Burn and Turn - The Labor of Waitressing

Sharon Bruno - Betsy's Pancake House.  New Orleans, Louisiana

Sharon Bruno - Betsy's Pancake House.  New Orleans, Louisiana

To the casual observer, waitressing can appear to be a brutal, exhausting job but the women I interviewed for Counter Culture assured me they thrive on the madness. 

Virginia Brandon, age 68, works at the Rainbow coffee shop located inside a casino in Henderson, Nevada. At the Rainbow waitresses are trained to “turn” (seat consecutive customers) their tables as quickly as possible because upper management wants diners back out in the casino gambling. Virginia said, “We’re faster than McDonalds. They want servers who can ‘burn and turn.’ A four-top can sit, order, eat and be the hell out of here in twenty minutes. You put your toast in the toaster, hang your check, and them eggs will be cooked before that toast pops up. I’m not exaggerating. On my dinner shift, nobody takes a break. From five o’clock to nine o’clock you’ve got a waiting line of an hour. You don’t have a cigarette, you don’t go to the bathroom, you don’t even breathe—you just run, yelling at everyone in your way, ‘Behind ya! Behind ya! Coming through, arms loaded!’ If you don’t get out the way, you’re gonna get knocked out.”

Jodell said with a serious look, “Here at the Pie ‘N Burger, sometimes the orders come up so fast, you can’t keep up with them. You really have to hustle. But I love it. The busier it is, the better I like it.”


Jodell Kasmarsik - Pie 'n Burger.  Pasadena, California

Jodell Kasmarsik - Pie 'n Burger.  Pasadena, California

The reward for managing chaos is the tip. Sprinting through the restaurant with dishes in tow, coffee sloshing from side to side, gravy sliding to the edge of the plate while catching up on the latest gossip with customers. . . it’s all in a day’s work. The body and mind work in tandem like a machine. Her mind instantly computes, tallies, and prioritizes while her eyes scan the room for drink refills. Fast waitresses can make twice as much money than slower ones simply because they are serving more customers in the same amount of time. Sammi DeAngelis says, “I’m really fast. I get tipped pretty well, not perfectly, but pretty well. I usually make out better than the other girls. While the they are ringing $600 a night, I’m ringing $1000. As long as they can seat me, I can fly and do it. I’m here to turn my tables and get the food out, hot, fast and fresh.”
It’s all about turnover. Time flies as their coffee-stained aprons swell with dollar bills forming bulges in places you normally wouldn’t want. If everything goes off without a hitch, they feel a sense of pride because they have managed a situation that most people couldn’t handle. After a Saturday night rush at the Pie ’n Burger, an observant customer told Jodell, “My God, you are absolutely fabulous.”

Rachel DeCarlo - Sittons North Hollywood Diner.  North Hollywood, California

Rachel DeCarlo - Sittons North Hollywood Diner.  North Hollywood, California

Once her customers leave, her day isn’t over. Almost a quarter of the job is side work, which consists of scrubbing, slicing, sweeping, wiping, refilling, and restocking sticky condiments. Sometimes, it’s not until after she sits down to balance her checks that she begins to feel her feet throb. She’s usually too busy during her shift to notice the physical toll the day has taken on her body.

Rachel DeCarlo worked the graveyard shift at Sittons North Hollywood Diner from the age of 64 to 77. She said, “Of course I have the aches and pains of old age. When it’s a busy day, I go home and I practically die. But I enjoy it when we’re busy. I think it’s exciting. Last Sunday I was so tired from my Saturday night shift I didn’t even get dressed. But I feel better after I rest and then I’m ready to go back and do it again.”





Posted on August 30, 2014 and filed under Counter Culture, Diner Waitresses, Diners.


On the game show The Family Feud the question on the board was, “What occupation would you least like your wife to have?” The number one answer: “Waitress.”

Waitressing has always carried a stigma and is rarely taken seriously as a profession. In Leon Elder and Lin Rolens’s book Waitress: America’s Unsung Heroine, a waitress she interviewed, said, “At first, I was reluctant to appear in this book. . . . For one thing, my husband thinks I work in a bank.”

It’s not surprising that waitressing carries a negative connotation. For many, it’s a job of last resort or something to fall back on if life doesn’t work out as planned. Take the word “lifer,” for example. It literally means someone serving a life sentence and signifies extreme struggle, physical labor, and poverty. Despite its negative associations, many career waitresses embrace the term like other groups of stereotyped people who have taken a racial or homophobic slur and used it as a source of empowerment. When asked about being called a “lifer,” Sondra Dudley says, “Yeah, that’s what I am. And proud of it.”

Sondra Dudley - Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

Sondra Dudley - Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

Esther at Sharkey's in 1969. Gardnerville, Nevada

Esther at Sharkey's in 1969. Gardnerville, Nevada

Esther who has waitressed over forty years says, “So many people look down their noses at you. They ask, ‘You do this for a living?’ Well, it’s an honest living. I did what earned the most money. I’ve always made a good living. What’s the big deal, women wait on their husbands and their kids all the time and don’t get a damn thing for it. So why is it any worse?

It’s worse because class is a critical factor. It’s the number one social issue that plagues American culture, and the only issue that surpasses race. Regardless of how socially conscious we are, there is something deep inside the human psyche that regards service work as less meaningful.

Linda Exeler - The Colonial Cottage. Erlanger, Kentucky

Linda Exeler - The Colonial Cottage. Erlanger, Kentucky

Linda Exeler says, “Some people feel like they’re better than us. [They say] ‘Get me this or get me that!’ It’s too bad they’re like that, because, I have no problem getting anything. Actually, I’ll walk an extra hundred miles for ’em if I had to. That’s how much I enjoy it.”

Joyce Widmann -  Crystal Diner  .  Lawrenceville, New Jersey

Joyce Widmann - Crystal Diner.  Lawrenceville, New Jersey

Joyce Widmann doesn't like it when people say she’s "Just a waitress," as though it’s not a real job. Joyce says, "I’ve done other ‘real’ jobs. I have my real estate license. I prefer to do this. Plus, I make more money.”

Paula Hazzouri - Buena Vista Cafe.  San Francisco, California

Paula Hazzouri - Buena Vista Cafe.  San Francisco, California

Career waitress Paula Hazzouri has a degree from Boston University. She said, “My parents were so embarrassed that I waitressed my entire life. This is not what I was supposed to do. But even with my college degree I learned that waitressing paid more, so I just stayed with it, plus it afforded me more freedom.”

Sammi DeAngelis - Seville Diner.  East Brunswick, New Jersey

Sammi DeAngelis - Seville Diner.  East Brunswick, New Jersey

 At the Seville Diner in New Jersey, a customer actually told Sammi DeAngelis, “You’re just doing this because you're not smart enough to do anything else.” Sammi said, “Excuse me? I have a degree, I could be teaching. I’ve done public relations and business management. . . . I tell you what, if you can do my job for an hour, this money is yours.” After an hour, the customer said, “I’ve been watching you and that last table was a handful. Maybe I couldn’t do your job.” Sammi said, “‘Really? What part of it didn’t you get: the public relations, the psychology, the physical labor?’ Now she’s one of my regular customers, she likes to sit with me so she can watch me work.”

Ronnie Bello - The Boulevard Diner.  Worcester, Massachusetts

Ronnie Bello - The Boulevard Diner.  Worcester, Massachusetts

Ronnie Bello sums it up by saying, “I’m not ashamed, I can walk with judges and lawyers, I can fit with anyone because I know what I do and I’m no phony. This is me. I’m a good waitress, I love people and that’s my attitude and if you don’t like me for that, that’s your problem. I’m not a snob.”


When it comes to comfort, the relief of settling into a well-worn cushioned booth at the local diner and being served by a seasoned waitress who can tell you a thing or two about life is hard to beat.

Lifers become a part of the diner. Just like the soft, comfortable, vinyl stools that line the counter, they have aced the test of time. But after seeing them day after day, we start to take them for granted. Georgina from Gold ‘n Silver in Reno, NV says, “People think we’re a dime a dozen and that anyone can do this job, but it’s not true.” Georgina’s right. Most servers aren’t cut out for the job. It is estimated that although one in five people have waited tables only one in 100 is really able to do the job well. Not only does waitressing require years of experience, the good ones have to be extremely organized, with a strong work ethic and a memory that rarely fails them. Jean Joseph from San Francisco has been waitressing since 1947, she says, “Seventy percent of the servers out there should not be waiting tables.”

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food.  San Francisco, CA

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food.  San Francisco, CA

Over ninety percent of the waitresses I interviewed for my book, Counter Culture said they “loved” the job and if given the opportunity, wouldn’t do anything else. As Linda Exeler of the Colonial Cottage in Kentucky says, “Waitressing is my life. It’s my calling. This is what I was born to do.” And Sharon Bruno from Betsy’s Pancake House in New Orleans quips, “It’s in your blood.”

Ina Kapitan - Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

Ina Kapitan - Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

Over the decades career waitresses grow roots, build friendships with the staff and the customers, and many choose to work past retirement age. Some have tried to retire but went back to work because they missed it so much. The social, physical and mental work actually keeps them healthy and they are models of healthy aging. Ina Kapitan who waitressed at the Miss Florence Diner in Massachusetts until she was 85 says, “I just keep moving. I see people come in here and they’re only in their 50s and they are more decrepit than I am. It’s because they’re sitting around...the doctors say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but keep doing it.’”

Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

Miss Florence Diner.  Florence, MA

We assume that seasoned waitresses will always be there to dish out blue-plate specials. But with managers hiring younger help every day, we shouldn’t take these women and the diners they work for, for granted. The best way to keep these restaurants open is to become a regular. Go to your favorite diner, grab a stool and become a part of the counter culture.

Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

Candacy A. Taylor is an award-winning photographer and writer in Los Angeles, and the author of Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress.

The Diner Preference: Leave Formalities at the Door

Annie - Venus Diner. Gibsonia, PA

Annie - Venus Diner. Gibsonia, PA

Career waitresses have been dishing out everything eggs to insults for up to 60 years and they do a lot more than serve food. They are part psychiatrist, part grandmother, part friend, and they serve every walk of American life: from the retired and the widowed, to the wounded and the lonely and from the working class to the wealthy.

In a culture where chain stores mandate employees to speak to every customer who walks through the door, it’s refreshing to come to a place where people know each other and the staff can just be themselves. Diner waitresses are often rewarded for sharing their personality and their mood with the locals; whether they are pleasant, indifferent or cranky. Irregardless, there is an authenticity and honesty in diners that is missing in our everyday lives. Even though there are regulars who socialize at the counter at chain restaurants, corporate rules are still in effect. To avoid lawsuits, the staff monitors what they say to each other and to their customers, making it a more structured, formalized and regulated environment. Mae say she prefers working in a diner where formalities are left at the door. In her Kentucky drawl, Mae says, “I could never work in a fancy restaurant. I’m too liable to holler at people and ask them if they want their usual when they come through the door. You can’t do that in a fancy place.”

Mae. Edith's Cafe. Central City, KY

Mae. Edith's Cafe. Central City, KY

In diners, waitresses are also free to tell their customers exactly what they think about the latest political scandal or local gossip — as opposed to servers who work in upscale places where the staff is told to never discuss religion, race or politics. Diner patrons tend to be friendlier than customers in upscale restaurants, where they expect a different type of service. When people are spending more money, they often expect a servant. Sammi, a waitress at the Seville Diner in New Jersey says, “I prefer working in diners. I’ve done the fine-dining where people think that because the checks are high, you’re supposed to kiss their butt. People who spend $200 for dinner think that you owe them something. I don’t care if the bill is $2 or $200, I treat everybody the same.” 

Sammi. Seville Diner. East Brunswick, NJ

Sammi. Seville Diner. East Brunswick, NJ

So the next time you see a veteran waitress wiping down a table in a diner, take a second look and appreciate her lifetime of service. Say thank you and leave at least a 20% tip. National Waiter and Waitress day is next week on May 21st.

Dishing It Out on the Silver Screen...

America is fascinated with the diner waitress. Her image, attitude and demeanor have been showcased with various degrees of authenticity by television and Hollywood since the 1930’s.

Promo shot from Ed's Dabevics - Los Angeles, CA

Promo shot from Ed's Dabevics - Los Angeles, CA

When I was scouting potential waitresses to interview for Counter Culture, I asked people if they knew any career coffee shop waitresses. Many people reenacted a stereotype of the wisecracking, gum-smacking diner waitress. I heard a story about a waitress in New Jersey who had a heavy East Coast accent and served customers with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, looking discontented and disinterested. I heard another story about a lifer who wore teal-blue eye shadow and a towering beehive. Although I was completely taken in by these colorful portraits, I had to wonder if these women really existed or if they were exaggerations inspired by Hollywood stereotypes that have not only created the image of the cranky, colorful, downtrodden lifer but have also shaped her into the icon that she is today.

Historically waitressing has carried a stigma that is still hard to shake. Waitresses were not only devalued, but considered to be women of low moral standards and class. In the 1920’s waitresses were often thought of as prostitutes in disguise. In 1945 James West wrote, “…a girl who left her hometown to become a waitress in the regional metropolis was generally assumed to have become a prostitute also.” In addition, when real prostitutes were arrested and asked their profession, they lied and told police they were waitresses to explain the cash they were carrying.

Bette Davis in "Of Human Bondage."

Bette Davis in "Of Human Bondage."

Films like "Of Human Bondage,"  (1934), featured Bette Davis as a low class waitress with no moral character. She says, "Just because I’m only a waitress doesn’t mean I can’t be a lady.”

Joan Crawford’s wise and efficient waitress in "Mildred Pierce" (1945), was a refreshingly powerful portrait of a woman who used waitressing as a platform for her success.

Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce"

Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce"

In "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) a waitress stands up to Jack Nicholson who tries to get around the "no substitutions" policy.

Scene from "Five Easy Pieces"

Scene from "Five Easy Pieces"

Jack Nicholson: "I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes, tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee and toast."

Waitress, pointing to his menu: "No substitutions. I don't make the rules," 

Jack Nicholson: "OK, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelet, plain. And a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee."

Waitress: "A No. 2, chicken sal sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?"

Jack Nicholson: "Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules."

Waitress: "You want me to hold the chicken, huh?"

Jack Nicholson: "I want you to hold it between your knees."

Waitress, pointing to the right-to-serve sign: "Do you see that sign, sir? I guess you'll all have to leave. I'm not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm."


Whether it’s Madge selling dish soap on TV or other memorable waitresses in film such as "Bagdad Café," Michelle Pfeiffer in "Frankie & Johnny" and Helen Hunt in "As Good As it Gets," diner waitresses continue to be a staple in the American media.

Here is Lily Tomlin playing a trailer park waitress in Robert Altman’s "Short Cuts" (1993)

Lily Tomlin in "Short Cuts."

Lily Tomlin in "Short Cuts."

Two of the most famous servers of the silver screen have to be Ellen Burstyn and in Martin Scorsese’s "Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore" (1974), which inspired the hit television show "Alice." 

Linda Lavin in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

Linda Lavin in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

Diane Ladd in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

Diane Ladd in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

Who can forget the sassy, foul-mouthed waitress, Flo who would smack her gum and scream, “Kiss my grits!”

Celebrating Waitresses Who Love What They Do

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA

Jean Joseph - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA

Why devote my career to studying and celebrating waitresses?  First of all they are some of the most under-valued workers in America. How do I know? I waited tables for almost a decade. I spent many nights rubbing my swollen feet and I knew how painful it was to be yelled at by a hostile customer. Most sociologists write about jobs they have never done. The fact that I had waitressed for so many years helped my research tremendously. I wasn’t an outsider trying to understand the plight of the hard-working server. They trusted me. During interviews we traded insider stories about the industry and tricks of the trade. I was one of them.

Based on my own waitressing experience, I expected to meet women who felt overworked and under-appreciated, but that’s not what I found. All but a few said they loved their jobs and if given the opportunity, they “wouldn’t do anything else.” I thought, how can this be true? Waitressing can be a grueling, thankless job. And where were all the complaints about carpal tunnel and varicose veins?

After five more years of research and listening to heartfelt testimonies about the job, I took a closer look at their lives. I analyzed their work environment. I studied theorists, academics, and historians who wrote about sociology, gender, ethnography, labor, restaurants, spatial politics, and power. I read Michel Foucault, John Berger, Barbara Ehrenreich, James Clifford, Dorothy Sue Cobble, William Foote Whyte, Studs Terkel, Richard Gutman, Mike Rose, Victor Burgin, and many others. I considered that, although we had the same job, an older waitress’s experience might be different from mine because we were raised in a different time.

Career waitresses know how to make the job easier. In many cases, their seniority status earns them a higher hourly wage and respect from their coworkers and managers. Ironically, the physical and mental labor keeps them healthy instead of wearing them out, and their regular customers make the job more enjoyable and profitable. Regulars often leave better tips than strangers who are just passing through. These are not poor, struggling women. Most of the career waitresses I know are financially stable, they own their homes, drive newer cars, and many have sent their children to private schools. That's why I wrote the book.

Dolores Jeanpierre - Ole's Waffle House. Alameda, CA

Dolores Jeanpierre - Ole's Waffle House. Alameda, CA

"Counter Culture" is not a scholarly study, a memoir, or a historical account of waitressing. And even though there are over 100 photographs, it’s more than a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon. It combines oral history interviews, cultural criticism and photography to recognize an overlooked group of working women who have brought meaning and culture to the American roadside dining experience. It show how career waitresses are different from average service workers; it investigates issues of power in the workplace; it shows how older waitresses are physically able to handle the job; it explains why they are marginalized and sexualized in popular culture; it examines the work ethic of their successors, and reveals why they choose to keep working well past retirement age. Ultimately, it explains how these women have taken a job that many people avoid and made it their livelihood.

I have launched a crowd funding campaign to produce an App, eBook and product line to celebrate the incredible women I interviewed for “Counter Culture"


Counter Culture Facebook Page  - https://www.facebook.com/CounterCultureDiner

Read it for yourself.

Meet Charlotte - A Fred Harvey Waitress

Charlotte Solberg was one of the first waitresses I interviewed for Counter Culture. I found her working in the dusty town of Seligman, Arizona on Route 66.


"I was born and raised in Seligman.  I’m Mexican. My mother was born here too. I started washing dishes when I was 10. They put a crate on the floor for me to stand on. My first waitressing job was at 13.  It was just a little old restaurant, called the H&J. I was really shy then. I didn’t want to be around all those railroad guys.


I worked at the [Grand Canyon] Caverns, when old [Route] 66 was popular for Fred Harvey in the late '60’s. I was 21 years old. Me and my sisters Fern and Josie were all Fred Harvey Girls and we had to wear the uniforms. They were black dresses with white pinafores. Oh I hated them things! We had to wear dresses, we couldn’t wear pants. If you had long hair you had to wear your hair in nets. You couldn’t chew gum, and there was no smoking either. You had to be real neat and you had wear a starched uniform everyday. Everyday.

Fred Harvey's Grand Canyon Restaurant, Route 66 in the 1960's.

Fred Harvey's Grand Canyon Restaurant, Route 66 in the 1960's.

A lot of people say waitressing is stressful and if people give them a hard time, they can’t take it. I’ve gone through a lot of bad experiences but I’ve also had people send me gifts. One day this guy came in from Los Angeles, he was really nice. He was wearing a religious metal and I said, “Oh your metal’s so pretty.” And few days later he sent me a little gold metal in the mail.

Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

Copper Cart - Seligman, Arizona

Some people from Taiwan came in The Copper Cart. They asked for a plate and poured out what looked like strips of squash and tomatoes. It looked so good. I asked them what they were eating and they said “Would you like a taste?” I said “Sure.” After I tasted it, I said, "That is so good.” When they left they asked for my address and I never thought anymore about it. Well like a few months later I get this box in the mail and it was from Taiwan. I still have some at home. They sent me packages of different types of vegetables with the hot sauce that they use. It took about 3 months for that package to get here. It passed inspection and everything. Amazing."

Charlotte (in white) and sister Fern (in red)  - Yes, that is their real hair.

Charlotte (in white) and sister Fern (in red)  - Yes, that is their real hair.

Interviewing Rivers at a formerly segregated “Key Club” restaurant in the American South

For my book Counter Culture, I traveled over 26,000 miles and interviewed 59 waitresses working in large cities and rural towns with only one stoplight. As a black woman, I was unsure how I would be received in some of these out-of-the-way places, but practically every location I visited offered the highest standards of hospitality. Small Town USA opened up their homes, uncovered their histories, and shared their lives with me.


One of my most memorable interviews was with Rivers Coleman at the Crystal Grill in Greenwood, Mississippi. I set up the interview months before and while preparing for it I read that in the 1960s the Crystal Grill was a "key club" establishment. Having a "key" was code for being white. During the Civil Rights Act, the mayor of Greenwood was dead against desegregation and said, "Any business that voluntarily integrates in the Delta is ruined as far as local people are concerned. We are not going to help any businesses that want to integrate." The "Crystal Grill" during that time became the "Crystal Club" where whites had to pay a "membership fee." To get access patrons had to hand a membership card through the door. Lifetime memberships cost a dollar but white patrons admit they were never asked to produce a card and they never saw any black people in the restaurant.

After reading about the history of the Crystal Grill, I thought it would be a good idea to send newspaper articles about the project to Rivers with pictures of myself so she would know that I was black. I wanted to interview Rivers because she was still waiting tables in her 80s and had been a waitress for 55 years. When I spoke with her on the phone she was a little standoffish and reluctantly agreed to do the interview. 


On the day of the interview, it was raining so the 95-mile drive from Jackson took even longer than it was supposed to. As we passed Kudzu draped fields on rural county roads, I started to mentally prepare for the interview. I was nervous about this one. Driving into the town of Greenwood, we saw blocks of boarded up buildings but at the end of the street on the corner was the Crystal Grill, open and ready for business. As we walked in, we were greeted by an openly gay black man, which immediately made me smile. He found Rivers and we sat down for the interview. She was a little nervous at first and but after a half an hour she relaxed and shared stories with me that I will always remember.

Rivers has a strong constitution and an incredible work ethic. She grew up poor, picking cotton as a child. The only time she took off from waitressing was when she had uterine cancer and she was back to work after only 3 weeks. She told a story about a white man slapping a black man in the restaurant for getting up to put sugar in his coffee. I imagine that was just one of many violent outbursts of racism that she witnessed growing up poor in rural Mississippi.

Obama had just won the Primary the night before our interview and Rivers said she was so happy that he had won. She paused for a moment with tears in her eyes and said, "We have come a long way." I teared up as well. I left Greenwood that day thinking that although I will always use my instincts on the road, listen to my gut and be as informed as possible, I will never prejudge a situation, especially when it comes race.


Listen to an audio clip of Rivers here.

Does anyone have stories about restaurant culture and race that they want to share?

For more stories you can buy the book, COUNTER CULTURE  - $25 (includes shipping in the US)

email request to: candacy@taylormadeculture.com




Money, money, money....I can't shake it from my mind these days. Although I have several proposals out there (book, television, exhibition etc...) and lot of interest in my work, I am a bundle of nerves as I approach the bottom of my savings. 

I don't want my life to be focused on money, but how can it not? We need it to live. My life is rich in so many ways that don't involve money. I'm deeply grateful for my supportive family, my beautiful LA apartment, to have 19 years clean and sober, my unwavering passion for my work, my health, my talent, my computer, recording and photography equipment, my career and my friends. Regardless of this challenging time, I know I will persevere and become a vibrant, successful, wealthy artist. In the meantime, I have been reading these notes taken from the books, "The Secrets of the Millionaire Mind." and "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." I thought they might be helpful to you too.


• Rich people believe “I create my life.” Poor people believe “Life happens to me.”

 • Your income can grow only to the extent you do.

• If you want to change the fruits, you will first have to change the roots. If you want to change the visible, you must first change the invisible.

• If your motivation for acquiring money or success comes from a non-supportive root such as fear, anger, or the need to “prove” yourself, you money will never bring you happiness.

• When you are complaining, you become a living, breathing “crap magnet.”

• Rich people play the money game to win. Poor people play the money game to not lose.

• If your goal is to be comfortable, chances are you’ll never get rich. But if your goal is to be rich, chances are you’ll end up mighty comfortable.

• Rich people focus on opportunities. Poor people focus on obstacles.

• Rich people are bigger than their problems. Poor people are smaller than their problems.

• Rich people think “both.” Poor people think “either/or.”

If anyone out there can relate, or has a story about money and being an artist, please share it with us!




Being an Artist - It Takes a "Special" Person...


I was talking to my mother on the phone the other day and I was listing off the things I had done all week: Networking to attract sponsors; Landing an interview with the owner of Paul Mitchell; Transcribing interviews and editing photos for American Hair to be submitted to the Library of Congress; Sending out book proposals...blah, blah, blah, blah...Mom said, "You are so disciplined. Not everyone can do what you do." I said, "Well if you needed to eat, you would." She said, "I wouldn't be able to do it. I would have to get a job. It takes a special person to do what you do." I know she was giving me a compliment but I chuckled at that word — "special" and said, "Do you mean crazy? Or maybe irrational?" Most people wouldn't work 70 hours a week without a paycheck unless they were "special." 

In my mind I feel like I don't have any other choice. I just wake up everyday and keep working towards my dream. I love my work and I'm grateful that I'm able to do it. But there have been many days when I've considered quitting, and right when I decide to walk away, something happens — a contract for an exhibit, a grant award, a call from ABC. These things never seem to happen when all is going well and I have money in the bank, it's usually after I've meagerly spent the majority of my savings and I'm leaning on the ropes crying "uncle." That's when the phone rings. 


I'm not alone. I don't know any artist who doesn't ride this financial and emotional rollercoaster. It's so relentless that I didn't start saving for my retirement until I was 40 years old. I kept waiting for things to calm down, to gain more stability, only to realize that it would never come. That's not to say that I won't make money being an artist, but it comes in spurts and then nothing will happen for months (in some cases I've waited a year between payments). It's just the way it is. Once I started accepting that, life got easier. 

Any artists/writers out there who want to share their thoughts? I'd love to hear your stories.



Posted on August 21, 2013 and filed under Producing Projects.

8 Interesting Facts About Diner Waitresses



1. Women didn’t patronize or even work in diners until after the 1920s. Diners were parked across from factories and filled with laborers. They had a saloon-type atmosphere and women generally didn't feel comfortable in them. It wasn’t until WWII that women were encouraged to work and eat in diners.

2. In 1941 in The Diner magazine, writer Sam Yellin listed the reasons why women should work in diners, he said:

      A. Women will work for less pay

      B. Women will work harder than men

      C. Women are always happy

      D. Women can talk and work at the same time

      E. Women are cleaner and more efficient than men

      F. Women are more honest than men

      G. Women don’t steal

      H. Women won’t stay out late drinking and call in sick the next day

Buttercream diner waitresses (est. 1950s). Napa, CA

Buttercream diner waitresses (est. 1950s). Napa, CA

3. The stigma that diner waitresses have loose morals may have come from the 1920s when prostitutes lied and told police that they were waitresses (to explain the cash they were holding). 

4. The average career waitress makes $20 to $30 an hour with tips.  

5. Regular customers are their lifeline. Some regulars come in three times a day. Many career waitresses in Counter Culture have waited on four generations of the same family and if a waitress quits and moves to another restaurant, her regular customers will follow her throughout her entire career. 

6. Seniority pays off. Despite the common assumption that waitressing offers no benefits, some diners offer their longstanding waitresses a higher hourly wage, health insurance, retirement benefits, Christmas bonuses and paid vacations. 

7. Waitressing is easier for lifers. Being experienced and having regular customers cuts their serving time and labor in half.

8. The physical nature of the work actually helps older waitresses age better. Ina Kapitan, age 83 says, “Waitressing helps my arthritis. If I stayed home and did nothing I would be crippled. My doctor says whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” 

For more about diner waitresses see Counter Culture


Ina Kapitan. Miss Florence Diner. Florence, MA

Ina Kapitan. Miss Florence Diner. Florence, MA


For the Love of Diners


Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner in the desert town of Yermo, California has a sign above the door that reads: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone — Regardless of who you are, who you think you are, who your daddy is, or how much money you make.” This is why I love diners. In a society where money and class takes center stage, in diners, fur coats hang next to cowboy hats and Jaguars and junkers sit side-by-side in the parking lot. 

In neighborhood institutions the counter is a makeshift community where 'everybody knows your name.’ It’s like Cheers without the liquor. Customers bring warmth, character and vitality and become extended family members to each other and to the restaurant staff. One regular at Betsy’s Pancake House in New Orleans says, “It’s like sitting on your front porch with your neighbors.”

I love to stay connected to the places I documented for Counter Culture. Has anyone visited any of these diners?  Does anyone have stories to share about these places? If not, tell me about your favorite restaurants and the people who work there. Let's make this a forum to celebrate them! 

Gold 'N Silver Restaurant.  Reno, Nevada

Gold 'N Silver Restaurant.  Reno, Nevada

Florida Avenue Grill. Washington DC

Florida Avenue Grill. Washington DC

Pie 'N Burger. Pasadena, California.

Pie 'N Burger. Pasadena, California.

Butter Cream Bakery & Diner.  Napa, California.

Butter Cream Bakery & Diner.  Napa, California.

The Venus Diner. Gibsonia, Pennsylvania

The Venus Diner. Gibsonia, Pennsylvania


Al’s Good Food - San Francisco, CA

Betsy’s Pancake House-  New Orleans, LA

The Boulevard Diner - Worcester, MA 

The Busy Bee - Atlanta, GA

The Butter Cream - Napa, CA

The Colonial Cottage, Erlanger, KY

The Copper Cart - Seligman, AZ 

The Crystal Diner - Lawrenceville, NJ

The Crystal Grill - Greenwood, MS

Edith’s Cafe - Central City, KY

Florida Avenue Grill - Washington, DC

George J’s - Glasgow, KY

Gold N’ Silver - Reno, NV

Harry’s Plaza Cafe - Santa Barbara, CA

Louis’ Restaurant - San Francisco, CA

Mastoris Diner - Bordentown, NJ

The Meadowthorpe Cafe - Lexington, KY

The Melrose Diner - Philadelphia, PA

Miss Florence Diner - Florence, MA

Mojo’s Bowling Alley - Sun City, AZ

Mt. Vernon - Somerville, MA 

Ole’s Waffle Shop - Alameda, CA

Pie ‘N Burger - Pasadena, CA

The Rainbow Casino Coffee Shop- Henderson, NV 

Ryan’s - Florence, AL

Sears Fine Foods - San Francisco, CA

The Seven Seas - Sausalito, CA

The Seville Diner - East Brunswick, NJ

Sharkey’s- Gardnerville, NV

The Sip ‘n Bite - Baltimore, MD

Sittons Diner - North Hollywood, CA

Trio Restaurant - Washington, D.C.

The USA Country Diner - Windsor, NJ

The Venus Diner - Gibsonia, PA [Closed]


The inspiration behind American Hair

Me with my natural hair at age seven. 1978 - Houston, TX.

Me with my natural hair at age seven. 1978 - Houston, TX.

My hair has been the ultimate lesson in patience and acceptance. Some of my earliest memories are getting my hair pressed at the kitchen table in Houston, Texas in the 1970s. As I sat and waited, Mom parted my hair and greased my scalp while a thick metal pressing comb heated up on the stove. All I wanted to do was run downstairs, get on my bike, make a beeline through the courtyard and jump into the pool. I could feel the steam radiating from the hot comb and when it touched the grease it would sizzle and smoke. Out of fear, I would jerk away. “Don’t move!” She’d say, “I don’t want to burn you.” I tried my best but being a restless six-year old made it difficult to sit still but over time I learned to be patient or I would inevitably end up with burn marks on my forehead, the tips of my ears and the nape of my neck.

Me with my hair pressed. 

Me with my hair pressed. 

          So — no talking. No squirming. No complaining…until she pulled the comb away. I didn’t understand why I was sitting inside on a perfectly sunny day, but I loved the way my hair felt after it was straightened. It was soft, smooth, flowing, long and touchable. I would run my fingers through it and toss it from side to side like that woman in the Breck commercial. It would never do this in its natural state. I would turn my back to the mirror and crane my neck as far as it would go and look over my shoulder to see how long it was getting. It was like magic. Straightening out the curls made it several inches longer and it tumbled all the way down my back. Even at the tender age of six, I noticed that after I got my hair pressed I felt prettier and people treated me differently. They smiled and told me how nice I looked. But the experience was short-lived. As soon as I went outside in the rain or humidity (90% was common in Houston), my silky, swinging ponytails would revert into puff balls on either side of my head. It happened so quickly, I remember thinking that my hair should have sound effects, like a cartoon, “Boing! Boing! Boing!” as every strand sprung back to its original shape.

Me and Mom at the beach. I was never a fan of water. 

Me and Mom at the beach. I was never a fan of water. 

          That’s when the hair roller coaster started for me. Losing my glamorous hairdo was deflating to say the least. Frustrated, I would go to Mom and whine, “Look at my hair!” And she would smile, reassure me and say, “It’s okay. We’ll fix it.” Thinking back, I realize that was an interesting choice of words, to “fix” my hair as though it was broken. It felt like an accurate description through because losing my long hair was the same feeling of playing with a toy that no longer worked. As a child, it was all very confusing. The effort it took to get my hair done felt like a huge sacrifice. It was stressful, time consuming and I missed an afternoon bike riding and playing with my friends. And then a few minutes in the wrong weather, poof! Gone. So from that point on, whenever possible, I avoided sprinklers, humidity and rain.

            To “fix” my hair, Mom would soften and smooth it with Ultra Sheen. It was a green colored hair conditioning grease with a floral, waxy vanilla scent. She would sit on the couch with her basket of hair tools and point to the same spot on the brown-speckled carpet where I would sit in between her knees with my back up against the couch. She tugged, pulled, and twisted my hair into two tight French braids. This was different from getting my hair pressed. I wasn’t fearful of getting burned, but it was still painful. I remember my hair being pulled so tight the skin on my forehead would hurt. She would see my eyes watering and say, “I’m sorry but you’re so tender-headed.” I thought that made me extra-sensitive, maybe even special, but later I learned that everyone with excessively curly hair is “tender-headed” because it hurts to drag a comb through tightly coiled locks. Sometimes my hair was drawn so tight in order to get it as smooth as possible it was like having an instant facelift. My eyebrows were raised almost an inch closer to my hairline. After years of watching my cousins and other black friends go through the same ordeal, I got the message that we were different. Mom raised us to be color-blind but in this situation, race was undeniable. My white and Latino friends didn’t have burn marks on their ears, they didn’t smell like Ultra Sheen, and they never seemed worried about getting their hair wet. It was the first time I felt different because of my race.

Does anyone have stories to share about their hair when they were young? 

Getting Stories for Counter Culture

Sondra Dudley. Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

Sondra Dudley. Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

At practically every talk or book signing I do, people want to know how I found the waitresses featured in Counter Culture. Most people assumed I took a road trip one summer and stopped at diners along the way and interviewed and photographed waitresses. No, it didn't happen that way.

During the seven years I spent documenting this subculture I gathered over 300GB of data (approximately 1000 images and about 1200 pages of 68 transcribed audio interviews) that was logged, color coded and indexed for the book.  

Finding these women and convincing them to share their time and stories with me was not easy. Being a former waitress helped the process tremendously; I wasn’t an outsider trying to understand the plight of the waitress, I was one of them. I had also rubbed my swollen feet after a long night at work and I knew how it felt to be yelled at by customers who were impossible to please. This was one of the main reasons, I believe, these women shared insider stories with me and allowed me to follow them around with a camera during the busiest times of their shift.

Before I did any interviews I had to figure out the type of diner waitresses I was looking for. I decided they should be:

A. 50 years or older

B. Have waitressed for at least twenty years

C. Must work in a diner or coffee shop (a place that serves breakfast and has a counter with stools) that is staple in the community

D. Have a large clientele of regular customers. 

Once I figured out who I was looking for, I had to find them. The classic diner waitress is so ingrained in the American imagination, it is assumed that these women are everywhere but really, they are a vanishing breed because a lot of mom and pop restaurants are closing their doors and most chain diners hire a younger staff.

Traveling is expensive so to make the best use of my time and resources I couldn't risk driving around hoping to find the type of waitress I was looking for. And even if I found her, she would probably be working and way too busy to sit down with me for an interview. So to find the waitresses I reached out to Visitor Bureau and Chamber of Commerce employees who worked in the towns I planned to visit. Usually people who work in these offices have an affinity and love for the place; oftentimes they grew up in the area and had a wealth of information that was useful to me. I asked them about the local diners that were popular and if there were any waitresses they remembered from their childhood.

Once they suggested a restaurant, I called and spoke with the manager and asked if they could recommend the best waitresses who fit the parameters of the project. Then I called the waitresses they recommended (which was a challenge to get them on the phone while they were at work) and did short interviews on the phone to get a sense of their waitressing history and personality. If they were willing to be interviewed, I set up an interview time and sent out pre-questionnaires that asked detailed information such as dates and addresses of places they had worked. The pre-questionnaires were important because this was information I figured they wouldn't know off the top of their head, so I wanted to make sure that this was filled out ahead of time. This was also was a great way to trigger memories from their working past, so that during the interview I could hopefully get better stories. 

Finally I asked them to gather any old photographs and newspaper clippings that I could scan during the interview. This provided quality vintage material for my book, such as classic menus, old newspaper and magazine articles from decades ago and incredible black and white pictures of them in their uniforms. Here's a picture submitted by Pat Dermatis when she started working at the Sip 'N Bite in Baltimore at the age of 16.

Pat (in the middle) at age 16. The Sip 'N Bite, Baltimore, MD

Pat (in the middle) at age 16. The Sip 'N Bite, Baltimore, MD

After all these years later Pat is still at the Sip 'N Bite. Here is a photo I took of her after our interview with one of her regulars, "Cowboy." 

Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

Pat & Cowboy. Sip 'N Bite - Baltimore, MD

There was only one waitress that I found spontaneously on the road. After visiting the Historical Society in Worcester, MA to research local diners, I stopped by the Boulevard Diner and Ronnie Bello had just finished her shift. She was sitting in a booth and I asked the owner if she worked there and he said yes. Bingo! It was meant to be. 

Ronnie Bello at the Boulevard Diner. Worcester, MA

Ronnie Bello at the Boulevard Diner. Worcester, MA

To purchase Counter Culture on Amazon click on the link below: 

Click on this link to learn more about Counter Culture, watch videos and listen to audio clips of the waitresses.

How it all started


I started Taylor Made Culture in 2002. Wow, I can't believe that was over 10 years ago. I had just graduated from the California College of the Arts with a Master's Degree in Visual Criticism. It's a fancy liberal arts degree that may take me the rest of my life to pay off, but it was an incredible program and just what I needed. My Bachelor’s degree is in Painting & Drawing. I entered grad school as a scenic painter for film and television productions and left as a critical thinker who could tell a story in any medium. Viz Crit (that's what we called it) liberated me from a world of canvas and paint. It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done. I studied semiotics and deconstructed Foucault, Derrida, Burgin, Benjamin, and others. I felt like I was in way over my head but it taught me to think differently and find meaning in everyday experiences, like getting my hair done or eating in a restaurant.

My thesis was on diner waitresses which evolved into the book and exhibit, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress. The idea came to me while slinging sushi in San Francisco. After a busy Friday night, I sat down in the back with the other servers to count my tips. The back table was a place to do paperwork, tip out coworkers, and relive all the drama of the evening. We swapped stories about our futile attempts to reason with irrational customers and commiserated about the great effort it took to get the food out of the kitchen. While eating our late-night dinners at 1:00am and balancing our sales reports we dreamed about what we were going to do with our lives after we left our service jobs for our true calling. We complained about how tired we were—our feet throbbed, our legs ached, and our arms were sore. I thought to myself, if we are this tired, how do waitresses twice our age (I was in my early thirties at the time) do this, and how do they feel about their jobs? Are they bitter after years of dealing with difficult customers? Do they have dreams they never realized? Are they worn out from the physical and mental demands of the job? And what about those who worked in coffee shops? They average eight to ten-hour shifts, and my workdays were only four to six hours. I made decent money serving sushi in San Francisco but what about those who worked in greasy spoons in small, remote towns? What about health insurance? Aging in the workplace? Retirement?

Truck Inn - off Route 80 in Nevada, near Reno.

Truck Inn - off Route 80 in Nevada, near Reno.

The questions kept coming. I did some research and found that very little had been written about this subculture. Although there were several excellent books about waitressing only a few featured older career waitresses who refer to themselves as “lifers.” Realizing this window of opportunity, by the end of the month I was on the road with a digital camera, a recorder, a scanner, and a map (that was back when we still used maps to get around). Over the following six years I traveled over 26,000 miles interviewing diner waitresses. I loved being on the road capturing the stories of these American icons. I was hooked. 

Jean Joseph has waitressed for over 60 years - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA 

Jean Joseph has waitressed for over 60 years - Al's Good Food. San Francisco, CA 


Welcome and thank you for joining me! I am starting this blog to share all aspects of what I do at Taylor Made Culture to produce books, curate exhibitions and capture the American story.

I wear many hats and all of them fit a little differently. Some slide on and look great, others I have to adjust and readjust and tilt to the side before they fit. I'm a writer, photographer, cultural critic, artist, designer and traveler. Every milestone I've reached may look like I just stepped up into the spotlight, refreshed and ready to receive my close up but I'm going to show you what happens behind the scenes and all the ups and downs it takes to get there.

My projects are like the kids I never had. Each one is maturing in its own time and has its own personality, quirks and demands. When they go through growing spurts, I'm amazed and proud and think, “Hey, I made that!” But then there are days when they throw tantrums and turn on me like an ungrateful teenager.

This blog will feature everything from:

• excerpts from my forthcoming book, American Hair

• designing the latest products for my upcoming licensing venture for Counter Culture.

• getting published, booking exhibits and speaking opportunities

• how to travel like a rockstar on very little money

• being successful and not taking "no" for an answer

• how to do what you love, get paid, recognized and rewarded

I am a perfectionist but I'm so far from being perfect—which makes life interesting. So come join me. Bookmark this blog, check in every week, share your stories and offer comments. I'm building an empire. Come watch me build it, brick by brick....