PROUD TO BE A LIFER

On the game show The Family Feud the question on the board was, “What occupation would you least like your wife to have?” The number one answer: “Waitress.”

Waitressing has always carried a stigma and is rarely taken seriously as a profession. In Leon Elder and Lin Rolens’s book Waitress: America’s Unsung Heroine, a waitress she interviewed, said, “At first, I was reluctant to appear in this book. . . . For one thing, my husband thinks I work in a bank.”

It’s not surprising that waitressing carries a negative connotation. For many, it’s a job of last resort or something to fall back on if life doesn’t work out as planned. Take the word “lifer,” for example. It literally means someone serving a life sentence and signifies extreme struggle, physical labor, and poverty. Despite its negative associations, many career waitresses embrace the term like other groups of stereotyped people who have taken a racial or homophobic slur and used it as a source of empowerment. When asked about being called a “lifer,” Sondra Dudley says, “Yeah, that’s what I am. And proud of it.”

 Sondra Dudley - Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

Sondra Dudley - Buttercream Diner. Napa, CA

 Esther at Sharkey's in 1969. Gardnerville, Nevada

Esther at Sharkey's in 1969. Gardnerville, Nevada

Esther who has waitressed over forty years says, “So many people look down their noses at you. They ask, ‘You do this for a living?’ Well, it’s an honest living. I did what earned the most money. I’ve always made a good living. What’s the big deal, women wait on their husbands and their kids all the time and don’t get a damn thing for it. So why is it any worse?

It’s worse because class is a critical factor. It’s the number one social issue that plagues American culture, and the only issue that surpasses race. Regardless of how socially conscious we are, there is something deep inside the human psyche that regards service work as less meaningful.

 Linda Exeler - The Colonial Cottage. Erlanger, Kentucky

Linda Exeler - The Colonial Cottage. Erlanger, Kentucky

Linda Exeler says, “Some people feel like they’re better than us. [They say] ‘Get me this or get me that!’ It’s too bad they’re like that, because, I have no problem getting anything. Actually, I’ll walk an extra hundred miles for ’em if I had to. That’s how much I enjoy it.”

 Joyce Widmann -  Crystal Diner  .  Lawrenceville, New Jersey

Joyce Widmann - Crystal Diner.  Lawrenceville, New Jersey

Joyce Widmann doesn't like it when people say she’s "Just a waitress," as though it’s not a real job. Joyce says, "I’ve done other ‘real’ jobs. I have my real estate license. I prefer to do this. Plus, I make more money.”

 Paula Hazzouri - Buena Vista Cafe.  San Francisco, California

Paula Hazzouri - Buena Vista Cafe.  San Francisco, California

Career waitress Paula Hazzouri has a degree from Boston University. She said, “My parents were so embarrassed that I waitressed my entire life. This is not what I was supposed to do. But even with my college degree I learned that waitressing paid more, so I just stayed with it, plus it afforded me more freedom.”

 Sammi DeAngelis - Seville Diner.  East Brunswick, New Jersey

Sammi DeAngelis - Seville Diner.  East Brunswick, New Jersey

 At the Seville Diner in New Jersey, a customer actually told Sammi DeAngelis, “You’re just doing this because you're not smart enough to do anything else.” Sammi said, “Excuse me? I have a degree, I could be teaching. I’ve done public relations and business management. . . . I tell you what, if you can do my job for an hour, this money is yours.” After an hour, the customer said, “I’ve been watching you and that last table was a handful. Maybe I couldn’t do your job.” Sammi said, “‘Really? What part of it didn’t you get: the public relations, the psychology, the physical labor?’ Now she’s one of my regular customers, she likes to sit with me so she can watch me work.”

 Ronnie Bello - The Boulevard Diner.  Worcester, Massachusetts

Ronnie Bello - The Boulevard Diner.  Worcester, Massachusetts

Ronnie Bello sums it up by saying, “I’m not ashamed, I can walk with judges and lawyers, I can fit with anyone because I know what I do and I’m no phony. This is me. I’m a good waitress, I love people and that’s my attitude and if you don’t like me for that, that’s your problem. I’m not a snob.”