No Shirts, No Shoes, No Behavior, No Service Jul 2, 2014


Being a college student in the tumultuous Sixties, I had the requisite long hair and a beard (since I only half matured, I still have the beard).

In the summer of 1968, a friend and I traveled across the country in our version of a "coming of age road trip." We had jobs lined up at the World's Fair in San Antonio, Texas.

One of the most striking reflections of that summer was the reminder that the country was not in sync. During that summer, we either drove by or walked by countless restaurants, diners and truck stops with signs announcing, "No hippies or long hairs served." They truly were signs of the times.

The signs have changed over time, but the message has been consistent. Not everyone is welcome to sit and be served.

Signs prohibiting certain "types" of patrons have been a part of the restaurant scene since the first "chariot drive thru" was established. Early inns and taverns posted signs that said, "No barbarians." Stagecoach stops posted, "Coachmen and footmen will be served in the stable." Lunch counters in the deep South mandated, "Whites only." Officer clubs on military bases reminded everyone that "No enlisted men served," while gentlemen's clubs declared, "No women allowed." Some "restricted" private athletic clubs had the despicable signs that read, "No Jews, Blacks or Dogs." Most of us have seen the sign, "No shirts, No shoes, No service."

And while we might say, "Wow, glad those times are over," I'm not sure they are.

In all probability, there are sign shops waiting for the order to ship the latest restaurant prohibition signs which are still being "word-smithed." "No individuals served exhibiting, displaying or expressing atypical, maladaptive or disruptive behavior." If they're not ready to take that stand they might opt for the safer sign, "Discounts for well behaved children."

While the law allows the posting of signs in restaurants reading, "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone," the restaurant cannot refuse service on the basis of race, color, religion, or natural origin. According to Peter Clarke of LegalMatch, "These signs do not preclude a court from finding other arbitrary refusals of service to be discriminatory. There are a number of legitimate reasons for a restaurant to refuse service, some of which include: Patrons who are unreasonably rowdy or causing trouble, patrons that my overfill capacity if let in, patrons who come in just before closing time or when the kitchen is closed, patrons accompanied by large groups of non-customers looking to sit in and patrons lacking adequate hygiene (excess dirt, extreme body odor, etc.) In most cases, refusal of service is warranted where a customer's presence in the restaurant detracts from the safety, welfare, and well-being of other patrons and the restaurant itself."

There have been cases of restaurants refusing to serve families with children on the autism spectrum who have "melt downs" and become what we all become when faced with confusion, anxiety, sensory overload, inadequate resilience and the need to spontaneously combust. Dining out in restaurants is one of the most challenging events for individuals with autism and other conditions with a behavioral component, alongside with getting a haircut and going to the dentist.

Some restaurants who do not want to be thought of as insensitive to families coping with special needs are recognizing another way of announcing their reluctance to serve "children with novel distractions"—and that is to offer discounts to "well behaved children." There is a distinction between a child struggling with the ability to mediate their behavior (their only way of expressing their needs, fears and threats) and neuro-typical children allowed to run wild by inefficient parenting. The message of offering discounts to "well behaved children" is clear; we don't want your child with maladaptive behavior in our joint. It's not that far removed from restaurants not posting signs that said, "No blacks served," but posting, "Reserved for white patrons." The message is as clear as day.

Marshall McLuhan a prominent philosopher of communication theory in the Sixties, and whose work is viewed as the foundation of the study of media theory (coined the expression, "the medium is the message") provided us with all we need to know about behavior, and the context of maladaptive behavior. "Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior."

Perhaps we need to be reminded that some individuals have experiences that are far different, far removed and foreign to most of us; so novel that only their behaviors can recall, describe and express them. I, for one, would prefer to demonstrate my understanding of them by having my lean pastrami on rye with a side order of background chaos (on occasion).

I am looking forward to the day when restaurants post signs that read, "We happily serve hungry people."

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