Counter Culture Waitress Blog

I’m in the New Yorker!!!


The New Yorker published a slide show of the waitress project. I’ve attached the text portion below, follow the link to see the pictures.
July 14, 2009
Counter Culture: A Photo Essay

“Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress” is a book by Candacy A. Taylor about “lifers”—career diner waitresses. The author, who worked for close to a decade as a waitress herself, interviewed fifty-nine waitresses in forty-three cities across the country. All of the waitresses were fifty and older (many of them were in their seventies) and all of them had worked in diners for at least twenty years.
Many of the waitresses Taylor interviewed grew up working on farms or doing physical labor from an early age. This gave them a strong work ethic, and an interest in a job that requires constant activity, as opposed to sitting in a desk chair. Several of the waitresses interviewed turned down careers in the business or professional world because they made more money waiting tables, or because they liked having the freedom to set their own schedule, or enjoyed the kinds of interaction they could have with their customers in a restaurant setting.
The first American diners were horse-drawn lunch wagons that would set up across from factories. Now they are places where form follows function. Condiment holders are designed to be ridge-less so they are easier to clean. Formica tables are curved at the corners to avoid injuries. Some older diners have mirrors on the ceiling above the counter, so the waitress can check for drink refills and empty plates just by looking up, rather than walking back and forth.

Taylor writes that in many case the seniority status of older waitresses “earned them a higher hourly wage and respect from their coworkers and managers. Ironically, the physical and mental exercise kept them healthy instead of wearing them down, and most important, their regular customers made the job more enjoyable and profitable—they left better tips than strangers who were just passing through.”
Key-lime cake at the Busy Bee Café in Atlanta, where everything is made from scratch.
Taylor writes that the seven years she spent working on this book helped her “to redefine my perspective on life, work, and happiness,” and advises that the next time you see an older waitress wiping down tables in a diner, you should not feel sorry for her. “More likely than not, she’s content right where she is.”
(Images from “Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress.” Copyright 2009 by Cornell University Press & Taylor Made Culture.)


Candacy A. Taylor;
Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress;
photography books
Posted by Andrea Walker


Bagdad Cafe

Bagdad Cafe

America is fascinated with the diner waitress. Her image, attitude and demeanor have been created and showcased by Hollywood since the 1930s. How could we forget powerhouses like Joan Crawford in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film, Mildred Pierce, the trashy Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934), and the hard working Ellen Burstyn in Scorsese’s 1974 film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (which was also the inspiration behind the hit TV show Alice)? What about the “no substitutions” waitress in Five Easy Pieces, the quirky charachters in Bagdad Café, the sensible Helen Hunt in As Good As it Gets, and the courageus Susan Sarandon in White Palace? Whether it’s Rosie, selling paper towels in the 1970s or Flo on Alice screaming, “Kiss My Grits!” diner waitresses are a staple in the American media. Who are your favorite media waitresses?

Modern Times
July 3, 2009, 2:42 pm
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Sears Fine Foods — San Francisco, CA

Sears Fine Foods — San Francisco, CA

Before computers, waitresses used to “call in” their orders. They would scream at the cooks all day, and somehow the cooks would remember every order for the restaurant. Some places still use this system, but many restaurants have moved on to computers. Angel from Sears Fine Foods says, “Believe it or not, before when we were calling [in orders], screaming our head off, I think there was less mistakes, we all knew where our food was, there was a lot of fighting, but we knew, especially cooks, they knew [who had what order].

Edie Schrage - Mt. Vernon Restaurant.  Somerville, Massachusetts

Edie Schrage - Mt. Vernon Restaurant. Somerville, Massachusetts

Edie from the Mt. Vernon restaurant in Somerville, Massachusetts says, “It’s different than it was. You wrote out your slip. There were no computers when I first started. And you’d write…you want mashed potatoes and peas and when you went in the kitchen the food was all on your dish, where now we have to get our potato and our vegetable ourselves. Everything was just different then. Back then we had to write out our checks by hand and figure out the tax, which was harder. And the hardest part I always found was at the end when everybody wanted their check and you had to sit down and add them up. With these new machines, you push “print check” and it’s there.

Jodell Kasmarsik - Pie 'N Burger.  Pasadena, CA
Jodell Kasmarsik – Pie ‘N Burger. Pasadena, CA

The waitress’ ear-piercing twang, mixed with the reverberating ring of the kitchen’s bell, creates the atmosphere that diners have marketed for decades. Grease carries the burnt smell of the range, while the aroma of frying bacon permeates the senses. You know breakfast is cooking when you hear the hollow crash of the frying pan hit the grill. The smells of bacon grease, watered down coffee, mixed with blueberry pancakes, curdled fat, and fried starch drift in the air. It’s not just the odors that make up the atmosphere of the diner but also the cacophony of clanging silverware against thick glass cream-colored plates laid over the chatter of patrons – all mixed up like a syncopated jazz riff. This environment with legs, mouths, arms, eyes, hands, and the silent breeze of the waitress rushing by; stirs up to a breakneck pace in a centrifugal spin. All managed and controlled by the well-seasoned waitress who race to our tables, quarrel with the cooks and bring humor and culture to the American roadside dining experience.

Nevada Waitresses: Dishing It Out in the West
Henderson, Nevada

The Rainbow - Henderson, Nevada

Nevada was unlike any other state I visited in terms of the benefits that waitresses received. Virginia Brandon moved to Nevada from California because of the benefits Nevada offered to restaurant workers. “The union makes a big difference.” says Susan Thurmond, Virginia’s daughter, who worked with her mom at the Rainbow in Henderson, Nevada. She continues, “We get retirement benefits, maternity leave, health insurance….we get it all. We had to fight for it though.” Even if a waitress doesn’t work in a union house, the union is so strong in Nevada that non-union restaurants still have to offer health insurance and retirement benefits to attract workers.

I wouldn’t do anything else,” says Virginia who’s been waiting tables for almost 50 years. And when people question Esther Paul’s career choice, (she’s waitressed at Sharkey’s in Gardnerville, Nevada since 1969) she says, “So many of them look down their noses at you. ‘You do this for a living?’ And I say,  ‘Well it’s an honest living. What’s the big deal?’”

People assume that lifers are struggling in roadside dives picking up loose change that cheap, disgruntled, customers leave behind; when the truth is that the waitresses who have paid their dues make a very comfortable living wage. Georgina makes around 30 dollars an hour — not bad for a job that requires little or no formal education. Esther worked at a hospital and said, “I had to quit because I made more money waitressing.” And to boot, many longstanding coffee shops are recession-proof since the majority of their clientele are already on fixed incomes. Virginia says, “We get the same regulars, day after day, no matter what, and they always order the same thing. Our business is as good as it ever was.”

Meet Annie
Annie King at the Venus Diner.  Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

Annie King at the Venus Diner. Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

Annie King worked at the Venus Diner for over 45 years. She started waitressing when she was 13 years old. In the almost 60 years she’s been dishing out breakfast specials, Annie has only worked at 5 restaurants. When I asked her if she had done any other kind of work she said, “I went to school to learn computers, but I quit after two weeks. I couldn’t sit for that long.” Like many of the lifers I interviewed, Annie’s work ethic is incredible. “I never have a day where I wish I didn’t have to go to work. I can honestly say that. I’m rarely sick. For about 10 years I worked 7 days a week. The only days I had off was when we were closed.”  Annie remembers, “ I saw everything there was to see when I worked graveyard. From naked people to people streaking through here to… nothing surprises me anymore. I just look and walk away. People are crazy, but they’re fun. We had a blond woman who used to come in with just a blazer on — all she wore was a red blazer [laughing] and nothing else, but nobody even said anything to her. She’d come in and eat and pretend like everything was normal. We had a good time. I love waitressing.” When I asked Annie about the younger servers at the Venus, she said, “There’s a girl working here and she asks me, ‘Why don’t you teach me to carry like you?’ and I says, “and then you’ll have my job? I ain’t crazy.”

Venus Diner. Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

Venus Diner. Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

The Venus Diner was a staple in the small mining town of Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. Sadly the Venus closed a few years ago. Does anybody have any stories about the Venus Diner or Annie? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

Book Expo – New York City
At the Cornell Booth at BEA

At the Cornell Booth at BEA

Sorry it’s been a little while since my last post. I was in New York doing a signing at the Book Expo (BEA). No, the book isn’t out just yet. Cornell University Press (my publisher) invited me to sign a “Blad,” which is just one chapter of the book.

Blad signing

Blad signing

They served free pie and coffee. The turnout was great. The signing was scheduled from 2:30 – 3:30 but I was signing blad’s until 5:00.  I met so many people, former waitresses, book publishers, librarians, professors, diner aficionados and friends.

Former waitress and fan

Former waitress and fan

MTV showed up along with a few film producers, so I hope to get the documentary underway soon. Overall there was much enthusiasm and great anticipation for the book. I’ll keep you posted!