment, I noticed the other father and my father exchange quick smiles – a silent acknowledgment of solidarity, of sorts, between two Black men. With that one gesture, they exchanged a conversation that I would not – indeed, could not – understand at my young age. It was as if to say, “I see you, bruh. You handling yours. It’s good to see that. Stay up.”
Back in the Seventies, Louisiana along with much of the deep south was still segregated in many ways – even though laws had been passed that did away with segregation. These laws were only a few short years from being enacted and there were many side effects associated with the country’s division of racial lines supposedly being expulsed from society. Where I grew up, there was a “Black” beach and a “white” beach. Still might be that way, I’m not sure. When I was learning how to swim at the pool on Second Avenue, there was a time allotted for the white kids and a time reserved for Black kids. That’s just how it was. A lot is still segregated if we are honest with ourselves, schools in particular. Keeping this in mind, it seems as if those same rights for which our people fought for years are being erased with legislation; with envy; with hate.
Another eating establishment frequented by Blacks has been in the news lately for things that are sickening. No, I’m not talking about their food – even though I would be justified if I were making mention of their cuisine. The same can be said about their record of cleanliness. Referring to Waffle House as nasty is being nice. A number of incidents have put them in the news for all the wrong reasons. The mass shooting. Then the young Black lady, Chikesia Clemons, who asked for plasticware – arrested by cops. Then there was Anthony Wall and his sister who both went to Waffle House for a bite to eat after prom, only to end up with Anthony being arrested. And now this installment adding to the Waffle House saga.
(Photo: Georgia Encyclopedia)
The police involved should be ashamed of how they handled this situation but that’s just wishful thinking on my part. There’s a better chance of that thin blue line turning Black. El jefe said they did nothing wrong. For an organization whose mantra is “To Serve and Protect,” how is it that they are so unwilling to make the right decisions? I say unwilling because they are quite capable of affixing the science of reasoning to these shameful episodes but when Black people are involved in the controversy, they simply choose not to. Watch the video. I don’t expect much from them in the way of understanding. Like most Black Americans who are familiar with the treatment of dark-skinned people across the globe but particularly in the land of our birth – my frustration goes beyond words. There is a reason behind the madness. One simply has to study the history of white America to know that the main characters in this play do not want to give up their leading roles. And they are making it more evident every day.
Even though we are allowed by law to eat in white establishments (a decree which is staggering to begin with, if one gives it any balanced thought whatsoever), it is obvious we are still not accepted in some of them. We should do what Jay Morrison and Tip did with Houston’s in Atlanta. Shut ’em down. Given these intolerable instances of outright racism, there is absolutely no rationale for continued patronage of their businesses unless these companies address the discriminatory issues associated with their operations.
And even then…
I looked down at the plastic cup in front of me searching for any remnants of the Coca-Cola that was present just a few minutes ago. It was gone – the mound of ice cubes standing in a puddle of water like someone stranded at the bus stop on a rainy day. Cold. But still waiting.
Just like us.
“What did you order, babe?” my father asked my mom.
“The steak,” she replied.
“So did I,” he said. “I know it doesn’t take this long to cook two damn steaks.”
We had been waiting an unusually long amount of time for our order – and still no food. Just like last time. White families who were seated after us received their food before us with no significant waiting time. Just like last time. The waitress had been passing us by en route to her other tables and customers. No word. No update. No Coca-Cola. We knew what it was and so did they. It was no secret. In fact, the whole thing started to become embarrassing. Other white customers noticed the same thing, even asking my father how long ago he ordered – as they received their food. It was fitting – given that many of Sambo’s restaurant locations (yes, a pancake house called Sambo’s) were eventually sold to Denny’s.
(Getty Images) (Conservapedia)
(Photo: St. Louis Park Historical Society)
The next time the waitress passed by, my father stopped her and asked about our order. She said she would check on it. Tick-tock. Nothing. By the time she came back after an extended absence, Pop’s patience had waned to the point of disgust; anger even – and understandably so. Here he was: trying to take his family out for a simple evening of relaxation. My mother would not have to cook tonight. I would have that burger I was craving. He would get to have that feeling of satisfaction that a man feels when he treats his wife and kids to a simple but meaningful night out, put on his jacket, pay the tab, look back at the only other Black family in the place, exchange another glance of sameness. Stay up. Then we would go back to our lives in the Terrace. Not so tonight.
A proud and honorable man, my father let her have a piece of his mind. At his behest, we got up and left. There would be nothing left to say. Actually, there was a lot to say – just not tonight. I quietly rode home in the back seat of the family car – that dark brown Buick with the tan vinyl roof – listening to the frustration coming from my father’s voice. Usually, there would be the soulful classics of the Commodores, Al Green, the Ohio Players, or any number of old-school artists coming from one of the many eight-track cassette tapes chosen to accompany us on our journeys. Not tonight. Just a noble man’s voice bemoaning the fact that we were treated unjustly. And we were. “That’s the last time we go there,” my father said.
I have to believe that is what they wanted all along. For us to get up and leave and never come back. That is what they want now. Not just Denny’s, Houston’s, or Waffle House but America.
Come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea.
Calmate. I’ll explain.
Part II next week…