Kyle and I drove down to Bend to pack up the rest of my stuff and clean out the apartment. We ate out a couple of times on the trip, and as I always do, I was watching to see people’s reactions.
At the Bend Burger Company on 3rd St., no one had a particular reaction except for two white guys who seemed to be looking at us a lot – though maybe that was because they were seated facing us. At the Black Bear Diner in Madras, no one had a particular reaction.
But on our way down, at the Cottage Cafe in Cle Elum, when the waitress came to pick up our dishes, she picked up mine and then asked me, “Is he done with his?”
Why didn’t she ask Kyle? Was it because she didn’t think he’d know, or speak English? Or because he was concentrating so assiduously on his iPad? Or because he wears such thick glasses? Or because he was “other” and maybe wouldn’t speak for himself? Or “other” and therefore not to be talked to directly?
Anyhow, I said, “Yes,” meaning, yes, he’s done with his meal.
Why didn’t I say, “I don’t know, ask him?” Because she could have said, “Excuse me, sir, are you finished with your plate?” But she didn’t.
I’ve heard that the same thing will happen to, for example, someone in a wheelchair. People will speak to whoever’s with the wheelchair user, rather than the wheelchair user themselves.
It’s like there’s certain kinds of conditions that make us think that there’s some kind of barrier around someone. A sort of invisible wall, or enclosure, that has this psychological inertness.
But I wouldn’t have expected that a white waitress in Cle Elum would see a black man as unable to speak for himself.
Maybe she would have talked to him directly if he’d been alone, but because he was with a white person (i.e. me), she spoke to me instead. Maybe he looked like he was concentrating so fiercely on his iPad, she didn’t want to disturb him.
Next time that happens, I hope I’m prepared enough to say, “I don’t know.” Or, “You’d have to ask him.”
And see what happens.