And sometimes, it was fun. I made friends with my co-workers. We were part of an exclusive club, and the back-breaking work we did brought us together. Serving wings and pouring beer wasn’t rocket science, but it was the most physical work I’ve ever done. On weekends and holidays, the restaurant was full. That meant waitresses were running for seven hours straight.
Working double shifts was rare for me, but my co-workers regularly worked 12-14 hours out of necessity. Many were single mothers for whom Hooters wasn’t a college side job the way it was for me. It was honest, hard work that paid their bills. While I was worried about getting good tips to spend with friends on a Friday night, others worried about survival — making rent and feeding their children.
My co-workers and I also became comrades out of our collective frustration with “regulars.” We nicknamed one regular “Jesus” because he evangelised in between sips of Arnold Palmers. He thought that giving me a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” one day and chocolate-covered strawberries the next canceled each other out.
Regulars appeared to choose their favourites based on which waitresses they found most attractive, and paid them the most attention (and tips). How much attention a waitress got typically coincided with who was willing to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy talking to the customers. Since small talk has never been my forte, I didn’t have many regulars. I was happy to be kind and courteous to my customers, but my relationship with them was strictly transactional. Anything beyond that felt fake and forced.
It was impossible to be friends with customers because a palpable power imbalance undercut our interactions. The mere fact that some were there seemed to make them feel superior, as if Hooters was a misogynistic safe haven where they no longer had to feign respect for women. The way they peered down at me from their stools, distilling me down to an object of their male gaze and sizing me up, made me feel like I was under near-constant physical scrutiny. Being in the restaurant empowered them to gawk at me, dole out unprovoked sexual advances with impunity, and weigh in with unsolicited assessments of my looks and intellect.
I once waited on a table of four men, all of whom looked like people you might see standing puffy-chested behind Donald Trump’s podium at a MAGA rally. As I cleared their table, one grabbed my arm and said with a smirk: “We have a question about our bill, but I doubt you can handle basic math.”
His words didn’t hit me as hard as his callous stare did. The way he looked through me as he delivered the verbal blow made it clear it wasn’t an ignorant joke or off-handed remark; he meant to hurt me, cut me down and demean me. But if he hoped to stir up sadness, he failed. All that sat beneath the surface of my stunned silence was rage.