Posts tagged #Waitress

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.

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!”