Leavitt: An old cabdriver’s primer on refusing service

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

I have some advice for anyone who feels the need to refuse service to someone, in emulation of the operator of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., who recently asked Presidential press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to go eat somewhere else.

No, that advice is not necessarily to relax and give them what they want no matter how you feel about them. That wouldn’t be bad advice, because, heck, it’s easier. But it is your right as a proprietor to serve or not serve whomever you want, as long as you’re not too racist about it.

But just having a right to do it does not mean it’s easy, no matter what you think the U.S. Supreme Court said June 4. And that – the case where the justices, by a 7-2 vote, said the wedding cake baker who wouldn’t bake a “gay wedding cake” was justified – is not very clear-cut, either.

I come to this discussion as something of an expert because I have tossed people for a variety of reasons: some good, some not so good. Almost anybody who’s run a retail business, as I have, has shown people the door. But in addition to owning a store, I was a taxicab driver for a long time, and there’s something of an unfortunate tradition of throwing out paying customers in that trade.

Cabdrivers probably get in the habit because it sometimes seems to them that it gives them a better chance to maintain their health.

For instance, it occasionally seemed a good idea to let off less-trustworthy characters on a busy, well-lit corner instead of the dark dead end a block away that they had ordered. I’d turn around in the seat, look them in the eye, and cheerfully inform these customers, “This cab is not authorized to operate in dead-ends.”

Half the time, they’d thank me for picking them up at all. Those were the good guys. So if they reacted that way, I just took them where they’d asked to go.

Most of the rest of them would just slink off, and usually, both parties to the transaction seemed relieved.

There was one particular segment of society — please excuse an upcoming vulgar word — that I almost always threw out of the cab: pimps. I hated pimps. I’d inform them politely about what I thought of people who lived off the backs of others, and say “goodbye,” usually at a location devoid of alternative transportation. Interestingly, I never got much of an argument from these gentlemen. I guess they knew who they were.

A couple of times when I tossed people, I had regrets. There were the two middle-aged ladies who had a delightful backseat discussion about the good side of Nazism. They apparently assumed that the driver couldn’t understand English, or just forgot there was another person in the car altogether. When one of them said, “The Jews got what they deserved,” I guess I’d had enough, and I gave her the air, though in a nice neighborhood.

“What business of yours is my private conversation?” she asked me.

I said she had a point. But, for me, her earlier point trumped that one.

Then there was the New Years’ Eve I spent navigating the jammed streets of Evanston, and a man in the cab told me I should change direction. I was tired and cranky, and refused. When it turned out he was obviously right, he gave me an “I told you so,” and I tossed him and his whole family. That got me a three-day suspension.

Other than lawsuits, there are usually no formal consequences of tossing people out of restaurants and stores. But there are plenty of informal consequences. Just ask the lady at the Red Hen, who has suffered a lot of grief since barring Sanders, and has decided not to serve anyone at all for a while.

Or the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop, who endured a six-year court battle before his recent victory.

I think his situation aligns somewhat with my story about the Nazi lady.

For me, to be honest, it didn’t really matter much what that lady said in my cab because I’d heard it all before. And after I made my big righteous play, she probably just picked up where she left off when she got her next chance. I suspect that getting tossed from a Jew’s cab for anti-Semitism didn’t’ impress her much.

And talk is cheap. After all, she didn’t gas any of my relatives. That was the real Nazis. I wasn’t driving her to pick up a few canisters of Zyklon-B. I was just taking her to a shopping mall.

Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, is no more justified than I was. He said making a cake for two men getting married is against his religion. But what’s really against his religion is gay marriage. Those two guys are going to get married anyway. Making a wedding cake with two men’s names on it isn’t fostering gay marriage. It’s just cake.

Get over yourself. They didn’t ask you to be a member of the wedding.

That said, there’s a difference between a proprietor who suffers an insult to his or her beliefs, and one who suffers an abuse directed at himself or herself. And that’s different from an abuse of his or her employees. I agree, mostly, with the sign I once saw at a lunch counter: “Be nice to my staff. I have great employees, and they’d be hard to replace. I can always get more customers.”

The Red Hen lady, Stephanie Wilkinson, probably would have agreed with the sign, too — and to a greater extent than most bosses would. She asked her gay employees if a woman who, they felt, had demeaned LGBTQ people, and defended policies discounting their rights, should be served. They said “no,” so she took Sanders aside and told her their verdict.

It may have been a hard decision for Wilkinson, but in my opinion, not hard enough. After a difficult but quick conversation, she was able to get the problem out of her restaurant. She found out later, of course, that it wasn’t as easy as she thought.

What would have been an alternative that would have more clearly shown how strongly she felt? She could have served the party herself, and spared her employees, and told Sanders why. But what if the cooks don’t want to cook for Sanders, either?

The boss can’t do everything.

I’ve got an idea. I got it from the pimps.

After driving for years, I realized that throwing out the pimps was all about me. I was not so much making an impression on them as I was just trying to get them out of my sight.

So one night I gritted my teeth and let one stay in the cab. I took him where he wanted to go. Then I told him what I thought of him, and that I wouldn’t take his money because by doing so, I would be a party to his business.

He appeared offended. Pimps may not understand the difference between right and wrong, but they understand money.

He threw the fare on the seat and then left. I took the money off the seat, ran after him, and gave it back.

It was a long trip to give for free, but I felt good about it afterward. I had put my money where my mouth was, and literally gone the extra mile to make my point.

So that’s the core of my advice.

It may not apply to every situation. But next time a pimp comes into your restaurant, you’ll know what to do.