Your mom walks into Hooters. She’s wearing the famous spandex uniform. She’s 19. In her wallet is a Mensa membership card, which she knows is distasteful and wouldn’t show a soul but carries to remind herself that she knows a thing or two—a point that’s easy to forget and harder to share in necks of certain woods. When she’s a little older she’ll consider the ironic elements of the costume: The tank top’s wide-eyed owl, symbol of wisdom she’s possessed since birth, stretched across round breasts she herself sometimes admires; the nylon shorts’ neon hue, “safety orange” as the hunting garb she sometimes wore around the family farm to keep from getting shot. But right now she’s thinking about her body. Does it look good?
“What do you think, Billy?” the skinny manager, Bones, says to the squat, wolfish assistant manager. They’re both looking at her crotch. (The two men are also roommates, and Bones just handily won a debate about pubic hairs on bars of soap. Billy: “Soap cleans itself.” Bones: “You’re an idiot, Billy.”)
“Turn around,” Billy tells your mom. Her heart races as she pivots awkwardly on her white high-tops. “Shorts are too big.”
“What?” she says, playing dumb. She’s five foot three. She knew the smallest available uniform size would be required to achieve protocol, but she gave it a shot—not because she wouldn’t be seen in shorts shorter than her ass but because she’s genuinely worried about how her ass looks.
“They’re too big. You need the smallest size,” Billy says, rubbing his hand along his short black beard.
Your mom is here to make however much money a “Hooters Girl” might make without flirting or tolerating abuse.
“I don’t think so,” your mom says, her voice firm. Her hair is blonde, as in any good joke. “These are good.”
“Maybe she’s right,” Bones says, looking your mom in the eye.
But Billy orders her to put on smaller shorts. She smiles on her way to the backroom so as to not seem difficult or defeated. Your mom is here to make however much money a “Hooters Girl” might make without flirting or tolerating abuse. She’s tired and unimpressed and knows that plenty of jobs are worse than this one.
Your mom’s previous summer job involved weighing wheat trucks, wearing a hard hat, and hauling feed sacks into the volatile mill of a rural grain elevator just after an elevator down the road exploded and killed seven people. When she was a child, her carpenter dad took a second job transporting industrial chemicals and, after fumes leaked into the cab of the truck, foamed at the mouth in an emergency room. Her uncle died when his tractor slid off a muddy bridge and pinned him to a creek bed. Her great-grandma was raped while closing a small Wichita hamburger stand. Her grandma chased and counseled felons as a cop and probation officer (but was shot at home by an ex-husband with her own gun). Your mom’s mom spent many summers under a hot tent (with your tiny mom), in a field whose stubble was sometimes on fire, unloading and peddling Chinese fireworks that are now illegal. There were many other dangerous jobs, homes, and men. Taking all this into account, your mom—the accidental daughter of a very smart and rightfully angry teenager—decided early to do things differently than everyone around her. That meant she would not drink, smoke, have sex, or get any grade but an A until she had a job and a home where she was safe.
Your mom got a full ride to the biggest university in Kansas, the only school to which she applied. The guidance counselor at her 300-student, rural high school—which had no Advanced Placement program and sketched out for her a loose individualized education plan with a teacher for gifted students who served multiple underfunded school districts—had forgotten to tell her she should take the SAT, which many top universities required of applicants. (She did take the Preliminary SAT one morning, somehow, but was exhausted from waiting tables at Pizza Hut the previous night and, thinking it inconsequential practice, answered questions with uncharacteristic carelessness. Weeks later, the counselor approached her in the hallway. “You only missed National Merit by a few points,” he said. “What’s National Merit?” she asked.) She experienced her enrollment at the University of Kansas as a supreme success, though, attributed in part to not drinking or smoking but, above all, to not letting a single penis anywhere near her vagina.
A few days after she turned 18, your mom loaded the back seat of her car, which she bought with money earned at the grain elevator and at a Best Western reservations call center in Wichita, with her books, swing CDs, corduroy, and journals. She drove alone three hours from the dirt road to the county blacktop to the interstate to her new town, following directions she’d carefully highlighted in mailed packets back in her bedroom. (This was, at least among a certain class, just before the Digital Age.) When she found her dorm room, her three roommates were there with their parents, who wrote them checks when they left.
She’d intended to be a paleontologist, but after she’d said as much for years, when she was 10 or so your well-meaning grandpa asked what a paylia-whatever was, shook his head, and told her that a girl could be a teacher or a nurse.
Your mom took many jobs that freshman year. She worked the front desk at her dorm, taking messages and sorting care packages from mothers into appropriate mail bins. She tutored mostly black junior high students in Kansas City and Topeka. She organized and led a mostly white environmental cleanup crew at Lake Erie over spring break. She worked on the stage crew for a major performing arts center and wrote popular columns for the college paper. She often was recognized on campus, though, as “the Loveline girl,” a moniker that arose when Adam Carolla pointed her out as “a piece of candy you can’t unwrap” before thousands at the performing arts center where she worked, and later as the featured guest in a black cowboy hat at a party launching the first-ever “Women of KU” calendar, who later declined to be featured in said calendar. Your mom always acted composed and self-assured, but it was a harrowing task, discerning among the vocations inherited from her family, suggested by the world and authentic to herself.
Your mom double-majored in journalism and creative writing. (She was among the first in her family to finish high school, so she received little reliable advice on such matters. She’d intended to be a paleontologist, but after she’d said as much for years, when she was 10 or so your well-meaning grandpa asked what a paylia-whatever was, shook his head, and told her that a girl could be a teacher or a nurse. This struck her as a benign opinion until the day she recalled his words as a student ran toward her saying, “Professor Smarsh!”) She got straight As. She got a little drunk but not too drunk. She barely let a single penis anywhere near her vagina.
After her front desk gig and dorm government involvement, the housing department offered your mom a coveted resident assistant position for her sophomore year. She declined because the placement was for the all-girls dorm where most greek pledges lived until moving into their respective sorority houses as upperclassmen. Making her home in such an environment, where girls indirectly abused one another, she imagined, would sap what not even Lilith Fair could restore. But her current approach to self-sustenance, working several minimum wage jobs while taking 18 credit hours of honors courses per semester, wasn’t sustainable either. She was 19 and tired. Sometimes she had to steal food. (There no doubt were less-draconian options—slow down, take fewer classes, work even longer hours—that she either rejected or couldn’t see.) She needed fast money, both in yield per hour and in the immediate form of cash. She heard a high school friend had worked at Hooters. She’d been hearing about her own breasts the last few years. So that summer she put on the orange shorts and the tank top with the owl.
Most of her fellow Hooters Girls enjoyed their roles, it seemed; they accepted invitations to caddy for NBA players at golf tournaments or attend parties after last call or hold carwashes in the parking lot to attract customers from the highway. Your mom, though, drew a durable line between herself and her job and stuck to the necessities: put on the uniform, show up, take orders, set beer and chicken wings on tables, collect payment. She smiled; she worked quickly and efficiently. She relished slow shifts that allowed for existential conversations with chain-smoking cooks or for learning about the children and modeling dreams and military husbands of her fellow waitresses, who were startled by her interest and obliged with photos and stories.
She took any chance to sell merchandise rather than serve beer. Merch girls were slightly detached from broader operations; they wore all-black getups that set them apart on the floor and, without the kitchen-staff middlemen required for food sales, enjoyed considerable opportunity to rob the place blind. On nights peddling merch, your mom, the quiet Hooters Girl in black, dispensed golf balls, key chains, and T-shirts bearing the corporate slogan’s unnecessary comma and apparently unintentional redundancy of meaning, and she neglected to report about a quarter of the proceeds.
Your mom didn’t hesitate to steal a little from Hooters. She knew the people who ran the joint stole a little from it, too. And she didn’t worry about getting caught. In junior high she’d walked out of drugstores with entire sets of Topps baseball cards under her jacket; she enjoyed the cards for a while and then sold them (except the Kevin Seitzer rookie card, with which she couldn’t bear to part) to buy Christmas presents for her family. Back then, at night she cried and prayed fervently to the Holy Trinity for forgiveness. By college she was less convinced about where the guilt lay. She didn’t hesitate to steal a little.
She clenched when she cautiously mentioned her job to her 15-year-old brother, who openly cherished her as a hero.
She did, however, hesitate every time she drove to work, first in Wichita and then in a wealthy Kansas City suburb. The entire Hooters corporation, whose inner workings she saw laid bare, was in her eyes a cynical affront to many things, perhaps most of all the souls of men. But any judgments she passed on Hooters and its trappings were, of course, judgments on herself; an indignant, self-righteous Hooters Girl is still a Hooters Girl, and the meaning of her title is up to her. For plenty of her coworkers, it seemed, the title meant fun, attention, happiness, power, which she never begrudged. But for your mom, right or wrong, it meant sacrifice and discomfort. She clenched when she cautiously mentioned her job to her 15-year-old brother, once a tiny child she’d cared for in many ways, who openly cherished her as a hero. He wept. “Don’t lower yourself,” he said, snot running out of his nose.
After less than a year of feeling uncomfortable at Hooters, keeping her job a secret from most and agonizing over its implications, your mom remembered the question she began asking when she was little, before her ovaries dispensed their eggs. When she met a crossroads in her strategic pursuit of a life that nurtured rather than poisoned, she’d ask herself, What would I want for my daughter? As in, what would she advise you to do? When your mom imagined you, even during her own childhood, translucent neck hairs stood up in wonder. The love was beyond categorization and made clear the right course of action. If you felt naked yet unseen, coveted yet unappreciated in some uniform, what would she want for you?
She quit Hooters.
What would I want for my daughter?
The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.
She claimed she wanted all those things for herself, but that didn’t always get the job done. So your mom treated herself as sacred because you so obviously would be, and because she had enough sense to know that if one person is sacred, she must be, too.
This way of being raised some eyebrows. Your mom absolutely cared what people thought of her and daily sought courage to bypass that concern when it countered your (her) highest good. In terror and discomfort, she broke much more important commitments than a Hooters contract, because even pretty-OK-but-not-quite-right wouldn’t be good enough for you. Once, in a single year, your mom experienced two back injuries and, seeing that she wasn’t cared for, ended a 15-year relationship with a good-hearted man who didn’t touch her; had her personal life introduced as a discussion topic among well-intentioned male colleagues and, discerning a broad institutional context of gender disparity, resigned five months after gaining tenure; found out your grandma had advanced breast cancer and, realizing that we’ll all die, sold most of her belongings, put her house on the market, and drove west to connect with the mom who’d been too young to raise her.
What would I want for my daughter?
The idea of you delivered her; she became the girl she loved. Spirit-child midwife, thank you. If one day you are manifest in this heavy, confusing form and face a tough decision, you might ask two questions:
What would I do for the most precious thing on Earth?
What would I do for myself?
You will know your own integrity when the answers are the same.