Perceived slights and minor injuries result in litigation so often that "A Boy Named Sue" could be the national anthem. Even so, it would be gratifying to see Jeb Bello walk away from court as a rich man.
Bello was fired from his job as a maitre d' in Annapolis, Maryland after Melony Griffith, a black state legislator, started an accusation that he was a racist. By some accounts, this charge was the equivalent of calling Mother Teresa a robber baron.
On March 3, according to the Washington Post, Bello was struggling through a bad day at work, clueless as to how much worse it would get when Griffith walked through the front door of the Treaty of Paris restaurant.
A waitress and bartender had called in sick that day. Bello, in addition to seating patrons, had to wait tables in the bar and assist the only waitress with 19 tables in the dining room.
Griffith and a companion came in twenty minutes late for a noontime reservation. Finding no one to greet them at the reception desk, they moved to another part of the waiting room where they, according to witnesses, cooled their heels for 7-10 minutes.
When Bello made it over to the desk, he found a white couple waiting there and asked if he could help them. He later said he didn't know who had arrived first, so he spoke to the people at the desk before walking over to attend to the Griffith party.
Griffith and her friend, Sherma Brisseau, felt they were slighted, said some angry words to Bello and walked out of the restaurant. Griffith told the tale to her colleagues in the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, which immediately sent a letter to the establishment demanding an explanation and threatening a boycott. Brisseau also sent a letter demanding that Bello be fired.
Bello got the axe eight days later.
He hired a lawyer who offered Griffith a public apology in return for her recommendation that Bello be rehired. She refused.
Bello had some trouble finding another job, finally landing a position in an Annapolis coffeehouse. He has filed a lawsuit seeking $3.1 million in damages against Griffith, alleging defamation and interference with his employment.
The matter is scheduled to be heard next year. If and when this case goes to trial, perhaps Griffith might learn it is a fact of life that everyone – black, white, red or green – suffers substandard service once in a while. With JFK, Jr. gone to his grave, there is no one left in America who hasn't been seated at a lousy table (or not seated at all) or dealt with a less-than-gracious restaurant host.
What Griffith actually endured was equality.
After the so-called incident, some of Bello's friends defended him against the charges of racism. They noted his involvement and donations to a group called the Unity Walk, founded to protest a Ku Klux Klan rally in Annapolis last year.
You have to wonder if he'll be renewing his membership.
Bello, who is married, is the son a bricklayer. He graduated high school and took some courses in college before going to work at the restaurant as a busboy. In the eighteen months before his firing, he was promoted three times.
Griffiths, also married, is the daughter of an Air Force master sergeant. She has a master's degree from Howard University.
She should know better. Casing a chimera of racism where there is none to be found undermines the credibility of the civil rights movement and might even make some wonder why it exists at all.
There is a world of difference between defending your skin color and merely being thin-skinned.
July 26, 1999