BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Laughter ricocheted off the lunchroom's walls. Jokes and gentle insults flew back and forth. Loud voices hooted and hollered. Fists pounded the table.
It was not quite what I expected from serious professionals dedicated to doing good work in the field of mental health.
But then the people who call themselves "the crew of Building 2" are an unusual bunch.
Trained in the fields of education, social work and nursing, the crew's eight women and one man work in Building 2 on the grounds of RHMR, the former Resident Home for the Mentally Retarded in Monfort Heights.
As I found out during this week's "Lunch with Cliff," they are more than care-giving co-workers. They're caring friends. "These people would do anything for you," Aileen Ettensohn told me under her breath.
Grabbing a piece of pizza, RHMR's 75-year-old nursing director and den mother to crew members 40 years her junior added:
"When my husband died eight-and-a-half years ago, this was my support group. They teased me at lunch and made me laugh. They reminded me life was worth living. And enjoying."
Julie Otten reached out to pat Aileen's hand. "We love to kid Aileen," she said before ribbing the nurse about her conservative politics and her mothering of the crew.
The rest of the table joined in. Aileen didn't protest that they were piling on. She just laughed and blushed.
"Everybody has been there for everyone in all aspects of life: birth, death, marriages, family troubles," Cindy Flatt said as she cuddled Justin, her 6-month-old son.
"They are not just my friends. They are a big part of who I am." The crew is such a big part of Cindy's life that she still eats lunch with them even though she left RHMR eight months ago to be a full-time mom.
"I have to come back," Cindy said. "I miss my friends."
Monika Cure giggled. Friends, she noted, can get on each other's nerves. "We have our fights."
Julie quickly described an argument between Monika and Aileen. Using different voice tones and poses, she launched into a monologue worthy of a stand-up comic about the pros and cons of using baby wipes. "These fights can make us stomp out of the room," Monika continued. "But we stay friends. They love you here when you are lousy or nice. They love you for who you are."
Deborah Britt looked around the room. Her eyes widened at Monika's use of the L-word.
"This," Deborah said as she gestured to both sides of the table, "is my family. I'm from the South. Other than my daughter, I have no relatives here. These people are my family."
Deborah's Building 2 family came to her rescue when she was doing double-duty, helping a resident of a group home and going into labor. "Deborah was in the stirrups at the hospital," said Heidi Goodin. "And she got a page from a person in crisis. Since Deborah was sort of busy, and I was sitting right there, she sent me out to help."
The Building 2 crew realizes not everyone is fortunate enough to work with their friends or to see co-workers as family.
While doodling on her napkin, D.J. Gattwood said the group's closeness comes with their line of work.
"We are in the profession of helping people. We are trained to be there for strangers," she said. "It's only natural we'd be there for our friends."
"You never feel alone here," Cheryl Brun said while bouncing Justin Flatt on her knees.
"I feel warm and secure with these people," Heidi added.
"No matter what I do or say, no matter how much I holler at the table at lunch -- I'm loud -- or how much I sing in the halls, I am comfortable knowing that these people will help guide me, will be there for me." Rickey Younger has been in the Building 2 lunch crew for 16 years. While managing group homes, he ran across businesses whose co-workers ate lunch together but never met away from work.
When the bell rang at the end of the day, they went their separate ways.
"For us," Rickey said, "the bell never rings."
Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.