Career Waitresses, American Icons

Career Waitresses, American Icons

Food & Drink

Career Waitresses, American Icons

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By Cari Martens


You see them mostly, it seems, at old fashioned American diners and coffee shops. Ladies in their fifties, sixties, even seventies and older, working the counters, waiting on tables, chatting up the customers, pouring the coffee.

Career waitresses. You probably know—or at least know of—some of these ladies in your town.

These hard-working women are the subject of a college master’s thesis that’s been turned into a book called Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, by Candacy A. Taylor, who waitressed herself part-time while working on her master’s degree from the California College of the Arts.

As Janny Hu writes in a story for the San Francisco Chronicle, Taylor found the work exhausting, and wondered how women more than twice her age could cope with the job full-time. And she wondered how they felt about waitressing as a career.

Jean Joseph, waitress at Al’s Good Food Cafe. Photo: Candacy A. Taylor

Taylor put five years of research into her book, hitting the road with a camera and recorder to meet with these veteran waitresses, and she discovered that, for the most part, these women were independent, confident, financially successful and proud of their occupation.

“You see a 70-year-old waitress and you feel sorry for her,” Taylor says in Hu’s story. “But the point of ‘Counter Culture’ was to say that she’s right where she wants to be.”

Among the women profiled in Taylor’s book are Jean Joseph, 81, and her sister, Joanne, who just turned 79. Both are still on the job at Al’s Good Food Café in Bernal Heights, Calif. The sisters have been waiting on customers since 1947.

Though their numbers may be dwindling, there are still many others like them all over the country, serving up the eggs and bacon, schmoozing with the regulars. Taylor had the opportunity to visit with some of them and chronicled their stories in her book.

After receiving her master’s degree in 2002, Taylor expanded her project into exhibitions at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery and City Hall. There’s even a possibility that ‘Counter Culture’ may be turned into a TV series. Taylor says she’s in talks with ABC.

Now that’s a reality series I might watch.

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