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

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Click on this link to learn more about Counter Culture, watch videos and listen to audio clips of the waitresses.