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The wings were good, but the service wasn't, so Alfreda Goods didn't leave much of a tip.

Their bill that June evening was $11.96. They left $12 on the table and walked out of the Watering Hole in downtown Lincoln, she said.

That's when they finally got their server's attention.

And that's when two versions of the same incident go in opposite directions.

"After leaving the establishment, the waitress and two white male staff members followed me and the waitress began berating us claiming we failed to pay the whole bill," Goods, who is black, wrote in a complaint filed with the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights.

"She proceeded to call us several derogatory names."

Like "bitch" and worse, among them the n-word.

The male employees did nothing to stop the server's 15-minute tirade, she wrote, which played out in front of pedestrians and drivers on a busy stretch of O Street.

She called the Watering Hole that night to complain, but was told no manager was on duty.

She called the cops the next day, telling the officer she felt humiliated and threatened by the server. She filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission nearly two weeks later, alleging her treatment was based on her race.

Then, after a couple of months, she called the newspaper.

"Just because I'm black and I looked kind of rough, you can treat me like that?"

She called the newspaper? "The fact they've called you indicates they're looking for publicity because they think I'm going to pay them off, which I'm absolutely not going to do," said Anita McFarland, owner of the Watering Hole.

The account Goods gave police was "exaggerated and inaccurate," McFarland said.

The customer and the owner tell stories that, in several ways, are similar. But then they diverge in so many other important details -- like who did what first and, most importantly, why. Beyond competing stories, investigators will have little to work with.

This much isn't argued: On a Tuesday in late June, Goods and her male companion decided to try the Watering Hole's famous wings. They changed tables midway through their visit. They ordered water and wings. The bill came to just under $12.

About Alfreda Goods: She's 54. She's fairly new to Lincoln. She owns a building downtown. She teaches business at Southeast Community College.

As part of her electronic commerce class assignment on social networking, one of her students conducted a survey to identify Lincoln's best wings. The Watering Hole won.

Goods and her friend also collect household metal and sell it to the scrapyard on the edge of the Haymarket. So they can look a little scruffy sometimes.

Like that Tuesday night. "Our T-shirts were kind of dirty. Out of school for the summer, that's how we were dressed."

Goods said they waited awhile to be seated. They ordered. Then they asked if they could move to a window seat. Their food came but the water didn't, she said. The waitress stayed away.

"She spent countless minutes with other patrons laughing it up but ignored us."

Her friend left a $5 bill and seven $1 bills, she said. The waitress counted and pocketed the cash.

Goods spoke to her on the way out. "I said, 'You guys had really good wings but I don't think you have good service.' She said, 'We don't care. That's your problem.'"

They were down the block when they heard feet behind them, she said. "She got right in my face and said you stiffed us."

Goods told her no, they paid their bill.

"She started calling us bitches and whores. She took her shoes off and her earrings like she wanted to fight. She started calling us n----- ... She thought we were either homeless or ghetto."

Goods said she kept her cool, telling the server she taught college, lived downtown and wasn't looking for a fight.

After 15 minutes of this, she said, the other Watering Hole employees finally told them to leave.

"I believe my treatment was based on my race and customers outside of my protected class are not treated in a similar manner," she wrote in her complaint.

The Watering Hole's owner told a different account: Goods and her friend first confused the servers when they switched tables without asking. That -- and the nature of their business -- delayed the couple's service.

"The Watering Hole is not a five-star dining place. Those types of things happen in a bar dining room."

Goods' friend asked for the bill at the bar, McFarland said, folded it over the cash and handed it to the server.

It was $5 short. And because servers at the Watering Hole -- and at many restaurants -- act as their own cashiers, Goods' server would have had to pay out of pocket at the end of her shift.

"She worked for us for many years," McFarland said. "I do not believe she would have gone out in the street after them for a no-tip."

But she would for $5. "She said, 'Hey, I need you to pay the rest of your bill.'"

Goods' friend fired the first verbal shot, McFarland said, calling the waitress names. And yes, the waitress got upset and fired back. But not out of racism.

"She's worked there for many, many years. I've never heard that waitress use racial slurs or expletives."

And though she's not entirely pleased with the way her staff responded, the owner said, the server still works at the Watering Hole.

The police investigation still is open, said Officer Katie Flood: The officer assigned to the case hasn't been able to find the server. (McFarland said she gave the officer the server's name.)

The Lincoln Commission on Human Rights won't comment on a specific case, and won't even confirm the existence of a complaint.

But speaking generally, Senior Civil Rights Investigator Angela Lemke said many complaints emerge as "he said-she said" versions of the same event, with dueling memories and competing motives.

The commission investigates complaints of discrimination in three areas: housing, employment and places open to the public -- like the Watering Hole. On average, her office fields about five public accommodation complaints each year.

And those are the hardest to prove. With workplace complaints, for instance, investigators often have a paper trail to follow, or more witnesses to interview, and even those can take up to a year to fully investigate, Lemke said.

In all cases, the burden of proof is on the person who filed the complaint.

"A lot of times it comes down to perception -- what happened and why it happened -- and they're difficult to prove at times."

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Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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