Counter Culture: Aging Waitresses Focus of Media Project

By Kleyman, Paul | Aging Today, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Counter Culture: Aging Waitresses Focus of Media Project

Kleyman, Paul, Aging Today

"Waitressing is hard work at any age," says documentary photographer Candacy Taylor, "But one has to wonder, how does an 80-year-old waitress like Esther Paul carry 20 pounds of food and dishes on her arms for 10 hours a day? Not only does she remember to hold the mayo on some burgers and put extra pickle chips on others, but she manages to remember the tedious details for over 100 customers per shift." Paul, who has been waitress-ing since 1943, waits tables in a casino coffee shop outside of Reno, Nev.

Paul is among dozens of career waitresses who are documented in a multimedia project by Candacy Taylor, who spoke on the project during a session titled "Aging Career Waitresses: Rethinking Work and Identity," at the recent Joint Conference of the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging in Anaheim, Calif.


"Women who are destined to work past retirement age in the restaurant business are called lifers-a label that often implies shame and regret," Taylor observed. "But despite the stigma attached to waitressing, most older waitresses say they truly enjoy the work," she said.

"Career waitresses do a lot more than just serve food," stated Taylor, who has traveled more than 6,500 miles since 2001 to photograph and document the subculture of people who make waitressing their lifework. "After giving them every opportunity to complain about the obvious disadvantages of working within a system that ignored and devalued their work, the resounding sentiment was how much they loved their jobs," she said. Taylor added, "Many of them don't plan on retiring until they absolutely have to. Waitressing is hard work, but these women will tell you that it keeps them feeling younger, keeps their minds sharp and fulfills their desire to make meaningful human connections."

This project consists of a photo exhibition, website (www.careerwaitresses. com) and radio documentary. The photo exhibition, called Dishing It Out, is on display now through Sept. 11 at the Copia Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, Calif, (see Also underway are a book and film titled Counter Culture: The American Waitress.


Besides the close bonds that develop between longtime waitresses and their regular customers, Taylor noted, customers can benefit in unexpected ways. Paul told Taylor about a day at her job when platters of food looked terrible. She told the cook, "I wouldn't serve that to a dog." When the cook said, "Well I'm the chef-" Paul interrupted, stating, "I don't care who you are. If the people won't eat it, I won't serve it." A newer waitress probably would have had to get the manager to force the cook to remake the orders, setting her schedule back and further damaging her relationship with the cook.

In addition, Taylor observed, "On the floor, if a waitress is faced with an even bigger problem, like spilled coffee on a silk shirt, an expert at the job can charm her way out of almost anything. Suppose the customer throws a tantrum and makes her life miserable for a few minutes. The seasoned waitress knows he or she will be gone within a half an hour, so she moves on and focuses on her wellbehaved patrons; she may even tell the locals about it for a good laugh.

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