There is a method to the seemingly unwarranted profligacy of my tipping in restaurants. I begin by explaining that my first real job was as a (n assistant [I suppose]) dishwasher in an expensive fish restaurant in La Jolla one summer in the early fifties. I could not fail to observe the unpleasant way in which the chef, his two sous-chefs, and the busboys treated the waitresses: very badly. If they violated some rule (many of which I never could figure out), the busboys would delay pouring water or serving bread at the table of an offending waitress, and the chefs would take their sweet time getting a dish ready, and not always exactly the way the waitress had conveyed a diner’s preferences. Not exactly work stoppages, but there were (?are?) a thousand tiny and effective ways a waitress can be sabotaged. And … they had to put all their tips in a communal pot in the kitchen that the chef divided up at the end of the evening – on a basis that was never clear to me. In short: there is something primitively Darwinian about a restaurant kitchen’s ecology.
Now, this all took place one summer about sixty years ago, but to this day I remember the experience vividly, and the petty sadism in that kitchen (where I was definitely living in the hierarchical basement so to speak whither you know what flows downhill) obviously made a great impression on me. Even then I made a kind of pact with myself always to tip as generously as I could afford – these days I usually tip anywhere from forty to sixty or even one hundred percent, regardless of service. For even if I get bad service (which, as we all know, does happen, though – fortunately — not often), I still tip on that scale. Why? Here is my thinking: I have an ‘encounter and exchange’ with this waitress (or waiter!) once in a lifetime (unless I go to a place often, and even then there are, predictably, sufficient numbers of servers that I may rarely get the same one twice); on that given day we meet for perhaps five minutes over a period of at most one hour.
What do I know about her (or his) day for the hour or hours or days before we met? Did her boss scream at her, did her heap of a car finally not start today, is her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend, does she have a sick child or senile parent at home she is worried about, when is she going to have the time to do the studying she knows she has to do before that calculus test, did her husband slap her around last night? I can know nothing about any of this, but she would not be human if it had not affected her mood and even her performance. That one hour when she is interacting with me is not necessarily an accurate reflection of who she is or how she does her job, and why should I not give her the benefit of the doubt? She did come to work today, not – as I know from all those years ago – always the most fun thing for her to do; she is not taking government handouts but pays her taxes to support the slugs; she does her best under whatever the circumstances in her life that I cannot possibly know about, and, frankly, I find that admirable. A heavy tip is my silent way of expressing that sense.
Some people have faulted me for this practice, for ‘raising expectations’ and so perhaps costing other diners. Tough! Not that I can’t certainly see their point, and perhaps even on occasion somewhat agree with it in one of those primal chambers of the reptilian part of my brain. But it’s my money, and I can do what I want with it. It’s not a big deal to me; maybe it is to her. Maybe it helps her have a better day. I often get surprised at reactions: once was told by a young lady it was too much and I had made a mistake. But when I assured her it was all hers, I admit I did get a lift from seeing the glint in her eye and the upward tug at the corner of her mouth. No one has ever not been grateful, and, frankly, that make me grateful, and for a very small price at that!
In the end perhaps even generosity is a species of selfishness.