George Estreich in the NYTimes, or Welcome Table

Let's start this blog post by making it all about me:  George Estreich, the guy who wrote this fantastic op-ed in the NYTimes, is a digital friend of mine.  We've never met in person (not yet--we have plans to be on a panel together at a conference next year), but we email from time to time, and I try to keep up with what he writes.

Here's my review of his book, The Shape of the Eye, from back in December 2011.

And more importantly for today's blog post, here's the link to his op-ed, "A Child with Down Syndrome Keeps His Place at the Table."

You all have probably heard the story he's writing about.  Friends have been posting it on Facebook, and my dad checked in with me last night to confirm that I knew about it.  George gives the summary in his piece, but the super-short version is that a family with a five year old child with Down syndrome was eating at a restaurant where they regularly eat.  A guy at the next table said, "Special needs children need to be special somewhere else."  Then the waiter asked that guy and his party to leave.

It really is a story with a happy ending.  Michael Garcia, the waiter, could have lost his job, but instead he's become a kind of celebrity.  My dad told me he's regularly getting $50 tips these days--customers at the restaurant want to congratulate him for being so decent, which is encouraging.

What George's piece made me realize is that it's particularly encouraging because the restaurant, the table, is such a symbolically significant site.  Civil rights activism took place at tables and lunch counters.  I regularly reflect on that gospel (and civil rights) song, "Sit at the Welcome Table."  Where we eat is a signal about where we belong in our community, in our society.  Eating is a demonstration of community and also an act of community building.  Remember the beautiful, sprawling dinner scene in the film Antonia's Line, where everybody--folks with intellectual disabilities, neurotypical folks, transgender folks, cisgender, everybody--is enjoying a meal together (and thank you, Claire, for introducing me to this film).  That's a central moment in the film, a moment when we can recognize that everyone is part of that community. 

As I've written about before (see the link above), Harriet McBryde Johnson's memoir Too Late to Die Young has that fantastic scene where she's eating dinner with Peter Singer, the famous philosopher who's argued--in ways that have been quite convincing to a lot of folks--that parents should be able to end the lives of kids with disabilities until they're two years old.  He's basically argued that she's not fully human, and yet there she sits, eating at a table with him, and she needs his help at one point.  So she requests it.  And he helps her.  She enacts her humanity, her membership in his community.

The song "Sit at the Welcome Table" ends with
All God's children gonna sit together
All God's children gonna sit together one of these days
All God's children gonna sit together
All God's children gonna sit together one of these days
One of these days.
I'm not a big advocate for God, but that line often comes to me--I find myself singing it in my head--because of the power of all of us sitting together at the table, and what that means.

Here's Maybelle, in her full humanity, eating some waffles for breakfast.  She's not an angel, or a "special needs person" (George accurately notes, "Any word can be repurposed for contempt").  She's a child, a person, a member of our community.  And let's imagine that "our" really, really broadly.  George ends his piece by saying, "What I live for, though, is the day when the question doesn’t come up."  I'm with him:  I live for the day when everybody sitting at the table together is no big deal.  It's just life.


claire said...

Excellent post!And everyone should go out and see Antonia's Line. And I will tell people that they should use your comments for more images/scenes/accounts of a truly welcome(ing?) table.

meriah said...

love this post!!

The Mom said...

Another excellent, thought-provoking, uplifting post, Alison! I'm made notes to myself to get _The Shape of the Eye_ and to watch "Antonia's Line".

The Mom said...

OK - that should have been "I've made notes" - when will I learn to proof my comments??? :-)

sarahmartin said...

If you haven't found a title for your column yet, you may want to consider something like "Making Room at the Welcome Table", or something like that. Not as exciting as sucking a monkey penis, but pretty encompassing.

Elizabeth said...

Bravo! And who better to end the post in a photo but that darling Maybelle?

Erin said...

Replace restaurant with school and waiter with teacher and I will be happy. I was shocked that a restaurant patron would make such a comment, but I expect to hear something similar when my daughter with Down syndrome starts public school in the fall. Many teachers, instead of standing up for my daughter, will probably be tempted to commiserate with complaining parents. Sigh...

Estreich's take on the incident was right on though, thanks for sharing it.

krlr said...

I need to watch that movie. Loved his op-ed & of course, always, your post & Miss Maybelle. Am off to go break bread...

Anonymous said...

God loves social justice and He invites all to His table. He wants his children to seek justice and love mercy.

Check out the movie Babette's Feast. The movie centers around a lavish table scene where barriers are broken. It's truly incredible.

Anonymous said...

While I fully agree with all the above posts, I would only add that the insensitive, ignorant, intolerant bigot upon being told to leave should not be responsible for the cost of his meal and those at his table. They were thrown out. Neither the server nor the restaurant is a court of law with the power to be judge and jury. This is an example of why an owner of a private business should have the right to deny service to whomever s/he can lawfully exclude and not exclude those from service anyone s/he can't lawfully exclude. There are some legal issues here but not moral ones.

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