The M/S Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship floats amid the turquoise reefs of Cozumel, Mexico, and passenger Kathy Henehif lounges on the pool deck. She wears a Margaritaville T-shirt, braids tipped with dozens of red beads, and a grin that has grown by Friday into a nearly permanent imprint on her face. All frowns were forgotten at the Men's Sexy Legs Competition, Kamikaze Karaoke and the all-you-can-eat Midnight Fantasy Chocolate Buffet.
But what elicits the biggest smile from Henehif is the service. Her cabin steward transformed her bathroom towel into a monkey, which he adorned with her sunglasses and draped on a coat hanger in her room. A waiter brought her a piña colada before she even knew she wanted one. And to top it off, the workers did it all with smiles as big as hers.
"They seem like they really, really have a good time," she says. "Having people that smile at you wherever you are, that say hello, whether they know you or not, I think it's just the way you would want life to be."
Many Houstonians agree. Since the first cruise liner sailed from Galveston three years ago, the region has become the industry's fastest-growing beachhead. Five ships in the area now serve up to 9,000 passengers a week. Galveston's fleet rides the tide of a nationwide rise in cruise trips -- a 10 percent jump last year -- even as other tourism sectors remained stagnant. The floating vacations are now so popular that U.S. Representative Tom DeLay proposed last month to use a cruise ship to house delegates at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
As the Rhapsody departs from Galveston Bay on a blustery Sunday and passengers sit down for their first dinner in the gently rocking banquet room, it becomes clear that service with an extra dollop of good cheer is the ship's forte. After flawlessly presenting the first three courses, the waiters disappear and re-emerge in single file clapping to the theme from Rawhide. They assemble on a central staircase surrounded by Texas flags, where the head waiter grabs a microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says, "it is my pleasure to introduce to you my pride and joy, coming from 34 different countries, our waiters and assistant waiters!"
They launch into a spirited rendition of "Deep in the Heart of Texas," tinged with a Lithuanian accent. Many come from countries in Eastern Europe -- as well as South Africa, Turkey and the Philippines -- where they would be lucky to earn a fraction of what they earn here.
After the final refrain, they jog back to their stations, waving and beaming to their guests, who eagerly snap photos. Most passengers return to their cabins, and before they doze off to sleep, some of them read a letter left on their beds. "Welcome to the M/S Rhapsody of the Seas," it says. "The Friendliest Ship on the Seas."
But others choose to stay awake a bit longer and spill into the casino, where they try their luck with the more fickle friendliness of the blackjack tables and roulette wheel. Andre Martin, a young waiter wearing a pink dinner jacket, hovers behind them silently, waiting for calls for beer, scotch and rum.
Like most servants on the ship, he works almost entirely for tips, and he offers his own explanation for why everyone is so friendly. "They have to be," he says. "They're working."
Martin serves drinks that evening until the casino closes at 2:30 a.m., then reports back to work at 8:30 the same morning. While passengers aboard the ship might feel they are still deep in the heart of Texas -- a happier Texas than they ever knew in Houston -- the reality for cruise workers is quite different, one of ten-hour workdays seven days a week, where U.S. labor laws don't apply.
Martin hasn't had a single day off in more than 120 days.
Last year more than a quarter-million people departed on cruise ships from Galveston. By the end of this year, the number is expected to grow by another 100,000. Most passengers are Texans, who come for the convenience of not having to fly, for the novelty of being at sea and for the cheap tickets. Cruises are no longer for the wealthy. A week aboard the Rhapsody goes for less than $800, and shorter cruises are cheaper yet. But more than bargains, what lures many passengers back is the prospect of being pampered.
"You always think of a cruise ship as a place where you are treated like a king. Most definitely you go for that," says a construction superintendent from Ovilla, Texas, who is on his third cruise. His blond wife pinches another cigarette between fingers heavy with stones and silver.
Allowing guests to feel like they're royalty requires incredible manpower. The Rhapsody retains nearly one employee for every three passengers. These include 71 cooks, 140 waiters and 68 cabin stewards. The cruise industry in Galveston and Houston employs nearly 4,000 onboard workers. Given that cruise lines also supply free food and entertainment, aboard vessels that cost, in the case of the Rhapsody, about $275 million, it's a wonder they earn anything at all.
Yet the industry still makes a killing. Royal Caribbean earned nearly $3.5 billion last year, with a profit margin of more than 10 percent. Its stock has more than doubled in value since March. Other cruise lines have fared similarly well.
Scott Brady, who leads an effort by the International Transport Federation to unionize cruise lines, suggests why: "I think the profit margin is due to the lack of pay to the crew. The pay sucks. I mean, it's bullshit."
Pay for waiters and cabin stewards aboard the Rhapsody starts at $900 a month. Some earn more than three times that amount if they're lucky enough to snag large tips. Yet such jobs on the Rhapsody and most other cruise ships are filled almost entirely by foreigners. Most workers sign contracts for at least eight months, without a single day off. "Americans would never do this work," Brady says, referring to the average cruise position. "Most Americans would rather beg on the street or starve than work for wages like that, for that type of work."
Many cruise line employees interviewed for this story said they could be dismissed if caught speaking to a reporter. The names and genders of some workers have been changed to protect their identities.
Brady compares the decision to take a cheap cruise to the purchase of shoes from a sweatshop -- except in this case, the sweatshop is right below deck. "We look at it as a 'sweatship,' " he says. "You're working down there in a 125-degree engine room for 16 hours a day, you know. That's pretty slavelike conditions, and you're making $30 for the day. You know what I mean, it's pretty crummy."
Yet the wide gulf in income and rights enjoyed by passengers and crew is usually well masked. The predominately black cabin stewards aboard the Rhapsody sustain such consistently enthusiastic banter with their mostly white guests that some passengers are nearly convinced by the second day of the trip that they've found bosom buddies.
"He seems incredibly genuine," says Ben Reed, a high school English teacher from Denver, struggling to define his relationship with his steward, Arsenio. "It's like we've been long lost friends and I've met him twice and I haven't said three words to him. But he says, 'Hellooo, Benjamin!' when I walk down the hall."
Royal Caribbean rules ensure that such "friendships" won't develop into anything deeper and more revealing.
The "Master's Rules and Regulations" for Rhapsody workers, for example, sets clear limits on passenger-crew interactions. "All crew are reminded of the Company Policy regarding fraternizing with guests," says the rulebook, obtained by the Houston Press. "It is strictly forbidden to invite guests into crew areas or for crew to enter passenger cabins unless in the line of duty." A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean says such rules are common within the cruise industry, "to prevent improper fraternizing between employees and guests."
Just in case the message isn't clear enough, yellow signs posted just inside the crew decks say, "WARNING: No guests allowed in this area. Please return to passenger area immediately. Any crew members bringing guests in this area are subject to dismissal by the Master."
Those who venture beyond the warnings into the crew quarters find linoleum halls and bare stairwells plunging deep into the bowels of the ship. Crew cabins are about two-thirds the size of the already scrunched guest rooms upstairs, crew members say. The only ornament near one cluster of cabins is a spread of posters that remind crew members how to interact with passengers:
Greet and Smile
Own the Problem
Look the Part
Deliver the Wow
The last poster shows a man hosting a bingo competition, his face contorted into an unnatural mix of surprise and glee.
Back upstairs on passenger deck three, the carpeted hallways are decorated with posters of a different sort: music legends Bob Dylan, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen. The band honored closest to the door marked "CREW ONLY" is the Pretenders.
Cabin steward Tim Brown folds towels nearby and, asked about his job, offers an enthusiastic endorsement. "I like it, man," he says. "I get to travel, see lots of places."
Conversations with Brown over the course of the week eventually tell a more complicated story. The son of a tomato and banana farmer from St. Vincent, a Caribbean island of beaches and waterfalls, Brown is still homesick. He worked in construction for a few years, and then on his father's farm, but profits went sour after 9/11. He's on the ship to earn money, and he seems to understand that he needs to keep the conversation upbeat if he wants to make tips. He squirms a bit early in the cruise when asked what places he's seen besides the same four ports where the ship calls for a few hours, week after week. He mentions New Orleans, where the ship stopped for Mardi Gras. "It's a big party, lots of people," he says. "It's a fun time." Asked for more details about what Mardi Gras was like, he pauses and makes a confession. "We were there for two days. But I was on the ship. I had to work." He laughs, trying not to make this sound too grim.
The Rhapsody docks in Key West on Tuesday afternoon and disgorges a herd of passengers who mob the boutiques and tourist bars. Crew members purposefully slice through the crowds like locals, but their thoughts are far away. They find the pay phones and dial home.
A group of Filipino workers from the engine room gathers in the evening below the stoop of Key West Style, where a darkened window displays a mannequin with "USA" plastered on her breast in plastic jewels. A drunk tourist heckles them from the sidewalk. "This looks like an ambitious crowd," he slurs. "This is what you do. Bust this place open and start selling things at half price."
Most crew members try to blend in with the crowds of affluent Americans. They wear the latest styles of blue jeans, sports jerseys and Nikes. But many are still treated like unwelcome guests. Enrique Lao, a 47-year-old Filipino who has worked for decades on ships that call on American ports, still grapples with his disappointment.
Lao's life has been intimately connected to the United States since childhood. His mother worked on Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines during World War II. She applied for citizenship in the United States but was denied, so Lao grew up in Angeles City, next to the base, where many children in the community were deformed. He walks with a stagger to demonstrate what they looked like. "Deformation," he says in his pidgin English. "Toxic."
Lao hoped for a better life when he joined a cargo ship in 1975 that called on U.S. ports. He signed onto his first cruise ship in 1989, the Royal Caribbean Sovereign, and has worked on seven ships since then as a painter and cleaner.
In many respects, he's grateful for the work. "I am happy as a seaman," he says. "No apartment to pay. Free television, free ice cream, free steak. It's good."
The salary funded school fees for Lao's three children, and part of the pay now goes to his half-sister. But the sacrifice has been wrenching. At sea eight months at a time and home for only two, Lao watched his children age through snapshots. "They grew up without me," he says, "but they understand it is because of the money. They have a good life because I can work."
Nevertheless, decades of putting into port in the United States and watching Americans lead privileged lives have left him bitter. Today is Lao's only day off this month. He left work at 3 p.m. and will return to the ship before it sails tonight at 11:30. On other port days he's lucky if he gets off for an hour.
"Since 1975, I am stepping my foot in America," he says, pointing to the brick promenade around him. "I am glad I am receiving American dollars, but it is not American standards."
Lao's great hope was to become an American citizen. He thought he would have a chance because he has visited American shores for so many years. But he recently learned that submitting an application would be futile. The waiting list for Filipinos who wish to move to the United States is about ten years long. Lao would receive no special treatment, even though he serves thousands of Americans.
Next year Lao will have worked for Royal Caribbean for 15 years, and he will be eligible for a $7,500 retirement check. He plans to return to the Philippines and invest in a business with a different type of tie to America. He will buy a small building, like the hut across the street with a fake clock on it that says, "World Famous Conch Tour Train." Seafarers and tourists will come to him with American dollars and he will convert them into Philippine pesos. "A money changer. That's my plan when I retire."
As a longtime employee, Lao is exceedingly rare. More typical is a young cook from South Africa who is waiting for a friend to finish a call down the road. He dislikes his job and doesn't plan to return. "They will tell you you are going to see places, but most of the time it is the passengers who will see places," he says. "We are on duty. Like right now, we just have two hours for a telephone call, then we have to go back."
On Friday evening the Rhapsody arcs around the tip of the Yucatán and sets a course for home. The chance to buy a sombrero has come and gone; most people who wanted tourist braids now have them; and the Cuban cigars are safely stowed. This is an evening to take stock, and not just in terms of who's sunburned or who has casino chips. Cruise director James Andrews repeatedly buzzes onto the shipwide PA system and implores the guests to attend a very special ceremony: the Friendship Celebration Parade and Sing-a-Long.
At five minutes before showtime passengers dutifully pack the rails around each level of the ship's multistory atrium. They flip through flyers depicting crew members as cartoon faces. One face wears an African head wrap, another a pointed Vietnamese sun hat, another a sort of fez. The parade begins promptly at 8:15. A man dressed as Uncle Sam leads the procession waving an American flag, followed by an Eastern European woman in a cowboy hat and chaps and crew members in various work uniforms. They congregate on the terraced foyer and flutter national flags. The American and Canadian colors greatly outnumber all others, though few North Americans are waving them.
Andrews, wearing a gray three-button suit, steps up to a podium, flanked by palms and fountains. "As you know, ladies and gentlemen, there is a lot of trouble in the world, but here aboard the Rhapsody, there is hope," he says in his Australian accent, pausing for effect. "As you know, we have over 50 different nationalities working together here side by side every day." The crowd warmly applauds and he launches everyone into "God Bless America." The words appear in the flyers for the passengers, but the crew knows them by heart. "From the mountains, to the prairies, / To the oceans white with foam. / God bless America, my home, sweet, home."
If home for workers aboard the ship in any way resembles America, then it most closely approximates the segregated life of whites and blacks in the Deep South during the 1950s. Status on the ship is divided into three distinct levels, each of which enjoys vastly different privileges. At the bottom are crew, people such as cabin stewards, waiters and cooks. They are most often Filipino, African and Eastern European. The class above them is known as staff, people such as entertainers, casino dealers and spa workers, and they include more Americans and Western Europeans. Staff members have access to their own restaurant. Crew may order takeout from the staff eatery but can't sit there and eat unless "invited and accompanied by a staff member and appropriately attired," says the rulebook. Crew members also have access to the Staff & Officers Bar, but only after 11 p.m. or if invited by someone with staff privileges.
Some staff areas are off limits to crew entirely. The staff can work out in the gym, swim in the pools and eat dinner in the Windjammer Café, a restaurant overlooking the ocean, but crew must stay out of these areas when not working.
Above both staff and crew are the officers, who are mostly Norwegian. "Only Senior Officers are allowed to use the Windjammer for breakfast, lunch or afternoon snack without prior approval," the rulebook says. The officers also take four-course meals in the formal dining room, often flanked by rapt passengers. They lounge in their white-and-gold uniforms at the nicer passenger bar. "Dating" is prohibited, although on Thanksgiving one officer in the bar snuggled against a young woman in a cocktail dress.
Royal Caribbean spokesperson Michael Sheehan defends the differing privileges in a written statement. "As is the case in many industries, senior employees have greater interaction with customers on a daily basis, and correspondingly a greater responsibility in representing the company," he says. "With regard to our senior employees, that interaction is encouraged."
Friday's Friendship Celebration ends in a final burst of flag-waving and the guests file into the dining room for a meal of surf and turf with plenty of extra lobsters on hand for seconds. After nearly a week of serving up smiles and dinner rolls, the waiters are still beaming. Waitress Hillary Thomas stacks used dessert plates with a wide grin, even as she confesses to disliking her job. Thomas is from South Africa and she's worked on the ship for nearly two years. "To be honest, I think this will be my last contract," she says. "It's just too emotionally draining."
Waiters say one reason they're always smiling is the competition. Those who receive the best guest evaluations at the end of the cruise earn larger stations the next week. One "poor" rating can send a waiter to the bottom of the heap, and lose him $300 to $400 in tips. So beyond the view of passengers, the system spawns a cutthroat environment. "You want to be cheerful," Thomas says, "but you go back into the kitchen and everybody is fighting to pick up their food."
Just after Thomas whisks the last plates off her table, Antonio Verdi, a galley steward who cleans and does preparation work in the kitchen, reports to duty. Verdi works from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. every day, and his job makes the life of a waiter look pleasant.
One of Verdi's jobs is to mop the kitchen floor. Other galley stewards received rubber boots for the job, but Verdi has only sneakers. The work soaks his shoes every day and gives him a foot fungus. He went to the doctor, who gave him a vaginal cream to control the infection, but he keeps putting on the same wet shoes and the infection won't go away.
Verdi has worked on the ship for three months and sends almost all of his money home. With a salary of $500 to $600 a month, he only recently earned enough to cover the $1,500 airfare he paid to travel to the ship and begin work. Most new workers bear similar travel debts and can ill afford to resign early. "If I was single, I would quit," he says. "But I have five kids."
Verdi finishes cleaning, then fries doughnuts. At about 1:30 a.m. he is legally owed a 30-minute lunch break. But every day for the past three months, he has kept working because of intimidation. He tried to go on break a few weeks ago and his Filipino supervisor chastised him. "When I take my break, he got mad, he got annoyed, and he said I should take my break when I go to the bathroom." Verdi was given 15 minutes, not enough time to eat.
Filipinos who work his same job and who are friends with the supervisor take breaks without incident. "The other Filipino, the other worker, arrived with a plate of rice and ate calmly," Verdi says. "He saw me, and he didn't say anything. It's not just."
Verdi burned his arm the same week on a hot piece of equipment in the kitchen. The welt is still visible, about the diameter of an apple. His supervisor told him that he didn't need to go see the doctor, that he should just keep working.
Some of Verdi's friends report to supervisors who are even worse. One friend from the same country asked a supervisor for a break and he grabbed his genitals, Verdi says, apparently another way of saying "no way." When employees ask where to find equipment or ingredients, Verdi says, supervisors often unstuff the questioners' pockets. "Look for it," they yell. "Look for it!"
"Royal Caribbean does not tolerate discrimination of any sort," Sheehan says. "When an allegation of discriminatory behavior is brought to the attention of company management it is investigated and, where appropriate, corrective action is taken."
Verdi says he hasn't reported his supervisor, for fear of reprisals. But friends tell him it's his right to take a break. So after he finishes frying the doughnuts tonight, he asks his boss again. The supervisor slams a table with his hand but yells, "Go! Go!"
Verdi retreats to the crew mess hall for his first lunch break ever. He sits down trembling, too shaken up to eat. Despite the long hours, segregation and abuses by supervisors, working conditions aboard Royal Caribbean ships are among the best in the industry. The company has employed union agreements ever since it was founded in 1969. The current contract with the Norwegian Seafarers' Union provides disgruntled workers with access to grievance procedures, sets a pay scale for overtime, stipulates required time off and protects workers from unfair termination.
"I think you have better conditions, as a whole," says Johan Oyen, director of cruise operations for the union. The contract "deals with insurance, it deals with sick wages, it deals with a whole host of issues, in reality, that you would not have onboard a ship that is not unionized."
The agreement also requires the company to give workers at least 11 hours off for each 24-hour period, with one break of at least six hours. Yaw Ali, an Indonesian galley steward on the Carnival Celebration, isn't so lucky. He sat on a Galveston park bench wearing wraparound sunglasses on a recent Thursday and simply stared into space. Over the past 31 hours, he was off duty for nine. Those nine hours were divided into three separate chunks: a break for five hours, three hours and one hour. He counted the hours he slept last night on one hand. "Only four hours."
Some of Ali's troubles mirror those faced by his counterparts on the Rhapsody. His supervisor assigns the easiest jobs to workers of the same nationality. "It's like a family business," he says. But unlike Rhapsody workers, who must be fired according to union protocol, he is more vulnerable to dismissal if he complains, say union organizers.
The ITF's Brady began pressuring Carnival Cruise Lines and the smaller Disney Cruise Lines to sign labor agreements four years ago and quickly encountered roadblocks. He collected 4,200 pledge cards signed by Carnival and Disney workers, but the ships fly foreign flags and are immune to the type of laws that support labor agreements under the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. When the pledge cards were presented to Carnival and Disney, Brady says, "they just laughed us off the map."
Brady responded by attempting to organize strikes in Cozumel and the Bahamas. If just a fraction of the engine crew refuses to return to a ship, it can't sail legally under Coast Guard regulations once it returns to U.S. waters. Brady thinks a strike would cause a public relations disaster. But if a crew member angers his bosses, he says, he not only faces termination, but he may be added to a global blacklist, making it impossible for him to find work on any ship again. Not surprisingly, the strikes never happened.
Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen says Carnival workers do not require a collective bargaining agreement because the company adheres to the Merchant Shipping (Minimum Standards) Convention, a treaty ratified by 44 countries, including the United States. The convention sets minimum wage and labor standards for seafarers.
"Carnival provides a positive and comfortable working environment while offering shipboard employees an opportunity to earn tremendously higher wages than they can in their homeland or in the cargo industry," he says in a written statement. "Employees are also provided medical care, room, board, tax-free wages and a shipboard retirement plan."
Brady characterizes the Merchant Shipping Convention as a weak and outdated treaty. Many cargo ships and all ships with ITF-approved union contracts meet or exceed the higher standards promoted by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization, he says.
And he disagrees that seafarers earning low wages in their home countries deserve low wages on cruise ships. "If I'm Canadian, let's say, or I'm from the UK, and I'm working down in the engine room, why should I be making $600 more than the Filipino guy that does the same job as I do?"
Brady admits he's left with few tools to convince the cruise lines to adopt labor agreements. But he maintains pressure on Carnival and Disney through workers' compensation lawsuits. The union represented a man who was struck on the head by a 75-pound bag of rice and a woman whose foot was crushed by a box of frozen steaks.
Injuries occur frequently aboard cruise ships and workers must often fight for even basic compensation. An attractive Eastern European woman with a scar over her cheekbone waited by a fax machine inside a convenience store in Galveston several weeks ago, trying to reach her lawyer. An assistant cabin steward on the Carnival Elation, she was delivering a full luggage cart to the crew area in October when it caught on a metal threshold, toppled and pinned her against a door. A metal part on the cart gashed her cheek.
The cruise line paid for the necessary surgery, she says, but offered her no other compensation for her injury beyond a possible promotion to a higher position. She lit another cigarette. "I told them, 'Come on, this is the 21st century, an American company, and this happens like that?' "
Although the ITF advocates for injured crew members, contracts signed between the union and cruise lines offer hurt workers limited guarantees for compensation. After a boiler exploded on the unionized SS Norway cruise ship this spring in Miami, killing eight men and injuring more than a dozen others, workers and relatives of the dead turned down an $8.5 million out-of-court settlement offered by the company. A federal judge later removed cases filed against the company to the Philippines, where awards for death at sea are capped at $50,000 per worker.
"Why? Why? Oh, my God!" the wife of a deceased worker told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel upon learning of the decision. "How can I survive? How can we start a new life if we only get a small amount of money?"
HISD schoolteacher Lora Burney has taken care of business by the last day of the cruise and sits by a window in a sparkly black evening dress, waiting for dinner. She paid the suggested tips for her waiter, assistant waiter and steward yesterday, but she thinks the recommended gratuity for cabin stewards -- $3.50, per person, per day -- could sometimes be too high. Her son and daughter share a cabin and she suggested they reduce the tip. "I told them that I thought it would be excessive for the pair to pay the full amount when they are cleaning the same room," she says. "I don't know how to say it. I thought they could probably pay less."
Getting stiffed is a regular part of the job for cabin steward Brown, who chats while leaning against the open door of his utility room. A cabin steward aboard the Carnival Celebration says half the guests typically skimp on tips. Brown's income also varies widely, though he shies away from citing numbers. "It's like many things, sometimes up, sometimes down," he says as the hull rocks and swings the hallway door against him. "It's like a ship."
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Before the dessert course at dinner, the kitchen crew delivers a final serenade. Peppered with compliments to the guests and parting pleasantries, it sounds like it was written by a hack somewhere in Royal Caribbean's public relations department in Miami. The song makes Verdi feel like he's at a rally for his country's recently deposed dictator; he stands stone-faced among his singing co-workers and neither claps nor smiles. "It would be like applauding [him]," he says. " It's like a hypocrisy."
The South African waitress, Thomas, sings despite her job's unpleasantness. There are, after all, tips at stake.
Tim Molloy, one of her dinner guests for the week, wears a Hawaiian shirt to breakfast the next morning, though in a few minutes he will walk down the frigid gangway to Galveston and wrap himself in a jacket. A curt waitress with sharply plucked eyebrows serves his daughter a sugar-crusted doughnut, quite possibly fried by Verdi the night before. Molloy and his wife, Debby, seem slightly nostalgic for the smiling Thomas, who one night bravely dissuaded them from ordering the lamb, which she deemed too dry. But they didn't like Thomas's Lithuanian assistant, who spoke poor English. So Tim gave the dining room service a "poor" on his survey. "I wrote in my critique, I said, 'Service and food took a bit of a hit on this cruise,' " he says.
Tim's rating virtually ensures Thomas will lose $300 next week. The Molloys probably don't understand how their comments will affect Thomas, but they do know the service on Carnival's Holland America line a few years ago was much better. "They were so much more attentive," Debby says. "And they were just more engaging."