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Some see skin, others see red

The folks at OJ's restaurant recently adopted a new slogan: "Burgers with a view."

That view across U.S. 301 is what's causing so many truckers to honk and so many necks to crane in passing cars. And with several churches and local residents outraged over that view, Pasco County officials could soon be dragged into the debate.

The center of all this attention is a 25-year-old woman named Cyndi _ she won't give her last name _ who sports a nearly invisible T-back swimsuit as she operates a hot dog cart called "Bite the Weenie." The owner of the cart, Herman Drouin, set up shop on his property just south of the Zephyrhills city limits nearly three weeks ago.

Bite the Weenie has been the talk of the community since. Churches are organizing petition drives opposing such sales methods, and county officials are exploring legal options.

"It's disgusting to the human race," said Ruth Tomlin, who lives in the nearby Vagabond Trailer Park. "I believe when the Lord put you here, he put you here to have clothes on and not to run around nude."

Cyndi, who had been serving up dogs for three days Wednesday, is not naked, but she's pretty close. T-backs have caused similar commotions in other counties precisely because of the backs. They're almost non-existent.

"It's kind of embarrassing when you first get out, but after a while it's just like being out on (the beach)," Cyndi said.

But U.S. 301 is a heavily traveled road. That's what has some people upset around here.

"If it's necessary that women be allowed to parade their bodies in public, it ought not to be on a main thoroughfare," said the Rev. Randy Mobley of Fair Haven Baptist Church in Zephyrhills.

County commissioners, responding the complaints from residents, have asked County Attorney Tom Bustin to examine the matter, legally speaking. Bustin said Wednesday he expected to review ordinances other counties have come up with, and will report back to the commission.

Hillsborough approved a ban on T-backs earlier this year, and Pinellas has debated the matter but has no law requiring vendors to cover up. Despite its shortage of beaches, Pasco has had a few thong-wearing vendors _ male and female _ crop up, but county officials have been spared the controversy of debating what's an acceptable show of skin in public and what's not.

"Whatever you do, don't bring it back up until after Dec. 1," Commission Chairman Mike Wells jokingly told his fellow commissioners Tuesday. He'll be off the commission then.

Commissioners have given no indication that they would support an anti-thong ordinance anyway, but Sylvia Young said she wanted some legal advice because, "I think the churches have a right to know."

Commissioner Bonnie Zimmer said she understood the concerns of residents, but "my job is not to be a censor."

If the board does decide to put a stop to skimpily clad vendors, they can expect a fight from Drouin, who has his license and permits. To him, more than tan lines are at stake. The very principles of American free enterprise are threatened.

"I'm hiring American, I'm serving American food. What do they want _ more people on welfare?" he shouted. "They'll be challenging me all the way to the Supreme Court."

Drouin, who also sells cars, said he had been toying with the idea several months, before he decided to open his first cart on his property near the intersection of U.S. 301 and State Road 39. He advertised for women to staff the cart and said he received loads of interested candidates. One was a 60-year-old woman he did not hire.

Drouin said he splits the take 50-50 with Cyndi and that the money is good. Without the T-back costume, "I don't think she could make gas money."

The response from the passers-by has been mixed. Cyndi, who is the second seller to work for Drouin, said some younger women have a tendency to call her a tramp, but most people are polite and friendly.

At an auto parts store up the street, Murray Thomas dismissed the critics and all the fuss. "It's not something I'd want my girlfriend or wife doing, but if that's what she wants to do that's her business. She's just trying to make a living."

The Rev. Richard Davis of the First United Methodist Church takes it much more seriously. "I'm not a prude, but I think we ought to set an example in our community for our young people," he said, noting that many children pass by Bite the Weenie and "that could cause these young kids to get some wrong sexual ideas."

At OJ's restaurant, workers said the fun comes less in watching Cyndi than in watching the people watch her. There was the elderly woman who pulled up a few days ago and sneaked behind a shed to snap photos of Bite the Weenie, apparently gathering evidence. Then there are all the drivers who practically do somersaults in their cars to get a look at the operation.

That's part of what worries some of the critics.

"It's causing all sorts of traffic hazards," said the Rev. Ed Russo of the Victorious Life Assembly of God in Wesley Chapel. "People are going to be gawking."