Family Values

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

My parents never took me to Hooters when I was a kid. I guess you could say they ran a pretty tight ship.

My mom once wondered why I was always sleeping over my friends' houses, but none of the guys ever wanted to sleep over our place. It didn't take long to respond. "Uh, I have to go to bed before most 4th graders; we have cable, but I'm not allowed to watch MTV or R-rated movies; and we don't have Atari, Intelevision or Colecovision." In hindsight, we were practically Amish.

Sunday, for the first time since I discontinued therapy, I thought about those abuses my parents inflicted upon me. It's one thing to deny an American boy his inalienable rights to primetime television, music videos and Donkey Kong, but it's quite another to shield him from the wholesome dining experience that is Hooters.

I didn't realize that the world famous chicken wing chain is now considered fit for family fare. Had President Bush and Karl Rove targeted a few Hooters two weeks ago, they may have retained control of Congress.

A close friend from Notre Dame was in Palm Springs for a conference, so we decided to meet halfway between there and Los Angeles. Chris told me to pick the place. Considering he is the married father of two girls and two boys ages 1-8, I thought he'd like to watch the NFL games and enjoy a few beers in a kid-free zone. Being unfamiliar with anything in the "909" - hip cats in LA and the OC mock the residents of area code 909 as pick 'em up truck driving white trash - I consulted the internet for a suitable location. Thankfully, Hooters, Inc. has a helpful website, with a feature that allows the user to pinpoint the nearest restaurant to wherever he/she is in America!

I arrived before Chris, and immediately sighed with contentment. The nice thing about chain restaurants is the consistency; you, as a patron, always know what to expect. Hooters is no different: the smell of hot sauce...the wooden tables...shapely women putting themselves through veterinary school in complimentary tight, white tank tops, uncomplimentary short orange shorts, and horrible hose...the families. The families???

Distrusting my own vision, I continued looking around the establishment in disbelief. But there was no getting around it: amidst the dozens of men drinking beer and ogling waitresses at the Ontario Hooters, five tables held adults with boys and/or girls under 12 years of age.

"They must've come here right after church services, huh?" Chris said as he plopped down in his chair. I snickered.

To our immediate left sat a grandmother, a mother and a grandson. I joked about how tough it must be for the sixth grader to refrain from stealing glances at the waitresses without his Nana or Mama catching him. Chris astutely pointed out that the kid didn't have to steal glances; he was flat out staring, turning his head to follow a woman after she breezed past him. We waited for one of his female elders to smack him upside the head with a greasy hand, but it never happened.

Three tables away, a father in an Oakland Raiders jersey (perhaps no more needs to be said) sat with his son, who appeared to be nine. Periodically, the man would nudge the boy, smile lasciviously and point to a particular waitress. Now, I'm no pediatrician and I've never taken a psychology class, but I do watch a lot of "Law and Order: SVU" and "Criminal Minds," so I think I am sufficiently qualified to recognize the circumstances in which a serial rapist will develop. We should have called the FBI to alert them to the rare opportunity to watch a deviant mature. Before leaving, the boy's mother bought him the annual Hooters swimsuit calendar.

"What the hell are these people thinking?" I asked, discreetly checking out the token natural blonde. Chris rolled his eyes and pointed to a table I hadn't seen. "Try explaining that," he said.

I followed the direction of his finger and had to blink twice at what I saw: two women seated at a table with three girls. We couldn't tell if these were life partners with their kids or just two friends, but that's irrelevant. Why would two women bring young, impressionable girls to Hooters?! It's like a variation on John Kerry's recent attempt at a joke: "Hey, Honey, look at her! See what happens if you don't study, you aren't smart, you're intellectually lazy and don't mind being exploited? You can end up stuck in a Hooters!" I hoped this was a field trip, a feminist version of "Scared Straight," the movie in which juvenile delinquent boys are brought into prison to meet with hardened cons who - hopefully - frighten them off their road to incarceration. Judging from the total lack of conversation between the women and girls, though, life lessons were not in session.

As we walked out, I asked Chris a question. "So, is there a Hooters near your house?" He nodded. "Ohhh, yeeeaaah." Then he smiled and paused. "I can't wait to tell my wife what a nice family restaurant Hooters has become. 'It's not at all like it used to be, sweetie. There are grandmas there, and everything!' That should be an easy sell."

Somehow, I don't think my mom would buy it, either.