Posts filed under Producing Projects

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:


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.

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.