"We have the power to make you happy. We could make you miserable. We could make your day garbage," says Ash, owner of Toronto's George Street Diner in Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, a documentary premiering tonight at Toronto's Hot Docs festival.
The film, directed by Canadian Maya Gallus, follows the working lives of waitresses across a wide range of settings - everything from a truck stop to a fine French bistro to a topless greasy spoon in Montreal - and it explores, among other topics, the romantically tinged relationship between male patrons and women servers.
The doc caught my eye because, as a self-employed man who works from home, I've often counted on the kindness of aproned strangers. I go to the same breakfast place almost every day, alternating between eggs and muesli, both of which I could make for myself at home. Instead, I roll out of bed, walk two blocks, then chitchat with the women behind the counter as they ask me how I'm doing, what I'm working on, and what I want.
As the holidays approached last year, the owner of my favourite breakfast spot was complaining that Christmas had become too commercial. "I mean, where's the love?" she asked. "There's lots of it in here," I replied, to which she promptly responded, "Well, that's true. I tell all my girls that it's not just food we provide." After the exchange, as I sat down to eat, I looked around and was suddenly more aware than ever that I was sharing my meal with a crew of other men, each of them alone.
When I told this story to Donald Carveth, a sociology professor at York University and a practicing psychoanalyst, he gave me his best Freudian take on the feelings - and fantasies - that a man might have for his waitress, which he says taps into his deep-seated Oedipal longings.
"The waitress is a woman who brings food," Dr. Carveth said. "And who brought the first food? Mother."
Dr. Carveth compared the attraction to waitresses to another stereotypical male fantasy provider, one who also brings pillows and blankets - the stewardess. I pointed out to Dr. Carveth that women working in both these occupations tend to lean over you, almost intimately, bringing their cleavage tantalizingly near. "Exactly," he replied, "while she attends to your oral needs."
"It's true, you provide nurture love," a friend, who has spent many years as a server, agreed. "You are someone who will always smile and be welcoming." Of course, this same friend has also been in the industry long enough to have an inside take on the games male patrons and female servers play when "nurture love" transitions to what one waitress in Dish called the "potential girlfriend role."
My friend says she became adept at delivering "the perpetual maybe." If a guy ever made a vague comment about seeing her outside work, she'd respond with equal vagueness: "Yeah, sure. Sometime." On occasion, one of these big spenders - as she called them - made a counter gesture: "A classic one is when there's a huge tab and you've brought the bill over to the guy and then he asks you out just as his pen is above the tip line," she said.
Veronika Swartz, a bartender at The Press Club in Toronto, knows a thing or two about teasing - she's also a burlesque performer and stand-up comedian. While she says her friendliness, flirtiness and sassy sense of humour is just part of her personality - one that makes her a natural at all three jobs - she admitted bartending can also be viewed as a kind of performance. "You need to be 'on' all the time," she said. "You need to be something of a superstar."
"A lot of people drink to escape," she continued, explaining that the bar is a respite "from all their realities, from their families or their jobs, from all the things that are stressing them out. Making them feel good about themselves is part of my job."
But Ms. Swartz said it is unfortunate when a man misinterprets the situation, decides to break the friendly flirtation - or the fantasy illusion, if that's how he's viewing it - and ask her out.
"Burlesque is about titillation, the art of the tease," she said. "I am inviting you to share very intimate moments with me, but at a distance. As a server, I am flirting but it is up close and personal. I therefore become touchable to the patrons and they believe that I have invited them into my personal life. The burlesque audience doesn't actually believe that I am willing to sleep with them, so why do the customers?"
Indeed, to indulge in the waitress or bartender fantasy, a man has to somehow block out the part of his brain that knows she has to be there, has to talk to him and be friendly. And yet, he is wise to maintain the relationship as a perpetual state of maybe as opposed to a real pick-up opportunity. Why? Well, of all of the waitresses and bartenders I spoke to while researching this piece, guess how many dates in total they have gone on with men they served? Zilch.
And, after all, just as the diner is ultimately after sustenance, the waitress is ultimately after a tip. "Although," Dr. Carveth punned, tongue-in-cheek, "it's not the tip that the guy might be interested in giving her."
Now there's a new spin on the old "Freudian slip."
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall.