I applied for a job at Hooters on a dare a few weeks before my nineteenth birthday. A shoe salesman who worked across from me at the mall told me he’d pay me twenty dollars to apply. He told me what to wear: denim shorts, tennis shoes, a white tank top, and my best bra. Twenty dollars was four hours of trying to sell cheap makeup to mall walkers. I bought a white tank top.
There was a large table shaped like the state of California filled with raucous men in golf gear. They turned to me as I walked through the doors into the funk of fryer grease and stale beer. They whooped at me as I blushed and asked the bartender for an application. I sat at a corner table, my long hair a shield around my face as I filled out the form. Twenty dollars, I promised myself, some creepy men and twenty dollars. The manager snapped up my application, gave me a once over, and led me to a table in the middle of the restaurant for an interview.
Later, I learned the bartender was the lookout for potential hires. There was a tiny Hooters Owl on the upper right hand corner of the application. If the bartender thought an applicant was appropriate (cute, pretty, sexy, perky in the right ways) she would fill in the eyes of the owl before handing the application over. She was the first gatekeeper. The manager had what I would one day come to recognize as the broken blood vessels of an alcoholic striated across his face. He asked me a few questions. I did my best. I was less than a year out of high school and had been the president of the thespian society and a community college drama major. I could fake it. I faked it. I blinked like an ingénue and answered. When he asked me why I wanted to be a Hooters girl I paused, looked around at the tables full of lunch break men, the servers laughing and sending their orders to the kitchen via a type of wire and pulley system, and said, “It looks interesting.” The manager laughed and told me most girls said it looked like fun.
He’d call me.
Before I had time to get up from my seat, one of the men from the California table approached and asked if I was being considered for the job. The manager nodded and the business man put a heavy, hot hand on my back and held out a roll of cash to me. “Is it okay if I give her her first tip on account of how pretty she is?” he drawled.
The manager shrugged.
“Good luck,” the man said and handed me the roll. I stayed in character, acted charmed, thanked the man, and rushed out. In my Ford Festiva I unrolled the cash and counted it. Eighty-seven dollars, plus the twenty from the shoe salesman. It felt like a ton of money, maybe more money than I had ever held at once that was mine. I decided if they called me back, I would be a Hooter’s girl.
My mother has large breasts, heavy and low, though they don’t quite sit in her lap yet. She couldn’t breastfeed any of her children but still they lengthened and dropped.
She hated her breasts. She hated her body. When I was a kid I watched her constantly diet, constantly try on different types of body slimmers, reduction bras. When my breasts came in she told me appreciate them while I could, before gravity and weight took over.
I stared at my mom’s breasts when I told her about my job. My mom cried, scared that it would lead to stripping, followed by porn, sex work, and her having to swoop in and rescue me like the fierce, fearless mother from a Lifetime movie.
I told her, “Jesus mom, I’m serving chicken wings. Get over it.”
She got over it. I wore all black back then, had for years, a gothling with Wiccan tendencies. Every Wednesday and Saturday night I would follow my favorite band to Tijuana, drink and sing along with Rockeros. We smoked clove cigarettes in tiny bars, and I wore the darkest lipstick I could find with tight black shirts, cigarette legged pants, and Doc Martens. Sandy at the end of Grease, but Mexi-Rican with a penchant for doing animal impressions when I was buzzed or nervous.
But at work, I ditched the black and went full-color.
I was not only a Hooter’s girl, I was the jester and I fell into the role with relief. I didn’t have to be a sexpot; I could stay in the skin of drama kid. I performed for other servers and the customers. I clucked. I learned how to pour a pitcher of beer while climbing a stool, simultaneously hula-hooping and making crude jokes about the head of the beer. My days were filled with community college theater classes, while nights I was Chicken Girl. After school I changed into the costume of sex kitten with wings, a side show. After work I was never invited to hang out with the other servers; they had tight cliques, hierarchies. I was the weird brown girl who quoted Kahlil Gibran. I didn’t drink. I didn’t party. I lived with my parents.
My first month on the job, a sexy long-haired cook asked me out; he was brown, too. He didn’t tell me he had a girlfriend, one of the woman who had trained me. I saw them arguing, I heard my name. I was terrified; I hadn’t known. To prove how harmless I was I began to play myself as absurd, a little off. It wasn’t far from the truth. I wrote poetry on my breaks, I started smoking regular cigarettes instead of cloves so as not to have to see the wrinkled noses and side-eye at the sweet blue smoke of of my Djarums. I had never been the other woman before. Another identity, claimed.
I was groped once, at a second hand record store. I said, “Hey, that’s not cool,” and the perpetrator told me I should keep my tits covered then.
I complained to the record store manager and he glanced at my cleavage and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that.”
I was angry but hadn’t yet developed the confidence to tell someone to fuck off out loud instead of in my head. That skill came much later in life. I had been raised with a God who was a man and wary of women. My family had been Jehovah’s Witnesses and then we were not—but even when we changed affiliation and identity, some tenets remained, just as it did with Hooters.
It was grief that had me covering my body more and more. The uniform had left its mark, and what I did was bury it. Baggy shirts over long pants, an array of hoodies. I cocooned into my thirties, sick of men coming for my body. I decided my mind and my creativity were more important than my body. Instead of showing flesh in person I began showing flesh on paper. I entered into a series of romantic, platonic relationships. Sex, touching, intimacy of the corporeal disappeared but my mind was getting freaky. My mind was getting licked and loved, nibbled on—until the uniform was eaten away. I engaged in orgies of thoughts and ideas; I was riled up on intellectual exchanges then fell asleep next to my partners, my foot maybe touching a leg, as close to touching as it came.
I had been Chicken Girl in a Hooters uniform, performance on top of performance, being rewarded with cash by men. I took that cash and bought myself vacations, started my business. I took the experience and spent years peeling off the uniform. Until I stopped performing.
Sometimes when rummaging, I’ll come across my Hooters uniform in the bottom dresser drawer with other items of clothing I can’t throw away. Memory cloth. I wonder how I ever fit into those tiny shorts, my ass chafed from running around in thong underwear. All the panties I wear now are bigger than those orange shorts.
But I keep them. They remind me of how I’ve literally and figuratively grown out of that young woman and that space, that tiny space allotted by the male gaze. And yet there is a part of her I want to reclaim: wildness.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.