Ah, the Great American Diner. The gleaming countertops, the chrome, the endless cups of coffee, the cure for the common hangover. And let's not forget those wise-cracking waitresses with their uniform dresses, starched aprons, and hearts of gold. (See: Mildred Pierce, Keri Russell in Waitress, and of course Flo "Kiss my Grits" Castleberry.)
But what's the life of a diner waitress really like? Make no mistake: As much fun as it may be for you to chow down on those eggs and ham in a vintage leather booth, your waitress is working hard for her money. Very hard. She sees some crazy things, deals with a good bit of drama, and puts up with a lot of shenanigans from the dining public — maybe even you.
We decided to investigate. Here's what four real-life diner waitresses had to say.
"Remember that old guy who was sitting over there at the counter?"
"Mandy" (not her real name) cocks her head towards the center of the diner counter as she pulls a tube of lip gloss out of her apron and methodically applies frosted pink to her lips with the wand. "He came in earlier for breakfast. He fell asleep at the counter, woke up, and ordered lunch — and tipped me $2."
According to Mandy, such eccentric behavior on the part of patrons isn't unusual here at the Melrose Diner, a bustling South Philly institution since 1935. "And those three old men down at the end of the counter?" she continues. "The two only come in if the guy on the end is there. He pays for them. He'll get a hard-boiled egg and cheese sandwich, a small regular water, and a seltzer water with lemon. I put the lemon in the regular water once and he almost had a fit. He usually tips $1."
Tales of under-tipping old men might not square with most people's romantic idea, but Mandy's passel of diner waitress-obsessed old men is not an anomaly. As it turns out, diners and old men go together like, well, like diners and old men.
"Ruby," a former hostess at a diner in Oakland, CA, remembers that "We had a slew of regulars, mostly single old men who would sit at the counter, and I learned the hard way that you need to sass them early if you don't want them to hit on you all the time. One old man brought my coworker a bouquet of flowers every single day. It wasn't a sexual or romantic or predatory thing — he was genuinely a sweet old 80-something — but I remember my coworker lamenting that she'd rather have the cash he used to buy the flowers."
Of course, no matter the type of restaurant, for a waitress tips are really what it's all about. And perhaps because of the more relaxed atmosphere — and late-night hours — some diner patrons seem to feel friendly banter, in addition to coffee and pie, is part of earning that tip.
"I felt very aware that we were providing this experience of companionship for our regulars," Ruby recalls. "And it was sort of awkward, when one would finally ask you to hang out after hours, to have to be as gracious as possible and also set that boundary and remind them that if you weren't getting paid, you wouldn't be into someone twice your age who hangs out all day at the diner counter hitting on the hostesses."
Porscha, a former waitress in a suburban Austin, TX, diner, remembers that "I didn't, sometimes, like how familiar every customer tried to be with me, especially when that familiarity included things like sexual harassment or off-color jokes."
"Betsy," a former waitress at a diner in north central Illinois, acknowledged the, ahem, tit for tat, and used the system to her advantage. She recalls, "I figured out quickly that I got better tips when I wore low-cut shirts, and I shamelessly worked that. I was never explicitly sexually harassed — most of the customers were very kind and respectful, although one old man in his 90s never learned my name and instead called me His Girl Friday. I was aware that some of the men who tipped me well did so more for the view than for my skills at pouring coffee."
It's not just the flirtatious old men that diner waitress have to put up with — especially on the late shift. Porscha remembers a time when one patron was so drunk he thought he was in the bathroom and started "peeing on the floor." And Mandy says late-night madness is not uncommon at the 24-hour Melrose.
"I don't work the overnight, but I hear stories," she says. "One guy came in and threw all the toothpicks at a table of college students, squirted the cashier with water, and then went outside and threw his food at the window. He came back in and the cook tackled him. The guy bit him!"
That said, some regulars make the job worthwhile. "[One regular] once waited 40 minutes to be seated in my section," Porscha says. "Which is a ridiculous and inappropriate wait for $5 waffles or fried potatoes we'd defrosted the day before. His bill always totaled less than $20 and he always tipped me $10. I can assure you that neither my service ability nor my attitude deserved that percentage."
And Mandy says that on her last birthday, one of her regulars gave her $20 and told her to "go buy yourself a nice drink."
But a $10 or a $20 tip from a beloved regular certainly isn't the norm, and doesn't exactly make up for a shift filled with flirts and cheapskates. So the next time you and your friends head to your favorite diner for a hangover cure breakfast or a slice of pie, please don't be one of the $2 tippers. I sure know I won't.