In the opening scene of the movie Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink
informs his fellow larcenists that he doesnt believe
in tipping restaurant servers. All right, he says, if
they really put forth the effort, Ill give em something
extra, but this tipping automatically is for the birds.
At the end of the moviethose who havent seen it might
want to skip to the next paragraphMr. Pink is the only character
who even might have made it out alive. Six months ago, I never would
have noticed this coincidence; now I wonder if it is just that or
whether Quentin Tarantino is trying to tell us something about lifes
We made the decision last summer, B. and I, and it hurt like a
rabies shot. In the Olden Days, they had poor nutrition, child labor,
sweat shops and no workers comp; in the modern world, we have
high-interest consumer debt. Its not like we were sinkingwe
were treading water with minimal effort, but with the prospects
of marriage and home ownership looming somewhere out there on the
horizon, we did not want to spend years bailing out our financial
ship with the colander that is a minimum monthly payment, but neither
did we want to write fat checks as we survived on a diet of saltines
and Jif. So we sucked up our pridenot to mention our social
life, our will to experience the world beyond the walls of our home
and workplacesand applied for jobs in the restaurant business,
waiting tables a few nights a week.
B. had done this before; I had not (though Lord knows I delivered
more than my share of pizzas in high school and college). We decided
to schedule our shifts on the same nights so as to facilitate seeing
each other more than five minutes per week, between our combined
four jobs. We bought uniforms and institutional work shoes, studied
our training manuals and girded ourselves for overemployment. Heck,
we told each other, lapsing into free form psychosis, this might
even be fun.
I like to consider myself a respectable liberal, in both the classical
and oft-maligned contemporary sense of the word, someone who gives
folks the benefit of the doubt and believes the average Homo sapien
is a noble creature. But with the possible exception of serving
in the White House press corps, there is nothing quite like waiting
tables to bring ones lofty opinions of ones fellow man
crashing down to earth like Skylab.
Even before I became one, I always tried to make eye contact with
waiters and waitresses, to treat them generally as a form of life
somewhere above marsh rat on the evolutionary ladder.
Little did I know that not only is this not a rule in modern society,
it seems simply never to have occurred to some people, and from
certain others I got the distinct impression that going out to eat
was the one opportunity they had to have someone wait on them hand
and foot, and durn if they werent going to take advantage
of it. On more nights than not, I would get at least one table at
which at least one guestusually the patriarchwould not
deign to meet my eyes nor even wait for me to finish what I would
say; he would simply bark out Diet Coke! or Another butter!,
Burger rare! or More clubbed baby seals!, or some
other such imperative.
And maybe it was because of the several intervening years Id
spent on the other side of the service industry equation, but I
dont remember letting the occasional lousy tip infuriate me
as a 23-year-old pizza driver like it did as a 31-year-old waiter.
I would have been more understanding had I just been going through
the motions for these people, but I busted my tail to make sure
they got their sweet teas refilled, that they had fresh loaves of
bread, that their steaks were cooked medium-not-medium-as-in-more-red-than-pink-but-medium-with-just-a-little-pink-yknow-every-place-does-it-different,
that their salad dressings/burger condiments/baked-potato fixins
came on the side. Still, some of these people saw fit to leave less
than the customary 15 percent.
A word of advice for those restaurantgoers who cling to the quaint
(read: antebellum) standard of a 12 percent gratuity:
I cant speak for other restaurants, but in this particular
establishment, the starting wage for servers was exactly $2.13
an hour. The rest we made in tips, minus a 2 percent tip-out
for bartenders and hosts. So if you dont think your servers
notice when you guesstimate and leave tips that weigh
in at a few points below that 15 percent bar, think againas
you stroll out to your car chewing on a toothpick, they are standing
at your table, watching you, gripping your used butter knife, exercising
papal self-restraint, intently wishing upon you unspeakable horrors
in the afterworld.
Or, if theyre lucky, theyre doing what I didpraying
that on my last day of work at the restaurant, you would come in
again and leave behind a similarly paltry and insulting sum, at
which point I would pick it up, follow you out to your car, fling
it at you with all my might, and tell you in no uncertain terms
what you could do with your tip, since you clearly needed
the money much worse than
I did (this wish, unfortunately, was not granted when my emancipation
day came; I had three tables that day, one of which was my own family,
who generally tipped me pretty well).
Because, for B. and I, there was always a light at the end of the
tunnel. We were working toward a specific, quantifiable goal, and
once we reached it, we could untie our aprons for goodand
we did (God willing). Few of our coworkers were so fortunate, and
after doing that job for five months, I am left with an undying
admiration for the people who do it to pay their rent. And it goes
without saying that people who work two jobs indefinitely just to
get by have reserved for themselves a special place in heaven.
Though, I confess, in a quest for cheap laughs, I perhaps have
misrepresented (very) slightly the percentage of unpleasant patrons.
For the most part, people were perfectly agreeable and friendly;
Im proud to say I even had a few recidivists who asked specifically
to be seated in my section upon their return. Once, not long after
Id started, I waited on a table of charming elderly Southern
ladies who no doubt were fueling up for a three-day canasta bender,
and as I brought their check one of them leaned over to me, put
her hand on my arm and said Youre such a nice young manyou
have a great future ahead of you in the restaurant business.
Heh. Not bloody likely.
But what I do have is a newfound appreciation for my real
job. B. and I are thankful we spent those five months waiting tables,
if for no other reason than we got a glimpse of what rewards life
can shower upon the fiscally irresponsible. Thanks, but no thanks.
And now, whenever we go into a restaurant and see our server bouncing
off tables like a pinball and looking thoroughly crazed, we look
at each other and smile. And we leave a fat tip behind, and we imagine
the smile that follows us out the door.