When it comes to comfort, the relief of settling into a well-worn cushioned booth at the local diner and being served by a seasoned waitress who can tell you a thing or two about life is hard to beat.
Lifers become a part of the diner. Just like the soft, comfortable, vinyl stools that line the counter, they have aced the test of time. But after seeing them day after day, we start to take them for granted. Georgina from Gold ‘n Silver in Reno, NV says, “People think we’re a dime a dozen and that anyone can do this job, but it’s not true.” Georgina’s right. Most servers aren’t cut out for the job. It is estimated that although one in five people have waited tables only one in 100 is really able to do the job well. Not only does waitressing require years of experience, the good ones have to be extremely organized, with a strong work ethic and a memory that rarely fails them. Jean Joseph from San Francisco has been waitressing since 1947, she says, “Seventy percent of the servers out there should not be waiting tables.”
Over ninety percent of the waitresses I interviewed for my book, Counter Culture said they “loved” the job and if given the opportunity, wouldn’t do anything else. As Linda Exeler of the Colonial Cottage in Kentucky says, “Waitressing is my life. It’s my calling. This is what I was born to do.” And Sharon Bruno from Betsy’s Pancake House in New Orleans quips, “It’s in your blood.”
Over the decades career waitresses grow roots, build friendships with the staff and the customers, and many choose to work past retirement age. Some have tried to retire but went back to work because they missed it so much. The social, physical and mental work actually keeps them healthy and they are models of healthy aging. Ina Kapitan who waitressed at the Miss Florence Diner in Massachusetts until she was 85 says, “I just keep moving. I see people come in here and they’re only in their 50s and they are more decrepit than I am. It’s because they’re sitting around...the doctors say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but keep doing it.’”
We assume that seasoned waitresses will always be there to dish out blue-plate specials. But with managers hiring younger help every day, we shouldn’t take these women and the diners they work for, for granted. The best way to keep these restaurants open is to become a regular. Go to your favorite diner, grab a stool and become a part of the counter culture.
Candacy A. Taylor is an award-winning photographer and writer in Los Angeles, and the author of Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress.