Eat This

Ask a roomful of college graduates how many have waited tables for a living. Don't be surprised by an impressive show of hands. Or by a high turnout of those still making their living from tips rather than tackling the corporate world.

The real surprise: that a documentary about the unique (and swelling) subculture of waitstaffers hasn't been made until now. In the Weeds: Waiting for a Living, a long-overdue effort by filmmakers who've experienced the highs and lows of this service industry first-hand, comes off with incisive wit and honest criticism of a lifestyle that's as stimulating as it is frustrating.

Not that waiting tables is the exclusive realm of cynical post-grads. Videomakers Cheryl Hess and Melissa Thompson point their cameras on an impressive cross-section of Philadelphia waitpeople--from seasoned pros of five-star venues to veterans of the diner scene to gays who flock to the big-city bistros to escape small-town narrowness. Everyone here lends a new angle to the lure of restaurant life and can tell a great story about insensitive patrons, obtuse managers, overlong double shifts, or the terror of getting "in the weeds"--the term for having too many tables to service at once (described by most of the interviewees as "drowning" or being trapped in an unending nightmare). But the basic reason for entering the industry and staying put is the same among the disparate contingents: fast, plentiful cash. What most waitpeople also confess: Like flypaper, table-waiting can trap you in its sticky cycle of flextime, after-hours alcoholism, and empathetic camaraderie with fellow waiters.

In the Weeds, though far from perfect (it could show us more behind-the-scenes waiters in action), flows smoothly and logically, and avoids overwrought visual experimentation. The generous intersplicing of black-and-white footage culled from industrial films of the 1950s juxtapose absurdly idealized scenarios of table-waiting with current reality--irony at its familiar best. It touches on gender discrepancy and sexual harassment (waiters traditionally receive better tips and treatment than waitresses), the health problems and burnout associated with longtime waiting, and the observations waitpeople make about class and social structure through the behavior of their customers. One waitress, after refusing two college kids refills on their to-go coffee, was treated with a left-behind note scrawled with the phrase "WHITE TRASH." She wished they'd visit her restaurant again, not so she could throw them out, but so she could hand the note back to them. "I think the best way to get 'em back would be to confront them with their own rudeness," she says calmly.

Unlike some of the festival's other documentaries, this one sustains interest until the closing credits; the featured waiters and waitresses are smart, blessedly funny, and surprisingly gracious. These articulate but oft-silenced waitpeople--"the customer is always right"--explaining the nuances of their livelihood will make you think twice about the tip you leave next time you eat out.

--Christina Rees

In the Weeds shows Saturday, March 7, at 2:15 p.m. in Bart's Bistro after What's Up.

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Christina Rees