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January 28, 2002

Tip your servers ... or else

Michael Terrazas is managing editor of Emory Report.


In the opening scene of the movie Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink informs his fellow larcenists that he “doesn’t believe” in tipping restaurant servers. “All right,” he says, “if they really put forth the effort, I’ll give ’em something extra, but this tipping automatically is for the birds.”

At the end of the movie—those who haven’t seen it might want to skip to the next paragraph—Mr. 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 life’s inherent unfairness.

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. It’s not like we were sinking—we 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 pride—not to mention our social life, our will to experience the world beyond the walls of our home and workplaces—and 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 one’s lofty opinions of one’s 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 weren’t going to take advantage of it. On more nights than not, I would get at least one table at which at least one guest—usually the patriarch—would 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 I’d spent on the other side of the service industry equation, but I don’t 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-y’know-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 can’t 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 don’t think your servers notice when you “guesstimate” and leave tips that weigh in at a few points below that 15 percent bar, think again—as 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 they’re lucky, they’re doing what I did—praying 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 good—and 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; I’m 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 I’d 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 You’re such a nice young man—you 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.