[1 October 2009]
The reader can be forgiven for thinking that Candacy A. Taylor’s Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress is going to be little more than a glorified collection of photo captions. The large-format, softcover presentation from Cornell University’s ILR Press suggests that the artwork, rather than the text, give this book its raison d’etre.
Yet it is Taylor’s unsentimental yet sympathetic treatment of the 57 waitresses she interviewed that make this book worth reading, not just looking at. Taylor promises in her introduction that Counter Culture is “more than just a coffee-table book of a pop culture icon”, and she delivers on this promise. While her photographs are striking, and lend a welcome visual context to the people and places she describes, the book could stand on its own without them.
Taylor frankly discloses her own personal connections to the subject matter – most notably, the fact that she has nearly 10 years of waitressing experience herself – and uses the first-person voice often during her account. This does not come across as amateurish or intrusive, but instead grounds her narrative in a clearly understood context.
Counter Culture‘s subject is specific: coffee-shop or diner waitresses who have made this occupation their life’s work. Taylor’s lavishly illustrated paean to these longtime waitresses, or ‘lifers’, gives these unsung heroines of Americana the respect they so richly deserve. What could degenerate into sentimentality is instead grounded in careful research and honest understanding. When Taylor tells the reader that waitresses often earn more than their peers, that they make an art of their work and that they sincerely love what they do, she backs up her statements with the rich well of data mined from years of interviewing these women.
The message that comes through most clearly in Counter Culture is that of respect. Taylor describes women who respect themselves, and who command respect from their customers, their co-workers and their supervisors. She does not scold the reader for wanting to pity career waitresses, or view them only in terms of stereotypes; rather, she admits that she was tempted to do the same before she began her research. And the portraits she paints are of women who evoke no pity, because these ‘lifers’ so clearly love what they do and are choosing to do it with full agency and awareness of what it means to their lives.
If there can be any criticism of Taylor’s work, it’s the wish that there was more of it. Fifty-seven interviews conducted over several years could theoretically have yielded much more material. While the book feels cohesive, and there is no discernible lack of information, it’s also easy to imagine that a lot of great stuff might yet remain in her notes and recordings. It’s a relief to learn (from Taylor’s blog) that a documentary film is in production. Thinking of the amount of time and effort that must have gone into Counter Culture, it would be a shame if these 142 pages were all anyone ever got to see of her labors.