At Hooters, Men are Men and the Women are Girls. Anbody got a problem with that?

October 2, 2012

The metamorphosis of woman to Girl and breast to Hooter takes place in the privacy of mid-morning, when the restaurant isn’t yet open and everything is still quiet. The Hula-Hoops, at this point, are still hanging from hooks. The air smells only faintly of frying oil. The beer is cold, but none has been served. The TVs are off. The music is low. The parking lot is empty, and none of the customers who will soon fill this place have arrived -- not the businessmen with their eager eyes, nor the regulars who bring cameras and take photographs even though they already have hundreds, nor the women who always seem to walk in with tight smiles, nor the occasional families who always seem to come in with Dad leading the way, nor the two men who will have a quick discussion while standing at the urinals about what they’ve seen so far:

“Some nice ones.”

“I’ll say.”

“Always nice to be served good beer by someone with good cleavage.”

“And not afraid to show it, either.”

All of this is to come, but in the morning, when the women are still women and their breasts are still breasts, the only activity has to do with getting ready for another day on the job.

Jennifer is brushing her hair because, as it says in the employee handbook, “Hair is to be styled at all times.” Katrina is dusting on Cover Girl because, “Makeup is to be worn at all times.” Denise is adjusting the pantyhose under her shorts because, “Pantyhose are to be worn at all times.” Elizabeth is adjusting her bra, which, like everyone else’s, is white, because, “White bras are to be worn at all times.”

The handbook, 36 pages long, covers everything from an opening motto -- “A fun place to work!” -- to the procedures for reporting sexual harassment, but it is the two-page section under the heading of “Image, Grooming and Uniform Standards” that governs what is going on at the moment. Not only does it define the overall look the women are supposed to achieve, that of “the all-American cheerleader, surfer, girl next door,” but it also describes how exactly to get there.

“Socks are to be white . . . Tennis shoes are to be 100 percent white . . . The orange Dolfin shorts must fit comfortably . . . They should never be so small that the buttocks show . . . If a snag or run should occur, the pantyhose must be changed . . . The only color allowed is suntan . . . The shirt must fit with no bagginess . . . Under no circumstances should bra straps ever show . . . Fingernails are to be well-groomed . . . Jewelry is to be minimal . . . No chokers are to be worn . . . We will also enforce the non-showing of body tattoos or body piercing . . .”

Fifteen minutes until opening.

“Okay, everybody, listen up,” says Darryl Cook, the restaurant’s general manager, emerging from his office. He is 24 years old, which is only a few years older than most of the women, all of whom look up at the sound of his voice but don’t stop what they’re doing. He tells them the sales goals for the day while Rhonda smokes a final cigarette. He tells them about an upcoming inspection by the regional manager while Diane slips out of her sweat pants. He picks up a remote and begins turning on the 10 overhead TVs while Cherry ties her shoes and Emily pins on her name tag and Jennifer gobbles down 10 packages of Saltines because once things get going who knows when there will be time for a break, and then he looks around.

“Everybody ready?”

They are -- except for one final adjustment.

“Can you tie me?” Elizabeth asks.

She walks over to Darryl, turns her back to him and lifts her hair, and he grabs the bottom of her tank-top shirt with both hands, pulls it toward him and ties it into a tight knot just under the clasp of her bra.

Rhonda’s next. “Here, Darryl,” she says, offering him the back of her tank top, and when she’s done Joann comes over, and then comes Diane, and then comes Emily, and then comes Jennifer, and then come the rest, one by one, until all the shirts are knotted in a way that bulges breasts and deepens cleavage, and that’s how the metamorphosis is completed.

Just in time, too.

In come the first customers of the day. Down sweep their eyes.

“Hi, guys,” the Hooters Girls say.

The restaurant, of course, is called Hooters, and you can find it in Fairfax City, not on the edge of town like some low-rent strip joint, but toward the center of things. It’s on Lee Highway, across from the Red Lobster and next to the Blockbuster video, the place with all the cars in the parking lot.

That’s its physical location. Its cultural location, somewhere between the old Playboy Clubs and a hangout at the beach, is more complicated, especially in the responses it evokes. Tell your male friends you’ll be spending some time at Hooters, and they invariably ask if you want company. Tell your wife, and she laughs a little and says, “Your dream come true.” Then tell your 13-year-old daughter, and the slightly bewildered way she says, “That’s the place where all the waitresses have big breasts, right?” makes it clear that in this day and age, so advanced, so progressive, so evolved, she is curious as to why grown men would go there. And that’s the thing. In this day and age, they do. In droves. The Hooters in Fairfax, which grosses $2 million a year, is part of an expanding chain that currently numbers 183 restaurants in 37 states and Canada and grosses $300 million a year. Most of that is for food, some of it is for beer, and some of it is for merchandise such as T-shirts with wink-wink sayings like “Hooters -- more than a mouthful.” But what’s really for sale, as Hooters executives are happy to acknowledge, is precisely what the name implies. “Tasteful, socially acceptable, female sex appeal,” is how Mike McNeil, Hooters’ vice president for marketing, puts it. Or as it says on the last page of the employee handbook, the page employees have to sign in front of a witness before they can begin working, “I hereby acknowledge and affirm that the Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and that the work environment is one in which joking and innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace.”

A Hooters joke: “Men -- no shirt, no service. Women -- no shirt, free food,” says a sign by the door.

Some Hooters innuendo: The corporate logo, registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is a drawing of an owl with the word “Hooters” written across it in such a way that the two Os are big, round, full, voluptuous . . . eyes.

Thus, Hooters.

Not that, as concepts go, this is anything new. There is a long, successful relationship between breasts and commerce, and in the case of Hooters, since the first one opened 13 years ago in Clearwater, Fla., its formula has changed hardly at all. In those same 13 years, however, the social changes beyond Hooters’ doors have been substantial, particularly when it comes to what constitutes appropriate behavior between women and men, and that’s what makes what goes on inside Hooters worth paying attention to. In 1983, for instance, there were 4,476 sexual harassment complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; last year there were 15,549. In 1983, corporate policies defining appropriate behavior were, if not an anomaly, still being refined; now they are so entrenched, with so many rigid penalties, that some men wonder whether it’s okay to even look at a woman anymore.

And then it’s lunchtime, or quitting time, or the weekend, and here come the guys from the AT&T complex up the road in Vienna, and the car dealerships along Lee Highway, and the federal government annexes in the nearby corporate parks, all headed to a place where not only is it okay to look, but also to say things like a customer named Wilson says one day to a Hooters Girl named Candy: “Candy, if I ever say anything to offend you, throw your arms around me and wrestle me to the floor.” And Candy laughs, maybe because she thinks Wilson is funny, or maybe because, like another sign near the door says, “Even if you’re not funny, we’ll still laugh.”

That’s Hooters. Day after day after day.

In comes a customer. He buys a T-shirt that he wants autographed. “My Hooters to you,” his Hooters Girl writes.

In comes another customer. He watches his Hooters Girl lean toward him. Feels her pat him on the back. Isn’t aware of the sign she has just taped to him, which will still be there when he leaves. “Sex machine,” it says.

In any culture, somewhere behind the clear and permanent line that separates right from wrong, is a second line, less clear and always in transition, that separates what’s acceptable from what isn’t. “I think one of the things we do is go right up to the line while rarely, if ever, crossing it,” says Mike McNeil of the Hooters formula, and maybe that’s so. Or maybe not.

Either way, though, to spend time at Hooters is to think about where the line is at the moment.

The Girls:

There are 10,000 across the country, 40 in Fairfax. Most are young, many are in college, some are married, a few are mothers, and every one can remember her first day on the job. “The uniform was a little, I don’t want to say unnerving, but a little uncomfortable,” says Katrina. “It was uncomfortable,” says Margie. “I was uncomfortable for like a month,” says Kristi. “Oh God. Nerve-racking. Very self-conscious at first,” says Jen, “but after a while I didn’t think about it.” Some of the Girls put their real first names on their name tags, others use nicknames. Some don’t mind telling customers their last names, while others won’t because of things that occasionally happen, like the customer who began calling a Girl at home and wouldn’t stop, and the man who called the restaurant several nights in a row, always asking the same series of questions of whoever answered the phone: “What kind of shoes do you wear? Do you wear thin socks or thick socks? Do you ever walk barefoot? Would you wear Hush Puppies for me?”

So Julie, just Julie, describes herself as 24, a college student two classes away from a psychology degree, and a feminist. “I know it’s an oxymoron,” she says, “but if men want to pay me more for wearing this uniform, I’ll take it, and use it to pay my college tuition, and laugh all the way to the bank.”

Meanwhile, Rhonda, who goes by the nickname Bubbles, is telling a customer, “You know, the other night I must have ate something,” and he is hanging on every word as she goes on. “I got a rash here,” she says, stroking her left arm. “And here,” she says, stroking her midriff. “And here,” she says, stroking the back of her thigh. “Anything I can do?” asks the customer. “You can kiss it and make it better,” she says.

Meanwhile, Diane, who goes by the name Shakemaster every now and then, is lighting some candles on a cake for a 14-year-old boy named Jeff Brown. “It’s my birthday, and I decided that one of my birthday presents would be to come to Hooters,” he says, sitting at a table with some friends while his parents sit several tables away. Out comes the cake. He stands. Diane holds it in front of her. He starts to blow out the candles. First his breath hits her face, and then comes an amazing amount of smoke. She winces. He keeps blowing. She closes her eyes. And blowing. She turns her head, and only when she hears applause does she blink her eyes open and turn back. “Happy birthday,” she says.

Meanwhile, Jennifer, who routinely receives the biggest tips of all the Girls, no matter what section she works in, even the dreaded “Vacation Station,” which consists of four non-smoking tables in a far corner, is explaining some of the techniques she and some of the other Girls use. “I joke around with people a lot,” she says. “A lot of people are regulars, and we just talk. Or we tie shrimp to people, to their belt loops. Or we’ll tie their shoes together, or their shoes to chair legs, mainly drunk people, or we take a plastic cup and put holes in and cover the holes and walk it over carefully and the guy gets all wet. Or we put notes on people, anything from Kick me’ to . . . anything, anything to make everyone laugh, anything to embarrass people. You embarrass a guy, and his friends love you for life.” And? “You get bigger tips.”

Meanwhile, Angie, who used to be a Hooters Girl and is now the restaurant’s promotions manager, is trying to explain why she gets letters and phone calls every day from people who want Hooters Girls in their charity golf tournaments, in their walk-a-thons, in their parades. It has to do with “attitude,” she says, and “personality,” and the basic difference between a Hooters Girl and a waitress. “I know it sounds trivial, but Hooters Girls do much more than serve food,” she is saying. For instance? “They’ll sit down with customers. They’ll peel your shrimp. They’ll debone your chicken wings.”

Meanwhile, in the mail is a letter with a postmark from France. “Here, Jennifer,” Darryl says, tossing it to her. She looks at it. She’s gotten several letters since a pictorial of her appeared in a recent issue of Hooters Magazine, but France? Really? “Dear Jennifer,” she begins to read, “I saw your photos . . .” while Caren, another Hooters Girl, studies the return address. “Look where he’s from, Jennifer,” she says, pointing excitedly. “Brest.” Which of course makes Jennifer laugh, and then she finishes the letter, and goes to check on her tables, and the day goes on from there. At one point, looking out the front window, she sees two people she doesn’t know, both of them grotesquely overweight and shabbily dressed, in the midst of a clumsy embrace. “Darryl,” she hollers, “your parents are here.” The Guys:

They eat big burgers and buckets of oysters and piles of greasy fries; and they whoop and applaud when Katrina tries to do five Hula-Hoops at once; and they’re not shy about slathering on the hot sauce and mayo; and there’s a guy happily sawing into his cheesesteak; and there’s a guy chomping on a glistening load of chicken wings; and there’s a guy ripping off a hunk of his sandwich and dipping it into a puddle of ketchup; and there’s a guy using his fifth napkin of the meal, this time to wipe off a smear that’s making his chin shiny; and there’s a guy who’s sitting by himself blowing smoke rings while watching the Girls go by; and there’s a guy on a wobbly path to the restroom, unaware that he has about 10 feet of string attached to his belt loop with a raw shrimp on the end; and there’s a guy celebrating his birthday, which means his Hooters Girl is tying a coffee filter with two balloons attached to it to his head; and here come some guys who are on their way out, their meal over, their guts expanded, their tongues working their teeth, trailing onion fumes as they ease past Janet, who’s standing by the door, smelling of perfume. She’s the hostess this shift. She loves being the hostess. “When I’m hostessing,” she says, watching Katrina walk past a table and the guys regarding her rear end, “I can see everything.”

In comes a tableful of guys from the State Department, here to say goodbye to Steve Curry, who’s being transferred to Austria. This is the unofficial goodbye, they emphasize. The official one, with secretaries and speeches, will be at a Mexican restaurant. “It’s politically incorrect to have that party at Hooters,” Dave Kirby explains.

In come Andy Zino and Bill Bussman, who have been visiting Hooters up and down the East Coast, traveling with ceramic mugs from Germany that look uncannily like the Hooters owl, and also with Bussman’s 3-year-old daughter, Katie. “In Connecticut, they gave her a baby Hooters T-shirt,” says Andy. He turns to Bill. “What does hers say?” “Life begins at Hooters,” Bill says. Now he turns to Katie. “What’s your favorite T-shirt?” “Hooters,” she says.

In comes John Morris, one of the regulars, whose nickname is Candyman because he always brings in a bag of candy for the Girls. This day, he also has a photo album. “Here’s my life’s work,” he says. He opens it up to the title page: “The Girls of Hooters.” He starts going through the photographs. There must be 300 of them. “Here’s Elizabeth . . . That’s Joann . . . That picture is a censored picture. Denise got a tattoo on her butt and asked me to go out on the patio and take a picture of it, and all the other girls ran out there and pulled up their shorts . . . That’s Katrina. Doesn’t she look like Pocahontas? We sent her picture to Disney, and they sent her an outfit . . . That’s Katrina in her Pocahontas outfit . . .”

In comes John Mullen, another regular, whose van is decorated with photographs of Hooters Girls that he has placed on top of the dashboard, and around the bed in the back, and on a special shelf that runs along the top of the windshield. Obsessive? “Yeah, I guess you’d say I am,” he says, and yet there’s one more decoration he wants. “I’m having four Hooters Girls painted on the back,” he says, “and I’m going to be a ghost in the middle, and my arms are going to be coming around them, ghostlike, covering their tops.”

In comes another regular, Don Howison, a retiree, who shows up almost every day for a grilled cheese. “I had a hamburger, once, and had a heart attack,” he says, “right here,” and explains that it was last July, and he was sitting in Denise’s section, and he felt a tingling in his arm, and then a tightening in his chest, “and the next thing I knew they were taking me out of here in an ambulance.”

“And what I did tell you about that?” says Denise, who has been listening to this.

“If I’m going to have a heart attack, do it while I’m sitting with Jennifer.”

“That’s right.”

In comes Doug Waltz, sort of a regular, who says that his wife, seven months pregnant, isn’t thrilled that he stops here from time to time.

“She says, How do you think I feel sitting at home while you go to Hooters?’

“I say, It has nothing to do with the way I feel about you.’

“She says, The mere fact that you’re going outside to feel wanted means I’m not doing my job.’

“But to me, love and this place is like apples and oranges.”

So here he is, among the oranges, drinking a beer with a co-worker named Tony and engaging in what he says is one of man’s most basic needs, one that goes back to the very beginnings of life, “and this will sound totally sexist,” he warns, “to spread his seed out to as many females as possible.” Not that he can actually do that. He’s a married man. He has his wife’s photo in his wallet. He loves her. He has a baby on the way. But he can flirt, he says, must flirt, can’t help it, it’s innate, and what better way to do it than in a place where there are women who automatically flirt back? “I mean it’s a win-win situation,” he says, as Tony nods in agreement. “The girl will get some tips and the guy will walk out feeling that he’s still got it.”

“It’s that feeling you can still be attractive outside your primary relationship,” says Tony. “I mean I’d be miserable if I felt the only woman attracted to me in the world was my wife.”

“I agree,” says Doug.

“I mean miserable,” says Tony. “There’s a basic emotional difference between men and women. I think women might not want a place like this. Men need it.”

“Exactly,” says Doug.

“The need to conquer,” says Tony.

“Even if it’s staged,” says Doug.

In comes a woman named Lynne Austin, who takes a seat at a table with five other people. This isn’t in the Fairfax Hooters, but in the original, in Clearwater. “It’s cold as a witch’s tit in here,” says Lynne, and everyone at the table laughs.

“How are you?” asks a man named Ed Droste.

“Fine,” she says, “now that my mammogram’s over.”

“Wish we could have been there,” Ed says.

Everyone laughs again.

“Anything wrong?”

“A lump,” she says. “I think it’s a cyst, though.”

“What’d the doctor say?”

“He was kind of vague,” she says. “I think he was just kind of happy to be playing with them,” and everyone laughs some more, including Lynne herself, and the conversation moves pleasantly on from there as if no one is giving a second thought to the idea that Lynne Austin, the original Hooters Girl, might have something growing inside one of her breasts.

Thirteen years before this, when she was 22, Lynne was on the beach, taking part in a bikini contest, when Ed Droste and five other guys approached her and said they were starting some kind of restaurant. No one can remember if they actually used the term Hooters Girl, but they told her they were looking for a woman who would personify what they were trying to create, which was a fun place, a wholesomely sexy place, a laid-back-beer-and-chicken-wings kind of place that, by the way, would be called Hooters. What they didn’t tell her was that, to use Ed Droste’s description, they were “six guys who didn’t know what they were doing,” and that one of their motivations in starting Hooters was to have a place they could drink and not get thrown out of. They simply said, “We’re looking for somebody just like you,” and for Lynne, who was working at the time as a telephone operator, that turned out to be enough. They dressed her up in an outfit like the one Ed Droste’s secretary would wear while playing softball, took a picture of her and put it on a billboard, and they opened for business, never expecting it all to get so big.

But, in steady increments, it did. A single restaurant became two the following year, and 30 after five years, and more than 100 after 10 years, and plans are for more than 200 to be in operation by the end of this year. The breasts-and-commerce relationship may not be new, but Hooters has mainstreamed it in a way that has put the Baltimore location in the Inner Harbor, and the Minneapolis location in the Mall of America, and one of the Atlanta locations next to a Toys R Us. “Melons. Knockers. Tweeters. Tooters. Jugs ‘n’ Suds,” Ed Droste says, trying to remember the names of imitators that have come and gone over the years. “I don’t know, there’s probably a dozen.” Meanwhile, Hooters of America, the company that controls the franchise rights, has plans to go into Australia, Brazil and the Far East. There are also Hooters-sponsored golf tournaments, car races and boat races. There’s a charitable arm called the Hooters Community Endowment Fund. There’s a Hooters Girl calendar that is said to bring in about $2 million a year. There are Hooters Girl trading cards and clothing and dolls. There’s a Hooters call-in radio show that can be heard on the west coast of Florida, and a deal in the works for a movie that Ed describes as what you could expect “if you bred Cheers’ with Friends’ with Hooters with Baywatch.’ “ And, of course, there are franchise opportunities still available for people with at least $600,000 in start-up money, not including real estate costs, for which they will get a specific set of guidelines to follow that shows the maturation of Hooters from a seat-of-the-pants outfit into a formalized, thoroughly marketable concept:

Wooden tables because men like wood; TVs always tuned to ESPN because what else would a man want to watch; the volume on the TVs all the way down so as not to interfere with the music; music that is mostly ‘50s and ‘60s rock-and-roll because anything more current might be too edgy; photo packages of smiling Hooters Girls and celebrities to decorate the walls; and, for an especially visible location, such as directly above the pay phones, which is the way they do it in Fairfax, a picture of Lynne, taken as part of her Playboy centerfold pictorial, the pictorial that was essential in boosting Hooters’ popularity, in which she seems to be doing something with her nipples. Not that you can tell exactly because, at least in Fairfax, a strip of paper has been placed specifically across the center of her breasts, which is part of the Hooters deal as well -- breasts but no nipples, hints rather than prurience, flirting but no come-ons.

All of this is what has evolved over 13 years, and in that same time Lynne Austin has evolved as well: married, a child, divorced, as attractive as ever but not in the same way as 13 years ago on the beach. The original billboard, still visible in places, freezes her at a specific moment. As does the Playboy picture. But that was published in July 1986. Things move on, and now, the day after the meal at Hooters, she is feeling, if not betrayed, certainly not at the top of her form.

It turns out she hasn’t had the mammogram yet, just the initial consultation with the doctor, who told her he didn’t think a biopsy was necessary, but that a mammogram would be. Then, after lunch, she went to the dentist, who told her that because her pretty, white, perfect teeth were so tiny it would be hard to do a crown, and then he went to work, carving back her gum line. It took an hour and a half and a lot of Novocaine, and now, the next day, she is at home, no orange shorts on, no little shirt, no knot in the back, no makeup, her face still swollen, recuperating in the company of her son, a 6-year-old who is on the couch watching cartoons.

She remembers when Ed Droste first approached her and said he considered her to be the embodiment of the all-American, cheerleader, girl next door, which was news to her. “I’d never really considered myself anything,” she says.

She remembers what came next: money, travel, interesting people, lots of parties. “It opened up a whole new world to me.”

And next: “When I was pregnant, and I gained 33 pounds, it changed how I thought about myself and my body. I had a big stomach, and suddenly I was sagging and dragging, and it made me step back and think. At first, I didn’t like it: I’m a Hooters Girl. I’m a Playmate, Miss July 1986. What am I going to do?’ And now he’s here, and I don’t care anymore if there’s cellulite on my butt. Now it’s not, If I’m physically unhealthy, what am I going to do?’ but, If I’m not healthy, who’s going to raise my son?’ “

So, a mammogram. A man has one kind of relationship with a breast, a woman has another.

“Yeah, a Hooters Girl grows up,” she says. Back in Fairfax:

“Everyone strives to be like Lynne Austin,” Angie is saying, looking at a photograph of her. This isn’t the one above the phone, but another, meant as instruction, posted in the back near the locker area, that shows how a Hooters Girl is supposed to look. There, under her shirt and bra, are the perfect breasts. There, in a big smile, are the perfect teeth. “She is the epitome,” Angie says. “She is the complete package.”

Time for another shift. Darryl is tying the last of the knots. “Ow!” says Kavitha. “My God! I’m kind of sunburned, you know.” Meanwhile, out on the patio, a few of the Girls are looking over the railing and into the bushes, where a mother duck has been sitting on a nest full of eggs. They first noticed her a couple of weeks ago, and everyone took turns coming out to look. “She’s hungry. Look at her. I can tell,” said one of the Girls. “I wish I had my 12-gauge with me,” said one of the cooks. “You’re going to hell for that,” said another of the Girls, and since then they’ve been feeding the duck raw shrimp and dropping slow streams of water onto her back during the hot part of the day. Now, Angie trickles some water onto her again and wonders how long it will be before the eggs hatch. It’s a lazy morning. Only a few customers have come in so far, so some of the Girls hoist themselves up onto the patio railing, which causes some of the drivers on Lee Highway to swivel their heads and honk their horns.

“Love your hooters,” one of them yells.

“Yeah, Hooked on Phonics’ worked for you,” shouts back Diane.

They all laugh. Jennifer, who’s been dating a Baltimore Orioles baseball player, says she sat in the wives section the other night. “Ee-nor-mous rings,” she says. Caren inspects her fingernails, extra long and squared off. “I’ve had them for three years,” she says, “and when I don’t have them I hide my fingers from people because they don’t look as good.” Jennifer mentions that when she was having her photograph taken for Hooters Magazine, there was another Girl at the photo shoot with thick blond hair who turned out to have some kind of hair extension sewn into the back of her scalp. They all have things they do, though. Angie puts Preparation H under her eyes to reduce swelling. Angel waxes her eyebrows. Diane waxes her lips, and washes her face in something called cleansing milk, and puts on concealer around her eyes, and applies liquid foundation to her entire face, and puts on powder for a matte finish, and then, “to give the illusion of fuller lips,” edges them with lip liner. “I’m actually goddam ugly,” she laughs. And the point is to look good. “That’s why we diet,” says Angie, speaking not just of Hooters Girls but of women in general. “That’s why we exercise. That’s why we wear makeup. I do want to be appreciated as a woman, and part of being a woman is being beautiful.”

The morning goes on. More customers come in, and the Girls peel off, one by one, until the only one left is Diane, who, when she’s not a Hooters Girl, is a criminal justice major at the University of Maryland with an A average, and before that attended a science-and-technology magnet high school where her grades enabled her to skip her senior year, and, over the years, has gotten used to the feeling of being noticed not for her intelligence but for her looks. It is a fact of her life, she says, that wherever she goes she is looked at, stared at, ogled. True enough, she goes to get her car serviced one day, and as she heads to the waiting room, the mechanic says, “Why don’t you come out and talk to me? Don’t be shy.” From there she goes to Tysons Corner, and as she walks along any number of men stare at her, an old man walking with his wife, a father who is giving his young daughter a ride on his shoulders, and then she goes into a store where, as always happens, the salesmen are especially attentive. And if that’s all it was, she says, that would be fine. “An appreciative glance is not inappropriate behavior,” she says. But there are the other times. In school: “My psych professor demeaned me in front of the whole class. He said I was a manipulator, and I manipulated people by my looks to get what I want. He made me cry, and I ran from the room.” At the gynecologist: “In the middle of a pap smear, he said, So, you go to a tanning salon? You don’t have any tan lines.’ I was, Okay, that’s it. Let’s end this.’ I was disgusted.” After a traffic accident: “This was, like, 10 at night, and the next thing I know, I go home, and I get called around 12, and it’s a trooper who was at the accident. Do you remember the other trooper? He needs to talk to you. Can he call you tomorrow?’ And he calls me the next day and asks me out -- I thought you were very beautiful . . . Why don’t we catch a movie?’ I couldn’t believe it.” At the 7-Eleven, just this morning, before work: “One guy follows me around the store, and then they’re hitting each other like they’re 13-year-olds. Did you see her?’ “ And then she arrives at Hooters, and, really, what’s the difference, she says, except that, in an odd way, its predictability makes her feel safer. “Let me tell you. We do become cynical. Every Girl in here is cynical,” she says. “But is that from Hooters? No. That’s from my life.”

In she goes. The place is filling up. “Hey, baby,” a regular named Chris Miller says to her as she passes by. She smiles and keeps going. “She’s a cool chick,” says Kirk Kennedy, who’s sitting with Chris.

Now Candy walks past their table.

“Oh man,” says Chris.

“I love that girl,” says Kirk.

Now Janet walks past.

“I love that girl, man,” says Kirk.

“He loves them all,” says Chris.

“I ask them to marry me,” says Kirk. “A couple of them said yes.”

Now Lauren walks past.

“Oh God,” says Kirk. “I love Lauren.”

Now Rhonda walks past.

“You’re killing me,” says Kirk.

Now Kavitha walks past.

“Oh man. My favorite,” says Kirk. “I love them all, but I love her the best. She knows I love her the best. I’ve told her a hundred times.”

Now Janet walks past again.

“Janet,” calls Chris. “Come here, Janet.”

“I’m coming,” says Janet, continuing on a path to another table.

“Bitch,” says Chris quietly.

Now Candy walks past again and stands near the cash register.

“Come here,” Chris calls to her.

She ignores him.

“Come here,” Chris repeats, snapping his fingers.

“No, thank you,” she says, turning away.

She won’t even look at him.

“I called her Susan,” Chris says, explaining what he did earlier in the day. “I call everybody Susan. But she’s got a friend who killed herself, or got killed or something, named Susan. I don’t know.”

He keeps looking at her.

“She’s got a nice butt, though.”

A few minutes later:

“Candy,” he calls.

Nothing.

“I only try so hard. Then I bail. Screw you, bitch.”

Later:

“Candy . . . Candy . . .”

Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away, through the trees and into a neighborhood of split levels, live the Mershons. Sam Mershon is a member of the Fairfax City Council. Hollis Stambaugh Mershon is a consultant to various government agencies on arson and terrorist issues. They are also the parents of two daughters, for whom they have great wishes and dreams, which is why Sam is saying one afternoon of how he views Hooters, “How you view it is as a bad role model for kids. The last thing you want is a kid who thinks, If I have a good body and good looks, I’ll make it.’ I mean, I have two kids who I think are going to be knockouts, and the last thing I want for them . . .”

“Is to work at Hooters,” says Hollis, finishing the thought.

“It has to do with what’s valued by society,” Sam goes on, “and I don’t want their value to be based on . . .”

“Their bra size,” says Hollis.

And it goes without saying that the Mershons won’t be found any time soon inside Hooters. Four years ago, in fact, just before the grand opening, they were among 100 or so people who signed a petition urging Hooters to, among other things, change the “offensive” name of the restaurant and give employees the option of wearing uniforms other than those “demeaning to women.” They handed in the petition and waited for a response.

This wasn’t the first time Hooters had been confronted with a complaint. There have been a half-dozen sexual harassment lawsuits filed over the years by a total of 15 ex-Hooters Girls, all variations on a Florida case that alleged an atmosphere that “subjected plaintiff to an endless torrent of sexually inappropriate remarks, demands for sex, and uninvited touchings that created a situation in which no reasonable woman would have continued to work.” Four of those suits have been settled, according to Hooters, and two are still pending.

In addition, there is also a pending class-action sex discrimination suit concerning the issue of whether Hooters should have to hire males as food servers. This has been Hooters’ biggest battle to date, and also became its most public when it took the offensive against the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was conducting its own investigation of the issue. By the time that part of it ended earlier this year with a decision by the EEOC to walk away, Hooters had spent well over $1 million on legal fees, on public relations advice, on newspaper ads showing a hairy man dressed up like a Hooters Girl under the headline, “Come on Washington -- Get a Grip,” and on the purchase of thousands of Frisbees that customers wrote notes on and sent, at Hooters’ expense, to the EEOC and members of Congress. “Gentlemen, Just what is wrong with a little all-American sex appeal?” reads one of several dozen that the EEOC still has around in a plastic garbage bag. “If Hooters was intended for men in the first place, they would have called it Balls,” reads another, and so on. Some were earnest, some were anti-Washington, some were anti-gay, and some were simply vulgar, leading EEOC spokeswoman Claire Gonzales to a final, philosophical analysis. “We’re one step above the animals, and we’re one step below the angels,” she says, “and there’s always going to be that tension.”

Compared with all that, the opposition of 100 people in Fairfax was nothing. In fact, it was expected. As Mike McNeil, the marketing vice president for Hooters, says, there is often a petition when a Hooters is about to open. Followed, he says, by the same news article that always includes the phrase “the highly controversial chain featuring scantily clad waitresses . . .” Followed by the same quotes: “Somebody from NOW is always good,” he says, “usually something like, We don’t like this concept because it objectifies females.’ And our response is, They certainly have a right to say that, but we don’t agree; we don’t objectify women, we employ them.’ “ Followed by the restaurant opening on time, as scheduled, and the customers flocking in, and the controversy fading away.

True to form, that’s what happened in Fairfax. The only headway opponents made was with the city’s architectural review board, which, after much discussion, required Hooters to keep its building a natural wood color rather than paint it blue-gray, and that was the end of it.

Except that four years later, the Mershons are as uncomfortable as ever.

“I see no reason to change my view,” says Hollis. “I continue to think it demeans women. I object to the name of the restaurant, and I object to the name being in such large letters, and I really object to it being in my back yard.”

“How about when they hang out outside?” says Sam.

“Yes,” says Hollis.

“In the summertime, they drape themselves over the railing,” explains Sam.

“They had three of them out last week with Hula-Hoops in the driveway,” says Hollis, and then, imagining how uptight this might sound, she says, “To people who say, Why don’t you relax,’ I wish I could. But I can’t relax when it’s a company whose primary method of doing business is based on a woman’s anatomy. I just can’t relax with that. It’s making that person an object. Maybe you have to be a woman to understand this. I’m 43. I grew up during the whole development of the women’s movement. I know how hard it’s been to break through barriers. I know how hard it’s been to get ahead.

“It’s like winking and blinking when somebody uses the word nigger’ or makes a religious slur,” she goes on. “ Oh big deal.’ It is a big deal. It all matters. It just perpetuates an attitude that I find unfortunate. I just find it very sad.”

To which Mike McNeil says, “This is not hurting anybody. This is not detrimental to society.”

He mentions that he, too, is a parent, and, yes, he has wishes and dreams like any father, and no, he wouldn’t mind if his infant daughter grew up to be a Hooters Girl. “If that’s something that interested her,” he says, “I’d hope she’d have the qualifications to do it.” He also mentions that the half-dozen sexual harassment lawsuits should be measured against the thousands of women over the years who haven’t filed lawsuits, and then he mentions all the charitable causes Hooters supports -- which it does, except that, as with so many aspects of Hooters, it is the details that are open to interpretation.

“All right, guys. It’s that time,” Angie says one day, standing just outside the clubhouse at a golf course in Centreville. It’s the day of the annual Hooters charity golf tournament, which will raise more than $6,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

On the other hand, a lot of that money comes from the Hooters Girl auction, in which Girls are auctioned off as caddies to the highest bidder.

“We’ve got all the Girls up here,” Angie announces, beginning the bidding, and within minutes all the Girls are taken, including Kristi, Janet and Margie, who have been selected as a package by one particular foursome.

Total price for the three of them: $750.

On the other hand, it’s all for charity, and as one of the foursome, Danny Horton, says, “I guess that’s the big reason we’re here.”

Off they go.

The guys play golf. The Girls watch. The guys are thirsty. The Girls open their beers. The guys are hungry. The Girls fetch their food. And ride hanging off the side of the carts. And dance while the guys are swinging. And chant, “Go, Sammy,” while Sammy is lining up a putt, and cheer when he makes it. And when he notices some mud that has splattered onto their pantyhose and says, “Let me lick that off,” they laugh. And when he emerges at one point from a port-a-john and says, “Whew! Don’t go in there,” they laugh at that, too. And when Phil is in the tall grass and tells them, “I’m trying to find my ball,” they say, “We know where your balls are”; and when he says, “Do one of you Girls want to hold this for me,” and offers them his half-smoked cigarette, they hold it for him; and then comes the moment when Sammy is putting and Kristi is standing next to him as he brings back his putter, farther and farther, until he suddenly lifts it and pokes her in the breast.

“Oh! A hooter!” he says, laughing.

On the other hand, Kristi is laughing, too.

Is this where the line is located, then? Just beyond the sound of two people laughing over a joke?

Or, as Mike McNeil suggests, is it actually beyond everything about Hooters, from the uniforms to the knots to the puns to the stares to what he calls the entire Hooters concept?

“It’s fun,” he says of what goes on day after day. No more, no less.

“Playful and fun,” says Angie. “It’s not trashy. It’s not dirty. It’s not sexual.”

“I thought it was funny,” says Kristi of the golf day. “We had a great time. Those guys were nuts.”

Or as it says in the handbook, “We feel that it is vital to be fun because fun is contagious and that’s what we want our customers to have.”

So: fun. And with that, one last day unfolds.

Lunchtime:

In come three men. Jennifer escorts them to her section. She pours their beers. She sneaks a sign onto the back of one of them that says, “G.W.M. in search of G.W.M.” She watches from a discreet distance as the guy gets up to go to the bathroom, and his friends see the sign, and figure out that G.W.M. means gay white male, and slap hands, and double over in laughter. She brings them a copy of the magazine she’s in and shows them her pictures, and now she shows them the part where, in response to the question, “What do you love?” she answered, “The Miracle Bra,” and now she smiles as one of them dumbly repeats, “Oh God, Miracle Bra,” and now she lets another one put his arm around her for a moment, and now she presents them with their $77 bill, and now she is counting her tip. “Two hundred dollars,” she says.

Mid-afternoon:

In comes the Candyman with a bagful of gum and licorice. In comes Don, his heart doing fine, with a present for Denise, a T-shirt he picked up at a Disney Store. In comes John, his van yet to be painted, also with a gift, a $150 ring that he takes out of a black velvet box and slips onto Margie’s finger. “Oh, thank you,” she says, hugging him. “You deserve it,” he says, and only after she is is beyond the range of his voice does he say that he thinks of the Girls as “family, not sexual objects,” and that he would never ask them out because, “that way, if I don’t ask, I won’t hear a no.” In comes Chris Miller, who sits at the bar and says rather sorrowfully that he’s going to try to be nicer. “I’m actually one of the nicer people you’ll meet,” he says. “It’s just, I don’t know, it’s just me. I get stupid.”

Early evening:

About 20 regulars are here now, gathered on the patio for an appreciation party that Angie is throwing for them. The food is free, and the beer is discounted, and the highlight is when Angie announces the winner of the Regular of the Month contest, who will get a discount for the next 30 days: “Chris Miller.” There is some applause for him, and also a crown that Angie spent at least 20 minutes fashioning from poster board, including a handwritten inscription across the front. “Hooters King!” it says. “I’m not wearing that hat,” Chris says. “Oh, yes you are,” Angie says. “I’m not wearing the hat,” he repeats. But of course he does, and on the night goes from there.

At 8, the place is full.

At 9, a guy celebrating his birthday gets balloons on his head, and a guy about to get married stands up so everyone in the place can yell “Suckerrrrr.”

At 10, Chris is sitting at the bar, saying, “She loves me,” over and over to Diane.

At 11, Kristi is saying, “I’ve always thought of men the same way, before I started working here and now. They’re pigs. No, just kidding. Always been pigs, always will be. Just kidding . . .”

And so on, so on, so on.

Fun? So far. Except now it is near midnight, and Lauren, done with her section a little early, is sitting at a table by the door, unwilling to leave until someone can escort her to her car. She points out three men sitting at another table, one of whom keeps looking her way. “He’s been calling constantly,” she says. “We went to school together. I bumped into him at a bar, chatted with him for a few minutes, he found out my phone number, he’s been calling me seven, eight times a day. My answering machine had my beeper number on it, he’s been beeping me seven, eight times a day.” All because when he asked her out, she says, she said no.

And now, here he is.

“He’s been here every night this week.”

Diane comes over.

“He’s sitting at table 11,” Lauren says.

“He’s so American-looking,” Diane says. “You’d think these guys would look like perverts or something, but he doesn’t.”

He sits.

Lauren sits.

He glances over.

Lauren gets more and more nervous. She smokes a cigarette. She talks about the drive home, and the rapist who has been terrorizing her community for the last several years. She says “I love men, I do,” but that her first fiance was abusive, and her second fiance slept with a friend of hers, and now she’s on her own, in college, pre-med, headed perhaps to veterinary school, or law school, or something to do with battered women, and that the $110 she made in tips this night will help. She keeps talking, trying to ignore the man, not even looking in his direction but looking everywhere else, including, at one point, down at her own chest. They’re implants, she mentions. “I did it,” she explains, “for me . . . because before the implants I was flat as this table . . . because I’ve always been self-conscious about it . . . because I was at the beach one summer, and one of my pads fell out in front of my friends . . .” And why did she feel the need to wear pads in the first place? “I don’t know,” she says, and now she’s quiet for a moment, and now she looks up and sees that the man is on his way to the bathroom, and that’s when she slips out with a friend.

Now the man comes back to his table.

Now he looks over and sees she is gone.

Now he looks frantically around the restaurant.

Now he goes to the window and looks out toward the parking lot.

Now he looks around the restaurant again, and drains his beer, and grows more and more agitated as his friends talk to him, and now, still agitated, still looking around, he leaves, and in this way another day at Hooters comes to an end.

It’s 12:15, 15 minutes past closing. A few customers are left, but Diane doesn’t want to wait another moment. She reaches behind her. “Ahhhh,” she sighs as the knot comes loose and she reverts from a Girl back to a woman, and all around the restaurant come similar sounds as Tracy undoes her knot, and Kristi undoes hers, and everyone else undoes theirs -- except for Janet, who can’t get hers free.

“Will someone untie me?” she asks.

The manager, though, is in the back, totaling up the day’s receipts: 558 customers, $2,000 in beer sales, $3,500 in food sales, $286 in merchandise sales . . .

“Tracy? Can you untie this? It hurts.”

But Tracy can’t budge the knot, either. “My nails,” she says. “I’m having difficulties.”

“I feel it getting looser,” Janet says.

So Tracy keeps at it, pulling and pulling with both hands, but still it won’t come loose -- and then, not knowing what else to do, she leans forward, bites down on the knot, and begins tugging on it with her teeth.

And maybe this is where the line finally appears:

“Want help?” asks a lingering customer. He is staring.

They’re always staring.

But this time Janet stares back.

“No thanks.”

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