ROTTERDAM — A Rotterdam diner owner, and some of his customers, are calling for civility and empathy in what they see as overly polarized political discourse.
Just in the past week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied service at a Virginia restaurant, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson was shouted at in a Washington, D.C., Mexican restaurant, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters called for constituents to "create a crowd" and confront administration officials seen in restaurants and department stores.
"My take on the whole thing is that we have to start talking about what we have in common instead of what our differences are," said Tops American Grill owner Evan Christou. "We don't choose our customers. Our customers choose us."
After Sanders was denied service at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, because of her role in the Trump administration, Christou tweeted from the Tops Twitter account his support of the press secretary's right to eat where she chooses.
If you are ever in Upstate NY, please come visit our family's restaurant.— Tops American Grill (@TopsRotterdam) June 24, 2018
We will welcome you with open arms. You will be treated like every other customer from ALL walks of life and of all opinions - with dignity respect and unforgettable hospitality.
"If you are ever in Upstate NY, please come visit our family's restaurant," the tweet stated. "We will welcome you with open arms. You will be treated like every other customer from ALL walks of life and of all opinions -- with dignity, respect and unforgettable hospitality."
The tweet joined scores of other responses to the Red Hen incident. One reply to Tops called on patrons to avoid the restaurant in light of the supporting statement to Sanders. Christou responded to that tweet, lamenting the poster's hopes for the restaurant to fail, leaving 40 employees without jobs.
Shirley Readdean, 87, of Schenectady, is a regular at Tops and enjoys political discussions with Chirstou, particularly about race, with Readdean sharing her perspective as a woman of color. For Readdean, who by no means considers herself a Trump supporter, Sanders' being turned away from the Red Hen struck her as immature and not an effective political tactic.
"For me, a lot of this behavior is junior high behavior, and it needs to stop," she said. "From the top down, it's all junior high behavior ... And this Twitter. It just encourages that to the point where it's ridiculous."
At the other end of the generational spectrum, Andrew Vickery, 16, of Niskayuna, had a hard time understanding why businesses would wade into politics, especially when it comes to turning away customers.
"I think [businesses] have the right to do so, but from a logical perspective, I find that is very silly, because it brings them more money," Vickery said.
Christou, who is also Rotterdam's deputy town supervisor, carved out an absolutist position for himself when it comes to denying service. He noted he disagrees with Sanders and the Trump administration's support for the Supreme Court's ruling in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. The court held that based on freedom of religion, a Colorado baker legally denied service to a homosexual couple who wanted a wedding cake.
"I would have my pastry chef make a cake for any couple in the country," Christou said.
In his official capacity with the town, Christou ran on the Conservative Party ticket, but he caucuses with the Democrats.
He went on to argue diners are a central component for political discourse in America.
"I think that we're a good place for open dialogue," he said. "We wanna be the place where friends meet."
For Readdean, Christou's restaurant is more than a place to discuss politics.
"When my husband died, Evan [Christou] was very, very good to us, very thoughtful, very kind, and we had the reception here," Readdean said. "I have found this to be a wonderful place to come to eat, and if you look around, mostly, you will see such a diversity of people here."
Everyone who went on the record at Tops agreed Americans are not talking to each other enough, and that both social media and the news media are compounding the problem of polarization in the country.
"I certainly do believe that the media blows a lot of this out of proportion," Christou said. "We've come to a point in life where it's easy to market controversy instead of looking at what we all have in common... We all wanna see our country succeed and thrive."
Readdean came back to her distrust of social media.
"Do any of these people [online] have a brain?" she said. "Take the computer away from them. Let them talk to each other."
For Vickery's mother, Sue Lerner, Sanders' ejection from the Red Hen was just a symptom of a broader problem.
"Common civility has gone out the window," Lerner said. "We can disagree with each other and still be civil."