The tip of it all

Photo by Sam Dan Truong on Unsplash

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 piece 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 don’t make that little, but sorry, I’m not comfortable revealing how much I make.)

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?

As quoted in Eater NY

Oh did I mention this was in 1984?

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.

Let’s see what happens.

Wait. Seek. Celebrate.

They looked like rejects from a Li’l Wayne video, four women ranging in age from sixteen to early thirties, gold teeth, pierced eyebrows, tattoos and fake blonde and purple hair . When I came up to their table, they hardly even acknowledged me. I only got to the “W” in “Welcome” when the youngest told me, or rather barked at me, “I already know what I want!”

KEEP READING!

A change is gonna come. Soon. For real

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.

Continue reading “A change is gonna come. Soon. For real”

“We come from the same place”

My next-to-last table for the day was a big one: nine people. Two men, three women, and four ladies between twelve and I’m guessing twenty. As I approached I heard them talking not in English. My first reaction was to assume they were of the same nationality as I’d say roughly seventy per cent of my customers. Not to mention, they were of no ethnicity I could assume.

–Welcome! Brazil?

One of the men, a burly specimen in his mid-fifties but with a kind smile, flashed said smile and said in broken Spanish:

–No, Brazil no. Egipcios.

–Oh!–, I said, a little taken aback but not losing own my smile–. Then we continue in English.

They were a lively although demanding group. The girls were very easy to laugh, and the youngest one was what you could call an old soul. Near the end of the meal one of the ladies called me over.

–Are you Indian by any chance?

–No, ma’am. Venezuelan–. I smiled again, and assumed a Punjabi accent–. Though I am greatly respectful of the wonderful people of India.

I got the expected laugh out of the table, but then one of the ladies grew a bit serious.

–How long have you been here, sir?

–Since November, ma’am.

–Things are not good back home, yes?

–Not quite ma’am. I guess back yours they are better, right?

–No, no–. She pointed to the burly man. –He’s Egyptian, he’s my brother in law. We’re Syrian.

My heart sank, as you can imagine. –I am so sorry, ma’am, for everything that is happening in your country. Where are you living now?

–We’re in Canada. They live in New York.

 

I looked over at the girls again, this time with new eyes. Do either of them remember their country? What had they seen? What have they told them?

–You have all my sympathies. My country is also causing an immigration problem in the region.

–Why is that?

First, a reminder. Syria has been in the midst of airst civil war since March, 2011, briefly after the events of the Arab Spring toppled regimes in Tunisia and yes, Egypt. Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad refused to back down or even make decent reforms, so a full-on war exploded. This was also the beginning of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, but it also caused one of the worst refugee crisis in history. More than five million Syrians have fled their country, mostly toward Europe, by land and by sea. Many have drowned, and many others are caught in diplomatic limbo in refugee camps all over, especially in Greece, where they are not exactly welcome with open arms.

With that in mind, I explain to the lady that Venezuela itself is starting to cause an immigration crisis. Estimates of how many of us have left the country vary a bit, but most say that the number is between two and three million, mostly middle-class.But as the Council on Foreign Affairs of the United Nations noted recently, it’s starting to get worse. Colombia, which is right next door, has seen some 250,000 Venezuelans come in between August 2017 and March 2018, with some estimates of as many as 3,000 coming in a day. And the rest of Latin America is not far behind: according to The Washington Post, Chile has seen a 1,388% increase of Venezuelan immigrants since 2015; Panama, who saw an overwhelming influx of my countrypeople between 2010 and 2016, imposed new visa requirements that make it that much harder to come in the coun try; and, well, there’s this guy, who doesn’t exactly make it easy.

After I explain this, the woman looks at me with a sad smile. “So we come from the same place”, she sighs.

They were obviously a well-to-do family, perhaps even educated. They all spoke very good English, if with an accent. They still had family in the capital (Damascus), but they had survived the worst part. I was amazed to agree with her, because although my country is not at war, I too left a life that would not have let me reach my full potential. It doesn’t help that Assad and the late Hugo Chavez were quite chummy.

After they left, I moved up to Ian, one of my fellow servers, and sighed.

–That family that’s leaving is Syrian, man. I can’t even imagine.

–Oh for real?– he asked.

–They live in New York and Toronto now. Talk about a change.

–I’ve always wondered, how people just leave their countries, start trying to find a job and what not.

–Well, look at me. I was a reporter back home, now I’m a waiter.

And so many people like that. Omar, one of our bussers, is an oil engineer. My GF is a graphic designer who used to run her own cake-designing businesses and now is a hostess. And how many doctors, lawyers, dentists, economists and the such are working as cabbies, salespeople, construction workers. Not all of us truly wanted to leave the country that saw us grow, but many had no choice. Which makes what Venezuelan turd-in-command, Nicolas Maduro, said this week — “I wouldn’t go to clean toilets in Miami”– particularly irritating. And of course many answered back.

It’s a sad fact of life that to better support your family, or at least help them, the best thing many of us could do was leave, doing things we’ve never thought we’d do. And any job dignifies, no matter if it is cleaning toilets. All we want is the chance to get ahead in life, be wherever we may be. And that applies to all immigrants or refugees, be they Syrian or Venezuelan.

As I picked up their table, two of the girls lingered behind. I asked their mother permission to say one last thing. They told me they were twelkve and fifteen.

–No matter where you are, girls, always remember and care for your country. Because your country made you who you are. Learn everything about it, as much as you can, because it’s going to be up to you to fix the mess that your elders have left behind. We’re counting on you.

They listened carefully, and smiled what I operceived as honest, interested smiles. I wonder what would come later, how they would grow up. Only time can tell, of course. Meanwhile, here we are, and here we go on.

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Your post is coming right up, sir

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I’ve frequently heard the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. There was quite a bit about it that bothered me, to be honest. It was generally said to me with this sneer of cynicism, like God is this huge bastard that looks down on poor li’l us, thinking we have a say in our lives. I refused to accept it.

Now? Not so much.

I still believe in a benevolent God that is there to protect us from evil and harm, that would never throw us a challenge we couldn’t face, because He knows what we’re made of. But now I have no problem thinking of Our Lord as this funny guy with a mischievous twinkle in His eye that lets out a kindly chuckle when we tell Him our plans, because He knows we better wrote them in pencil.

Guys… I’m a waiter!

Continue reading “Your post is coming right up, sir”