Lonely men confuse the message

This article was originally published in the Times Herald-Record in 1997.

“Oh yeah, it happens all the time,” Valerie Dimond said, shrinking back slightly and running a hand down one arm as if to brush off something unpleasant. “The men attach themselves to you. They come just to see you. They want you in front of them all the time.”

On some nights, when a woman’s work is done, such a man waits in the parking lot or calls on the phone. He’s lonely. She’s been kind. Maybe they could be together. Usually he’s harmless. Barry Weingartner apparently was not; a few weeks ago, police charge, he bludgeoned Plaza Diner waitress Darlene Bower to death for refusing to pay enough attention to him.

Just before she quit the diner last year, Valerie handed over her shift to her friend Darlene. When she heard Darlene had been murdered by an obsessed customer, hard memories of 12 years hustling tables and working counters in all sorts of restaurants flooded back.

The truth about waitressing, Valerie explained, is that women who expect to make money had better be sweet and sympathetic, even to the creeps. A waitress earns about $3 per hour, less than the minimum wage. How many tips end up in her pocket at the end of a shift depends on how much her customers like her – especially when she is working for the men at a diner counter.

A lot of the regulars are nice, but day after day a hardcore of devoted men come to pour out tales of woe, make winking innuendoes, crow cocky boasts about their big plans while they swivel back and forth on their stools and eye up the women. Men who couldn’t get an attractive woman to look at them on the street can purchase one’s attention for as much as it costs to keep the coffee flowing.

Valerie remembers how it felt to be looked at by the men, how strange it felt to smile at them – to be, in her words, “on display.” There is nowhere to hide at the counter.

“The counter is the worst,” she said. “It’s a gathering place for lonely men. They don’t come for the food. They want you to serve them sympathy, friendship, attention.”

Sometimes a man attaches himself to one waitress; if she’s there, he’s there. He might stop in three or four times a day. Just to talk. Just to look. Just to be close.

“It’s like a twisted form of love,” Valerie said. “They want to be acknowledged because no one on the street acknowledges them.”

And unless a man becomes overbearingly obnoxious, a waitress has little choice but to accept his misplaced and unwanted affection with humor and kindness.

“It’s creepy,” Valerie said. “I felt pressured to be nice to men I really didn’t want to be nice to.”

Some hope pity will lead to love, she explained. “They try to get you to feel sorry for them. They want you to feel responsible for their ego.”

The worst kind of man doesn’t understand the counter is more than something to set food on, doesn’t understand why he is on one side and the woman he likes to pretend to possess is on the other. For a man like that, sharing space at the diner with “his” waitress is not enough.

A man who made Valerie the object of his infatuation tried to give her gifts, including expensive jewelry, but was afraid to ask her out. Another man, an older man, brought photographs of his younger self to show her “how young and masculine he used to be.”

Valerie rolled her eyes and a sardonic little laugh escaped her lips. “He was no more attractive at 20 than he was at 55,” she said. “Pathetic.”

Occasionally, a man’s quest for attention strays beyond the counter. Hidden among the small talk are questions: Where do you hang out? What will you do after work? Do you have a boyfriend?

And even though she knows better, a waitress, out of kindness, pity or even her own loneliness, sometimes lets a clinging man feel too close. Darlene Bower, her friends agreed, was a religious woman who felt too much for other people, who wanted with all her heart to help them. “Darlene would listen to a sob story longer than anybody,” Valerie said.

In the end, Darlene may have been killed by her own kindness. By the time she told Weingartner to stop calling, to stop clinging, it was too late. The only way the make-believe relationship that existed in his head could end was on his terms.

Valerie, who is 27, left waitressing behind forever a year ago. This fall she re-enrolled in college. She wants something better. She wants to be a writer. “I don’t ever expect to work as a waitress again. The thought of it makes me sick. But you know what? There are women working 60 hours a week, women who might have a baby to support, women who aren’t ever going to get out.”

Darlene’s death has made Valerie even more determined to succeed at her studies and build a career that does not pay her a pittance for working hard and a premium for being nice to men she wants no part of.

There were nights men waited in the parking lot for her. Men who went away when she told them to.

Barry Weingartner did not go away.

Valerie paused and took a breath as she thought about him showing up at the diner drenched in blood to announce he had finished killing Darlene.

“I’ve been a waitress,” she said finally. “I’ve been in her position.

“I’ve been nice to men like that.”

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