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Needed: a law with some teeth

Nathaniel B. Smith has the straightforwardness of a man who doesn't collect his pay at the ballot box. But one vote has his attention lately. That's the vote on the civil rights bill that passed the U.S. House on Wednesday.

President Bush has vowed to veto the bill. He says the bill would help no one except lawyers and would allow some businesses to be sued out of existence. Undaunted that those are poor yardsticks for measuring the need for a law, Bush's shadows in Congress have formed a solid wall, determined to block any effort to override his veto, determined to be re-elected.

But Smith couldn't care less about impressing voters. They won't make the payments on his house in the middle class Highland Oaks neighborhood in the southern part of St. Petersburg. They won't put food on his table, or keep his name off the credit bureaus' wrong list.

For most of his 71 years, Smith has collected his pay at some of the country's fine restaurants. A letter in his folder of memorabilia asks him to send his resume to the Carter-Mondale Transition Team. A browning article from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, June 22, 1974, praises his Lobster Savannah, the specialty of The Old Wilcox Tavern in Charleston, R. I. Smith's version of the dish was also spotlighted in Gourmet magazine.

But Smith has another folder, just as thick. This one is what has drawn his attention to the civil rights bill and politicians' posturing. "I'm sick of all this mess," Smith said. "They're just going to make it better for the white man. They never intend to give us freedom. Not full freedom."

Smith's second folder is full of the documents generated by the civil rights complaint he filed after he was fired as a chef at the Treasure Island Tennis and Yacht Club. The documents say that he was the oldest employee there, an expert chef, that the kitchen had to cut down on expenses, that he didn't get along with the new supervisor, that less than a month after the new supervisor was hired, Smith was fired.

The papers also say that the city's Human Relations office didn't find evidence to support Smith's charges of age and race discrimination.

That isn't good enough for Smith, though. "Something keeps telling me just don't let those people get away with something like that." In his gut, Smith knows he was fired because he was black and didn't accept the role that was scripted for him. He didn't say yessir and shuffle his feet enough, didn't smile broadly and claim he didn't know enough. In short, he didn't play all those little games black people play _ in forms that vary depending on the job _ so they can keep a check coming.

Smith trusts his gut. The law doesn't. The law needs numbered and lettered facts. As it stands now, it needed most of those facts from Smith. The civil rights bill currently gasping for life in Congress would revive provisions struck down by recent Supreme Court decisions that required employers to show they don't discriminate. That will mean it won't be enough to say, as the Treasure Island club did, that Nathaniel Smith, or whoever, doesn't fit into the organization anymore.

General manager Ed Kilroy said new chefs sometimes bring in whole new staffs, and sometimes fire employees because of idiosyncrasies. Kilroy, with six months in the job, said he didn't know of Smith's case. The head chef and general manager who were there then are no longer with the club.

The laws also frustrate Jim Yates, who heads the Human Relation office that investigated Smith's complaint. Although he agrees with the findings in Smith's case, he said he sees many cases where he knows there was discrimination, but it doesn't show on paper. "The law has us so limited," he lamented.

"That's why we need a good civil rights bill up there," Smith said. Smith said he's going to let a lawyer look at his case and advise him whether he should pursue it further, before the statute of limitations decides it for him in a couple of weeks. He said he doesn't think the 780 members of the club would let what he calls a travesty go unchecked.

"They got some really big shots out there and if they knew what was going on, I don't think they'd stand for it," he said.

Unfortunately, they might. As long as there isn't a law with some teeth threatening to bite a plug out of their club. Or their businesses.