It had been one of those awful summer weeks. The landlord was threatening to evict me. My cat was dying. So was my air conditioner. I was lonely. I was depressed. I was vulnerable.
“Would you like to see a menu, sir?”
I looked up. She was young, 21 maybe, 22 tops. A college student on vacation, no doubt. Bennington…no, Sarah Lawrence. Drama major…no, dancer. That was a dancer’s body. Freckles. A hint of larceny about her smile.
Who knows? It might work.
“I’d like an iced cappuccino,” I smiled. “And could I bother you for a match?”
Oh no. It was happening again. A waitress. Another waitress. Another mess.
When you spend as much time hanging out at bistros and cafes as I do, it sort of comes with the turf. Indeed, there was an entire era in my life, during the time I was first setting up shop in the Big City, when most of the women in my real and fantasy life seemed to be waitresses or hostesses or barmaids. My “waitress period,” my parents called it.
“Is she a…waitress?” they would ask, in anxious unison, as I waxed ecstatic, on the phone, about my most recent counterside crush. “Yes,” I lied on more than one occasion, “but she’s Jewish!”
I think that most writers go through a “waitress period” at one time or another. Where is the hack who has not been stirred to life by the incandescent sight of a buxom young waitress emerging from the dim recesses of his favorite haunt bearing a frothing cup of his favorite brew and a steaming smile?
Waitresses — are they not the unsung heroines of modern literature? What, really, was Samuel Johnson doing all those afternoons he whiled away at Grey’s Inn — or Fitzgerald, those evenings he spent at the Cafe du Dome? I daresay it wasn’t just the Muse.
The trouble comes — as these and other scribes have tried to warn us in variously oblique ways over the ages — when one is no longer satisfied with a nice cup of cappuccino and a suggestive smile. The trouble comes when you really want the waitress. Recall, if you will, the horrors of the heart which befell Philip Carey, the reluctant lover of Somerset Maugham’s autobiographical novel, “Of Human Bondage,” after Mildred Rogers chanced to serve him tea on an afternoon off from his medical studies. The begging, the groveling, the vigils at Victoria Station waiting for a glimpse of the vapid and indifferent Mildred, the grotesque schemes to somehow win her love: it’s all laid out in full, obsessive and cautionary detail.
Writer, beware! Maugham seemed to be warning me, between the lines, when I recently re-read his classic first novel. Take you tea and leave!
Waitresses also figured prominently in Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, the satirical “The Torrents of Spring.” It is difficult to say how much of himself Hemingway invested in his hero, Scripps O’Neill, the Eastern aesthete who drifts westward and winds up in the mythical jerkwater city of Petosky, Michigan, where he proceeds to fall in love with — and become a bone of contention between — two waitresses at Browne’s Beanery, the elderly, motherly Diana, whom O’Neill impulsively “marries,” and the younger, Shelly Long-like Mandy with whom he ultimately absconds. Hemingway’s message is clear: watch out for waitresses — of any age.
It is even possible to read a similar rejoinder into Homer’s “Iliad.” The reader of classics will recall that it was Achilles’ affection for Briseis, a captive handmaiden — a primordial waitress, you might say — and his pique at Agamemmnon for stealing her from him, which set off the central conflict of Homer’s epic.
Patricia was the first waitress to make a schmuck of me…
Patricia worked in a cozy Dutch cafe just down the street from the cold water garret in the Hague where I was sequestered for a time following my graduation from college. Now, the Netherlands is hardly the place to launch a career as a foreign correspondent — as I was pretending to do at the time — however, it is a good place to recover from a broken heart (my Cornell sweetheart had just thrown me over), which was my real business there. Little did I suspect, as I stored up on Dutch chocolate and fell asleep listening to the rain drum against my skylight, that I would soon have it broken again.
Then, one morning at the corner cafe I had begun to frequent, I looked up from the travelogue I was keeping in a desultory way, and found myself staring at my waitress.
“Do you speak English?” I stammered. She was the most beautiful thing I had seen since Vermeer’s “Maid” (which happens to hang in the Hague’s Mauritshuis).
“Yes, silly. I’ve been serving you everyday this week. Haven’t you noticed?”
Silly me, indeed.
“Now, would you like another cappuccino?” Indeed, I did.
It had begun. Soon I was spending all my mornings — and a good many afternoons, and quite a few evenings — at this particular café. Afterwards, I would escort Patricia home through the lush Haags Bosch and the sweet drizzle. Sometimes, we would dawdle at a museum or open air fish market. Summer turned into fall; the goodbye kisses at Patricia’s door grew more passionate. All very nice, but for one thing: she never let me in. Oh well, Dutch reserve, I thought. It was only a matter of time, I murmured reassuredly to myself, as I converted my few remaining dollars into guilders. It was only a matter of time.
Before long I was wiring my father for additional funds to continue my “apprenticeship in Dutch affairs.”
It was only a matter of time, I told myself over and over again, in the manner of Philip Carey, as I waited each evening for the object of my obsession to quit work and tease me a little more.
And so it was. One tantalizingly foggy October nigh,t my blonde tormentress finally did open her door for me.
“Gordon,” Patricia said, matter-of-factly, as a burly Dutchman got up from a rocking chair in the middle of the otherwise enchantingly decorated living room and advanced towards me unsmilingly, “this is my husband.”
“SCHMUCK!” my father shouted at me as I slouched off the plane at Kennedy Airport a few sobering days later. “You got to college so you can chase a waitress?”
There was more truth to that statement than my father supposed. Indeed, my affinity for aprons only increased once I moved to Manhattan. How could it not? There were so many attractive, professionally frustrated waitresses working Second and Third Avenue (not to mention Broadway and Bleecker) who could see in a writer with even a modicum of publishing success a vicarious realization of their own glittering dreams — and there was such an emotional (and sexual) vacuum in my own peripatetic life — that it was hard to resist the opportunity to become involved when it presented itself. And the opportunity presented itself quite often. Too often.
My Ivy League friends thought I was slumming. They were wrong, of course. The women I met behind the counter of the L&H Bakery and the Crystal Diner — to cite two of my favorite daytime hangouts — were, I thought, far more interesting, and far more solid — not to mention a hell of a lot cuter — than the pretentious flakes I was being introduced to at parties.
Of course, it always ended badly.
There was Denise, the First Avenue steakhouse hostess who looked like Diane Keaton (and knew it) and shared my passion for Dada and Surrealism. (Incidentally, Denise, if you are reading this, would you please send me back the Polaroid of Robert Redford and me I took on that “Omni” assignment?)
And there was Rachel, the summering song major from an upstate New York college, with whom I locked eyes as I looked up from my coffee one very cloudy Sunday morning at the Crystal Diner while I was on the mend from a particularly frightening encounter with a Jack Abbott-like Coast Guardsman who had hired me to help him spill the beans on the Caribbean drug war (which is another story). It was a hopeless match — this naive, exuberant and totally gorgeous 19-year-old and me — but it is easy for a lonely scrivener with a vivid imagination to infuse hope into the most unlikely pairing after he has spent several weeks locked up with a hyperactive sailor.
Then, I met Rachel in August. Which is where I came in:
“Would you like another cappuccino, sir?” Sarah Lawrence was asking me now.
“Sure,” I sighed, as I fingered my remaining change. “Sure…and when do you get off?”