Posts tagged #Lifer

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.