Posts tagged #Diner

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.

PROUD TO BE A LIFER

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.”

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A SEASONED WAITRESS


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!”


How it all started

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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