A few years ago, when Bridget Fields turned 62, she got it in her head that she wanted to retire as a waitress at the Bob Evans restaurant on Richmond Road.
Her regular customers who eat breakfast at the counter every morning would not hear of it. Paul Salamonca, a University of Kentucky law professor, drew up a petition that said that if the restaurant didn't let her keep working, "we'll have to go to her house for breakfast." All the counter regulars signed it.
It was sent to Dan Evans, chief executive of the restaurant chain.
Fields stayed on. Now, at 66, she never entertains the idea of retirement. "I'm too young," she said with a saucy flip of her head.
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Fields is a rare but priceless commodity: a career waitress whose eyes light up every time a customer comes in the door. " I just love my job," she said.
The No. 1 reason she comes to work: "I love the people."
Career waitresses who share her passion are featured in Counter Culture, a new book by Candacy A. Taylor (Cornell University Press, $19.95). Taylor, who will discuss and sign copies of her book Tuesday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, interviewed dozens of women, in cities large and small, across the country about their jobs.
Three Kentucky waitresses are included: Juanita Bernard at Meadowthorpe Café in Lexington, Linda Exeler at the Colonial Cottage in Erlanger, and Mae Christmas at Edith's Café in Central City. Bernard will be at Tuesday's book signing.
"They are a resilient group of women who have made an art out of waitressing," Taylor said. The enduring quality they all share, she said, is that "their patience and love of people is genuine. It's not something they can fake for tips."
At Meadowthorpe Café, the grill is center stage in the little restaurant, a fixture on Leestown Road for more than 50 years, and Bernard is the leading lady.
"Honey, this is practically all I've done all my life," she said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."
Bernard, 72, has worked at Meadowthorpe Café for 23 years and at other restaurants before that.
She loves to joke and laugh with her customers. When she told Chuck Tingle, reading the morning newspaper and drinking coffee, that she was going to be in the newspaper, he said to the reporter, "You know they've got the U.S. marshal out looking for her." Tingle has started his day at Meadowthorpe Café "every day for 35 years," he said.
With her experience, Bernard could have gone to a fancier restaurant, but she loves the cafe's homey atmosphere. "Everybody knows everybody else. It's like a family," she said.
Dealing with people has an exhilarating quality, these waitresses say. It keeps them physically and mentally healthy, it doesn't wear them down.
"I've got a little arthritis in my knees; that's all that wrong with me," Bernard said. "Honey, I couldn't sit at home. I'd go nuts." She quit one time for seven months, and it was disastrous. "I gained weight, got depressed. My daughter said, 'Mom, you go back to work.'"
Tracy Penman, 44, at Saundra's Café in Eastland Shopping Center, has been a waitress and a bartender for more than 20 years. Being a waitress is "more than just a job," she said.
"You become friends with your customers. You get to know them. They know about you," she said.
About three years ago, Penman graduated from National College with a degree in business management. But she didn't go looking for another job. She laughed. "I'd rather be here," she said.
Back at Bob Evans, Fields has worked the counter since 2001, pouring coffee, frying eggs and flipping flapjacks. She's been a waitress for about 25 years.
A cross-section of the community shows up to eat breakfast there every morning. "She gives us a hard time because she wants to make us feel at home," said architect Ken Miller, who comes each morning to have coffee and read the paper. "It's a good way to relax and start my day."
It wouldn't seem normal for a lot of customers not to have breakfast there. Ollie Smith, sitting on a stool next to Miller, said he comes every day, seven days a week. "And sometimes more than once. Sometimes I come for lunch," he said.
At the counter, everybody's equal. The late Thoroughbred horse owner W.T. Young was a regular. "You'd never know he had money. He was just a regular person," said Scott Boots, area supervisor for the restaurant. The day after Young's horse Storm Cat won the Kentucky Derby, "he came in at 6 a.m. to share it with us," Fields said.
Another career waitress at Bob Evans is Fields' good friend Carolyn Conley, who has worked at the restaurant for 29 years.
"My kids tell me when I die, they're going to have me stuffed and put me by the door with a sign, 'Welcome to Bob Evans,'" she said.
She and Fields cracked up.