Monday, April 19, 2010

Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress by Candacy A. Taylor

19. Counter Culture
The American Coffee Shop Waitress
by Candacy A. Taylor
nonfiction, 2009
finished, 4/8/10

I've always told my children that waitresses and people who clerk at grocery stores and people at the front desks of businesses have very important jobs. They can make the difference in someone's day. When I was a new mother there were days when the only people I talked to were in the grocery store. I still remember the kindness, the genuine interest in my new baby from South Korea, the tales of their own children. They gave me a great gift when I was feeling insecure in my new job. They warmed my heart with their affection toward my girl.

Long before kids, Tom and I used to go to a diner in a nearby town. When Margaret came along, this was her first restaurant. A waitress waited on us, whom we had known for a while. She was originally from Japan. She grinned and told us the baby looked more like her than us. I still laugh when I think of it. Another waitress in the same place somehow got on the subject of high school poetry, and before we knew it, she was reciting the whole of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. And later when our son went to school in that town and we would meet him and his girlfriend at the same diner, 'our' waitress knew what we always ordered. These are just three little incidents but in their way, they exemplify all diner waitresses everywhere.

I think these women are heroines. I think they are noble. I think they provide a much needed, and often unacknowledged, job in this world. They listen. They care. They give solace to the lonely. They bring humor and conversation to the sad. And Counter Culture celebrates these women. These women aren't called 'servers.' And they are never men. This is a realm when women rule. They may not be the owners, they may not get paid CEO wages, but the diner is theirs in so many ways.

Counter Culture is full of photographs and stories. Candacy A. Taylor does a wonderful job of writing about the general, leading into the specific. She'll tell about a facet of the job and then illustrate it with the words of a waitress. There are also profiles of individual waitresses.

Carrying is her lifeline. The fewer trips she makes, the faster she can turn her tables, the more money she earns. Experienced waitresses can carry four to six cups of coffee at a time. Geri Spinelli, who works at the Melrose Diner in Philadelphia, said, "It's easy. You just pile one cup on top of the other. But you have to work in a place that still uses saucers so that they fit together."

Rachel DeCarlo who works at Sittons North Hollywood Diner in North Hollywood, California says:

One customer who comes to me knows that he'll get fresh coffee. Some waitresses will make several pots at a time. They don't care if the coffee sits there for hours and gets stale. Or they will mix old coffee with a fresh pot. I tell the other waitresses, 'Don't touch my coffee pot.' I have a regular who comes in everyday at 5 am and he drinks decaf, so I don't make any decaf until right before he comes in so he gets a fresh cup. That's important. Also, I warm the cup for my special customers because it's the first cup that they look forward to. Most people don't understand what we do. Waitressing is a dying art.

We learn the history of waitressing, the economic realities of the job, the difference between older and younger waitresses, and about the people who frequent diners. I spent a long time on each page, digesting the words and looking at the photographs. It is an historical study, a sociological study, and a study of America, past and present. These waitresses are aging and younger women are not taking their places. The 'regulars,' the mostly older men who come in, will not be replaced by younger men.
Although there will always be women who will wait on tables their entire lives, will there always be lifers who love their jobs? Faye Blackwell of Washington, D.C., doesn't think so. "I think waitressing is simply going to be a means for girls to earn money to get through school or some crisis. I don't think society is geared toward this anymore. If you notice, you rarely see old servers today and a lot of that has to do with the restaurants: they want the young ones. They think that beauty attracts business and I know for a fact that it does not. People go to diners because they want to feel at home." Jodell agrees. "The younger generation will never truly appreciate waitressing," she said. "It's gone. It's just us older, war horses."

Not only will waitresses change, but the customers will be different as well. Most career waitresses say that men make up 75 to 90 percent of their clientele. Many are widowed and don't know how to cook for themselves, so they rely on the diner for their meals and come in three times a day. As this generation of men pass away, their sons will bring a new element of independence that their fathers didn't have. It's more likely that men of this younger generation will be single, either divorced or never married. In any case, they will probably know how to cook for themselves and will not go to a restaurant for every meal. As the decades pass, this new generation of customers will be very different from the typical regulars that waitresses serve today.
If you have ever waited table, or if you are a 'lifer,' or if you've ever eaten at a coffee shop, a diner, or if you never have, you ought to read this book. It is informative, fascinating, warm-hearted, and entertaining. I've never read anything like it. I hope it becomes a huge bestseller and allows these women to be appreciated for all they do in this world.

Here is a review of this book by Citizen Reader.


  1. This is such a great looking book. Fantastic - thanks for finding it; I would never have come across it for myself!

  2. I read about this book on another blog and you both loved this one. Waitressing is a dying art form. Back when I was a college student/waitress, I was taught by the best little ol' gal from the south!!! I have so much respect for these ladies!

  3. What a beautiful review and lovely sentiments you have expressed, Nan. I have never been a waitress but I was a checkout girl and I think we served similar purposes - you are a friendly, familiar face for people, someone who is part of their weekly routine and who can provide for the lonely or elderly or just plain sad, a point of contact to the outside world and a moment of feeling cared for and appreciated. I had regulars at my checkout who I came to learn a lot about and enjoy seeing every week - some of them told me I was often the only person who showed them any sort of attention, and as sad as that was to hear, I was also happy to be able to bring some happiness into their lives for those few minutes each week. I will look out for this - it sounds like a really interesting and poignant read.

  4. Thank you for the superb review. I will have to read this book.

    I was a waitress for about two months and I realized that I could not hack it: I could not be genial; I could not be unworried and relaxed; I think it takes a very special kind of person who can do so much. Also most waitresses have to do some sort of prep work that can be time-consuming such as peel 1000 carrots in 20 minutes.

    I always leave BIG tips.

    Thank you for this amazing review.

  5. Thanks for this Nan. It's the stuff right in front of us that we so often don't see.

  6. Katherine, I first heard about it on National Public Radio. It really is wonderful.

    Staci, I loved hearing about your experience - I think this book would have special appeal for you.

    Bookssnob, this is exactly what I meant, and how I feel. Thank you for telling your work story. There are so many lonely people who need that kindness in their lives.

    Sunt Lacrimae Rerum, the book makes it very clear that it is indeed a special kind of person who does this work. Each of the waitresses profiled are different but yet are excellent at doing their jobs. This is really a great book.

    KSV, you are so right!

  7. My daughter goes to college and waitresses to put herself through.
    As soon as she saw your post, Nan, she went directly to our library website to order it! Sadly, it isn't in our system but I'll work on rectifying that!
    Thanks for another great review!

  8. Joanne, I'm so happy she's going to read it. And glad you'll try to get it into the library! It's such a great and important book.

  9. thanks for this one, Nan. I'll be looking for it at the bookstore today.

    I worked as a waitress for about three months. A Greek restaurant where the cooks didn't speak very much English. Rose (the 'old' lady helped me through it. The owner said to me one day, "Jon (he called me Jon because of his accent), I like your work, but you're too slow." I was running my butt off.

    We just watched on TV last week Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. Two old men and a restaurant. A very young Sandra Bullock and very fat Piper Laurie. Robert DuVall plays Walter, who eats there every day and orders the same thing, and wants only Elaine to wait on him. The wonderful Richard Harris plays Frank, his buddy.

    Sweet and funny and sad.

  10. Nan, I always find out about the most interesting books on your blog! This one gives me a new appreciation for these women.

    In some parts of New Mexico, especially in the older, family-run restaurants, you will find "lifers" who know everyone (and probably everything about what's happening).

  11. oh no ... logged in to order from the Book Depository.

    they've posted a message saying that all transactions with North America are cancelled or temporarily suspended because of the volcanic ash and air transport problems

    quelle drag ... Mother Nature wins again

  12. I am a habitual weekend breakfast diner patron.I enjoy the social interaction and watching the service methods that each restaurant uses.This book sounds ineresting.

  13. Waitressed my way through college...hard hard gig whether it's at a diner or a fancy schamancy (done both and inbetween). Sounds like a great book.

  14. Lovely review, as always, Nan. A fascinating subject.

  15. Thank you for posting my book, Counter Culture, and for all the wonderful comments! Yes, these women are heroines and they have a lot to teach us about life, work, the importance of community, and humanity. May 21st is National Waitress Day so please tell your favorite waitress how much you appreciate her with a great tip, a warm smile, or even a copy of Counter Culture!

    All my best,
    Candacy A. Taylor

    If you'd like to be included in my mailing list email me at

  16. I'm so glad this book is a good one. I love to eat in diners wherever we go. There is just something special about the intimacy of a diner that I love. It's as if I'm a kid and my efficient mom is feeding me. That's one part of it. The other part I love is that you can sit and hear all the gossip of an area. Even though I don't know any of the people, it's fun conversation to listen to. This one is going on my list.

  17. Janice, that's such a wonderful story. Thank you. And I love that movie. It's been too long a time since I've seen it. I tried to rent it just now from Netflix and it isn't available on dvd. Why ever not?! I just saw the book at amazon ca.

    Clair, you'd love this book!

    Larry, I think it would be a great addition to your diner experiences!

    Susan, it truly is a great book!

    Thank you, Les. It's so, so good.

    Candacy, I can't tell you how very pleased I am that you visited and took the time to leave a comment. You've done such a fantastic job with this book. It is perfect, and I hope lots of people buy it. I love your idea about National Waitress Day!

    Wonderful diner tales, Margot! You are so right. You'll love this book.

  18. Nan, my youngest daughter is a waitress and I think it is one of the hardest professions in the world!! The pay isn't that great either!

  19. Sherri, one of the many interesting facets of this great book is the discussion of money - both pay and tips. I'll bet your daughter would enjoy it.

  20. This sounds great! I'm going to get this one in through the library. I was a waitress for 2 summers in university, and boy, was I terrible. They put up with me because it was a small town & my job was really a favour to my father ;)

  21. It is such a wonderful tribute to waitresses. Thanks for coming over to read it and leave a note.

  22. It's great to see all the wonderful comments about my book, Counter Culture. If you would like to be added to my mailing list, send me your email at:

    All the best,
    Candacy Taylor

  23. I'm thrilled for you, Candacy! I'm quite sure I'm already on the mailing list. Thanks for coming by!


I'll answer your comments as soon as I possibly can. Please do come back if you've asked a question.
Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.