The real Flos and Alices of the world
To create “Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress,” Candacy Taylor’s master’s thesis-turned-coffee-table book, the writer spent the last decade crisscrossing the United States, interviewing women over age 50 who had spent their working lives in American diners. As a result, “Counter Culture” combines 26,000 miles of chance encounters, heavy research, snippets of oral history and more than 100 new and archival photos to fashion a surprisingly complex portrait of a thoroughly unglamorous occupation.
But Taylor’s favorite part might be the timely subtext.
“I do believe on some level that these women are a vanishing subculture,” Taylor said in a recent phone interview. “This is the perfect time for this book, because it really celebrates hardworking people who have pride in what they’re doing. Doing this project really helped me to redefine what success is.”
That there would be life lessons involved in a book about waitressing came as a surprise to Taylor. When she conceived of her project while studying visual criticism at the California College of the Arts, Taylor had the idea of setting out to find Flo, the sarcastic, “wise-cracking icon” on the old TV sitcom “Alice.”
Instead, she found herself collecting the stories of many women raised during the Great Depression. Far from feeling overworked and underappreciated, she met women who lugged in special chocolate sauce from home for certain customers, pre-warmed coffee cups for others and were still trying to dodge retirement at age 83.
“They [all] said, ‘I love what I do. This is what I was meant to do. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,’ ” Taylor said. “I thought it was a fluke, but then I realized there was a different story to be told here.”
For Taylor, that story has taken many forms over the nearly 10 years she’s been telling it. For instance, when she turned in her thesis, it contained much ado about French philosopher Michel Foucault, class and labor, but now the book’s breezy chapters center on tricks of the trade (a knack for “emotional labor” and strong fingers go a long way), historical context (the fairer sex was not welcome in diners until after the 1920s) and unexpected facts (career waitressing might combat aging).
A former painter-turned-multimedia artist -- her next project is a documentary on female bullfighters -- the San Francisco-based Taylor has exhibited many of the book’s photographs in galleries up and down California and has aired her audio clips on National Public Radio.
It was when one of her waitresses -- 55-year veteran Rachel Lelchuk -- went on the radio that Taylor realized waiting tables might be a status symbol after all.
“When Rachel was on NPR, people called in from all over the state and said, ‘Oh, my God, I met her once and will always remember her,’ ” Taylor said. “I swear we’ll be eating out, and it’s like we’re celebrities. People will stop her all the time, and she tries to introduce me. I’m like ‘They don’t care about me. You’re the star.’ ”
Farabee is a critic and writer living in Edinburgh.
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