Restaurant Rights and Race

Last weekend, I met up with Margie and Suze at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. We’ve been friends since we all started at our first jobs at Simon and Schuster on the 16th floor of the Gulf and Western building, now a Trump building, in Columbus Circle 1987. We still talk several times a week and meet up in the city as often as we can get away from our families.

The routine is always the same. We meet up at a bookstore and then roam through the neighborhood stores talking non-stop and then eventually end up in a restaurant for more non-stop chatter. It’s good to have old friends.

It was a blustery day, so we ended up in restaurant quickly after brief visits to ABC Carpets and Fishes Eddy. As we settled into several plates of dumplings and scallion pancakes at a Chinese restaurant, a commotion broke out around us. A guy who was working outside the building got into a shouting match with the restaurant owner. He wanted to use the bathroom without buying any food. The owner blocked his way to the bathroom and said that the bathroom was only for customers. The worker yelled that he just wanted to use the toilet and leave. After lots of yelling, the worker finally left.

And because race and restaurants are in the news, I have to say that the worker was African American. The owner and the customers were white or Asian.

We got into a debate at the table. One of us thought that the owner should have let the guy use the toilet. He was in a construction outfit. He was clearly not a homeless guy. She felt that the worker’s race was one of the reasons why he was shuffled out of the restaurant.

Another friend said that restaurant owners never let non-customers use the toilet. Anybody who is in New York City knows that you can’t use a toilet in a restaurant without buying anything, and you have to know where the open-use toilets are, like the second floor of that Barnes and Noble.

Who was right?


19 thoughts on “Restaurant Rights and Race

  1. I don’t have an answer for this case in particular, except I’ve never been denied using a restroom, even with places that have giant “employees only” or “customers only” signs above the restroom door. I’ve even been allowed to use the bathroom in businesses run in the owner’s personal home where they have signs saying “no public bathroom,” where getting to the bathroom requires walking through their house and using their personal home bathroom. I’m also physically the whitest person I know.

    1. I try to give them a look that says, “You can say ‘no’, but then I’m going to the alley behind your place anyway.” Maybe you’re doing that without knowing?

  2. Most NYC restaurants attempt to prohibit non-patrons from using the rest rooms. Stocking and maintaining the rest rooms costs money, so you can appreciate their position. Plus, if large numbers of people knew of a free rest room, the traffic might seriously discommode the paying customers. I have found that if you are well-dressed and walk confidently, you can always use the rest room regardless of the policy of the establishment. But I suspect that this trick works less well if your are black, so Laura’s friend is right to discover a racial angle. OTOH, this trick also probably works less well if you are a Chinese immigrant with poor English skills–no one, and especially not the educational institutions that propelled Laura and I and Laura’s friends to our current positions, does those people any favors. So it’s hard to say what is just.

    Obligatory disclaimer, so people don’t say how stupid I am: obviously, NYC restaurants may not be representative of the whole country. I eagerly await any reports from real America.

    1. It is really hard to go to the bathroom in NYC compared to the rest of America. This is widely known and discussed in the heartland. If you say you’re going to NYC, people say things like “Don’t forget to use the bathroom before you leave your hotel” or whatever*. It’s like when you say you’re going to Canada, they remind you about needing a passport to get back home. It’s an improvement over the 80s, when people would tell those bound for NYC that they should avoid looking up at the tops of buildings, else they be identified as tourist and instantly mugged.

      * Maybe Starbuck’s has changed things? The last time I was in NYC, Starbuck’s was around but not so reliably everywhere that you knew you could always pee for a the price of a cup of coffee.

      1. “This is widely known and discussed in the heartland.”: this is true. Even when I’m visiting Chicago, I’m not nearly as stressed out about the whole bathroom situation as I have been in NY. I’m trying to think of other cities: DC, no, lived there for a while and it’s not so bad. London and Boston were also okay. I wonder what configuration of things makes NYC so difficult?

    2. I have had numerous “maps” of Manhattan over the past 25 years depending upon my circumstances. Our girl was 6 months old when we first visited as a family and for a few years I had a Manhattan mental map of all the bathrooms with clean/existing change tables. The it moved to a mental map with clean bathrooms for a toddler – you get the idea. Another more current “map” is “restaurants I’d actually like to eat in that are within walking distance of the theater district” – I have a London version of that too.

      As to access to private bathrooms in shops, etc., some states have adopted Ally’s Law which allows access for medical reasons.

    1. The last time I was in NYC, I saw Urinetown. It was very good and this is coming from someone who hates showtunes. It’s really an extended argument about a Malthusian view of resource availability. They only made it about peeing because they’re geniuses.

  3. True story: a few weeks ago, I was sitting in my chair, watching my tv box, and all of a sudden my daughter texted. She was in DUMBO over near the Bridge. She texted “I have to pee. Find me a bathroom!” I got her location (there’s another story about Find My Friends here) and looked around. “Starbucks!” I said and gave the address. “We went there; it was closed,” she said. I was getting her directions when she went silent. Ended up she had walked into the Brooklyn Historical Society in DUMBO and she found a bathroom there.

    Items of note: she headed to Starbucks when she needed a bathroom. Like normal people do in NYC.
    The next place she was looking for was a hotel, but they saw the historical society and figured that if it was open to visitors, it might be open to someone using the bathroom.

    1. Wendy,

      Wow, that was the most suspenseful thing I’ve seen on the internet today…

      Y’all are making me not want to go to NYC.

      1. She’s also extra annoying because ever since she has been toilet trained, she can go from “What do you mean, do I need to use the bathroom while we’re right next to one?” to “OMGIHAVETOPEENOWORIWILLEXPLODE” in about 30 seconds.
        You would think there would be nowhere on I-95 between Providence and NYC that doesn’t have an easy to find bathroom, but you would be wrong. A coffee purchased at Dunkin Donuts in Providence will make its way to the bladder in precisely the same amount of time that it takes to drive from Providence to the bathroom-free zone of I-95 west of New London.

      2. I should mention that my go-to bathroom in midtown is the Marriott Marquis. Got me through 7 hours of standing in line for my Hamilton ticket. šŸ˜€

      3. NYC is great – it’s so far from what it was like in the 90’s even. Easy to get around (well, Uber has created non stop rush hour!), people are friendly, great food at all price points, theater, museums, etc….And bathrooms too!

    2. I remember one trip pre parenthood back in the day, my husband and I were in need and walked through the Pierre assertively while secretly scanning for bathrooms. Didn’t see them (must have been on the second floor) so we kept walking…

  4. Wendy – not only do we apparently live close to each other (we’re on the Southcoast of MA), we also have children who seem to be separated at birth. My son is the same way – pulled that twice on us this weekend on a 4 hour drive. The first time, after driving slowly for about 1.5 hours on a one lane road, it opened up to two lanes. Just after we passed about a dozen slow moving cars, he pulled the – I have to go now routine. Then, about an hour later, he pulled it AGAIN, just after we finally made it on to the highway. I stopped the first time, but gave him a bottle the second time. He managed to hold it. šŸ˜‰

    1. Ha! I have trained myself to want to use the bathroom whenever I pass one; you’d think it’d have rubbed off on the kids.

  5. I always buy something when I use a restaurant bathroom, though on occasion, I have used the bathroom first, and I’ve never been questioned. But, I am a rule follower. I don’t think that’s a result of my skin colour (culturally, my ethnic background should not make me a rule follower, while my midwestern upbringing in America would).

    I heard a report about movie location management in NY (i.e. the people who set up the scenes), where bathroom accessibility concerns were huge.

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