Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My mother-in-law was a waitress for most of her working years and for all the stories she tells, I think she could write a book. Candacy A. Taylor has done just that in her book Counter Culture The American Coffee Shop Waitress.

Taylor, at age 30, was once a waitress in a sushi restaurant in San Francisco while working her way through graduate school. She remembers sitting around the back table, doing paperwork, counting out tips and sharing the grievances of the day with co-workers. She wondered how women twenty years older could handle the workload when Taylor herself worked half the hours and was tired and aching at the end of her shift.

Thus began a journey of twenty-six thousand miles across the United States to find diners and waitresses that fit the parameters of the project. Armed with digital camera, mini-recorder, maps and a scanner she interviewed fifty-nine waitresses in forty-three cities. Having been a waitress for over a decade she found herself able to speak the diner language.

Candacy Taylor tells the story of “Lifers” referring to the aging diner waitress. The chapter Ketchup in Her Veins, shows these resilient women walk, reach, lift, write, pour, wipe, socialize, bend over, pick up, memorize tedious details, argue with the cook and walk some more, making this career a true art form.

The chapter Tricks of the Trade focuses on veteran waitresses like seventy year old Rachel DeCarlo at Sittons North Hollywood Diner, California. “It’s like watching Fred Astaire dancing. She makes it look effortless,” says Karesse Klein a middle-aged waitress who worked with Rachel. How to carry several plates without the bottom of the plate touching the food, memorizing “the usual” for some two hundred customers a day and pleasing the difficult customer makes the veteran waitress a bit of a baby sitter and an actress changing roles from table to table.

Taylor dispels the waitress stigma of Flo telling customers to “kiss my grits” or a cigarette hanging out of her mouth that has fueled the stereotype of the diner or counter waitress. They have raised their children, put them through college, have nice homes and cars, all on the wage of a waitress. Most of them are divorced, single women, well educated but find they made better money waiting tables.

The history of women in diners in Counter Culture, details the strength, hard work and resolve of these aging women through the years. Despite long hours, heavy lifting and customer insults for up to 80 years these resilient women are among the healthiest, most vibrant and hardest-working women in the country.

The soft bound book is published by ILR/Cornell University Press and retail price is $19.95 and well worth the read. That's what a wise grandma would do.

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