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Hey, Waitress!

Hey, Waitress!: The USA from the Other Side of the Tray

Alison Owings
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 334
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  • Book Info
    Hey, Waitress!
    Book Description:

    Most of us have sat across the tray from a waitress, but how many of us know what really is going on from her side?Hey, Waitress!aims to tell us. Containing lively, personal portraits of waitresses from many different walks of life, this book is the first of its kind to show the intimate, illuminating, and often shocking behind-the-scenes stories of waitresses' daily shifts and daily lives. Alison Owings traveled the country-from border to border and coast to coast-to hear firsthand what waitresses think about their lives, their work, and their world. Part journalism and part oral history,Hey, Waitress!introduces an eclectic cast of characters: a ninety-five-year-old Baltimore woman who may have been the oldest living waitress, a Staten Island firebrand laboring at a Pizza Hut, a well-to-do runaway housewife, a Native American proud of her financial independence, a college student loving her diner more than her studies, a Cajun grandmother of twenty-two, and many others. The book also offers vivid slices of American history. The stories describe the famous sit-in at the Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, which helped spark the civil rights movement; early struggles for waitress unions; and battles against sexually discriminatory hiring in restaurants. A superb and accessible means of breaking down stereotypes, this book reveals American waitresses in all their complexity and individuality, and will surely change the way we order, tip, and, most of all, behave in restaurants.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93122-0
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
    (pp. 1-6)

    Once, upon a short time. Howard Johnson’s on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Valley Forge exit. Several of us girls from Conestoga High School—all gangly, giggly, gorging, and earning summer money for fall college—raced around HoJo’s orange/aqua color scheme, a palette that extended to our uniforms. I was riveted, as outsiders are, by details: having to wear huge white shoes and a hairnet, getting to eat for free everything ill-advised for a teenaged complexion, from chocolate milk shakes to fried clams. The only items the HoJo powers forbade their staff were sirloin steak and fresh fruit, thus winning the latter...

    (pp. 7-27)

    The first classical waitress, so to speak, was Hebe, daughter of the Greek god Zeus and the goddess Hera. Hebe’s job was to pour wine for the gods. That is, in an irony perhaps relevant only to New Yorkers, the first known waitress worked in a Greek place uptown.

    Yet even a myth has a mother. The notion of one person satisfying the thirst or hunger of another must have begun when woman first nursed child—a picture, say waitresses, that still informs some customers. (There are striking similarities between suckling and serving; breasts remain a factor, as does the...

  5. Voices from the Other Side of the Tray

      (pp. 29-85)

      Waitress work evokes the present. A meal is servednow, minutes (if sometimes many minutes) after being ordered. Often within an hour it is eaten and paid for and its residue removed. The perception of waitressing as immediate, however, risks ignoring the deeper connections some waitresses have, in very different ways, with our common history.

      The Sonoran desert, the hottest in North America, spreads a scorch of earth from Baja California to Arizona. In its northern reaches, if winter rains are mighty, spring explodes with sparse lushness, in ascendancies of mesquite, yucca, bear grass, cholla, devil’s claw, ocotillo, agave. The...

    • 3 “WE SHOULD BE RESPECTED”: Professionals
      (pp. 86-132)

      Why do people who have a “career,” as opposed to a “job,” have the careers they do?

      I suspect that the reasons for any particular career choice are many and that the reasons for staying with the choice are usually as much a matter of satisfaction as of money. I also suspect that many professionals believe that career waitresses are different, that these women did not choose waitressing and do not stay in it because they want to.

      Such people are often wrong, on both counts.

      Meet the pros.

      “Let me tell you just a little bit about myself,” wrote...

    • 4 HIGH ENDS
      (pp. 133-163)

      As almost anyone who has worked in restaurants will testify, many different highs may be experienced behind the scenes. The women in this chapter pose a dilemma that is free of drugs (more accurately put, this was not a topic of conversation with these particular women) but full of stress. The stress, and the dilemma, involves behavior and money—and the matter of how much of both the coddled dole out to the coddlers.

      Chez Panisse in Berkeley, to glean from a harvest of press clippings, may be the most influential restaurant in the United States. On the occasion of...

    • 5 “IT WAS DESPERATION TIME”: Waitressing as Salvation
      (pp. 164-210)

      Women of little means are not known for saying, “If I really get desperate, I can always run a corporation”; or, “If this keeps up, I might as well go back to being a tenured professor”; or, “I guess I’m just going to have to cut another album.” To wait tables when desperate for cash—that is the common American experience. The shoring up of finances, however, is only one way that waitressing may act as a balm. As I learned over and over, it can also fulfill other needs, often in unexpected ways.

      “This wasn’t an original idea. I...

      (pp. 211-254)

      Diners, which started more than a hundred years ago as lunch wagons on wheels (and later looked as if wheels were all they lacked), evolved into the gussied-up lodestones of the land, proof on a grill that endless work could yield a living and that the price of a cup of coffee could conjure a home. In the heyday of diners, which was a half century ago, diner waitresses did well. Now, with diners more often imitated than original, and more down at the heels than up on the trends, diner waitresses face not only hard work but sometimes a...

      (pp. 255-294)

      No waitress is an island, to paraphrase the old line. Instead, she represents worlds that may be out of the realm of our notion of serving, and out of the realm of how much we know of the self-contained worlds within restaurants.

      Somewhere I read that integration, when it takes place in America, most often takes place at work. Schools, neighborhoods, places of worship, places of recreation often remain, for various reasons, more segregated than not. Work is where we meet and spend time with people who are different from ourselves, whether in hue or, indeed, in view. Our commonality...

      (pp. 295-320)

      Just about every kind of job, I have learned from both firsthand and secondhand experience, offers an after-shift ritual, especially for workers young in heart and slim in commitments. For many waitresses, after shift was, and remains, a sometimes fragile but buoyant time of both weariness and connection.

      It also can be a time of reassessing one’s life.

      Kathy’s Old Townhouse Cafe in Sunol, California, a couple of hours and trends southeast of San Francisco, has just closed for the day. The plain wooden building that houses the cafe stands on block-long Main Street, perpendicular to freight railroad tracks. The...

    (pp. 321-326)

    Toward the end of my listening, observing, and reading, I decided I should see the view from the other side of the tray again myself. I did not aspire to be a real waitress—I knew that a single customer neglecting to say “Please” would send me packing. Instead, I cast about for a mini-immersion and was offered one by a friend. Ann Walker, of the wondrous Ann Walker Catering company near San Francisco, hired me to be part of a crew serving lunch in the city to high-tech conventioneers.

    Because the job entailed only a shared group gratuity rather...

    (pp. 327-328)
  8. NOTES
    (pp. 329-334)