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Great Waitresses Are Counter-Intuitive

I never waited tables or worked a deli counter. Many of my friends did during college and said it was the hardest job they ever had.

It was probably just as well the opportunity never came my way. I'm not very good at taking orders. I like people. It's the public I have trouble with.

But if you work behind the counter at a coffee shop, the public is what you get. The hope, I assume, is the public turns into people who turn into friends.

A book out this week, Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress, pretty much proves that true.

Faye Blackwell of Trio Restaurant in Washington, D.C., for instance, says: "If a customer comes in three times, I consider them a regular. By then I know their name, what they eat, if their mother is ill, or if they need surgery."

I was a regular once, long ago and far away at a place called Lou's Luncheonette in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The woman who knew my name, and what I ate, and if my mom was coming to town, was Amy.

I'm sure Amy had a last name, but I'm not sure I ever knew it. She was just Amy. The name tag on her petite white uniform said so.

Amy died a few years ago, and Lou's is now called something else, but I can remember sitting in the booths along the wall opposite the counter as if it were yesterday.

And, yes, there were the "regulars" who showed up every day - Dick, who ran the funeral home next door; Minnie, a secretary for a local judge; Ellen, who worked at the drugstore across the street. And me.

I often thought Amy saw herself as a director, pen in hand, putting on a show. We were merely the actors, a cast of characters, putty in her hands. She set the stage for the day's drama, and we were all willing to play our parts.

Rachel Lelchuck, a waitress at Louis' restaurant in San Francisco for 55 years, says she, too, made "an art" out of being a waitress. "For me, it was a holiday to come to work, because I looked forward to it."

I'm not sure Amy ever thought that coming to work every day was a holiday. There were days she didn't seem in the mood to play. I certainly understood. It was those days she took guff from no one.

But if she liked you, the possibilities were endless. Extra fries. A larger-than-usual milkshake. Maybe even a discount on the final tab. She knew I was just starting out, making $125 a week, and that lunch was the big meal of the day.

She took good care of us. I'd like to think we took good care of her. It's what the counter culture is all about.

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