Waitress Anthropologist Candacy Taylor Goes Beyond 'the Counter'

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It's a mild 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Flamingo Heights, where mid-June temperatures can often hover around the century mark. Old Woman Springs Road, Hwy 247, runs from the Food for Less complex and various banks and real estate offices in Yucca Valley, north, through Yucca Mesa, skirting the edge of Landers, through Lucerne Valley, on to Barstow. A giant, spiraling terraglyph made of carefully placed rocks, graces the side of a hill facing Aberdeen Road. Along the stretch between the mouth of Pipes Canyon to the west and Landers, the home of George Van Tassell's Integratron and Gubler's Orchid Nursery, lies this Homesteader Valley Community, dotted with auto wrecking/used car lots, set against an endless vista of desert washes; distant, inactive volcanos and scattered Joshua Trees, Yuccas and creosote.

Flamingo Heights is home to Hero Market, a Pakistani-owned gas station and deli, which serves hamburgers, miles from its sister market, pizzeria/Indian food restaurant and tobacco shop in Joshua Tree. (Sam's is my neighborhood market, where Harman, the affable young clerk known as Harry, has long ago stopped wearing his long hair under a white turban.)

Today, I'm meeting my friend, the artist and photojournalist, Candacy Taylor, in a cowboy-themed diner across the 247 from Hero Market; the Western Coffee Pot Cafe, where they make the best peanut butter pancakes.

Candacy | Photo: Lacy Atkins.
Candacy | Photo: Lacy Atkins.

I first met Candacy when she walked into an Arts Council meeting, in early 2011, with a fresh vision for the design of its Open Studio Tours. I had been named President of the organization, and we were in the early stages of planning the tenth annual Art Tours. For me, it was a huge relief to have this simultaneously vibrant -- and relaxed -- woman, newly relocated from San Francisco to Wonder Valley, offering to be involved in what could otherwise have been a rather staid affair. (She kicked it up to a new level and has now taken on the role of director for the 2012 Hwy 62 Art Tours, just as I've stepped away from my Arts Council post.)

Candacy is squeezing in a breakfast meeting to catch me up on her latest adventures. She's off to a licensing conference to prepare herself for the marketing efforts that will come with her latest projects, which include a fellowship with the Library of Congress. Think "Counter Culture" salt and pepper shakers.

"Artists have no business sense," she says, as she pours a few drops of cream into her coffee, as if to match her own complexion. Candacy is a youthful, small-framed black woman, with deep, knowing eyes and well-defined, tattooed arms, extending from a tank top, over black jeans and boots.

Candacy's choice for meeting at the Western Coffee Pot is not a surprise. Diners have been a major focus of Candacy's attention since 2000, as a grad student at San Francisco College of the Arts, when she began collecting images of waitresses, while working as one at Blowfish Sushi. After graduation, she continued on at Blowfish, for the freedom of schedule it allowed, along with travel - and decent wages, an attractive position for a single woman in her thirties.

Nonetheless, she knew, first hand, the exhausting nature of the work.

"How do these women in their 60's do this?" she asked herself.

Sondra | Photo: Candacy Taylor.
Sondra | Photo: Candacy Taylor.

"After five years of research, I believed that they actually loved their work. Some tried to retire but could not. These were women of the generation who were raised to believe that a man would take care of them. Many of them are divorced. They found that they could raise their kids on a waitresses salary."

Candacy was drawn to the idea of telling these women's stories, not as an academic, but as a fellow waitress; the career waitresses, over 50 years of age, who had worked for decades with very little vacation, and whose only complaints had to do with the younger, less experienced servers.

"Many of them had been working in the same place since 1969." Strictly professional, "they could develop friendly, longterm relationships with their regular customers."

Rachel | Photo: Candacy Taylor
Rachel | Photo: Candacy Taylor.

Candacy's research led to her book, Counter Culture (Cornell University Press), which has now been optioned by ABC as the basis for a television series.

"It's about three sisters in Texas. They've cast Stephanie Weir from Mad TV, Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), Margo Martindale (Justified), Delta Burke, Ken Howard, Louis Guzman. I wouldn't sell them the rights to the women's stories in the book. And I only agreed to the concept when they promised that the women were not going to be portrayed as victims. Waitressing is not slave labor."

Candacy's interest in traditionally 'women's work' led her to explore the local beauty salon in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. She noticed the psychological bonding experience of the beauty shop (the original social network?) while noting that it's mainly blacks who go to the black salons. The same held true for Latino and white salons, as well.

Candacy has just received a one year fellowship from the Library of Congress. "It's pretty cool. They award five people to do stories about women and people of color. The information will be archived at the Library of Congress and my research will be presented to the San Francisco Chronicle. I'm looking for interesting salons that serve a particular subculture and/or ethnic group -- especially Latino -- to be included."

Gigi and Denise | Photo: Candacy Taylor.
Gigi and Denise | Photo: Candacy Taylor.

"I'd been working on the beauty parlor project, researching and studying the subject for about seven years, doing a proposal for a book, when I received grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission and California Council for the Humanities to document five beauty salons" and to show the results in a photo exhibition in a 3000 square foot gallery.

"I needed three dimensional objects to fill space."

Mia | Photo: Candacy Taylor.
Mia | Photo: Candacy Taylor.

Candacy's research led her to the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum in 29 Palms and it's resident 'hairstorian' Jeff Hafler.

"I called Jeff and we hit it off immediately. We're both from Columbus, Ohio. We knew some of the same people and all the same clubs and bars."

Candacy rented a post-modern/Southwestern, turquoise blue Cube.

"I'd always wanted to live in the desert. I'd always vacationed in the desert. I'd thought about retiring in the desert. 'What if I fall in love with the desert?,'" she wondered as she drove south.

"I got to Joshua Tree and thought, 'It's beautiful, but...' but once I got to Jeff's place, I found the terrain very inspirational."

Bubble chair | Photo: Candacy Taylor.
Bubble chair | Photo: Candacy Taylor.

Candacy spent a few days photographing Jeff's beauty museum. He went to San Francisco to speak at the opening.

"The show was great, although sometimes I wonder 'Why am I doing this?' but anytime something is really frustrating I try to remember that just maybe it's leading to something good."

Jeff | Photo: Candacy Taylor.
Jeff | Photo: Candacy Taylor.

Jeff hired Candacy to shoot photos for his book; Candacy sublet her flat in the Bay Area.

"I came during the summer to see if I could handle it and I could. I worried that I might isolate but I actually have a busier social life here than I did in the City."

"I really love it here. It's reconfigured my headspace. Everything was so unsettled before. For the first time in my life, I never questioned if it was the right thing. It was so clear to me. Clarity was like a flatline. Reset. My friends see the difference. 'Your approach is so peaceful and confident.' I think because of the visual example of the desert. I'm living my dream, trying not to take it for granted."

Candacy | Photo: Lacy Atkins.
Candacy | Photo: Lacy Atkins.

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