Wednesday, April 29, 2009
This was a bit of a flashback book. Even though I haven't spent that much of my life waitressing, reading this book provoked some strong memories. The best thing about it was that it wasn't some sort of scholarly examination of waitressing. There were no statistics: 73% of waitresses have experienced some form of sexual harassment, 47% have worked in unsafe conditions, 39% have tried illegal drugs, etc. The author interviewed a lot of waitresses and let their own words speak for what happens on the job.
It takes a special kind of interviewer to let the interviewee just talk, and not need a lot of your own words in between. Owings did a wonderful job of giving women who don't often have a voice the opportunity to speak plainly about what it is like to serve people all the time. Studs Terkel, another historian, could do this as well. By placing the interviews together the reader doesn't need the analysis, you can see what happens in this profession, or any other group. Terkel did several books like this, most notably on the Great Depression.
If this book can get even a few people to consider thinking more about their server than whether or not their food was perfect it will have accomplished something. One woman pointed out that she could switch places with a co-worker and the diners wouldn't even notice the change. Too many people think that someone serving them loses their humanity, making them vulnerable to behavior that wouldn't be tolerated in any other setting.
The worst part is the sexual harassment, at least it was for me. It doesn't come from the customers (mostly) but there is a great deal of tension between the male cooking and dish washing crew and the female wait staff. The ladies interviewed talked about handling that tension in a variety of ways, but the restaurant business is very physical, and many times that tension plays out in physical ways as well.
The tension between the servers and the customers differs with each meal served, but the classic human need to feel superior to someone else can be very ugly sometimes.
This was a good book, informative for those that have never picked up one of those big black trays, and respectful to those that have. I was very impressed by the author's handling of a topic that has been treated with condescension so many times before.
Hey Waitress: The USA From the Other Side of the Tray. Alison Owings. University of California Press. 2002