Monday, October 25, 2010

She Used to be My Girl


In a time of white wicker, macrame, and ferns...when the pointed collars of polyester shirts brushed the tops of short-sleeved sweaters that bloused gracefully over flat fronted jeans with bottoms like bells...and the most popular Halloween costume included fluffy felt skirts with a black poodle applique and bobby sox...

Sunday nights were devoted to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Mystery Hour -- our one television program we got each day -- but Saturday mornings, those were reserved for Casey Kasem.

His smooth, familiar voice announced the country's most popular songs each week, and I listened patiently through the countdown, measuring my favorites against what my fellow countrymen preferred. I adored the inside scoop about the rock stars, such as the story about the guitarist from Jefferson Starship who loved to skateboard. I thought of my own blue board, and felt a kinship.

I also felt a kinship to listeners around the nation, as Casey sang out their radio station's call numbers and town names...KMEN in San Bernardino California...places like me in music but unlike me in so many other ways. I'd wonder about the people there.

Did they, like me, lay on a yellow floral canopy bed listening to their AM/FM radios? Did they see gold cars on the roads to match gold appliances in the kitchen? Did they tune out the mellow hum of suburban lawnmowers, fathers in high dark socks and shorts keeping the well-maintained look of a master planned community?

Or was their life exotically different?

I'd listen to the long distance dedications, new that year of gold and yellow and white wicker, and wonder about the people behind the stories spilled so emotionally in the letter, shared with all of us by our mutual friend, Casey.

What letter might I write? I imagined, each week in my head what I might say to Casey and which song he might match my letter to, or which song I might request.

Thirty-two years ago I lay under broad splashes of bright flowers on a canopy and waited anxiously as Casey counted down the top songs. Back then, there was no choice but to wait. We listened to radio live, had to make time, and watched television when it aired. You answered the phone if you were home, but otherwise people had to be patient, wait, and try again later.

On a hot summer day in 1978, I heard a blur of styles in the top half: classic R&B from the O'Jays, still hot disco from Donna Summer, rock Runaway from Jefferson Starship, hot-blooded hard rock from Foreigner, and finally...finally, the still number one hit from your very, very favorite, poster-on-the-wall spend-allowance-on-Tiger-Beat-magazine-because-he-was-on-the-cover (and usually it was Shaun or Leif) most loved favorite Andy Gibb, and his song Shadow Dancing.

I hid in my bedroom, knowing friends lay outside the door and on the other end of the phone and I listened, singing along quietly. After, if I wanted, and I usually did, I could put the record on the player and listen again...and again.

There was plenty of time, then, to sit and listen. Plenty of time. Plenty of space and chance and possibilities. Plenty of hope to get to see some of those cities Casey mentioned, clothes in a battered avocado and turquoise floral small suitcase.

Going somewhere. Then, it was all a countdown leading somewhere. But it took time. Now, I think all I can do is run after time, hoping to catch it and grab a few minutes.

Because somehow in a bright blinding flash it is not me on that floral bed but my own daughters, listening to iPods and music on demand, with no idea of other music other people like and who those people are or what their lives entail.

It's funny to me, how in a time when the world is smaller than ever, we are more unaware of what lays outside our closed doors.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Restaurant Trauma in Texas: How eating out prompted a really uncomfortable lesson about culture

WARNING: This is NOT a family-friendly post, aka the warning I WISH I'd gotten yesterday before I walked in.

Yesterday was a Holiday. I hope you heard the scare quotes around that. Yeah, when you are an adult here is how holidays work: you, same workload as always, kids WOO HOO NO SCHOOL FREEDOM. Do the equation. The result is the day I had yesterday.

If math isn't your strong suit I'm pretty sure you can still add that up but just in case let's say the highlight of the afternoon included me dumping out the mismatched sock basket and telling the children to have at it, in a way very reminiscent of Miss Hannigan of Annie.

Anyway luckily I've taught my kids that Chores are Fun! and they had a good time.

Later, I cranked up the fun-o-meter on a bank errand by dropping in the Halloween store to check out costumes, and upped the ante on "Mom needs new running shoes" by tacking on a "Hey let's eat out at a restaurant!"

My husband was able to join us and we decided to try out one of the new restaurants near the store. My elder objected irrationally to Chuy's and so we settled on Twin Peaks, which looked like a pub-style burger place, and reminded us of a restaurant we'd liked near Boston.

Until we walked in -- me, my husband, my nearly 9 and nearly 6 year old and saw this, except with lovely olive skin, dark hair and black eyes:

We all literally froze in our tracks, gaping. My husband took a step back. The kids swiveled to look at me, as if I had a clue.

The picture does not do it justice. We are, unfortunately, somewhat vaccinated against reactions to provocative photos of scantily clad young women. To be in person with this...it's an entirely different, more visceral, experience. It was nearly unbearable, and simply reinforced my objection to this entire practice -- photo and in person -- completely.

What should we have done? Well I've been Monday morning quarterbacking all day.

Here's what I did do and why...

The hostess looked at me quizzically and said, "Hello? Did you want a table? Are you here to eat?"

I looked at this girl -- yes, girl because if she was 20 I'll eat my hat -- and saw a person, a person stuck in a horrific costume that objectified her body in a terribly uncomfortable way and I'll eat my hat again if she felt all right with it, if any of them did.

And I could not do it to her. I could not turn on my heel and march out, no matter how much I wanted to.

I could not shame her.

So I walked up, smiled, said as friendly as I could, "Hello! How are you! Yes, we'd like a table, we're just trying to figure out about inside or out."

I looked her in the eye, mostly because to look anywhere else felt like visual rape and deeply uncomfortable to me, but also because she was a person who deserved the respect of being looked at in the eye. Even if she was still so young she was dewy and ended every sentence with a question mark.

"Well," she said, "There's people smoking outside? Maybe with the kids? You'd rather inside?"

The kids rushed to two tables and started bickering over which.

"It's okay?" the young hostess said, "They can sit anywhere?"

"Thanks," I told her, "We'll work it out!"

When we settled on a table, she handed us menus, including crayons for the kids and told us our waitress would be right over.

Our waitress looked just like the image above. Although her name tag read, "Bambi in Training," she introduced herself as Heather. She was as friendly and sweet as could be...really good with the kids. Like a babysitter. A teenaged babysitter. Dressed like that photo above.

My husband stared at his menu. He'll have to tell you in his own words how he felt, but I can say I felt his discomfort. I can also say he looked at me and said, sotto voce, "I think I get the restaurant name and description about great views now. I thought it was just, you know, some Colorado pub import."

"Me too," I said, "I'd wondered about the view thing, I mean, from here all I can see if the bypass and freeway, but I thought maybe it referenced Mount St. Helens or Colorado."

The kids kept gaping and staring. Finally my older daughter said, "Why are they dressed like that?" My younger said, "I can't stop looking!" Both were dismayed.

It's clear to me that our reactions were clear: we were all pretty horrified to be in this situation, very dismayed, unsure what to do.

So I reminded the children about our Number One Rule: be kind and respectful. And I asked them to not stare or point.

They colored on their menus a bit, and I checked out the rest of the clientele.

"My God, it's like a seedy dive bar sort of place," I whispered to my husband. The clientele were largely male, with poor personal hygiene and a clear love of fatty fried foods and aversion to exercise. A solid mix of middle-aged and early 20s, with not much in between or outside of those age brackets. The restaurant itself was nice, open, airy, neat lodge-like decor.

We happened to be seated at the table closest to the hostess station and front door, so I saw each group of people who entered. A middle-aged couple entered, the woman in front of the man and she stopped short, he slammed in to her, she executed a fast turn and walked back out, the man trailing her sheepishly, with a shrug to the hostess.

Quite a few pairs of young men entered, too. Some looked old enough to drive and that's about it. A few were old enough to be skipping out early from work, and they wore the tell tale uniform of NASA. I imagined a Honda hybrid parked next to the "snowmobile" spots. The young ones were shameless. They walked in, gawked at the waitresses and their brains obviously melted straight to Beavis and Butthead heh heh land. Some even requested the "blonde" or "brunette" section. To them, the waitresses were Girls! Girls! Girls! not actual human beings. That was only made worse when that actual song came on, followed by Warrant's "Cherry Pie."

I groaned out loud. My every notion about this type of "scantily clad waitress" restaurant proved.

"Mom," my youngest said, "Mom you know how we had to clean out our closets and get rid of the clothes that were too small? Maybe these girls need their moms to help them with that."

I died 234 deaths right then. Her innocence. These young women. Their innocence. The fact that they are somebody's daughters. How my baby wanted to help them, wanted someone to help them. How she knew something was wrong but couldn't put her finger on it. How she needed to fix it.

"Honey. Oh honey, that's their waitress outfit and they need to wear it here at work," I said as neutrally as I could.

"Oh," she said.

Then, a minute later, she added, "Well you know sometimes you tell me to put a t-shirt on top of or under something...maybe they could put on a t-shirt."

"What a nice idea," I told her.

My older daughter had been listening with interest. Enough older to get somewhere near it, even if not fully comprehending it, she thought it through a little longer and said, "I don't think they should show so much of their bodies. All those men are staring."

Then I died 546 deaths.

For the record.

My husband, I think, was even worse off.

A couple more men entered, adults. Traffic was picking up. They walked in and transformed from Professional to Heh Heh Dude in under 5 seconds. As they started to trail the waitress, ogling her attributes, one looked up and met my eyes. I must have been one cold bucket of water to his fantasy because the smile slid from his face and he averted his eyes, staring at the floor.

We felt shamed because it was shameful.

Our waitress was super sweet, stopping to chat with us, talking to the kids, getting them -- my reluctant ones -- to talk back to her. I wanted to run to my car, grab a jacket, and bundle her away to work where she'd be respected.

Then it happened -- it got worse. My husband and I worked hard to keep the kids' attention at our table, or on safe objects on the walls (and even that was hard as the walls were decorated with dead and stuffed animals, which further distressed the kids) while we waited for our food. I swear it took eight hours for that food to come.

In the meantime, a middle-aged man walked in with his teenaged son and the son's teenaged friend. I would put them at approximately 17. The man looked like the kind of guy central casting would book for the "creepy pervy middle aged guy" part in a CSI show. The boys looked like extras from High School Musical.

They were seated at the table near to us, practically right next to us, actually, and my Spidey Senses went on full alert with the man. He kept shifting around, acting creepy. He was, for lack of a better word, excited. Clearly. Then he got up with his phone and stood across from the hostess station, acting like he was checking texts...in mid-air. Sneaking photos of the cluster of waitresses there, I figured. He was practically trembling in excitement, and I was shaking with rage and disgust. Then he skipped over to the station, and giggled out a request. The young women hovered for a second, then a couple started to walk over to his table. He shook his head and pointed to two others. There was a pause, as one was clearly reluctant. One of the first girls grabbed one of the second girls and started to walk, but he said something. The first girl dropped the second girl's arm. The second girl took the arm of the reluctant girl and, whispering, they walked over to the man's table, where the teenaged boys were sipping sodas.

The second girl said loudly, "We can sit here," and she and the reluctant girl climbed into the empty chairs across from the boys. Clearly, creating distance. Clearly, knowing he wanted them draped on the boys.

Creepy man asked them to lean in and the girl said again loudly, "Here, like this, go ahead, take the photo."

And I lost my appetite, completely.

What a horrid, horrid creepy man. The boys laughed, like they knew they were supposed to, but I could tell they were a little uncomfortable, too. The young women left the table as fast as possible, and returned to the safety of the hostess station.

What a horrid father. What a horrid example. What a horrid lesson. What a disgusting moment.

All right behind the backs of my little girls.

My husband burst out in a shaky voice, "Girls, you will never, ever work in a place like this. Never. In fact, no waitressing. Ever."

They giggled uncertainly, their eyes round. I changed the subject to how my husband once worked as a waiter and he told them stories. He tried to redirect to my one experience in a restaurant, but I shook my head and changed the subject to why I worked (to earn money to backpack through Europe one summer with friends).

Right then, our food arrived. Served by Heather, forced to go by Bambi, and wear less than a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader. Forced to work as a sex object, doing one of the harder jobs there is (waitressing) while clientele took the suggestive outfits at their word and subjected these young women to shameful disrespect.

I don't care if the girls chose to work in this place. It's wrong. I don't care if they feel hot. I don't care if they are hot. They're on display, badly. It's wrong.

I am disgusted that this is my culture. I'm disgusted by this restaurant. I'm disgusted that these young women either think they must or can go through this.

I admire them for doing it and with professionalism.

But I hate it. I can't even mince words. I hate it.

I hate that I walked into it inadvertently, and with my kids (the worst part). I hate that I sat in it.

I sat, my food in front of me, my fists clenched, and my husband put his hand over mine, "Please don't," he said, reading the martial look in my eyes as I glared at the back of Creepy Man. Somehow, he read my intent to pick up my big red bag and whack the man upside the back of his head with it.

"I wouldn't really," I assured him.

"I know," he said, "But you know that would just make it worse for everyone."

"I know," I said, "That makes me even sicker."

I picked at my food, eating it, eventually. It was good. That just pissed me off worse.

When Heather gave us our bill she said, "This is your first time here, isn't it."

"Yes," I said.

"How did you hear about it?"

"Oh, we haven't, we just needed to go across the way to buy me new running shoes so it was this or Chuy's and someone refused any Tex-Mex. So it was here. But we hadn't heard anything about it," I admitted.

"I thought it was probably your first time in," she said, and I thought rather sadly. She didn't ask how we found out, or whether we liked it. We didn't discuss the food, the weather, or anything like that. Instead, she said, wistfully, "Your kids are so sweet, I just love kids."

And I had to fight down the urge to beg her to quit, to tell her I have a friend who needs a nanny and as much as kids beat down your esteem they do love you and respect you more than any of those girls will find in that job.

Maybe it shows me up badly. Maybe I sound unenlightened. Judgy. I don't care.

It was horrific. Really, really awful.

And I did not even know how to explain it to my kids. They seemed to understand, anyway. So we left it at that. And redirected our attention to the athletic store where we got things for exercise, to care for our bodies. To respect our bodies.

Here is what I know -- the VERY instant any of those women were "on break" they instantly pulled on a large t-shirt, much like dancers might wear, over the uniform. They walked in to work wearing baggy clothes over the top of the uniform. They were ogled, and surely grabbed, by patrons. No doubt they were bugged, too, and subjected to inappropriate comments. All while at work, doing their jobs. They were in a position and outfit that begged for it, unfortunately. And I not for one second thought any of them deserved it. Much less asked for it. Despite the workplace and outfit.

The manager and male employees were allowed to be fully dressed. The manager wore blue jeans and a button down Oxford, his only nod to the workplace was a pink cap with the restaurant name on it. He referred to his employees as girls, and was very specific to them about how and where to stand. They were merchandise.

Maybe it's hyperbole to someone else, but it felt one step from human trafficking to me.

I wanted to make this humorous. My husband assured me I'd find some humor, and could do my usual treatment of the scenario with a light-hearted hand. My hand nor my heart are light, in fact they are heavy, even today. I'm still a seething mass of emotion.

I've never eaten at a Hooters or a Hooters-like restaurant on principle, but that's all it was until now: theoretical principle.

Now? It's knowledge, experience, and personal horror.

From my husband's lips to God's ears: may my girls never know the like of that.

May we do better by our young women.

I feel rambly, not eloquent. And this is a clear sign of how distressing this entire thing was, is.

Heed my warning: Twin Peaks is not a family-friendly restaurant. It's no place for men, women or children.

I stayed, whether it was right or wrong, because it felt worse to walk out. I let my family sit down, order food and eat because it felt worse to walk out. I looked my waitress in the eye, treated her with my best courtesy and respect, and left her a huge tip. I ignored the costumes and addressed the human beings. But I was so very uncomfortable. And appalled.