How Hooters helped me teach manners
by Chris Brass
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The following story is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent... and the guilty... except mine. I won't say that I didn't embellish some things in this story, but I will tell you that very, very.... VERY little was needed. All dates are accurate.
“Are you crazy? You cant take those guys there! I refuse!”
It was my boss, and she was obviously in a bad mood. She had the house meeting paperwork in her hand and was waving it crazily in the air.
In the spring of 2001 I was working for an organization that had clients with mental disabilities. Downs syndrome, mental retardation, autism and one of the clients that I worked with had mild brain damage from when he was growing up. Four guys ranging in ages of 18 to 33, but the house that they lived in was like a frat house.
Once a month we have a house meeting and discuss what they want to do as a house activity, and see how they are doing with the mandatory programs that need to do on a case by case basis. During the meeting one of the guys said that he wanted to go to a strip club.
I cringed at it, not just the thought of taking them to a strip club, but knowing that sense they had asked for it, it would be me that needed to tell the manager that this is what they wanted to do. The rules were simple at the organization. If they were legally old enough to do it then us staff could not do anything to prevent it. If on his 21st birthday he wanted a beer, our personal opinions and beliefs did not matter. The same went to going to a strip club. Several local strip clubs could not sell alcohol, you only needed to be over 18 to enter.
I explained to the guys that Jenny would go ballistic at that idea, so why not substitute the strip club for Hooters, but the truth was that I was scared to death at the idea of taking them into a strip club.
“Do you know how many complaints I get from the female staff about these guys? I'm lucky that I can keep the two of them in there that I have!”
She cut me off. “You cant even drive down the street in a vehicle with out them hooting and hollering at a woman walking down the sidewalk and you want to take them to HOOTERS!”
The thing is, she was right, I'd seen dog catcher trucks that made less noise driving down the street than our company van did with these guys in it, which was the reason why I baulked at the idea of taking them to a strip club in the first place.
“Did YOU put this idea in their head?”
I threw up my hand. “Now just a minute here Jenny! I did not put that idea in their head...” I paused for a moment as I recalled the conversation that I had the day before. “Well, I guess I did put it into their head, but they wanted a strip club and I told them that you would not go for it, so I figured it would be a good compromise.” I'm pretty sure that I had a smile on my face when I recalled the fact that I did put the idea in their head. Needless to say she didn't find any humor at all in it, and I think my smile just made it worse.
Jenny struck me as being very much a feminist, or more to the point, what Rush Limbaugh would usually call a femanazi. Sometimes I wondered how she managed to get that house to begin with, because she had absolutely no idea how to work with guys as far as I was concerned. The age span of the four guys living there was wide, but the maturity level was right around 14 years old. In some ways it was almost like 'The Lord of the Flies'.
I'm the oldest of three boys and my mother was the only woman in the house. We drove her nuts, she had always wished for a girl, but according to her, God must have had it in for her, plus served three years in the Army assigned to an infantry battalion. Things that would cause Jenny to go bonkers I would only shake my head and chuckle about.
She stared at the sheet for a minute before giving me her final answer. “No. Absolutely not.”
I leaned forward in my chair resting my arms on her desk. “Don't think I won't go over your head on this Jenny, I won't even think twice about it, and you know I'll win it if I do.”
She stared at me for a long moment. The two of us didn't get along very well, I had a reputation for standing up to the management in the organization from time to time. I was never a union supporter, but after several incidents with management, I joined, and a short time later was asked by the Union Steward if I was interested in becoming one myself. My reputation was getting well known. She knew that I would go over her head, and she knew that I would win it if I did.
“Strip club? Really?” She asked.
I would be lying if I said that I hated the fact that I had her over the barrel and knew it. The truth is that I relished the thought. “You can thank me for that later.”
“Fine, I'll permit it, but it's going to be a reward. They need to go two weeks with out any sort of complaint from ANY ONE for harassment. Not from staff, not from clients. NO ONE!”
Again a smile crossed my face. “I'll do one better Jenny. I'll take it a month!”
Now she was smiling at me. “You cant be serious! A month? None of those guys will go a month.”
“You underestimate them Jenny. I see potential there.”
The truth was that I had been working on the guys for quite some time regarding their behavior around women. We had two ladies that worked there, one on the overnight shift, the other the morning shift. The reason why they had lasted so long was because the lady that worked the morning shift had a grandmotherly approach to them. Firm, but loving. Her name was Tammy, but she called herself 'Ilean' because she had a mastectomy several years before and didn't have the money to have an implant. “Besides, I'm to old to impress men anyway.” she informed me after telling me her story. I always figured that a woman who had that type of humor could endure a lot of punishment induced by these guys, and she did. She almost always had a smile on her face, and when she didn't, usually because of the guys, she would get serious. When she was serious with them they straightened up right away.
Madison was the overnight woman. She was was more of a big sister to the guys. Her demeanor would permit them to open up to her, and they would tell her things that they didn't feel comfortable telling anyone else, but she by far got the majority of the abuse dished out when it came to the harassment. It wasn't uncommon for them to tell her dirty jokes, and give her hugs and asking her for kisses.
Once I asked her why she stuck around, and didn't take off running and screaming like some of the subs that we had who came in there. “They make life miserable sometimes, but the truth is that I love them. I've become attached to them.” I felt stupid for asking once she gave me the answer.
I had been at the house for about two weeks when I showed up one morning to cover for Tammy. As was our routine during shift change, we discussed how the behavior was during the previous shift. Madison had informed me of some activity that had occurred and although not the worst I had heard about regarding the guys, they had a long reputation for behavior issues, it clearly was not something that I could tolerate.
“Did you tell Jenny?” I asked.
“No. I don't really want to fill out an incident report either.”
I shook my head. “Well do it anyway, I'll talk to the guys about it this afternoon.”
That afternoon when all four of them were home I called for a house meeting. We sat in the living room, the guys were in good spirits, and I was about to be the hammer that crushed it.
“It has come to my attention that an incident happened last night that caused Madison to feel uncomfortable.” I started. I continued to explain the incident in general detail, this caused the guys to blame each other for it. “Hold it!” I shouted. “Who did it does not matter in my book. All four of you guys have a habit of doing this type of thing, and I'm going to tell you all right now that I WILL NOT TOLORATE IT!”
Silence filled the room as all eyes fell on me.
“This is not the behavior of gentlemen. You do understand that right?” My question was met with four nodding heads. “Good, because this is the type of behavior that I expect from animals, and if you four wish to ACT like animals, then I will treat you like animals.”
“What does that mean?” One of them asked.
I looked him square in the eyes. “What that means, is if I hear about this one more time, I will come to work with a drill, a tiny drill bit and some kite string. I will proceed to drill a hole through each of your toes, run string through the holes, then hang you upside down in the garage and proceed to beat you silly with a stick. I will make you my personal pinata.” I made eye contact with each and every one of them. “Have I made myself clear?”
I was greeted with some murmurs.
I tried to muster the best imitation of a Drill Instructor voice that I could. “I'm sorry, I can't hear you.”
Some meek 'yeses' made their way in my direction.
In a calm voice I said. “Let me hear a 'yes sir' from you instead, and I want it to sound sincere too.”
Four 'Yes sir's' could be heard. I had doubts about how sincere they sounded, but it was enough to get the message across.
The following morning I got a phone call from Jenny. “Did you actually threaten to beat the clients?” She asked me.
“Actually what I said was I would make them my personal pinata.” I told her.
I could hear her gasp in shock.
“I also told them that if they did it again, that I would take a drill and drill holes in their toes and hang them upside down in the garage.”
She was speechless.
“I take it you read the incident report from Madison, right?”
“Well yes, but that don't give us justification for abuse, or threats for it either.”
“Don't worry Jenny, I wasn't planning on doing it, I just want them to think of the consequences of their actions when they do it is all.”
I expected her to tell me to come in and sign a writeup, but instead she told me that this was just going to be a verbal warning and let it go at that. “Please don't say anything like that again.” It clearly wasn't a request, but rather a command with the word please in front of it. I could tell by the strain in her voice that she had to work hard to say 'please'.
The truth is that I no longer had to make any threats. Word had been put out, if you misbehave with Chris in the house, he'll 'drill holes in your feet and hang you upside down.'
Although it was enough to curb some of the harassing behavior in the house, it wasn't enough to stop it. Jenny's challenge provided me the opportunity to curb it even more. A reward for no longer doing it.
I walked out of Jenny's office wondering if I made a deal with the devil. I loved all four of the guys, but the truth was that I also wondered if I could get them to last a month as well. I just wasn't going to let Jenny know that I had doubts too. I climbed into my pickup truck, took a deep breath and looked up to heaven. “Well Lord, I doubt if you agree with my goal of taking them to Hooters and all, but I could really use your help here.” I sighed. I then proceeded to a nearby restaurant where I could quietly contemplate how I was going to go about doing this.
“Just so you guys know, I got an early phone call from Jenny this morning because of our meeting yesterday.” I told them. “She's not happy with the idea of Hooters... at all.”
One of the guys spoke up. “She can't stop us, we have the right.”
“You know why she has a problem with it, and it's something that I've been addressing in this house for the past couple of months.” I told him. “She has agreed....”
That was all the more I got out when some clapping, cheering and high fiving when on.
“BUT....” I interrupted “it comes at a price.”
The cheers died down.
“Jenny said that she won't permit it unless we go two weeks without an incident.”
The guys looked at each other. “Two whole weeks?” One of them repeated solemnly.
“That's right. Two whole weeks.” I repeated.
They looked at each other with gloomy faces. “Yea, that will never happen.” One of them replied.
“And that's where I disagree with you. Because I told her that I could get a month out of you.” I retorted.
“A month!” All four voices were nearly in unison.
“That's right. A month. The rules are simple. If I hear of one individual breaking any of the rules that I lay out, then we start again at day zero. Once I have 30 consecutive days of no issues, I will personally take you out to Hooters and buy you some hot wings. The rules are simple. No touching women, no hugs, kisses, REQUESTS FOR KISSES (I looked directly at one of the guys most likely to break it) when you address a lady in public, you are to call her ma'am if you don't know her name. You are not to stare at them. If you see a girl that looks cute then you just turn away. You are to be polite and gentlemanly in every way. I will make sure that every staff member that comes into this house knows the rules, I will make sure that they have my phone number and they are to notify me of any incident where you violate my rules. If I hear about it, rest assured Jenny will hear about it. If Jenny hears about it, I can guarantee you that I'll hear about it.”
I spent the next hour covering the 'what if' questions that came my way. My goal was to leave little room for error in what I expected from them.
I held true to my word. If they violated any rules, they all started back at day zero. If one failed, they all failed, it was the only way that I felt that I could drive home the point of how seriously I took this issue. At first it was every couple of days, then it would last a week or two before one of the guys would ruin it for the group.
A little more than a month in, I was approached by Tammy. “You know, I think you are the best thing that ever happened to this house.” She told me with her typical smile. “You know these guys really look up to you, don't you.”
Yes, I did. But the truth was, in many respects, I think they were the best thing that ever happened to me. Working with them was something that I looked forward to each day. When one of them would start to get out of line, I could hear another say 'you better watch it, Chris will drill holes in your toes and hang you by your feet.' but when they said it to each other, they were laughing. If they were home when I showed up for work, I was greeted with a huge grin and a loud chorus of 'Chris is here!'
But that didn't change the fact that I played hardball when need be.
The most devastation came when they were three weeks in, and one of them made a mistake while at the bowling alley. “We were sooooo close.” One of them wailed on the way home. The poor guy was shunned by the rest of the group for the rest of the night.
“Chris, I'm sorry. I forgot.” He told me when we got home.
“I'm not the one that you should apologize to.” I told him. “You let the group down when you did that.”
I did know that he was sorry. “Make sure you tell the guys that you're sorry. I'm sure that it will be okay.”
He did tell them, and although there were hard feelings for a couple of days, it had driven home that this was a team effort in a way that all of them understood.
August 29th is my birthday. Madison found out and spoke to Tammy about it. The two of them decided to help the guys throw me a surprise birthday party at work. Madison made a giant birthday cake which was sitting on the counter when I arrived, and Tammy had home made chocolate Ice Cream in the freezer. Even two girls who were clients in a nearby house and their staff showed up to help celebrate it, but we made sure that we left Madison a piece for when she arrived that night.
On September 6th I was in the office picking up things that were needed for the house. I poked my head in on Jenny. “Have you had any complaints about the guys lately?”
She shook her head. “No. I've been wanting to check up with you on that to see how it's been going.” She told me.
“I'm scheduled to work Saturday, I thought I would take them then. They've got the 30 days in, but figured that it would be special treat for the weekend.”
She nodded in agreement. “I must admit, I didn't think it would happen.”
I put my hand up to my mouth as if I was letting her in on a big secret. “Just so you know, so am I.” I paused for a moment. “If you hear of anything between now and then, let me know because I won't do it if we have an incident.”
She nodded. “Good to know.”
To say I was proud of them is an understatement. I was jubilant.
September 8, 2001 2:00 P.M.
When I arrived at work, we had a substitute filing in for the morning. I checked with her to see how the guys were doing. She informed me that they had been doing real good, and were going on and on about going to Hooters today. I filled her in when she asked for the details, then joked, we should tell them it's off because I complained.
Sometimes I have a sick twisted sense of humor, and apparently so did she. After playing with the guys some, I let them know that we were pulling their leg, they were relieved.
By 3:00, Madison arrived, as well as the two girls and the staff watching them this shift. It was going to be an outing, but before we left I grabbed the guys and spoke to them by the company van.
“I want all four of you to know that I'm proud of you, and you should be proud of yourselves as well. Dinner is on me today, but just so we are clear, I am taking you guys someplace that you have worked hard to achieve, and if you step out of line just one little bit I won't think twice of loading you all back up and bringing you back here.”
All four of them agreed.
When we arrived at Hooters, I began to get some cold feet about where I was taking them, so once again I pulled them aside and in a stoic voice let them know that this was D-day. “You guys have made it over 30 days. I don't want you to ruin it for anyone. Have I made myself clear.”
A chorus of 'yes sir' filled the parking lot, then we all made our way in. I arrived at the door first and held it open for them, one of the clients was last and his eyes oped wide when he saw the girls inside the restaurant. “We might as well go home now.” He mumbled as we walked in.
“You're going to be fine.” I told him. I sounded much more confident than I was feeling.
We were given a large table to seat all of us, and the guys behaved like gentlemen the whole time. The only thing they said was 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am' when the waitresses came to their table. A couple of them even diverted their eyes when they came nearby. Inside, I was swelling with pride at how far they had come from when I started with them.
One of the waitresses asked if it was a special occasion to have such a large group. “Yes,” I told her, “but it's tough to explain.”
“Oh.” She responded. “I just thought maybe it was someones birthday.”
One of the clients spoke up. “Well Chris had his birthday last week.” He told her, pointing at me.
I began to feel a fear that I had not experienced sense being in Basic Training.
“Oh really!” She exclaimed as she looked at me. “We have a special treat for you!” She told me as she took my hand. “We got a birthday boy out here!” For a petite girl, her voice could carry.
The table was filled with cheers and laughter as I was led to the middle of the restaurant, and three waitresses surrounded me, one bringing a stool. “Have you ever heard of the 'chicken song'.” one of them asked.
“Nope.” I replied, relieved that I didn't know the words.
“Oh, it's real simple. All you need to do is cluck like a chicken when we tell you.”
I groaned at the thought.
“Don't forget to tell him to flap his arms like wings.” Another waitresses reminded her.
“Oh yes, you need to do that to.”
The one with the stool placed it next to me. “While standing up here on the stool.” She said tapping the top of it.
I climbed up on the stool, thinking that capital punishment was the worst I could face for killing the client that pointed out that I just recently had a birthday. And it would be worth it.
“Oh.... Don't forget the hot dog.” another one said, handing it to me when I was up there. “Put it into your mouth so it looks like a beak.”
The table with the guys was filled with laughter as I proceeded to make a fool of myself, and I will never forget the pure joy that I encountered while clucking like a chicken as the three waitresses sang the song around me. Of course the place was more than half full, and all the attention was focused on me, but I was focused on the guys. Had it not been for that, I would have adamantly refused to partake in such a manner, but the truth is that seeing them having fun was worth it and the only thing that got me through.
After the humiliation, I returned to the table and the rest of the meal went without incident.
On the way home, one of the guys made a comment about one of the waitresses there, which began an avalanche of comments. I pulled the van over onto the shoulder, put it in park and turned to look at the guys. Silence quickly fell on them,
“Okay men, let me tell you something right here and now. This is a never ending thing with me. As long as I'm around there is certain behavior that I expect from all of you, and just because I took you there does not mean that it ends. Have I made myself clear?”
All four of them apologized.
On Monday September 10th, I got another phone call from Jenny.
“I've hired a new person and I want you to train them for the house.” She informed me.
This was typical procedure when a new employee was hired for the manager to call and let us know personally.
“Okay. When will she be in?”
“I told her to be there around 2:30 so you have a chance to get started. Her name is Kelly. How did Hooters go Saturday?”
I filled her in on all the details.
“No issues while you were there?”
“Not while we were there, but I had to set them straight on the way home. No big deal.” I then gave a brief thumbnail sketch of the incident, then we got off the phone.
Shortly after 2:15, a knock came at the door. When I opened it up a young woman in her early 20's stood at the door and introduced herself.
“Hi, I'm Kelly, is Chris here?”
She was tall, blond and tight shorts, but the most disturbing was she was wearing a tight tank top with no bra.
Obviously not wearing a bra.
When she came into the house, I gently banged my head against the door jam, secretly wondering if Jenny did this to me intentionally. After my slight moment of self abuse, I took Kelly on a tour of the house showing her where all the staff items were. Fortunately none of the guys were around, so it permitted me to have a discreet talk with her.
“Have you heard about this house?” I asked her.
She hadn't this was her first day on the job. I engaged in idol chit chat wondering how I was going to handle this.
“Um... I'm going to put this as delicately as I can. We have certain behavior issues around here... That um.... Your current fashion may bring out, do you have a shirt or something that you can put on over your top?” I asked.
“Uh, no.” She was clearly offended.
I nodded. “Okay.” I decided that it was probably in my best interest to drop the subject.
When the guys arrived, I introduced them to Kelly. All of them behaved polite and cordial to her, but I watched each of them closely.
I saw two of them exchanging glances between the new girl and each other, then a third said in a loud whisper. “Shhh... We're not supposed to do that. Chris will take us and hang us by our toes.”
Chuckles filled the room, even I had difficulty keeping a straight face.
“We're supposed to act like gentlemen.”
I relaxed a little.
I worked with the guys for several more months after that, and built a strong bond with all of them. One of them moved out shortly after our outing at Hooters, but we ran into him from time to time. While the remaining three still had the behavior issues not nearly as severe and frequent. Shortly after Christmas I got transfered to another house, but always missed working with them, and on rare occasion filled in as a substitute when scheduling permitted. Kelly became a good influence on them as well, and my replacement continued to work with them in much the same manner that I did. When I did check up on them, I found out that they wanted to behave like gentlemen because they wanted my respect, but the truth is they already had that. What they got from me was pride because of their accomplishments.
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