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<i>Hey, Waitress!</i>, Portraits of American Female Servers - 2003-03-09

From high-priced urban restaurants to fast food chains to friendly neighborhood cafes, waitresses can be found hard at work across the United States. What's it like to spend your days feeding a hungry, and often demanding, public? Alison Owings decided to find out. The result is a new book of oral history called "Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray.".

For much of her life, Cathy has been asking the same questions again and again: "How are you doing? Would you like something to drink to get you started?"

Cathy is a Greek American waitress who started helping out in her father's New York restaurant as a teenager. Now she's a grandmother. And for the past ten years, she's worked at Milano's, a small Greek and Italian restaurant outside Washington, D.C. She can't imagine doing anything else.

"I love to be around the people," she says. "It's like home away from home every day. I know their problems. They know my problems, my family problems, their family problems. It's like a family."

While men also wait on tables in the United States, the job has traditionally been dominated by women, whether they've made it a lifelong calling, a temporary way to earn spending money, or an unwelcome necessity to survive financial hard times. A few years ago, Alison Owings set out to learn more about those women.

"I am interested in overlooked and stereotyped people, and I noticed that waitresses were about as overlooked and stereotyped as they come," explains Ms. Owings . "And I started looking at them over my menu as I was eating out, and it seemed to me the job perhaps was more intricate and demanding than some of us realized."

That launched Alison Owings on a quest that took her across the United States and across generations. Hey, Waitress includes profiles of young working mothers and a 95-year-old woman claiming to be America's oldest living waitress. While some were more enthusiastic about the job than others, Alison Owings says nearly all agreed waitressing is hard work.

"It is difficult physically. I met a lot of women with burn marks on their arms from hot plates, or who had bad backs, bad feet," Ms. Owings says. "I know of almost no ex waitress who wears high heels. And also the job is very difficult mentally. A lot of times it's the waitress who's responsible for timing everything, when the food starts getting cooked for which table. And then sometimes most difficult is the psychological dilemma of the job. A lot of women are put down simply for what they're doing, and I think they put up with too much in order to get the tips."

Most American waitresses earn much of their salary from tips, based on the price of the dinner, the quality of their service, and the mood of the customer. Cathryn Anita Smith, a former waitress profiled in the book, remembers tipping as an unpredictable series of disappointments and rewards.

"Sometimes the most demanding people would leave you the least," she recalls. "And sometimes after they were fed they were happy and you weren't expecting a big tip from them and they would leave you a big tip."

In some ways, American waitressing hasn't changed all that much over the centuries. Alison Owings believes the job originated in the seventeenth century taverns of colonial America, and she says waitresses have been struggling for respect ever since.

"Some unsavory people hung out at places where alcohol was purveyed, and the women who served these men were tainted by the association. And that has gone on really into the present," she explains.

But Alison Owings also talked with waitresses who fought to improve their working conditions. She tells the story of 95-year-old Beulah Compton, a former union leader in Seattle, Washington.

"She started off as a waitress after her husband left her. And she was a terrible waitress," says Ms. Owings. "But she was a very good organizer, and she did astonishing things, such as getting retired waitresses to help out with informal day care centers for waitresses' children, or to go on errands for sick waitresses."

Cathryn Anita Smith was also a waitress turned activist. She sued an elegant French restaurant in New York City, because it hired only male waiters.

"In 1970s New York City, you couldn't get a restaurant job in the evening on the Upper East Side where the fine dining was happening. And I ended up as the first woman at La Cote Basque. Ultimately I got their grudging respect," she recalls. "But their feeling was strong that a woman shouldn't be doing their work."

Cathryn Smith says she got a lot out of her experience as a waitressmemories of waiting on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and other celebrities, the lasting friendship of fellow waitresses, and a lot of insights into human nature. What's the key to those insights?

"Food. Feeding a human being who is hungry," Ms. Smith answers. "When you want to discuss an issue in most cultures, food is so important. People bring you food right away so you can eat and be calm."

According to Alison Owings, other waitresses echoed that idea. "I've talked to an awful lot of women who literally refer to their customers as babies or children," she says. "And they really do look down on them as these needy creatures who have to be kept quiet and happy."

Alison adds that waitresses master valuable lessons in return.

"A lot of them say they learn how to deal with people who are angry, how to plan their time a lot better," she says. "And they say they are better 'whatevers' they are because of what they learned as waitresses. One of the women I talked to became an anthropologist, and she said she would have to go into a strange town and find what people were thinking. She says never felt in danger because this invisible wall she learned as a waitress - this wall she learned when some man was screaming about his steak. And she would take this wall with her wherever she goes and needs it."

Alison Owings spent a lot of time eating with waitresses while writing her book. She offered to buy everyone she interviewed a meal, and nearly all accepted. She's now what might be described as the ideal restaurant customer. She says she never sends meals back, and she always tips generously.