Last night, Stefan and I were refused service at our absolute favorite restaurant in our neighborhood.
We entered the restaurant and requested a table for two. The owner barreled forward and told us no dogs were allowed. We explained Mickey is a service dog.
What followed was the most backwards, frustrating, and humiliating half hour I’ve had in a really long time. The lies coming out of this guy’s mouth, combined with the sadly resigned, tragically put-upon attitude with which he delivered them, were so astonishing, so baffling, that I found myself questioning fundamental laws, things that I knew to be true. Maybe… he was allowed to deny me access? Maybe… I was being unreasonable asking to be accommodated?
Of course, in the gray light of this morning, I know that wasn’t true. He was either wildly misinformed, or knew he was lying to us and did it anyway to get us out of there. I really hope it wasn’t the latter. But man, he was good. Or at least, the utter conviction with which he delivered lie after lie was good. So good that, this morning, as an exercise in sanity, I have to go through everything that he said to us, beat by beat, and break down exactly why it was wrong:
HE SAID: No dogs allowed.
WE SAID: He’s a service dog.
HE SAID: It doesn’t matter.
…ACTUALLY: It does matter. Federal and State law are crystal clear on this matter: “A service animal is an animal that performs a specific task or set of tasks to assist a person with a disability. Federal, state, and local laws require that facilities open to the public allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.” Further, per the City of New York, “Service animals are allowed in restaurants and other locations that serve food per the Board of Health.”
HE SAID: There could be people in this restaurant with allergies. The dog hair gets everywhere.
…ACTUALLY: It doesn’t matter. “Service dogs are allowed to go anywhere their owner/handler goes – a store owner’s or customer’s claim that he is allergic to dogs is not an acceptable reason to exclude that person and their animal from the store.”
WE SAID: It’s illegal to ask us to leave.
HE SAID: I understand, but it’s my policy.
…ACTUALLY: You don’t understand. And your restaurant’s policy does not supersede the law. That is, in fact, how laws work.
HE SAID: I understand. I love dogs. I have two dogs at home.
…ACTUALLY: You don’t fucking understand. You the-opposite-of-understand. If you understood (the law) you would let us in. Your love of dogs is completely irrelevant to this conversation. I suspect that you think I’m an entitled millennial, who simply wants to flaunt my privilege and keep my precious dog with me at all time. Actually, I’m just a person with a medical disability who wants to eat dinner. The fact that we both love dogs has nothing to do with ANYTHING.
HE SAID: I used to allow dogs, but I had one in the restaurant and then the health department came. A few months later I got mailed a huge fine. It was like a month’s rent.
…ACTUALLY: OK, so this is the second time a business owner in my neighborhood has said this to me. If I take them both at their word, that means there could be a health inspector in this neighborhood who is fining illegally. That’s a huge problem, and one that directly trickles down to impact people like me. As such, last night, I emailed my city council member and explained I’d love to talk to someone in their office to see if they could investigate this. Hopefully, if that is the case, it can be resolved, because no business should be unfairly fined for obeying ADA law.
HOWEVER, it’s also possible that, as the woman I called at 311 suggested last night, the fine was for something else. That maybe he didn’t exactly understand what he was being fined for. Interestingly, Stefan found this document online, which appears to indicate that the most you could be fined for having a non service animal in your restaurant is $350. (bottom of page 3). Of course, we could be reading it wrong—I’m not exactly an expert in health code violation penalties (NOR SHOULD I NEED TO BE), but if it’s true, that’s some fantastically cheap rent you’ve got there, friend.
WE SAID: Someone could sue you for this.
HE SAID: I have an 11-month old baby and a pregnant wife at home. I’m just trying to avoid a fine.
…ACTUALLY: I can appreciate that it’s challenging to run a business; I could never do it. But having a pregnant wife doesn’t entitle you to break the law. (Also DUH I’m not going to sue you I used to freaking love your restaurant.)
HE SAID: According to the guy from the health department, only police dogs or seeing eye dogs are allowed.
…ACTUALLY: Per FEDERAL LAW, a service dog is any dog trained to perform a specific task or set of tasks to assist a person with a disability. From an ADA handout: “The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”
I SAID: He is a medical alert dog. I have insulin-dependent diabetes and he is trained to alert me to a dangerous hyper- or hypo-glycemic event.
HE SAID: OK, well, if you have diabetes you probably shouldn’t be getting worked up, then.
…ACTUALLY: I was speaking calmly, albeit with frustration. But thanks for that patronizing, incredibly offensive, incredibly stupid comment. Glad you’re also establishing a “hysterical female” narrative around this.
HE SAID (after disappearing for a few minutes): OK, I called the Health Department, and they told me that you could get your dog inspected by them, and they would issue you a card. Then you could show me the card and I could let you eat here.
…ACTUALLY: Everything about what he said is an utter sack of horsecrap. Yeah, you called the health department at 8 PM? Buddy: what are you talking about? I *think* you may be referring to a law passed in 2010 that allowed Service Dog owners to obtain a second tag for their dog in NYC that would indicate the dog is a service dog. That law was A) ALWAYS voluntary and B) Repealed in 2017 because it was found to be “frustrating the purposes of the ADA” — people who didn’t opt into this voluntary tag were being discriminated against by businesses that thought it was mandatory. So either you called someone from the health department (at 8 PM) who was a complete idiot, or you called a friend who doesn’t know the law. Or you called no one and just made that up. As a business owner in New York City, ITS YOUR JOB TO KNOW THE LAW. YOU ARE BREAKING IT.
The whole encounter ended with me, sitting outside the restaurant and crying incredibly awkwardly, and the owner running out to babble on about this BS “card” that we had to get from the health department.
Finally, he said, “You guys want some pizza? On me. I’ll make you some pizza to go.”
“Actually,” said Stefan, “I’ve lost my appetite.”
I’m so discouraged this morning. Truth be told, I’ve been avoiding going to some of my favorite places since getting Mickey because I’ve been so worried that something like this would happen. Obviously we can’t go there anymore—even if he learns the law, the whole experience is tainted, ruined.
Some people will say I asked for this, that by getting Mickey I clicked “opt-in” to having to defend the rights of service dog owners to idiot business owners all over the city. But I don’t see it that way. Diabetes is a relentless, horrible disease. It’s the “spend every day trying not to die disease.” Mickey is an important tool in my daily quest not to die, and at this point, I’m not willing to be without him, especially when it’s my legal right to keep him with me everywhere. But some nights I don’t really feel like being an advocate for disability rights: I just want to eat dinner.
I’m not really sure what to do. I could file a complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights, but that would require me attending a hearing. I obviously can’t afford to sue the guy, nor am I interested in financially punishing my (former) favorite restaurant.
But I NEED THIS MAN TO UNDERSTAND HE WAS BREAKING THE LAW.
I imagined him going home to his pregnant wife last night, sighing sadly and remembering how he bravely defended his restaurant against the assault of entitled millennials. He kisses his wife, settles into bed. “What’s wrong?” she asks, noticing how quiet he is tonight. “Ah, nothing,” he says. Because he doesn’t want to worry her. It’s his job to deal with the unpleasant stuff, the business stuff. He is the protagonist of his story, the noble, brave protagonist, willing to do what it takes to keep his business afloat and keep his family safe. And his family? They’re worth it. They’re worth awkward encounters with crying dog owners, they’re worth putting your foot down, adhering to the restrictions of the Health Department. I even offered them free pizza, he thinks. It’s not my fault they said no. He looks over at his sleeping wife, smiles, and closes his eyes. He’ll sleep well tonight.
…OK, so obviously I’m projecting here, but what I am sure of is that this man is the protagonist in his own story. That he’s convinced he’s done nothing wrong, that he’s in the right.
And that, that is what kills me more than anything else.