Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Ministry Unawares: Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel.

Remember long ago, when burgers weren't made with Tofu? When food had carbohydrates, fat and sugar? You can still get GENUINE food, with butter and real sour cream. I present to you my fabulous New York Steak Dinner (complete with desert), from The City Center Bar and Grill.

This meal has all the wonderful things which are postulated to kill me, if I only think about them, much less eat them. Here's what I enjoyed: caffeinated coffee with sugar and half-and-half, rare New York Steak with FAT, asparagus with garlic herb butter, baked potato with more garlic herb butter, sour cream, bacon bits and green onions, chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Obviously, since I'm posting this, I lived to tell the tale!

Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel caters to business people. Everything at this great establishment is designed to calm the harried traveler. Those brave souls on the road for 200 or more days a year. I've been eating at the City Center Bar and Grill since 1998. This hotel knows how to treat all people with class, but especially those of us with a visible disability.

When I used to carry a white cane, I constantly had to fight various forms of insult and abuse. Store owners who would 'hide' behind a counter, refusing to speak, until I left their establishment. Waiters who'd be so afraid I couldn't handle an isle less then six feet wide, who'd throw chairs into the backs of other customers, attempting to clear a path for me. In ways large and small, I was always reminded that somehow, some way, I was, or was about to be, a problem. Children would be hoisted by one of their arms, across their mother's body, to get them out of my way. (And then I wonder why so many people are up tight?) To add to this life on the street, I lived in a ghetto hotel, where people had guns in the halls and nine-year-olds were drinking alcohol out of flasks, just like their parents. It was a hell-hole.

The only good thing about a living situation like this, is it gave me spending money. I could afford to take myself out to eat, to a store, or even a movie. When I returned to Oakland I set out to find a good New York Steak. With the Marriott, I discovered an oasis from feeling like I was radioactive or something.

Approaching their lobby, I braced myself for an all-too-familiar event. Yelling at the blind woman from across the room: "Hey, what you do? Where you go? Stop! Who take care you?" My sighted friends would tell me I was imagining these episodes, until they witnessed them personally. A waitress refused to take my order, informing my supervisor, that he could "feed" me from his plate. To my supervisor's credit, he informed this android, that he was working for ME. This tactic, however, didn't make an impression. And this is supposedly after the American's With Disabilities Act and our cultural "enlightenment"!

No matter how bizarre the treatment, I've learned (the hard way) that anything less then politeness from my end just makes the bad even worse. I crossed the threshold of The Marriott's beautiful lobby and walked toward what appeared to be a tourist assistance desk. A man dressed in a full business suit rose to greet me. He didn't chase me, or lunge at me. In civilized English, he queried if I needed any assistance. What a wonderful beginning. I told him of my quest for a good steak, enquiring if this hotel had that item on their menu. Allen stood up, extended his elbow to me (like Clark Gable did in the movies), as he politely said I had several different steaks to choose from. Would I like to take his arm?

By now, I know Dorthy and Toto (from The Wizard of Oz) would be arriving any minute. This was unreal! Once introduced and seated, I was treated to a wonderful meal. No one showed me where my food was, using the "clock" system. "Your potato is at twelve o'clock and your meat is at four o'clock. Do you need me to cut the meat for you?" My more common beginning to a disastrous meal.

These folks never let me see the bottom of my coffee cup, offered relaxing banter and made me feel like I was just another human being. Not a human being with a problem. I hated to leave! I have had the joy of watching this talented staff work with people having other disabilities. It is always handled with no fuss, bother, or insult. I spoke to a confused bartender, who couldn't figure out why a gal in a wheelchair tipped him $10 on a cup of coffee. He said she raved about how she'd been treated. Man, I could write a book on it. To be treated like a regular person is SO RARE. When you find people, or especially a business, doing it "right", you want to shout from the rooftops.

I have been going to this Marriott for years and have gotten to know some of the staff fairly well. I think of them as a part of my family. I have been told they feel the same about me. It is lovely. While working for a woman in El Cerrito, I had to deal with her contracting Huntington's Disease. This lady was already totally blind and now had to wear a football helmet in her apartment, so she'd not hurt her face, walking into walls! She had come to terms with her rapidly deteriorating body and lightly told me why I ironed and cooked for her. Her muscles were not working right any more. She'd be moving away to an assisted living arrangement. I watched the room swim in my tears. She was coping great. I couldn't handle it at all!

I took BART back to Oakland and cried all the way in. When I left the train, I headed for the Marriott. I just couldn't be alone with what I had heard and seen. Not only was she totally blind, but now had a disease that would eventually cause her to choke to death as muscle groups stopped working. I would have raged at God, but I couldn't get past my tears.

The folks at the Marriott always treat me as though I'm the high point of their day. Unlike my usual smiling laughing self, I dissolved into tears and stammered out my tale. Everyone came to listen. People hung around longer then usual, to let me talk and attempt to process this shock to my system. What completely stunned me, was the check. The staff had put in their own money to pay for my meal. The manager was a little tearful herself, praising my courage to continue to work for someone so ill. This is behavior far and above any training, or company regulation.

So to all of you wonderful folks over at the Oakland City Center Marriott. You are more then a business, you are: A Ministry Unawares.

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