Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.
Jorge Luis Borges
We went shopping today, a rare day when all of us were off from our responsibilities and could spend it together. We went to the outlets near our home, and of course, I had to take a picture in front of the only restaurant that was there, now closed. Not going to lie, it was a strange moment, to see where this journey as an immigrant finally found a cushion now shut down. But it is Thanksgiving week, so I chose gratitude.
I look back at what I wrote about the experience, and I can’t help but smile at my innocence. Maybe I can even call it naiveté. It was clearly the work of someone who trusted people way more, that was clearly terrified of what he had done, upending his world like that. But then I see where I am now, and I can feel nothing but gratitude.
It’s been five years since we moved to Orlando, Y. from New York, me from Caracas. I can safely say it has been one hell of a ride, and we have come a long way since. I am about to embark on a new job adventure that I will tell you about when the time comes, I can actually start planning on buying my first car, and we have plans we could not have conceived of when we landed here. And we have a dog!
There have been weird moments, of course. Not two weeks ago, I was turning away from a table and a lady at it yelled at me “Server person!” twice. I turned to her, hiding how flabbergasted I was, and smiled and said “My name is Juan, ma’am”. Her response? “Oh, I’m never going to remember that”. There was the lady that insisted I replace the two –TWO– burnt shrimp in her bowl. There was the guy that handed me a fistful of quarters and said “Here’s your tip, friend, thank you”. There have also been hugs from kids, ladies that said their autistic daughter had the best birthday ever, families that give a little more because it was my birthday, and all the weird and wacky folks I have worked with.
Five years ago, I landed here not knowing what to expect beyond a LOT of work. I didn’t expect to start working at Universal Studios. I didn’t expect to meet cool musicians. I didn’t expect the best dog in the world. Along the way, I have managed to find my way out of some disasters, avoid others, and even mark up some wins. I have learned, maybe times forcibly, how to be a responsible adult with money, some twenty years too late. And it all started that day, in that restaurant. (Ok, a little earlier, but the actual start was at that restaurant.
On this day, I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had in this country. The little things I have done, the not-so-little things, what I’ve seen, who I’ve met, what I’ve done. Here’s to many more adventures, especially in this new chapter of my life, which I hope I may see those who honor me with their visits here, for many years to come.
“Oh really? What do you write?”, Mic asked me, in that quiet rolling-thunder of a voice he has.
We’re sitting rolling silverware as we wait for the day to start. It’s my third week at the new job, and one of the biggest contrasts is that I’m no longer the oldest server on staff. Heck, I’ve been demoted to third. I have the feeling Mic is the new champion, with his cool lock of white hair (he loves that I call me, him, and Allen, nine years my senior, the Silver Squad).
We’ve been making small talk for a while, and he tells me he’s thankful he doesn’t worry about money anymore, that he takes “what the Universe sends me”. I tell him I wish I could be like that, that it’s one of the reasons I want to go back to working nights (more money), and also that I contribute to a news site as a journalist, and that I want to continue writing.
“Short stories, mostly”, I answer, sheepishly, not even bothering to add the “I hope to publish a book this year” part that I’ve been saying for the past three years.
“Oh nice. I’m a playwright myself”, he says. “I had a piece of mine open in Broadway once”.
And immediately, Mic is 47% more interesting. And I am once again struck by the contrast of the people I am encountering in this job. The general manager used to be a theater actor as well, and is a trained tap dancer, whose heroes are Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gregory Hines (and he once told me got to dance in front of Hines himself). One of the hostesses quit because she’s going back to art school, and showed me some of her amazing drawings. And now Mic just tells me he’s a playwright. And got to narrate a short film that got played in theaters (you can watch it here). And when he was a young theater actor he auditioned in front of… Neil Simon?!
“I was doing my part, and all of a sudden I hear him start talking”, Mic told me. “So I assume that’s it, I didn’t get it. So I say thank you very much, and I start getting off the stage. But Neil says ‘Hey kid, where are you going?’ And he tells me to keep going. Then there was this silence, and again I go thank you very much, and he goes, ‘What is it with this kid? Where are you going?’ He did see something, and he called me back five times, even gave me some direction. I didn’t end up getting the part, but can you imagine the honor?”
Can I imagine touching the hem of Jesus’ robe and then walking away? Hmm, can’t say I have, brother.
Mic lives with his wife of several years in a mobile home which is going through a bathroom renovation. (This is the type of home you can lift into a flatbed and move somewhere else.) From what he describes, it’s a simple life, and he seems pretty content. You would never guess he auditioned and nearly got to work with one of theater’s greatest playwrights. I didn’t ask him how he wounded up as a server again –shouldn’t it be the other way around, as in, you’re a server wanting to be a playwright, a la Jonathan Larsen?– but I didn’t need to. The stories are all different, but one thing remains: sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you catch it as best you can. And it throws different curves to different people.
Late that same day, another server, Kierra, told me this weird, wonderful thing that had happened to her. Her family was in line at Walmart to pay for a 40-inch TV that she had got for her young son. They had saved for a while to get it, and it had been on sale for a couple of hundred dollars. A woman behind them, in nurse scrubs, noticed it and asked if it had been on sale. Yes it had been, they said. “Would you mind if I go in front of you?”, she asked then. They thought it was weird, bit she had only one item, so they let her. And they were absolutely floored when the lady told the cashier, “I would like to pay for their purchases, please”.
Of course Kierra’s family couldn’t believe it, and tried to say it was OK, no need, but she insisted. “I’ve just had a miracle happen to me at the hospital, and I intend to spread the joy”, she said. I get goosebumps thinking about it. Kierra told me she’s trying to locate her so they could at least send her flowers, but I’m sure the lady doesn’t need them.
I find these stories so encouraging. They make me think that good surrounds me even when lousy things happen. It’s just a reminder that good and bad are constantly present, and night always turns into day. Yes, I’m going through some very hard times right now, but I know they will end. And I have learned valuable lessons in this hard period, and I have traced a clear objective. It just tells me that I have to get up and start doing the things that make me feel good, that will lead me towards good, and not feel sorry for myself.
Thanks Mic and Kierra for inspiring me to write this. And to keep on writing.
I woke up around seven that morning. I think I remember my flight was scheduled to leave around four, which meant I had to be at the airport around two o’clock. My dad picked me up at my aunt’s house, the place I called home for some five years after my divorce, and I kissed her goodbye. Her voice cracked as she hugged me, and I still feel a little guilt from leaving her; I never was super chatty with her, or spend any significant amount of time with her, this woman who was like a second mom to me. She seemed so frail… But I resisted.
It was the shortest breakfast ever. Then my dad, brother and sister in law came with me to the airport. And I hugged my mom, as her voice started cracking. I did not want to cry, not yet, but I have always been a mama’s boy. I felt a little lump as she blessed me, but I smiled and kissed her in the forehead.
The opening line is from a 1963 record by Mexican singer Tony Camargo, now turned into a staple of Latin American New Year celebrations. It’s a fun, upbeat song, where Camargo thanks the old year that’s ready to leave, like “a goat, a black donkey, a white mare, and good mother-in-law”. (Hey, I said upbeat, not logical.)
And last night, it was the first time I had to sing it with a stranger –a fun stranger, no doubt; that’s what people from Zulia are by default– and not with my family. To be honest, the moment I became part of the serving world, especially in the “happiest city in the world”, I should have expected it. Didn’t make it especially easy, though.
But the first few minutes of New Year’s Day, 2020, did make me see many things I am growing to appreciate more and more as my 50th birthday approaches (and we won’t mention that again till 2021, mmmkay?). I hope they will help me focus more on what I want to achieve.
Upon learning I would not be home at midnight, I raged. Not as I used to when younger –not that I’d like to go back to those days, mind you– but many people I work with heard me curse for the first time. Lauren, my manager, offered me a festive hat to wear and I think she was shocked when I declined to wear it, since she has only seen my fun-loving side. But as I got into my duties, I reflected on the Stoics, a philosophy I had very much embraced in 2019 (check out Daily Stoic if you’re interested). We have no control over the things around us; we can only control how we react to them. So I shuffled over to the gloom corner, the part of the restaurant where the servers mope their destiny, and shared this wisdom. Once the troops were rallied, I donned my “Happy 2020” hat and got on with it.
As midnight approached and guests became more and more pumped up, a funny thing happened: my countrymen began to appear. First it was a whole family: eleven year old son, seventeen year old daughter, mom and dad. Not that much English, but a whole lot of Caracas. Then it was a large, rowdy group: two sisters from Zulia, one married to a Puertorrican, another to an American. (“They have triumphed!”, according to one of our comedians.) They had a twenty-something daughter that very drunkenly said “You shouldn’t be working tonight!” (Yes, but hey, it is what it is.) And finally, a man, his brother, his wife and one-year-old daughter. Six months in the country, and obviously feeling homesick, all of them. I consoled them as best I could. Mostly because I didn’t feel that lonely, having a few of my people close by. Lucky indeed.
And finally… At around 12:45, I walked by the door. We had closed at ten past midnight. I saw two figures walking up to the door, and I was ready to call them off, perhaps more harshly than I expected. And that’s when I saw Y. and D., D. with tears in her eyes. They had come to say “Happy New Year”. I opened the door, stepped out and embraced them long and hard. D. asked tearfully, “Why didn’t you come?” I explained that I was really busy, and I still was, but I was overjoyed that she would come and see her Bird Daddy with Mommy. And I truly was, because I knew how big this moment was: back home, along with Y.’s best friend, her wife, son, dog and kitten, D.’s father, his new wife and ten-month old baby were also home. And yet, here she was, hugging me and saying Happy New Year.
This is how I expect to embrace the coming year, and hopefully the coming life I have in me. Don’t lose sight of the big things, no matter how small the package they come in. Don’t let anger guide your steps. Don’t settle for anything less than what you deserve. And always know that you are being a good man, with a lovely woman and child, however difficult she may be, that love you unconditionally.
Happy New Year, everyone, Here’s to twelve more months of reflections.
If you follow me on Twitter (which I appreciate, though I mostly tweet in Spanish), you can expect at least three tweets a few times a month: one where I complain that I haven’t slept enough, one where I am thankful for something good that happened, and one where I rant against the human being who dared not tip me. And only one of those has truly cost me followers. Take a wild guess which one.
Since moving to the country, being a server has become my new life, sometimes even taking precedence over my love of writing (as this blog has proven). And as such, tipping has become a frequent reason of research, discussion, argument, and bemoaning. The highs when I get a good or great tip are followed by the flings of rage or flights of despair when I feel my service has been neglected. And really, isn’t that what’s wrong with tipping in general? But more on that later.
After almost two years of getting them, I can say tipping is one of the best and worst things that has ever happened to me. It has made me more aware of details, it has helped in my math skills, and has helped me raise a modest home. It has also increased my anxiety, made me painfully self-aware of moments when I’m doing a lousy job, and is making me wonder if I’ll ever be able to return to the office space. Is this how it’s always been?
Tipping as a such, or so it is generally agreed so, started in the 17th century in Tudor England, because of course it did. According to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping, the most widely known history of the practice (only if you haven’t followed this guy), if you stayed overnight in a private home, you were expected to give a small amount of money to their servants (whether the staff spat on the food of those who didn’t is unclear). The amount was then known as vails, and the practice began showing up in coffee houses and other establishments across London. In one frequented by writer Samuel Johnson, there was a bowl with the words “To Insure Promptitude”, and many speculate that “tip” is an acronym for that phrase. The more formal word for tipping, “gratuity”, goes much further than that, dating to either the 1520’s and from the French gratuité (graciousness), or from the Medieval Latin gratuitas (free gift). (Isn’t Wikipedia grand?)
I don’t think you’d be surprised to know that tipping used to be abhorred in the early United States. Wealthy Americans traveling to Europe after the Civil War brought back the practice of tipping –where there was no aristocracy and, therefore, seen contrary to American values. Per this article in The New York Times Magazine, the Grey Lady led the charge against the practice. In a 1916 pamphlet titled The Itching Palm, William Scott wrote: “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape”. And in 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America appeared in Georgia, where 100,000 members pledged to not tip anyone for a year (the bastards, I think with a grumble). Heck, Washington state became the first of six to pass anti-tipping laws in 1909. Laws, my friends.
But tipping was here to stay. So much that, by 1926, all anti-tipping laws were repealed. And so we have come to this point in time. Tipping is not only standard, it is expected in all the United States. “If you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip”, is the standard practice. Waiters earn sometimes as little as two dollars an hour, so they have to rely on tips. (I make $7.79 an hour, or some $1,400 a month. My current rent is $1,100.)
In recent years, a handful of restaurants have started going against the practice. In 2015, a handful of restaurants decided to pay their front-of-the-house staff full wages and, of course, raised prices. At the forefront was Danny Meyer, of the Union Square Hospitality Group, who in 2015 said, “I hate those Saturday nights where the whole dining room is high-fiving because they just set a record, and they’re counting their shekels, and the kitchen just says, ‘Well, boy, did we sweat tonight,’”. Meyer also famously wrote in the Group’s newsletter:
The American system of tipping is awkward for all parties involved: restaurant patrons are expected to have the expertise to motivate and properly remunerate service professionals; servers are expected to please up to 1,000 different employers (for most of us, one boss is enough!); and restaurateurs surrender their use of compensation as an appropriate tool to reward merit and promote excellence … Imagine, if to prompt better service from your shoe salesman, you had to tip on the cost of your shoes, factoring in your perception of his shoe knowledge and the number of trips he took to the stockroom in search of your size. As a customer, isn’t it less complicated that the service he performs is included in the price of your shoes?
This movement seemed to be gaining momentum. A 2016 American Express survey published in May of that year of 503 random restaurants showed that 18% already had no-tipping policies, 29% were planning on doing the same, 17% would do it if others did. And there is a Subreddit called EndTipping that showed that at least 200 restaurants in the US –true, a fraction of the more or less 650,000 all over the country, but still– were at one point or another a no-tipping zone. Until…
Eater reported in September 2020 that, in 2018, most restaurants brought back tipping. David Chang ended his no-tipping policy at the famous Momofuku Nishi after six months. Even Meyer capitulated in July 2020. What happened? Grub Street offered an answer and I encourage you to read the piece lest I be accused of complete plagiarism, but long story short, established staff walked out, prices looked higher (and in many cases were), and let’s face it (grudgingly, in my case), tips make guests feel empowered. You think your server did a poor job? Believe me, nothing stings more than a less-than-flattering tip. (No tip reflects poorly on you, of course.)
So are tips going to ever go away? Not in a post-pandemic world, they’re not. That Eater piece I linked to earlier shows that tips had increased in the first three months of 2020, not only in restaurants but in gig jobs like Uber Eats and Instacart. Of course, that creates an even bigger wage gap between front and soul of the house (namely, between servers and hosts and, say, cooks and preppers), which contributes to the general problem of tipping.
Which brings me to my own little rant. I’ve only been in this business three years, and while it has brought me a lot of joy (heck, it’s what’s let me live in a new country) but, as I’m sure many fellow servers think, it takes a toll on my mind. It is truly a humbling experience (and trust me, I’ve had those) to do the bidding of people who sometimes don’t care that you might have a life outside of this place, and that entitles them to treat you however they want to as long as they get their way. And you truly have to walk a thin line between saying “Ma’am, but” and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME”, because it’s in that line that lies your livelihood. You can’t take the abuses personally… but how can you not?
And a tip can be such a blow to the ego, good or bad. A bad tip truly made me feel worthless when I started this; then it made me hate humanity. One time I had a party of 15 rack up a tab of $600. The head lady pulled me aside, gave me a wad of cash and some credit cards. “Should I charge my tip from the cash?” I mistakenly asked. The bitch laughed. They left me nothing. And they had been all smiles and thankyou’s till then. They left nothing. I felt like my time was worth the same. That’s what tipping can do to you. It made me question every life decision I have made, every single step I had taken that night.
I hate it and love it, tipping. And it won’t leave any time soon.
So I need to get out of the game if I want to avoid it.
I get to a stoplight driving D. to a karate friend’s birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese’s, and see the Facebook notification I’ve expected to receive every Saturday: the weekly schedule for the restaurant’s shifts, posted on the private group. I didn’t look at it right away, of course, being in a moving car at all, but also, I had the proverbial bad feeling. I decided to wait till I got home.
There are so many things in the world that matter, and if we look closely enough, we find the things that speak to our own unique spirits — these are the things that speak to me. This is what matter to me today.