Entertainer, heartbreaker, director, personality advisor, servant, poetry in motion, deer in the headlights, actress, easy prey. When filmmaker Vanessa Vassar set out to document the lives of New Mexico waitresses, these were the self-imposed job descriptions she received. Her first documentary, American Waitress, explores the power structures and misconceptions of America's most under-appreciated profession, and looks at the women behind the name tag.
Vassar, a former MTV employee and music video director, hatched the idea while living and working in Berlin. "Service was so different in Europe," Vassar explains. "Waitresses receive medical coverage, make more per hour, and are just generally treated better. In America, waitresses depend on tips. If they don't get a tip, they're essentially just paying for a customer's meal." The film follows the lives of four women, from career waitresses to struggling college students, set against the backdrop of the deserts of New Mexico. "I interviewed hundreds of women," Vassar recalls. "But I would say these four women actually chose me. I've been a waitress, and it is not glamorous by any means. The film is about these women; their lives, their beliefs, their fears, their accomplishments. The fact that they wait tables becomes secondary."
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is the generational difference of opinion over the art of public service. Karen Webb, a petite woman in her late 50s, puts her heart and soul into being a waitress and remarks "I don't have bad tables." Lillian Beam, an aspiring artist in her late 20s, likens waitressing to prostitution. If anything, Vassar's journey to the bottom of the coffee pot exposes the human side of a decidedly dehumanized job. We've all sat across the tray from a waitress, but American Waitress gives the concept of service with a smile a whole new meaning.