A Blatant Racial Incident

June 5, 2018

A visit to a nearby restaurant turns ugly

Few things bring out the stupid in people than trying to discuss race in America. Not only do stupid things get said, but people react to discussions about race with all kinds of stupid.  A few people here and there have a good understanding of what’s going on and express the problems well, but most of the rest of us tend to not talk about it because we are afraid of saying something stupid and we will have to deal with the consequences. 

And when I say “we” I mean everybody in America, not just this group or that group. However, despite the risk I’m taking, I’m going to discuss this apparently racist incident right here and now because I’ve already spread it across Facebook.  And since spreading this story can cause harm I have an obligation to take responsibility for it and explain it as best as I can.  It’s pretty cut and dried.

Since I Have No Photos Of Racism, Here’s A Photo Of Albany From The River Taken This Past Memorial Day WeekendSince I Have No Photos Of Racism, Here’s A Photo Of Albany From The River Taken This Past Memorial Day Weekend Since I Have No Photos Of Racism, Here’s A Photo Of Albany From The River Taken This Past Memorial Day Weekend

At the end of May, the Saturday before Memorial Day, The Wife and I were in the mood to try a new restaurant for dinner.  We’d heard from multiple sources that the food was good at Sweet Basil Thai Restaurant at 370 Delaware Avenue, so we made a reservation for early, 5PM.

The dining area of the restaurant is small, much smaller than I remember it to be when the place was another restaurant.  I don’t think the interior can seat more than about 30 people, although there is more seating on the front deck during good weather. (And by the way, the weather was quite good that day and seating could have been available outdoors.) We’d tried to get a last minute reservation at the restaurant the weekend before and failed, but then again both of us forgot that we were trying to get a reservation late on Mother’s Day.

I mention this because when I called that previous weekend for a reservation, the fellow I talked to was amazingly clueless.  An example of the conversation: Me – “Can I get a reservation for 6:00PM?”  Him – “We don’t have any available at that time.”  Me – “So what time will you be taking reservations this evening?” Him – “We can take reservations at 5.”  Me – “Okay, I guess we can make a reservation for 5.”  Him – “No, we have no openings at 5.”  Me – “But you just said I could reserve at 5.”  Him – “Oh, we start taking reservations at 5 but we’re full up at that time.”  This went on for at least five minutes before I divined that there were no seats available that evening.

Vacant Apartment, Morton Avenue, Albany Vacant Apartment, Morton Avenue, Albany

The folks who run the restaurant are South East Asian immigrants, presumably they are ethnic Thai. I mention this phone conversation because it shows that there might be a good deal of cultural cluelessness at play here by the staff of the restaurant.  It was not a language problem, the fellow I talked with over the phone had a good command of American English. 

So the two of us arrived right on time a minute before 5PM and walked inside.  Only one table was occupied by a couple, an asian looking man and a white woman, who looked like they were finishing up their meal.  The rest of the tables each had a placard that said “reserved.”

As we came in we passed another couple sitting in chairs next to the door.  I’d guess they were about forty, respectable looking, but they seemed a bit unsettled.  And it is important to mention that the man and the woman were black.

Now for the crucial defining moment in all this.  The Wife and I were immediately greeted by a woman who told us to sit where we wanted.  The Wife said, “We have a reservation.”  The woman said okay without asking for our names and checking to see if we really did have one.  Have I mentioned that the two of us are white?

Blooming Ornamental Apple Tree Shortly After Dawn Blooming Ornamental Apple Tree Shortly After Dawn

We sat down at a table and the woman removed the “reserved” placard. But we quickly decided that the table we’d chosen was too close to the kitchen so we immediately got up and moved to a table on the other side of the room.  Without a word the woman removed the “reserved” placard from our new table and placed it on the table we had just vacated.  We were handed menus.

After a few minutes the other couple sitting at a table finished their meal and got up and left, leaving just us and the couple by the door.  The minutes ticked by as we studied the menu.  Finally the gentleman sitting by the door asked us, “Excuse me, did you have a reservation?”

Yes, we told him, we did.  I think I said that in a relieved tone of voice because this situation was already feeling uncomfortable.  I asked them how long they’d been waiting, not too long before us it turned out.  “They told us they didn’t have any tables available because they were all reserved,” they both told us.  So instead the couple ordered take out, which is what they were sitting there waiting for.

The minutes continued to tick by in the almost empty restaurant, just the two of us and the couple sitting by the door.  We talked to them a little, it seems they were in town for some event and had heard this was a good place to eat.  “But we weren’t expecting this,” the lady said.

Apple Flower Petals Covering The Sidewalk After A Heavy Rain Apple Flower Petals Covering The Sidewalk After A Heavy Rain

Finally the woman emerged from the back holding a bag of takeout, and the couple got up to pay for it.  The man was angry.  “Why did you tell us there were no tables available?” he said.  The woman simply answered. “We have a table for you now.”  No apologies, no attempt to smooth over the situation, nothing.

As they turned to leave the gentleman said to us, “I can’t believe this is happening in 2018.”  I looked at The Wife, we put down our menus and got up and left right behind them.  I made sure the other couple saw we were leaving.  There was no way we could have enjoyed our meal after something like that.  Anyway, I would have felt dirty giving that establishment my money.

As we were leaving several of the reservations were arriving, by then it was past quarter after five.  These people, all of them white, looked puzzled and alarmed at this angry and annoyed procession leaving as they were walking in.  At most half of the tables would have been occupied.  I do wonder what was said after we were gone.

If it was essential that these black folks walking in had to have a reservation, why didn’t the woman check to see if us white folks really did have a reservation?  If an unreserved table was about to be available, presumably the one where that other couple was just finishing their meal, why didn’t they tell the black couple that one would be available but they would have to wait for a few minutes?  Wasn’t outdoor seating available?  Why couldn’t they have at least offered an apology and claim it was all a misunderstanding?

The Wife Along The East Bank Of The Hudson Opposite Albany The Wife Along The East Bank Of The Hudson Opposite Albany

We were forced to the conclusion that the staff did not want black people inside their nice restaurant, no matter how respectable those black people are.  If this couple really did look questionable, like they couldn’t afford to pay for the meal, then perhaps the reluctance of the staff to serve the couple would be understandable.  But they were willing to sell them take out.  We are glad to take your money but we don’t want you sitting here?   

It could have been cluelessness by this woman, who appeared to be in charge rather than a mere server employee.  As someone who has been socially clueless my entire life I might be sympathetic to that, but there are certain things like this that go well beyond ineptitude and don’t lend themselves to that excuse.  The woman, who was the representative of the restaurant did absolutely nothing to dispel that appearance of discrimination based on physical appearance.  That’s no way to run a business.

As we got in the car and drove away, The Wife said, “They seemed like nice people, I would have liked to talk to them.”  We were at a loss for where to go, but we ended up at another place we’d never been to, Tanpopo Ramen and Sake Bar at 893 Broadway, the old Miss Albany Diner that was restored for the movie Ironweed.  It’s a prefabricated “Silk City diner model” that has mostly been left the same as it was, it is after all on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The shu mai appetizer and the ramen dishes we had at Tanpopo were absolutely fabulous, and The Wife drank too much of the plum wine which she declared was excellent.  The service was good and we could see that they did not discriminate based on skin coloration.  I mention this because I want to point out that there are a lot of places in Albany to dine if one wants good food and does not like overt racism.

The Wife Along The East Bank Of The Hudson Opposite Albany Interior Of Tanpopo Ramen And Sake Bar, Albany

I have been of the opinion since an early age that all Americans are racist, that it is one of our defining characteristics.  After posting this on Facebook my story got several comments that directed various discriminatory statements toward the people who owned and ran the restaurant.  Those comments made me feel uncomfortable somewhat like the incident at the restaurant made me feel.

One white guy who ought to know better said, without any evidence, that the restaurant existed to launder money, adding, “Those people are not there to move food.”  This quickly devolved into a discussion of the quality of the food, which I pointed out was not the issue here.

Such shady places do exist, if fact years ago there used to be a terribly dismal Chinese restaurant at 250 Delaware Avenue that served almost inedible food, about which I heard various rumors usually involving local cops and prostitutes.  One thing I knew for sure was that there was a lot of Mah Jong being played in the upper floors because I could often hear the tiles clicking like speeded up piano keys as I walked past.  That’s usually a gambling game.  But such misbehavior is hardly exclusive to any one group, and Sweet Basil gets consistently rave reviews for their food.

Carved Relief On The Exterior Of the Federal Building On Broadway In Albany, The Former Main Post Office Carved Relief On The Exterior Of the Federal Building On Broadway In Albany, The Former Main Post Office

A woman whose opinion I usually respect, a black person who is very involved with police community relations, floored me with her comment.  “This is happening all over Albany. When foreigners come in and open businesses, Black Americans are treated less than even though their money is green.”

I very gingerly asked why she thought some foreigners acted that way, and was hit with this:

Because it is bedded in the DNA of America that Blacks are the lowest on the human being list. I hear Black women say all the time that when they go into a nail salon that the Asians are rude to them. But, they go back and spend $30+ a week.The 99cent stores are the same way. They cater to low-income communities and despise them at the same time.