I had a disturbing and thought-provoking encounter last week, and it has been on my mind ever since.
I had just been relieved from a morning stint at the café and while pushing through the glass doors to exit the building, I ran into an old friend. He was coming up the front steps for lunch.
I have known this man and his family for over fifty years and was pleased to see him. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and inquired about the well-being of each other’s families.
Saying goodbye and smiling at our friendship, I walked across the iron-stained concrete porches and entered the trading post. I was working in my office writing headers for our new items e-mailer, when I got the page.
Miss Frances, our restaurant manager, called on the intercom and asked if I might come back to the café for a confab.
Rick was working the floor of the store and Steve was taking a much-needed day off, so I was on call for matters that might include everything from plugged commodes to counseling.
I was forewarned that a “Mr. Lewis” was giving the servers a hard time. Walking back through the embossed doors of the café caused me to crash headlong into a group of hostiles.
Two of our servers and Miss Frances were standing there fuming at what they perceived to be an insult of the highest order. It seems that when our lead server approached “Mr. Lewis” to take his order, he gave it to her in perfectly executed Navajo.
Our server is a young Navajo woman, but she is not fluent in her native tongue. When she explained this to the gentleman, he became agitated and said, “You are pitiful! Your grandparents would be embarrassed.”
Well, you might imagine how that went over. She returned to her manager and related the story.
Miss Frances is not the shy type, not in any way, shape, or form. If she perceives a threat or insult to her restaurant family, the gloves come off.
When I heard the story and learned that this was not the first time “Mr Lewis” had verbally assaulted one of our staff, I knew it was time to discover the reason behind the offensive behavior.
I walked around the corner toward the booth and the customer in question and came face to face with my old friend.
I stutter stepped in confusion but was bumped from behind by my charging manager and pushed into the line of fire.
I sat down at the booth across from this man and asked if he had, indeed, insulted the young woman. Frances was right there, scooching in next to me on the Naugahyde seat, ready to go to war for her kids.
I tapped her on the arm to calm her and give the man time to speak. He did not duck the issue, confirmed his comment, and folded his hands upon the small stack of reading material, which just happened to include a study guide to the Bible.
“Why?” I asked. “Why would you say such a thing?”
He told us that he was incredibly proud of his native language and culture and he was frustrated and hurt that it was dissipating because of another, more dominant society.
He commented, “I did not come here on the Mayflower, nor do I claim that heritage.”
I was confused. This man was known to me as a respected elder statesman, an educator, and a bridge between cultures. He was respected in all communities.
I understood his concern, but wondered at his approach. I asked if he thought that intimidation, criticism, sarcasm, and anger would help him get the attention of the youth and force them to amend their cultural losses.
“It might,” he said, “I intend to try.”
To be honest, I was flabbergasted! I saw the approach as counter-productive and disrespectful. It had, certainly, never worked for me or on me.
I could see the passion in his eyes, though, and hear it in his voice. I realized that this was the approach he had devised and he seemed determined to implement.
It saddened me, but I felt certain that it could not be tolerated at our place of business, and I knew for certain that Steve or Miss Frances would have none of it either.
I explained that I believed it would be extremely difficult to change someone’s approach to life through harsh intimidation, probably impossible.
We are extremely proud of the young people who work here. We attempt to support their hopes and dreams in every way possible and do what we can to pick them up when they fall, if they request it.
At our businesses, Steve and I feel that respect begets respect, tolerance is the key, and no one, customer or associate alike, should feel disrespected or mistreated.
I told the gentleman, “The young Native people who work here may not measure up to your standards and ideals but they are, each and every one, unique and wonderful human beings.
“So... we would love for you to frequent our restaurant and it would be great to serve you, but you would need to show tolerance, compassion, and respect to our employees.”
Frances and I then sat back and awaited his decision. I hoped it would be one we both could live with, in harmony.
The man sighed, gathered his books together, and said, “It’s not something I can do and the table has already been dirtied.”
He got up from the booth, went out the door, down the steps, and drove away. I have to say that the whole experience broke my heart in so many ways.