Loneliness and Waitresses: Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski
By Ardin Lalui
Imagine a world without waitresses. Who’d want it? There’s some men have no use for a world like that. For them a life without waitresses is no life at all, no life worth living.
Take Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski. Waitresses have left a deep mark on the art of both and have helped shape and add meaning to some of their best work. They have both drawn waitresses as romantic and mysterious. Waitresses have altered the landscape of their worlds, made it a wistful place, and full of longing. Maybe it’s because they’re lonely, but it’s a certain kind of loneliness, beautiful and tragic and poignant. It’s a strange loneliness comes through in their lyrics and poetry.
Closing Time, Waits’ first album, talks about this loneliness in track nine, “Lonely.” It’s a short song, a lament, it doesn’t say much but it says lonely like no other. “Lonely eyes, lonely face, lonely lonely in your place.” It’s a loneliness that’s unexpected, “I thought that I knew all that there was to,” and it’s unfair, “Melanie Jane, won’t feel the pain,” but mostly it’s just inevitable, self-inflicted, and almost welcome because its your own refusal to let go that drives it, “I still love you, I still love you, lonely, lonely….”
It’s a very specific loneliness of which Waits sings. It doesn’t depend who you’re with, it’s carried on the inside, and its reasons can only be found on the inside. It might be the most beautiful of human emotions. It doesn’t come without sadness. For every real thing there’s proof, and the proof the human heart is made to love is loneliness. There’s not always a girl in mind, maybe there’s no girl at all, but there he is, loneliest living man in the world. That’s the loneliness that has a man walking into a diner at 2 a.m. looking for a waitress.
This longing for a waitress has nothing to do with looks. That’s not to say there’s any problem with a pretty waitress, nothing in the world like a pretty waitress, but that’s gravy, a bonus, like having a pretty mom or sister.
Bukowski had no problem with pretty waitresses. He once had an affair with a cocktail waitress, name of Pamela Miller. He said, “she’ll be the death of me but it’s worth it.” She was a knockout, red hair, Miss Pussycat 1973. They called her Cupcakes because of her 38D chest and Bukowski said “each time I see her she looks better and better, 200 years ago they would have burned her at the stake.” That’s a pretty waitress. She worked at The Alpine Inn.
But this waitress thing isn’t about sex. It’s more important, and fills a more basic, innocent need. An old, 300-pound waitress has the magic soon as she puts on that dress. She’s apart from other women. Don’t underestimate the dress. In Septuagenarian Stew Bukowski says:
“I should not have blamed only my father, but,
he was the first to introduce me to
raw and stupid hatred.
he was really the best at it…
…when I left that … “home” … I found his
I was simply the target to their discontent
some old fat waitress bringing me a cup of coffee
is in comparison
like a fresh wild wind blowing.”
He’s talking about his father and growing up and being unhappy and all it takes is a waitress and bang, “fresh wild wind blowing.” And Bukowski is not exactly given to looking on the softer side of life.
That’s waitressing. That’s why waitresses are important. They’re a fresh wild wind to every afflicted soul. You need a waitress sometimes and they’re always there. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and most importantly, whatever you’ve done, they’ll be there waiting for you. A waitress has got no place else to go. She’ll listen to you, whatever lame joke, lame compliment. She’s waiting for your order, doesn’t know what you’re going to say, she’s got to be there. That’s part of the beauty of it. Nine times out of ten, only reason she’s free to be nice to you is because it’s her job. If it wasn’t her job she couldn’t do it. Her husband wouldn’t let her. It wouldn’t be appropriate. That’s why no other woman will do.
A waitress is always your chance to talk to another human soul, a woman’s, however brief. She’ll hear it. That’s enough. Maybe she liked it. Maybe she liked you.
And of course, maybe she didn’t like you. That’s ok. She doesn’t have to like you. She doesn’t have to be nice. She doesn’t owe you anything. She’s not your girlfriend. There’s a certain guy goes into a diner and thinks the girl in the dress is in love with him. I’ve got nothing to say about guys like that. That’s not what I’m talking about here. That’s a different thing. It’s sad but it’s a different sad. And it can be uncomfortable for the waitress because maybe she’s got a man. She’s not hustling, she’s just smiling when she gives you your coffee. A waitress doesn’t want a guy to get the wrong idea.
No matter how nice a waitress and how much you think you need her, you’ve got to remember your place, who you are, and who she is. Waits wrote about it on Small Change, track six, “Invitation to the Blues”.
“Well she’s up against the register with an apron and a spatula,
Yesterday’s deliveries, tickets for the bachelors
She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her shoes,
Well, it’s just an invitation to the blues.”
You watch a waitress and a customer, you’re watching life. And all life’s got rules. You play by the rules, don’t overstep, and don’t let your mind run away, you’ll do just fine with waitresses, and the cup of coffee they serve is better than a cup of gold. But you let your mind run you’re just asking for blues.
And no waitress wants to be an invitation to the blues. They don’t want to torment a man so lonely he’s getting designs on the first woman he’s spoken to all day.
But you know, even when that happens, who’s to say it’s so bad? A guy gets the wrong idea once in a while, but if that waitress’s smile is the best thing he’s seen all day, the only smile he got, well thank god she was there. There are worse things than the blues.
The tie between the lonely soul and the waitress runs deeper than smiles. Waits had no problem with an unfriendly waitress. On track five of Small Change, “The Piano has been Drinking (Not Me)”, the waitress doesn’t smile. Song says,
“you can’t find your waitress with a Geiger counter
And she hates you and your friends and you just can’t get served without her.”
She doesn’t love him, she’s at work, but she’s still his waitress.
Waitresses are good for art, and for some art they’re crucial. The reason waitresses don’t kill the art they inspire, like some other women, is because no matter how nice they are, they never really cure the loneliness. They can’t, and thank god. Sometimes they ease it. That’s what has you coming in every night. Even a mean waitress eases loneliness. But they also prolong it. And the prettier the waitress the further she invites you into the blues. And that’s the invitation feeds good music and poetry.
America, beat art, Waits songs and Bukowski poems are all populated by men on the road. Drifter men with homeless minds. They don’t have a woman to go home to. They don’t want one. They don’t know what they want. And anyway they can’t find it. There’s a searching, a yearning, and there are a lot of greyhound buses and railway boxcars. Here’s an excerpt from Bukowski’s poem, “where was I?” from his collection, Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way.
I always seemed to be
on a cross-country
looking out a dirty
I always knew exactly how much
money I was
a five and two ones
in my wallet
and a nickel, a dime and
two pennies in my right
I had no desire to speak
to anybody nor to be
I don’t know what it is keeps these men moving. It’s a by-product of their loneliness but also a cause. And it wouldn’t survive without waitresses. They wouldn’t. The men. The men of Bukowski poems, the Henry Chinaskis of a thousand small towns, stumbling from bar to bar, wouldn’t last without waitresses. The men in Waits’ songs, curious and varied, would perish. Without waitresses the world would be too cruel for them, they would die, the art they inspire would die, and the world would lose something beautiful.
I don’t know what it is that waitresses have, especially the old fat ones and the ones that hate you, but they have something, every one of them. It’s undeniable. All the late night diners of the world are full of men and cigarette smoke and day old newspapers, and they’re irrefutable proof of something important. Think about it. What are those men there for? Some of them are on a shift, killing time, waiting, would rather be at home in bed, but some of them, the ones we’re interested in, couldn’t be anywhere else. They’ve got no place else to go and even if they had they wouldn’t be there.
“Gypsy hacks and insomniacs”, that’s what Waits calls them in “Eggs & Sausage (In a Cadillac With Susan Michelson)”, track six on Nighthawks at the Diner. Here’s an album devoted almost entirely to those men and those waitresses, keeping watch while the rest of the world sleeps. An entire album exploring that feeling, that place, the diner late at night and the coffee and cigarettes and waitresses, the men in there looking for something nameless. He describes the waitress in verse two of “Eggs & Sausage”.
“In a graveyard charade, a late shift masquerade
2 for a quarter, dime for a dance
with Woolworth rhinestone diamond
earrings, and a sideway’s glance
now the register rings
and now the waitress sings.”
Who knows what has those places full so late? You don’t see too many women in there. And what would happen to them, those men, and the poetry and music, without the waitresses?
There’s one last poem by Bukowski I want to finish with. It’s not necessarily about a waitress or about the loneliness, but they’re in there. They have to be. The poem was recorded by Waits in 2006 on Orphans (Bastards), track eleven. It shows they were on the same page. Maybe it even has an answer.
Not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose,
He was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina on the way to
And it began to snow.
And the bus stopped at a little café in the hills and the passengers entered.
And he sat at the counter with the others, and he ordered, the food arrived.
And the meal was particularly good.
And the coffee.
The waitress was unlike the women he had known.
She was unaffected, and there was a natural humor which came from her.
And the fry cook said crazy things.
And the dishwasher in back laughed a good clean pleasant laugh.
And the young man watched the snow through the window.
And he wanted to stay in that café forever.
The curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.
And it would always stay beautiful there.
And then the bus driver told the passengers that it was time to board.
And the young man thought: “I’ll just stay here, I’ll just stay here.”
And then he rose and he followed the others into the bus.
He found his seat and looked at the café through the window.
And then the bus moved off, down a curve, downward, out of the hills.
And the young man looked straight forward.
And he heard the other passengers speaking of other things,
or they were reading or trying to sleep.
And they hadn’t noticed the magic.
And the young man put his head to one side,
closed his eyes, and pretended to sleep.
There was nothing else to do,
just listen to the sound of the engine,
and the sound of the tires
in the snow.