I picked up Chinese take-out the other night and after I signed the bottom of the credit card receipt, the cashier paused before taking the slip of paper back from me.
I had left the little dotted line between AMOUNT and TOTAL, the one marked TIP, blank.
She waited long enough to allow my brain to register what she expected.
With the pen, I slashed a line through the TIP and transcribed the dollars and cents from AMOUNT down into the TOTAL.
“When did we start tipping for take-out Chinese?” I asked when I got home with the C7 (beef) and the E4 (hot! spicy!) combinations.
And by “we” I mean Americans, and by “Americans” I mean everyone else in these United States except me, because I’m not tipping for take-out Chinese.
Long ago, I heard that tipping is a uniquely American custom, foreign to, um, foreigners. How long ago? Way back when I spent several miserable months
waitressing serving at Ruby Tuesday, one of several jobs I cobbled together so that I could afford my share of the rent in off-campus housing.
I spent my first night working alongside a more experienced
waitress server named Kelly. Five or so years older than me, Kelly had a toddler at home that her mother watched while she worked and dated a string of unreliable men who could not be counted on to pick her up after her shift.
In addition to all that I learned about her personal life that first night, she also shared the wisdom she had accumulated during her years working in the profession I had so recently chosen. A lot of what I heard from Kelly sounded racist, sexist, or ageist, and oftentimes a combination of all three.
“Don’t kill yourself with the foreign tourists,” she said. I wanted to ask her how any tourist, let alone actual Europeans or Canadians or Martians, would ever find themselves in the Ruby Tuesday at the Springfield Mall eating from the Endless Garden Bar. It was my first day, and I was afraid to say anything, so I didn’t ask. “They don’t tip, so don’t knock yourself out.” She smoothed the front of my apron and then tugged at the collar of my shirt in a futile effort to expose just a hint of my (non-existent) bosom. “I guess that’s the best we can do,” she said before urging me out onto the dining room floor alongside her.
Kelly whispered other helpful nuggets of advice as we filled sodas or waited for the bartender to mix drinks, her voice low enough so that nearby patrons could not hear.
- A Wonderbra would be a good investment for me.
- Don’t date Nelson, the Guatemalan line cook.
- White is Right. (This is how Kelly told me to remember to put the salt shaker on the right, and the pepper on the left, when setting a table. I told her that I didn’t think I needed a mnemonic device for that and she shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.”)
- Old people all think it’s still 1955 and leave their spare change as a tip.
- Young people will run out on the check, you gotta watch them.
- Foreigners, women, and black people don’t tip. If you can, try to get the hostess to seat them in someone else’s section.
Mercifully, my tenure at Ruby Tuesday ended when I secured a very sweet gig working as a receptionist at a local non-profit. My new job involved doing next to nothing and getting paid for it, whereas at Ruby Tuesday, I had worked my ass off and got paid $2.83 an hour. I guess there are people who can make a living working in restaurants, and I’ll admit I’m mostly to blame for my failure: I kinda sucked at being a waitress, and I didn’t stick around long enough to get better.
This rather torturous trip through the Work Experience section of my resumé leads us back to the Chinese restaurant where I’m picking up take out.
Am I supposed to tip there? Because it seems that I’m now expected to tip at a lot of places where I don’t remember tipping before.
And I do tip other places, which are sort of like the Chinese take-out place, and still not at all like Ruby Tuesday. There’s the little bagel shop in town where my family walks each Sunday morning, and on our walk, we discuss whether or not this will be the day we’re brave enough to order lox. Our courage falters as soon as we cross over the threshold into the shop. My husband is friends with the owner, Dave, they play basketball together, and Dave works behind the counter with a crew of college-aged kids who keep a plastic deli cup on the counter marked “Gas” or “Pizza”or “Beer.”
I always toss a dollar into that cup.
At the Dunkin Donuts near my office, there’s an oversized coffee mug that hangs out in front of the cash registers. I’ve struck up a sort of friendship with one of the young men who works behind the counter there. It says “Nikhil” on his name tag, but he insists I call him “Nick.” Nick used to sneak a couple of donut holes into my bag until I told him to stop, I didn’t eat them, they just wound up in the trash. I figured this was his way to ensure I’d drop a little something into the tip cup, the Dunkin Donuts version of Kelly’s advice to refill soda glasses before the customer asked.
I always drop a little something into that oversized coffee mug.
Given the way tipping has spread beyond pizza delivery, and restaurants, and hair salons, I’ve got to think it’s only a matter of time before we’ll all have Tip Lines showing up on our pay stubs.
The New York Times claims there’s a movement afoot at fancy restaurants to end tipping and instead raise the wages of the staff. We’ll see if it catches on. Meanwhile, a New Jersey waitress posted on Facebook a photo of the credit card receipt from a customer who wrote “LOL” on the tip line, the latest in a series of angry servers using social media to shame customers. Initially, I react to that story like I’m the inept waitress I was fifteen years ago, angry at every asshole I had to wait on and clean up after, but the more I think about it, I have to wonder why the server’s anger isn’t directed at a compensation system that makes her rely on the random generosity of strangers rather than fair pay from the business that’s benefitting from her labor.
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