It's a classic American scene: Customer lopes into coffee shop, slumps into seat, sets elbows on Formica countertop. Waitress appears, wielding coffeepot. With a look sympathetic but practical, she asks: "What'll you have?"
Photographer Candacy Taylor traveled over 26,000 miles interviewing some sixty coffee-shop waitresses in 43 American cities. The result is Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, which she'll discuss at Pegasus Books Downtown (2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) on Thursday, February 11.
Having waitressed while attending the California College for the Arts, Taylor chose to interview older women for the project "because I found the job physically and emotionally draining and couldn't imagine doing it for fifty years," as many of those featured in her book have done. "I wanted to know if the labor of the job was wearing them down; I wanted to know why they stayed. I assumed that they were working past retirement age because they couldn't afford not to work, but I was wrong. Several of the waitresses who were in their seventies said they had tried to retire but went back to work because they missed their favorite customers and the physical and mental exercise." One woman who had waitressed for 35 years told Taylor she wished she had another 35 years in which to do it all over again.
"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," Taylor said. "I thought: How can this be true? Waitressing can be grueling — and where were all the complaints about carpal tunnel syndrome and varicose veins? ... 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."
Shattering the Hollywood stereotype "of the struggling hash-slinger as an uneducated, poor, women with loose morals," the women Taylor met struck her as American heroes.
"Career waitresses do more than what's required," she said. "They warm the coffee cups of their favorite regular customers. They bring in special goodies from home, like chocolate syrup for their regulars' ice cream and home-baked cookies."
One of the women featured in Counter Culture works at Trio's Restaurant in Dupont Circle, a predominantly gay neighborhood of Washington, DC. "She worked there in the early Eighties, when many of her customers were dying of AIDS," said Taylor. "For many of her gay customers, who were ostracized by their families, she became their surrogate mother. When they were sick, she visited them in hospices and held their hands while they were dying. She has the ashes of one her favorite customers on her mantel at home." 7:30 p.m., free. PegasusBookstore.com