Many long years ago, Roadside Magazine ran an a photo essay cleverly entitled “Boy Meets Grill,” celebrating the guy at our local diner or coffee shop who flips pancakes, turns out meltingly crisp home fries, and knows how to do when it comes to eggs “sunny side up” and “over easy.” But what about the ladies who make our visits so comforting and memorable? A marvelous book has just been published, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, by Candacy Taylor. It is marvelous because it is a book of integrity and insight. You should buy it immediately (order it through your local bookshop—the publisher is Cornell University Press—or grab it via amazon.com), definitely for holiday gifts, and/or alert Santa.
A quick thumb-through reveals a bounty of terrific photographs, portraits of the waitresses at work, at a counter or beside a booth, with favorite customers; enticing shots of pie being served and coffee being poured, etc. There is something candid and compassionate, but not patronizing, about these images—Taylor has a knack for respectfully capturing the real. Those of us who try to take good photos in such places would do well to study her success here.
However, though handsomely produced, this is not a coffee-table book, not really. Read it! A former waitress herself, Taylor undertook this project to interview and understand the older American waitress after a long night: “On that Friday night I thought to myself, if we are this tired, how do waitresses twice our age (I was in my early 30s at the time) do this, and how do they feel about their jobs? Do they have dreams they have never realized? Are they worn out from the physical and mental demands of the job?...The questions kept coming.” With camera, tape recorder, laptop, and an open mind (there are so many clichés!), Taylor set out to learn about career waitresses, or “lifers,” as they sometimes wryly, or proudly, call themselves.