Recently, I was waiting for two friends on the patio and talking to my sister on the phone. A small, very elderly Black woman came up to the patio asking for money, and before she could finish her sentence, I saw an older white woman set down her glass of wine and thrust her hand in the first woman's face. She aggressively barked, "No, no. Get out of here. No!"
I was shocked. For one, I work in homelessness advocacy, so I was trying to figure out whether or not this was an appropriate time for me to intervene, as the first woman had already walked away. Second, I always find it disturbing to see someone treat another person that with level of disregard for their humanity.
I continued my phone conversation, ultimately deciding that I would express my thoughts to the older white woman when I got off the phone. I wanted to wait for the moment to de-escalate.
It had only been about a minute or two, but she noticed me looking at her. She abruptly got up and came over to my table.
"Is that alcohol," she asked loudly. I told her it was not. "You have to buy a drink" she said. I told her that I was sober. I was trying to tell her I was planning on getting a ginger ale when she said "There are plenty of non-alcoholic drinks. You're drinking MY water, using MY wifi, and sitting on MY patio. Yeah, that's right, I'm the OWNER."
I said something to the effect of "I cannot believe this is how you treat customers," to which she said "Well, you aren't my customer!" I mentioned that I had also seen her treat the woman asking for money poorly, and I was dismayed by it. I was packing up by this time.
"What are you even doing here? This isn't productive!" she said, pointing to my book. ( I still have no idea what that means ). She got very, very close to my face as I asked her name. I told her I was going to let the community know about this, and she laughed in my face. "Go ahead and do that," she said, seeming to suggest that she was impervious.
After I left, I mentioned this to a friend who pointed out that it could be frustrating for a business owner that I had not purchased something. I can see that. On the other hand, I got the water from the bartender, and told her I would be on the patio. I've worked in food service for 10+ years, and understand that some places have an immediate purchase policy. The bartender did not mention that I had to immediately purchase something. I have been to Big Chicks more times than I can count, and have spent a ton of money there. If the owner had shared her immediate purchase policy in a respectful manner, I would have been happy to go inside buy something right then.
The reality is, she did not share her policy respectfully. And, moreover, she had been sitting across from me for the better part of 20 minutes before she approached me. I do not think my lack of purchase was what upset her; I think it was me observing her treat another person that poorly. I am upset about my experience with her, but I am more concerned about her treatment of the woman asking for money.
I am concerned that she wants to make money from the Uptown community, but does not want to understand larger dynamics that drive people to have to ask for money in her community. I am upset that she does not want to speak with kindness and respect to people in her community. I am upset that she would put her hand in an elderly Black woman's face and speak harshly to her for ANY reason, but especially without provocation. I am upset that she believes she is impervious.
I know Big Chicks is a beloved community spot. I want people to be aware about who we are giving our money to, so that ya'll can make an informed decision before choosing to spend money there again. I can say that I definitely will not be returning.
[Note: Windy City Times reached out to Michelle Fire, but had not heard back at the time of publication.]