The conversation that cost Jeb Bello his job lasted about two minutes.
Shortly after 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 3, Bello, an Italian American maitre d' working at the Treaty of Paris restaurant in Annapolis, exchanged words with Melony Griffith, a 35-year-old African American delegate to the Maryland General Assembly.
Eight days later, he was fired from his job for "rudeness."
But by then the issue had become larger than a quibble over degrees of civility. In the week between the incident and his firing, Bello was called a racist, the mayor of Baltimore called restaurant management to complain, and the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus threatened to boycott the restaurant, which is just a block from the State House and serves as a virtual annex of the General Assembly, a place where legislators and lobbyists gather to schmooze and politic.
Two months later, Bello, 24, sued Griffith, a Prince George's County Democrat, claiming that she defamed him by portraying him as a racist and that her actions deprived him of his livelihood. He is seeking $3.1 million in damages in a case scheduled to be heard next year in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.
Whatever the outcome, the events leading up to Bello v. Griffith could serve as a chapter in what President Clinton has called "America's racial conversation." Like the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson, the incident underscores the depth of racial sensitivities and illustrates how black and white Americans can view the same situation very differently.
For Griffith's allies--including Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the leaders of the black caucus--the incident dramatized the persistence of racism in the daily lives of African Americans.
"We are committed to find a reason why in nineteen hundred and ninety nine racial injustice still exists in any of our public facilities," Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D-Prince George's), chairman of the black caucus, wrote in a letter to the restaurant's manager shortly after the incident.
Supporters of Bello say that Griffith played "the race card," elevating an ordinary disagreement into a racial issue in which she could prevail because the white person involved was presumed to be at fault.
Race card? Racism? Rudeness?
That depends on what one makes of the conversation between plaintiff Bello and defendant Griffith. Emotions were running deceptively high on March 3, the day that fate brought Jeb Bello and Melony Griffith together.
Griffith was two months into her first term in the Maryland legislature. The daughter of a U.S. Air Force master sergeant, she grew up on a military base in Great Falls, Mont. She graduated from Eastern Montana College in 1985. She moved to Washington to get a master's degree in social work at Howard University. She married, and she got involved in neighborhood politics after repeated break-ins at her home. She won a state House seat handily in 1998.
Her lunch companion that day was her friend and mentor, Sherma Brisseau, a nutritionist and community activist in Largo.
After a morning meeting, Griffith wanted to take Brisseau to the Treaty of Paris restaurant in the Historic Inns of Maryland.
"She said they had the best crab soup in town," Brisseau recalled in a recent interview.
Much of the account of the day's events comes from Bello and Brisseau. (Griffith has declined interviews on the subject since the lawsuit was filed.)
The two women, who had a noon reservation, arrived the restaurant around 12:20, Brisseau said. When they walked into the waiting room, there was no one from the restaurant to greet them.
"We went to look in the door [to the restaurant's dining room], and we could see that there were tables, so [Griffith] said, 'Oh, it's not crowded, so we'll be seated shortly,' " Brisseau said. "A young man walked back and forth, but nobody waited on us."
That young man was Bello. He was the maitre d', and he was having a bad day. A bartender and a waitress had called in sick. So, instead of just greeting and seating customers, he also had to wait on tables in the restaurant's bar section and help the lone waitress with 19 tables in the main dining room.
Like Griffith, Bello is a hard-working and determined person who came to Annapolis to make a career. The son of a bricklayer, he lived in Silver Spring as a child until his family moved to Kent Island; he graduated from Queen Anne's County High School in 1993. After attending Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore, he moved to Annapolis and bounced around various bar and restaurant jobs before landing at the Treaty of Paris as a daytime busboy.
In the next 18 months, he was promoted three times, first to bartender, then to shift supervisor, then to assistant manager. Bello, who is married, hoped to build a career at the Remington Hospitality Corp., of Houston, the management company that runs the Historic Inns of Maryland.
As Bello hurried about and Griffith and Brisseau waited, Bruce C. Bereano, a well-known lobbyist in Annapolis, was sitting at his usual table in the main dining room.
"The service was absolutely horrendous that day," Bereano said. He recognized Griffith and sympathized with her. "Melony was waiting a notably unnecessary length of time, I would say, seven to 10 minutes."
Bereano called Janis Pulley, a cook who was refilling the buffet in the main dining room, and said that the woman in the doorway was a delegate and should be seated promptly. Pulley agreed and went to retrieve some menus.
Meanwhile, Bello had finished waiting on a table in the bar and had gone out into the front hall waiting area outside the dining room. He asked a white couple standing by the reservation book if he could help them.
"They said they didn't have a reservation and wanted to know if they could eat," Bello said in an interview. " . . . I went to the doorway of the dining room and looked in. All the tables were dirty or hadn't been set yet. So I said they would have to wait 10 to 15 minutes."
Brisseau said she was bothered that Bello spoke first to the white couple. She said that because Bello had passed through the waiting area, he should have known they had arrived first. Bello said that since he had been in the bar and kitchen, he didn't know who had arrived first. He said he spoke to the white couple first because they were closer to the reservation desk.
Bello then asked Griffith if he could help her.
"Melony said, 'We've waited for about 15 minutes,' " Brisseau recalled. " 'Can we be seated?' He took her name and looked in the reservation book and said, 'You're 20 minutes late.' "
Bello's memory of the moment is virtually identical to Brisseau's. He said Griffith asked him, "Am I to be punished for being late?"
Bello said no.
As exasperation set in on both sides, Pulley walked up with menus in hand.
"A young lady came up and said, 'I'll fix up the table now,' and the young man said no," Brisseau said. "The other couple even stepped forward on our behalf and said, 'You go ahead. They were here before us.' The young man said we still had to wait."
Griffith asked why they had to wait if others were being seated. Bello repeated that there were no tables ready.
"Melony told him there was no need for us to eat here," Brisseau recalled. "He said, 'Fine.' Melony said, 'I'm going to leave and I'm going to make sure all my colleagues know what happened here.' He said 'fine' again."
Griffith and Brisseau walked out.
"It was almost comical how fast she started talking about how she was going to boycott," Bello said.
It wasn't a bit funny to Griffith and Brisseau.
"We were both furious," Brisseau said. "I said I can't believe this is happening in this day and age. It was either poor service or a racial thing."
When Griffith returned to her office, she told colleagues in the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus what had happened. Leaders of the caucus, whose 38 members account for more than a quarter of the Democratic majority in the Assembly, called the restaurant to complain. So did Baltimore Mayor Schmoke, who heard the story from a member of the Baltimore delegation to the assembly.
By the end of the day, Bello's supervisor told him to call the two women and apologize. Bello left a message for Brisseau saying he was sorry. He reached Griffith.
"I kept saying that I hadn't meant to give offense, that if I was abrupt or curt, I apologized," Bello recalled. He said she thanked him for the apology but said that as long as he was working at the restaurant, she would never eat there.
Bello's friends came forward to say that he was no racist, that he had donated time and money to the Unity Walk, a group dedicated to racial understanding that had been founded to counter a Ku Klux Klan rally in Annapolis in 1998.
Griffith was not moved. Brisseau explained her friend's position.
"She grew up in Montana in the white population. She's not a person to cry rape over something trivial," Brisseau said. "It was embarrassing for her, and it was embarrassing for me."
Brisseau sent a letter to the restaurant demanding that Bello be fired. The black caucus sent its own letter to the restaurant management demanding an explanation and backing Griffith "100 percent." Members of the caucus threatened to boycott the restaurant.
Bello was fired March 11.
Upon hearing of Bello's firing, House Speaker Taylor, who is white, said, "Justice was done." Griffith issued a statement saying that she was satisfied that "the Historic Inns will not tolerate discriminatory behavior."
Bello figured that once the issue faded, given his management experience, he could get another job quickly. But his applications to a large Annapolis hotel and a pricey restaurant favored by lawyers and lobbyists were unsuccessful. Finally, Brian Cahalan, owner of the 49 West Street coffeehouse in Annapolis, gave Bello a job.
"I didn't want a hire a racist either, but I checked around, and everybody I talked to said he wasn't racist," Cahalan said.
Homan Cull, the general manager of the Historic Inns of Maryland, referred all questions about Bello's dismissal to Remington's lawyer in Houston, who said the company would not comment while litigation was proceeding.
Bello retained a lawyer, Tom McCarthy Jr., of Annapolis, who proposed that Bello make a public apology to Griffith and Brisseau. In return, Griffith would publicly recommend that he be rehired by the Treaty of Paris. Griffith rejected the offer.
McCarthy then filed suit on Bello's behalf, charging that Griffith's actions showed "deliberate intention of causing . . . economic harm and were motivated from spite and ill-will and actual malice."
Bello said he is making good money at the coffeehouse but isn't on a career track at a national corporation like Remington, or anywhere else, for that matter.
"I can't get work in Annapolis now, not like the job I had. I want some compensation for being out of work, and I'd like to clear my name. I don't want anybody to think I'm racist," he said.
The ranks of those unwilling to call Bello a racist grew by one last week when Griffith, who had declined to be interviewed, issued a statement through her lawyer.
"Although some have speculated that Griffith was treated poorly because she is African American, she herself does not know why" Bello treated her differently from other customers, said the statement from Griffith's lawyer, David Tanenbaum, of Washington.
Tanenbaum said his client's original statments about the incident were misconstrued. He said that the mention of "discriminatory behavior" in the written statement Griffith issued immediately after Bello's firing was not a reference to racial discrimination.
He quoted Griffith as saying, "I'm looking forward to the truth coming out in a court of law."
CAPTION: Del. Melony Griffith's complaints cost Jeb Bello his job at the Treaty of Paris Restaurant and raised concerns about racism.
CAPTION: Jeb Bello, right, with new employers Sarah and Brian Cahalan, said a charge of racism has hurt his career, and he wants $3.1 million as compensation.