Visit Candacy Taylor’s new blog for her book Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress here.
We recently conducted an interview with Candacy Taylor in which she provides insights about the world captured in her book:
Q: Why career waitresses?
A: I am interested in career waitresses because it’s assumed by most people that it’s a job that anyone can do, but statistics report that only 1 in every 100 are really cut out for the job. I was a waitress myself for almost 8 years and after being exhausted after working a busy Friday night shift, I thought to myself, “How do women do this work past retirement age and how do they feel about their jobs?”
Q: What surprised you the most about this project?
A: Based on my own waitressing experience, I expected to meet women who felt overworked and underappreciated, 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.” Jean, a San Francisco waitress, said, “Like an actress, this is what I was born to do.” I thought, how can this be true? Waitressing can be grueling. And where were all the complaints about carpal tunnel syndrome 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, labor, and restaurants. 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. There were benefits to working in a casual environment, and career waitresses knew the tricks of the trade to make the job easier.
Q: Even if they like the work, isn’t it hard to make a living?
A: In many cases, their seniority status earned them a higher hourly wage and respect from their coworkers and managers. Ironically, the physical and mental exercise that waitressing demands keeps them healthy instead of wearing them down, and most important, their regular customers made the job more enjoyable and profitable, they left better tips than strangers who were just passing through. Most of the career waitresses I interviewed were financially stable homeowners, drove newer cars, and many had sent their children to private schools. In general, these women were not struggling financially.
Q: Where did you go?
A: I traveled over 26,000 miles throughout the US. I have interviewed fifty-nine waitresses in forty-three cities.
Q: How are career waitresses different?
A: Career waitresses do more than just bring the food to the table. 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. These women have made an “art” out of the job. They warm the coffee cup for their favorite regular customers. They bring in special goodies from home, like chocolate syrup for their regulars’ ice cream or home-baked cookies. Their regulars practically worship them and will follow their favorite waitress from restaurant to restaurant her entire career. They are in a different league than most waitresses who are working until a “real” job comes along.
Q: What makes this book different from other books about waitresses?
A: Counter Culture is not a scholarly study, a memoir, or a historical account of waitressing. And even though there are photographs throughout the book, it’s more than a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon. It combines interview excerpts, cultural criticism, photography, and oral history to recognize an overlooked group of working women who have brought meaning to the American roadside dining experience. Each chapter takes a critical look at how career waitresses have taken a job that many people avoid and made it their livelihood.
Q: What did you learn most from doing this book?
A: Most importantly, I learned that fulfillment is not found in a 401(k) or a 5,000-square-foot house. Life is what you make it. So the next time you see a sixty-some-year-old waitress wiping down a table in a diner, don’t feel sorry for her. More likely than not, she’s content right where she is. Take it from Ruthie, a sixty-four-year old waitress in Sparks, Nevada, who says, “I just wish I had another thirty-five years to do it all over again.”