Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Brian Burns.
Even though the Red Robin Restaurant is a loud kiddie joint, my husband Judd and I had taken his father there years ago for his 79th birthday. The waitress gathered her co-workers by our table to sing the fun-loving man a happy birthday. The restaurant’s mascot, a teenager in a bird costume, served as choral director — while the others clapped and sang the most insipid lyrics I’d ever heard. It was all so dumb, but Harold really got into it. He got up from his chair and did the can-can in step with their silly chorus.
A few years later, Judd suggested going back. He adores their fish and chips. Even though I wasn’t wild about the silly bird or his menu, I gave in. “Oh, goody, Brian,” Judd said brightly in his Southern drawl, thanking me for my little marital compromise.
It was at least 100 degrees outside, so I hit the air conditioning button even before I even took the passenger seat in Judd’s Honda CR-V. I admit it, I¹m a card-carrying A/C slut.
We pulled into the restaurant parking lot just as the sun was setting behind a pinkish haze. Once inside the restaurant, we stepped across the huge TV monitor embedded in the lobby floor, which was showing a Donald Duck cartoon.
Judd asked the hostess for a table as far away from screaming kids as we could get, since he¹d spent way too many years as a third grade teacher. The hostess grinned real big, completely unashamed of her braces. I liked her spunk. She then sat us at a booth near the kitchen.
Nearly everyone who works at this place is a teenager. But I like that. They’ve got tons of energy and bring your food in a flash.
When our waitress showed up, she told us it was her first day on the job. She explained she was doing the job of two people that night. But she kept her cool. She cheerfully said she’d take our order in a minute.
Then, about six feet away from our table, I spotted the Robin. The five-foot mascot, with its huge, yellow feet, was skipping toward a table full of squirming kids. As a young waiter crossed the Robin’s path, the bird caressed the waiter’s arm. Perturbed, the waiter scowled at the bird, and snapped, “Gay!”
I was stunned. Did he really say that? The state of Virginia had just passed an amendment banning same-sex marriage, so chances were I heard correctly. I mean, Virginia puts the home in homophobia.
“Judd!” I said, “that waiter just said ‘gay’ to the Robin!” I filled him in on the details as a huge parade of well-primped teenagers passed our table.
We’d both seen our share of fear and hate, so we stared at each other with steam coming out our ears. Since Judd was the real gay activist in the family, I could tell his wheels were already in motion. “Which guy wuzzit?” he asked with his accent, quickly scanning the room.
“Over there. The young guy with the square black glasses,” I replied. “Actually, he looks like a closet case to me.”
“Good grief, yes,” Judd responded, after spotting him.
“Please don’t say anything to the manager,” I pleaded. “It’ll just ruin our dinner. Besides, if we want to change people’s attitudes, we can’t just be bitches. We¹ve got to put a little sugar in it.”
Yet, even with those words, I was already strategizing. After all, we were waiting for our grease-laden food with nothing else to do.
I laid out several ways to mess with the waiter’s mind. Judd said, “Well, you should handle this one, Brian, since you’ve been thinkin’ it through.”
While revenge sounded sweet, I said, “no, not tonight. I mowed the lawn today. I’m too tired.”
Moments later, when the bespectacled waiter passed nearby, Judd motioned him over. Officiously stepping up to our table, he brightly said, “Yes sir?”
“I just wanted to tell you I heard you call the bird gay,” Judd said with his usual calmness.
“No,” the waiter said, rather unconvincingly. Admitting it would mean he was out on his butt.
Judd’s brow crinkled. “Well, it sure sounded like you did,” he said.
“No,” the boy said, turning to walk away. “I don’t think so.”
As if he had to think about it, to try to remember if he had said it. The kid had just hung himself.
Now, this meant war, but it would have to wait. I needed to hit the men’s room.
Judd and I had been together for nearly 12 years, and, as outgoing as he is, I was sure he would swing into action by the time I zipped my pants back up.
A couple of minutes later, I scurried back to the table and sat down, noticing that our food had just arrived. Judd leaned into me. “I talked to that waiter,” he whispered, glancing at the waiter out of the corner of his eye. “I told him if he apologized to the bird, I wouldn’t tell the manager.”
All this was beginning to feel like a Saturday Night Live skit. “Are you serious?” I asked, snickering.
“Yep,” Judd quipped, straightening his spine. We had both gone from grouchy to giddy in a matter of moments, because for once, we were turning the tables on a homophobe. Maybe coming to this silly place wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Just then, I saw our waitress coming our way. “Judd, don’t say anything to her about it,” I said earnestly. “I don’t want to pull her into this on her first day.” Judd nodded his okay.
The waitress smiled as she refilled Judd’s glass with ice tea. Let me tell you, Judd can go through a lot of tea, especially when he’s on a mission.
As the waitress stepped away, I inched in toward Judd. “Are you going to say something to the manager?,” I asked in hushed tones, tossing a piece of popcorn shrimp in my mouth.
“Nah,” Judd replied, biting into his last piece of cod. “I’m waitin’ for the bird to tell me that the guy apologized.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, “I forgot.”
I waited a few moments, but the anticipation was killing me. “Why don’t we just ask the bird if the waiter apologized to him?,” I asked.
Judd replied, “Well, the bird probably isn’t allowed to talk while wearin’ the costume.” He is always so sensible.
Two seconds later, our waitress swung by. “Anything else, guys? Dessert?”
“Just the check please,” I answered. She smiled and whisked away.
Then, Judd motioned for the hostess, standing a few feet behind me. “Pardon me,” he yelled over the loud chatter. “Is the person in the bird costume a female or a male?”
“Tonight, it¹s a female,” she replied cheerfully, flashing us her braces again. She whipped back around to welcome a big group coming in the door.
I was confused. “Why would the waiter call a female ‘gay’ just for touching him?,” I asked.
“Maybe he didn’t know it was a female,” Judd reasoned.
“Yeah,” I said. “Or maybe he just used the word to be nasty. Kids these days say it when anything pisses them off.”
As a retired elementary school teacher, Judd knew that all too well. “It’s sick,” he said, nodding his head, “and most teachers just let it slide.”
A few seconds later, the husky, middle-aged manager arrived at our table. “Can I help you guys?,” he asked. I looked toward Judd, but he froze. “Oh, wrong table,” the manager muttered, before walking off.
“Okay, what just happened?,” I asked. “I guess the waiter told the manager we’d confronted him.”
“Then why did the manager walk away before I could say somethin’?,” Judd asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess since you didn¹t speak up, he thought the waiter was talking about someone else.”
“Well, I’m gonna call him over to talk,” Judd said, with fresh resolve.
“Alright, but let’s pay our bill first,” I replied. “I don’t want him to think we’re just trying to get our meal comped.”
“Okay,” Judd said, nodding his handsome head.
The waitress took a long time to get us our bill, but we waited patiently since she was such a trooper. As I was signing the bill, Judd motioned for the manager.
“What can I do for you?,” the man asked politely, stepping toward us.
“Well, first of all,” Judd said, “I wanted to tell you we loved our waitress. Good grief, she was amazin.’ And on her first day, too.”
“I’m so glad,” the manager replied. I could see the waitress standing within earshot, beaming
“I also wanted to tell you that one of your waiters called the bird ‘gay,’” Judd went on. “It’s not the right thing to say in a restaurant, especially when I’m sittin’ here havin’ dinner with my husband.”
“You’re right,” the manager replied. “That waiter told me what happened. I told him to apologize to the bird”
I entered the fray. “You mean he admitted saying it?”
“No,” the manager replied. “He says he didn’t say it. But I told him to apologize to the bird anyway.”
“Well, we heard him say it,” Judd insisted. “And in food service, there are gay people everywhere. In fact, you probably got some gay people workin’ here.”
The manager nodded. “Yeah, our bartender is gay. And I say, black, white, gay, straight, we’re all the same.” Even before he finished his sentence, Judd and I whipped our heads toward the bar to check out the bartender. A wall blocked our view, dammit.
“The problem is these young college students,” the manager explained. “They’re always throwing such stupid stuff around.”
Looking up at the manager, I said, “That waiter probably didn’t know what he was saying when he said it. He probably was just using it to piss the bird off.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” the manager agreed.
Wait a second. He’d said the waiter didn’t say it, and now said he did. This manager was working us. “Thank you for speaking with me about this,” he said, in his canned response. “And I hope you won’t hold this against us. I hope you’ll be back to see us at Red Robin real soon.”
A couple minutes later, as Judd and I exited the restaurant into the sticky July air, we instantly gained perspective. “We did the right thing,” Judd said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “even if we didn’t change that waiter’s thinking, at least he’ll never do that again.”
Taking our seats in the car, Judd said, “Brian, you’ve gotta document this.” He knows I like to write.
We drove in silence for a few minutes, as I tried to commit the experience to memory. I reached over and patted Judd on the leg. “Good going, Judd. You kept your cool, and you said the right things.”
He heaved a big sigh. After all, sticking up for our rights isn’t easy these days.
As we sped toward home, I pondered yet again what an incredible ride life’s been with this sweet, handsome, highly-principled Southern man that I love.
“The power they have over these kids is disgusting… they didn’t want to upset certain parents in the community.”December 6, 2016
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