About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, August 22, 2008

The Intelligence of the Waitress in Motion

Labor Day is almost here, so I’d like to stick with the theme of work a while longer. I’m reprinting below a tribute I wrote for my mother who worked in restaurants all her adult life.

This originally appeared several years ago in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


The restaurant was my mother’s laboratory of human relations and the place where she put her quick and inquisitive mind to work. I would visit her with my father, who was disabled, and sit at the back booth, where the waitresses took their break. There wasn’t a lot to do at home. Our neighborhood was poor, a mix of old houses and small stores, lots of retirees, few kids. The hours stretched out. So my father and I would take the bus downtown to pass the time with Rosie.

I remember her walking full-tilt with an armload of plates along one arm and two cups of coffee somehow cradled in her other hand. Or her taking orders, pencil poised over pad. Or her flopping down in the booth, the whoosh of the cushion. “I’m all in” she’d say, and whisper something quickly to us about a regular customer: about his kids or why she thinks he’s having problems at work. She would stand before a table, her arm stacked with plates, picking one order off for this person, then another, then another – always seeming to get it right, knowing who got the hamburger, who got the fried shrimp. I remember her sitting sideways in the back booth, talking to us, her one hand gripping the outer edge of the table, watching the floor, and noting, in the flow of our conversation, who needed something, who was finishing up, whose order was taking longer to prepare than it should.

My mother immigrated to the United States with her parents from Southern Italy and grew up during the Great Depression. Her family was very poor, and Rosie was taken out of school in the seventh grade to care for her younger brothers and sisters. She started waiting on tables as a young woman and worked her entire adult life in coffee shops and chain restaurants. These places are fast-paced, and the work is hard and punishing, especially over the long haul. But given her limited formal education, my mother knew that she could always make a living in a restaurant. As she put it to me simply but powerfully much later in her life: “Dad was ill, and you were little…I had to get work.”

Most tributes to working-class parents stop here. We celebrate their work ethic, or their courage, or their love for us and the tenacity of their labor. My mother certainly deserves such testimony. But I think that she – and blue-collar and service workers like her – deserve another tribute as well: a tribute to the intelligence that it took to handle the many demands of her work.

As someone who comes from a blue-collar background and who now, as a professor of education, studies issues like learning and intelligence, I am troubled by the way we as a society readily acknowledge the intelligence required for white-collar and professional occupations, but rarely honor the thinking involved in physical work. Listen to the language we use. The work of the “new economy” is “neck-up” while old-style industrial and service work is “neck-down”. In the body only. Mindless.

But what I saw growing up was anything but mindless. My uncles—who were machinists, welders, and factory workers—would show me how to do things with tools or explain how something worked. And my mother was so competent in the restaurant, so in command of what seemed to me to be chaos. All this has affected how I understand intelligence, learning outside of school, and the immense knowledge and skill of the everyday work that makes life possible.

So about seven years ago, I set out to study the cognition of physical work, that is, the knowledge involved, the way information is used, the kinds of decisions made and problems solved. I brought my current intellectual tools, so to speak, to bear on the intelligence of the work that surrounded me as I was growing up: to the restaurant, the railroad, the factory floor. The project became both a fascinating study in its own right as well as a tribute to my family.

To do the work she did, my mother had to develop strategies to aid memory. As she stood before a table, taking orders, repeating them back while writing them out, making small talk, she would “make a picture in my mind” of the person giving her the order, what that person ordered, and where around the table he or she was located. She would do this for seven to nine tables, with two to six people each. She relied on physical appearance, dress, location at the table, and conformity to or deviation from social expectations – for example, the man who orders a chef salad while his wife orders a steak.

My mother had to keep all this in mind while rushing through a busy restaurant, watching over things, organizing and sequencing tasks, and solving problems on the fly. She describes a typical scenario where an obnoxious regular is tapping the side of his coffee cup with a spoon while she is taking an order. The cook rings her bell indicating another order is ready, and a few seconds later the manager seats two new parties at two of her tables that have just cleared. And, oh, as she is dashing back to the kitchen, one customer asks to change an order, another signals for more coffee, and a third requests a new fork to replace one dropped on the floor. “Your mind is going so fast,” she says, “thinking what to do first, where to go first…which is the best thing to do…which is the quickest.” How did my mother do it?

One thing the waitress does is try to see the big picture and stay vigilant. My mother talks about both standing back and surveying her station and “taking little glances” at her tables as she is moving through it. This mindfulness can reveal problems. “You’re keeping an eye on who is not served yet,” she says, “If it’s been too long, you go check on the kitchen yourself.”

The waitress gets very good at “working smart”. My mother would sequence and group tasks. What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? Or what could be clustered together at the coffee counter or when she’s going to the kitchen? This economy of movement called for a continual attentiveness to a dynamic, quickly changing environment. If my mother didn’t “make every move count,” as she put it, she would “run myself ragged.”

All of this fast thinking is taking place in an emotional field. Is the manager in a good mood? Did the cook wake up on the wrong side of the bed? If so how can you make an extra request or return an order diplomatically? And, then, of course, there are the customers. Customers enter a restaurant with all sorts of needs, from the physiological – and the emotions that accompany hunger – to a desire for public intimacy. The waitress’s tip is dependent on how well she responds to these needs – not always an easy, or uncomplicated, task. So she gets good at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own. This self-regulation of feeling is sufficiently demanding that some sociologists refer to it as “emotional labor”. But what also strikes me too is the interpersonal smarts it takes to pull it off.

My mother was fascinated by psychology and was a keen observer of it. She understood the motivations of neighborhood kids better than some of our teachers, and she had a shrewd take on the politics of the restaurants she worked in. The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzled over the problems of her regular customers, refined her ability to deal with people in a difficult world. She took pride in “being among the public.” The main floor became her informal classroom. “There isn’t a day that goes by in the restaurant,” she was fond of saying, “that you don’t learn something.”

Much of the thinking and learning in the restaurant is hidden from us. When dining out goes well, we experience “good service”, which typically means that our food got to us in a timely fashion, it was prepared well, and the interaction with the server was pleasant. But there is a mind at work in creating that service, the play of memory, attention, decision-making, social sensibility.

This is what engaged Rosie Rose, and getting it down in print as Labor Day approaches gives me a way to remember and honor her.


  1. Estimados lectores,

    I don't have much to say tonite--always dig when social scientists labor to show how sharp everyday folk can be-- other than I have to give props for the writing. It don't get no get better than the following:

    "The restaurant was my mother’s laboratory of human relations and the place where she put her quick and
    inquisitive mind to work. I would visit her with my
    father, who was disabled, and sit at the back booth,
    where the waitresses took their break. There wasn’t a lot to do at home. Our neighborhood was poor, a mix of old houses and small stores, lots of retirees, few kids. The hours stretched out. So my father and I would take the bus downtown to pass the time with Rosie."

    Economy without clinical coldness, three-dimensional
    with vast stretches of space in between the things
    described, enough space for us to sit down next to Mike at
    the back booth. I can read it over and over again.

    Manuel Espinoza
    CU Denver School of Educación

  2. I enjoyed reading your blog. I thought about the people in my life who do not have college educations and how much they achieved. Some of us had careers before we earned our college degrees.

    Both my parents did not have a college education, but did offer all of their children the opportunity to receive/earn a degree. My dad worked for the railroad and when he retired 20 years ago he was making nearly what I am making now as a college instructor. My mom when she retired was working as a bookkeeper for a small company. One of my brothers has some college, but no degree. He worked for the navy in Charleston in a civilian capacity and retired at age 55. His job was to work on the onboard computer systems in the ships. He traveled all over the world going wherever a system broke down to initiate the necessary repairs. The other brother does not have a college education, but has done very well for himself. He worked for a major art supply company mixing the colors in various paints. He memorized all the formulas. Later he left the company and has been operating his own vending machine company. His wife without a college education rose to the ranks of Bank Secretary and now helps operate their business. My husband does not have a college education and has recently retired from a major pharmaceutical company where he was in facilities maintenance.

    My youngest sister took the opportunity to receive/earn a college education while still living at home. My middle sister and I waited to begin our college careers. She was in her late 20s and I was in my early 30s. I had a fulltime position as a secretary (before that I worked in the office at Kmart and sometimes on the sales floor) and another fulltime position as a wife and mother running a household. It wasn't easy earning a college degree this way, but my parents, husband and daughter were so proud of me when I received my Bachelor's and Master's degrees. For a number of years following earning my Master’s degree, I remained in my position as administrative and legal assistant.

    When I left that position five years ago for academia I was earning more than what I do presently. However, I did not have the joy that I feel each day when I take the train to reach the college where I am a Developmental Educator. My classroom is personal. When I do my registration duty twice a year, I make it personal for the entering and returning students. Maybe other areas of the college are impersonal, but when students come into contact with me it becomes personal as I help these young men and women begin their college careers.

    I respect their efforts. I am their coach, cheerleader, mentor, guide and friend as I push and pull them to obtaining college level reading and writing skills. At the end of the semester it is my pleasure to register my students for college level classes. Many of them come from ESL families, low income and single parent households; some of them are single parents and others’ college career path matches mine. I’ve had a student who lived in his car. They all want a better life than what they have experienced. Some of them want to enter careers and positions that will pay them more than what I make to educate them. My job is to help them achieve their dreams. I want to help them make a difference in their lives.

    Some of these students have no one to support their attempts at an education and some even are discouraged by family and friends. I serve them. Let’s not forget that those of us who are in education are also servers. We provide that important third space for our students. My former students still return to me for advice, both educational and personal. That is how I know that I have become an important part of their lives.

    My husband and I go to the same diner that we have been going to for the last 40 years. Throughout the years the wait staff has changed, but as we begin to know each other, we are greeted by name and brought our drinks (coffee, etc.) and asked if we want the usual. My husband usually does, I like to mix things up. Whenever I go to the local pharmacy (which is actually a national chain) I am greeted like a friend. Just the other day, I transferred some prescriptions to this pharmacy (I had been going there for a few years for cosmetics, etc.) when I walked back to the pharmacy counter I was greeted by name. When we need work done around the house and yard, we ask around to find out who does the best work. Over a year ago my stylist had a stroke and is no longer able to work on hair and I have had to find a new one. I have tried a few out, but until the other day I didn’t find anyone that gave me the personal touch and made me feel like I belonged there. I will be going back to this young lady. All of these people provide the personal touch and make us feel like friends and family. Yes I agree that the third space and the relationships developed there are an important part of our lives.

    Sharon R. D’Agastino
    Academic Foundations
    ESL/Bilingual/Developmental Education
    Hudson County Community College
    Jersey City, NJ 07080

  3. What a wonderful tribute. I never worked as a server, but I have been a cook and other roles in food service and you write about the nuances and intricacies of the processes so well! This is also why I always tip wait staff very well - more people should work in food service, even if temporarily, to gain an appreciation for that intense life and how hard it is. Then maybe people would tip better and respond more sanely when something goes wrong, or is perceived to have gone wrong. Thanks for sharing! :)

  4. Hello Mike,
    I have enjoyed reading your blogs immensely and had this thought about the people who are so good at what they do without a college education. It is this: non-degreed professional people like waitresses and hardressers, plumbers and lawn keepers are people one finds by referrals, not the yellow pages. This is because you want someone you can TRUST to do a good job, someone you want to have a long term relaitonship with, someone who becomes a FRIEND. I would never go to anyone other than my own stylist because she knows me, my hair, and all the goings on in my life. We have wonderful conversations about what each of us has been doing in the 6 week intervals between hair appointments. Her parents run the salon and contribute doorprizes to a charitable group I belong to for fudnaising. The person who cares for my mother's yard although the house is vacant and mother long gone, is a FRIEND. He not only does lawn care, but he watches over the house when he is there, he puts the yard clippings out for the trash, and he comes by the day after to put the trash barrels back. If it is too hot to cut the lawn, he looks after everything as if it were his own place. He helped my husband bang out a dent I had put in the trunk of the car we keep there. My husband and I choose which restaurants to go to on the basis of who we know there. Several restaurants have had the same staff for several years. When we asked about the manager of one of them, 'Is Tim here?" and were told he didn't work there anymore, we found out where he DID work and went to that restaurant just to see him. As it turned out, the new restaurant was across the street from a TGI Fridays that we also patronize. When we went to TGI Fridays the next day, the woman who opens the door for everyone also knows us. She immediately sad "I saw you going into Potbelly yesterday and almost yelled across the street at you!" So we had to explain we went there to catch up on things with another restaurant friend.
    An academic setting, a classroom, a registration line, a bookstore-all these are very impersonal. Everyone is processed rather than related to. People who provide skilled services ARE personal-their success depends upon it. Those of us on the receiving end also depend upon it. There is so much that is impersonal that the sincere friendliness of these people stands out. As our friend at Potbelly said, "People have a 'Third Space' they go to where they feel accepted outside of their home and their work. I try to make my restaurant that Third Space". Since my husband and I eat out a lot, the restaurant third space is important to us as well.
    I would be interested to hear others' thoughts on their relationships with their service people.
    Kathie Whellchel
    Coon Rapids, MN

  5. I was a waitress for many years. I found that being a waitress really helped me achieve my academic goals because of all the interpersonal navigational issues I had to deal with in the restaurant environment. Furthermore, the fact that I had to give good service in the short amount of time helped me learn how to really be efficient with my time. Like any operation, I found through experience that the University was no different and had very difficult policies and protocols which required an advanced set of knowledge and skills to end well.

    Just like Rose, I learned to navigate and delight the customer, the cook, the boss, the professor and especially the bartender. In all situations, one always keeps an eye on the person who has temporary control over your destiny. If you don’t get along with the cook it will affect everything from the timing of the meal to the quality. The same goes with the Bartender. If the boss likes you, you get a better station in the restaurant and more tips to pay for your schooling. Same goes for the University. Understanding what the Professor is requiring of you takes learned skill and knowledge that requires disciple in the specific area of study in order to do well.

    My mom was also a waitress for many years and of course she acquired the exceptional skills needed to be a good waitress, like Rose. She would come home so tired and beat. She worked the graveyard shift so she slept during the day. I remember waking and going into her room in the mornings and counting her change (tips) that she kept in her black worn work apron. We survived on those tips. That was the great thing about my mom being a waitress. She always brought home something for us kids even if it was just a few bucks. We scraped by thanks to her hard work and the customers that appreciated her efforts.
    I salute you Rose and all working mothers….

  6. Here's a pretty cool article.


  7. I have always admired restaurant staff. They're the definition of "work under pressure". I couldn't imagine myself carrying a plateful tray or tray with 6 cups of coffee. I might have been terminated in just an hour if I work in a diner. Like you Mike, my mom also worked for a fast food chain on her younger years. I wanted to be like her and enjoyed playing with cash registers.

    Natalie Loopbaanadvies