Last month, in a rare break from its left-wing nonsense, The New Yorker ran an excellent article by Zach Helfand, which despite the unfortunate headline “Has Gratuity Culture Reached A Tipping Point,” (I don’t care for his work, but Malcolm Gladwell can’t be blamed for popularizing the cliché with his book in 2000, even if in this particular instance it was meant as a pun; not a good one) was a primer, and implied lament, about how Americans reach into their pockets to tip promiscuously in this decade, the “guilt tip,” spurred on by delivery services and other online conveniences I’m not familiar with.
Helfand writes: “Do you tip the cashier when all she’s done is ring up your salad? Don’t, and you’re a cheapskate. Do, and you’re a sucker. Where before you scribbled a tip in the candlelit darkness of a restaurant, now you do it in the spotlight glow of the screen. The polite thing to do, standing in line, is to behave as you would at the A.T.M., or the urinal: look away.”
I’m not a “cheapskate,” but it wouldn’t even occur to me to tip a cashier, whether at a supermarket, bodega, CVS, bookstore or clothing store. (Eddie Jacobs, a haberdasher in Baltimore I’ve known for decades, would be insulted, and rightly so, if I slipped him a sawbuck for fitting my trousers; he’d probably escort me out the door.) I do throw a buck in the jar (now often with a lock on it, to discourage the modern equivalent of pickpockets) at the local (non-union) Starbucks, despite its larcenous prices, but that’s because I’m a regular. (Interestingly, and contra to Millennial/Zoomer cant, my friends there say they’re paid very well and have terrific health and education benefits.)
I wasn’t surprised when Helfand said that in the pre-screen days, waitresses’ breast size correlated “positively” with a customer’s tip, but that’s never been a factor for me: unless the service is awful and rude (which would warrant a chat with the manager), I automatically write in a 20 percent gratuity, or more if it’s a small bill. I don’t remember when 20 percent became commonplace; in the 1970s the standard was 15 percent, but perhaps “Morning in America” changed that. On rare occasions, when the waiter/waitress goes above and beyond, the tip goes above and beyond. That’s fair, and civil.
My tipping habits are common, I think, although perhaps anachronistic to younger citizens. It’s ramped up at holiday season: a week’s salary for the housecleaner; $40 to the garbagemen, another $40 for the sweet lady who picks up the dry cleaning; a U.S. Grant to the guys from Green Fields Nursey who deliver and set up our Christmas tree, and if a regular contractor fixes something in the house in December, the wallet is open. (Although my plumber, as old-school as the aforementioned Eddie Jacobs, always refuses “a little extra.”) I’d give something to the man or woman who delivers the papers each morning, but the logistics don’t work: they come by before I’m up, and I won’t leave an envelope on the sidewalk. And in the last several years I’ve stiffed the USPS mail carriers, since they usually arrive after dark, and though maybe it’s not their fault (not enough employees, one woman told me; hard to believe since it’s a federal operation), I simply hate USPS for their slipshod service. Oh, I do like our regular UPS fellow, and he’s included in the bounty. All told, it’s not a fortune doled out, but I think it’s appreciated. And a far cry from when we lived in Manhattan where even the beggars (or homeless/”unhoused”) have their hands out.
Before Uber and Lyft decimated taxis (the last time I was in a cab was last October in NYC), I was generous since I knew most of the drivers. A ride to the airport, even when the tip is “baked in” for the limo man, means an extra 20 bucks for good luck. At the ballpark, the usher who wipes the seat gets a fin; and though I usually ignore the panhandlers that increase every month, it’d be a hard-hearted pedestrian who wouldn’t throw something in the tin can of an amputee. (Perhaps naïve, but I believe the condition is real and they aren’t doing an Eddie Murphy from Trading Places.) Overseas can be tricky, since at least half the restaurants have “service charge” built in, but some don’t, so that takes some inspection.
The gray-haired fellow in the accompanying picture is my brother Jeff, either tipping or paying off a local in Hyderabad, on a trip I took there—and New Delhi and Mumbai—years ago with Jeff and two other brothers. They were there on business, and asked me to tag along to make it an official Smith Brothers road trip. Despite the awful travel logistics—I can’t imagine what that trip would entail today—it was swell, filling myself with lots of lamb and curry, wading through the markets, and accompany the Big Boys on their meetings with local entrepreneurs. The highlight was a quick overnight in Dubai, a very ugly place—scenically: the people were fine—where the food was tops and the Burj Al Arab a—pardon the 1960s parlance—mind-blowing experience. So hi-tech, I couldn’t figure out how to turn out the lights and work any of the now-ubiquitous gadgets.
Look at the clues to figure out what year it is: a Maryland judge strikes down a law banning same-sex marriage; Warren Buffett leaves the Coca-Cola Company’s board (open question as to whether his secretary did as well); Thelonious Monk wins a “special citation” Pulitzer; Yeh for Games is founded in Las Vegas; Google buys YouTube; Corey Jackson is born and Lou Rawls dies; a whale is discovered swimming in the Thames; John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is published; The Last King of Scotland is released; the Rolling Stones give a free concert in Rio; and the first season of Life On Mars, starring John Simm is televised.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023