Counter Culture: Candacy Taylor blog and Q & A

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.”

Counter Culture: Candacy Taylor blog and Q & A

My Word! in the Wall Street Journal

My Word! by Susan Blum is featured in the April 16, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal. A link to the article appears below, but here’s an excerpt:

Like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, Ms. Blum views her subjects — “digital natives” — as an exotic species. She notes their constant use of email, text messaging and the Internet. She declares them to be “the wordiest and most writerly generation in a long while” and anoints their conversational tendency to quote TV shows and films an admirable form of “intertextuality.” They are “storming the barricades” of a new digital future, she claims, using the Internet to engage in collaborative work and to expand their knowledge base. She finds the hapless faculty members charged with teaching such students “embattled and bewildered.” In other words: Get Twittering, grandma.

Ms. Blum also embraces various postmodern theories of plagiarism. Internet-savvy, intertextual ingénues don’t steal words; they engage in “patchwriting” and “pastiche,” constructing essays the way they create eclectic music playlists for their iPods. This practice, she argues, can be viewed as a form of homage or reverence as much as theft. In fact, as Ms. Blum’s research demonstrates, students today view writing — however we might define such a thing in a “pastiche” culture — as a purely instrumental activity: a means to an end.

It’s Not Theft, It’s Pastiche by Christine Rosen

My Word! in the Wall Street Journal

Awaiting the Heavenly Country in the New York Review of Books

The April 17, 2008, issue of the New York Review of Books features a review article by James M. McPherson in which he considers Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death by Mark S. Schantz alongside This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. Here’s a quote: “[Schantz] write[s] about that harvest of death . . . with insight and sensitivity—even eloquence.”

Awaiting the Heavenly Country in the New York Review of Books

Background on East Timor

CNN reports that East Timor has declared a state of emergency (2/12/08) after a new wave of violence, including a brace of assassination attempts on President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao; Australia is sending security forces to the country. A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor by Joseph Nevins is a definitive and chilling account of East Timor’s terrible struggles for independence from Indonesia. In the Japan Times, Jeff Kingston wrote of this book:

“This is a gripping and powerful saga rooted in the horrible atrocities and deprivation endured by the East Timorese following Indonesia’s invasion in 1975. Indonesian security forces ruled ruthlessly until 1999, causing nearly 200,000 conflict-related deaths, imprisoning and torturing thousands more, while raping and plundering with abandon. A generation of East Timorese grew up where the rule of law was a distant rumor and human rights were routinely violated. Joseph Nevins briefly recapitulates this history, focusing on international complicity in these crimes against humanity, but mostly dwells on the troubling failure to secure justice.”

Another Cornell University Press title that puts this conflict into context is In the Shadow of “Just Wars”: Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action, by Médecins sans Frontières (edited by Fabrice Weissman). In the Virginia Quarterly Review, Patrick LaRochelle wrote:

“With insightful case studies of conflicts ranging from East Timor and Afghanistan to Sudan and Colombia, and thoughtful considerations of issues such as the responsibility of humanitarian aid workers in war crimes trials and the growing tension between Islamic, Christian and secular humanitarian NGO’s, In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’ is a significant and sobering work that should be engaged by humanitarians, politicians, and responsible global citizens alike.”

Background on East Timor

Birds as a source of “Winter Interest” in the garden

Plenty Magazine features an article today (1/9/2008) on birds in the winter garden. Susan Brackney writes: “I’m planning to add even more bird-friendly shrubs and flowers — think viburnums, sunflowers, and zinnias — in hopes that I’ll see an increase in the numbers of rare birds flitting from stem to stem over the coming years.” For advice on how to similarly liven up your own property, please turn to The Audubon Society to Attracting Birds, Second Edition by Stephen W. Kress.
Gardening: The Real Source of “Winter Interest” (Plenty)

Birds as a source of “Winter Interest” in the garden

North to Alaska: Chabon and Cohen by way of Tsuk Mitchell

Several of us here in Sage House have read and enjoyed Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—perhaps you have, too. If you are fascinated by Chabon’s imagining of a parallel history in which the focus of Jewish resettlement was not Israel, but rather Alaska, you may be interested in our recent book Architect of Justice: Felix S. Cohen and the Founding of American Legal Pluralism by Dalia Tsuk Mitchell, which recently won the American Historical Association’s 2007 Littleton-Griswold Prize. Cohen, who is best known for his work with the Department of the Interior in the 1930s and 1940s, was a major voice in support of the real Alaska Development Program, which was intended to provide northern refuge for the Diaspora.

Tsuk Mitchell’s book provides a detailed and concise account of the program and its eventual nonimplementation. Two samples:

“Cohen believed that bringing various occupations and talents to Alaska would be a foundation for strengthening Alaska’s economy and for promoting American values and culture. In a letter to Warner Brothers Pictures, discussing the possibility of a documentary on the Alaska Development Program, Cohen stressed the similarities between Alaska and the Western frontier in the late nineteenth century. ‘As the West was built through the pioneer spirit of persecuted and poor immigrants from Europe, so can Alaska be transformed into one more industrial and cultural star on the American shield,’ he explained.”

“Editorials in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner asserted that Alaska could not ‘afford to carry on with a mass of misfits’ and that German-Jews are unsuited for Alaska settlers.’ ‘They are not the type of hardy Scandinavians who have had so much to do with the development of Alaska.’ . . . Even the Alaska Weekly, which condemned ‘opposition to Jewish refugees based on racial antipathy,’ declared that ‘Jews would be the least desirable of immigrants because of being the least adaptable.'”


Listen to an interview with Michael Chabon about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the nextbook site here: Land of the Lost

New York Times article about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: The Frozen Chosen

Q & A with Chabon in the Seattle Times.

North to Alaska: Chabon and Cohen by way of Tsuk Mitchell

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

On NPR’s Weekend Edition (December 8, 2007), there was a story about the importance of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the U.S. economy and the efforts that are being taken to secure the complex: Balancing Security and Commerce at L.A. Port. Our recent book Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution by Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson is an in-depth look at the logistics, economics, and labor issues surrounding the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Mike Davis says that Getting the Goods is “a stunning, behind-the-scenes account of the largely invisible workers who make our big-box, just-in-time world possible.”

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach