The more comfortable I begin to feel in the city, the more waiters and waitresses I recognize, be they on the clock or off it. This is reason enough to tip as best as I can and provide amiable companionship (but not too much) for the short time we’re doing the eating thing. But, there’s also the issue of identification. I am still working in the service industry 15-20 hours a week. I tip because they are my people, and when I absolutely have to go 10 or 15 percent, I am not happy leaving the restaurant.
There’s something of an old defeatist, blues song truth to this habit, I’m starting to understand. People that tip the most often don’t have that much to give … Sam Cooke sings in Little Red Rooster, “I tell you he keeps all the hens fighting among themselves/ he keeps all the hens fighting among themselves.” Waiters get paid $2.15 an hour, plus the tips they earn. This dated set-up, for some of us, makes table waiting the ideal micro experience of our economy, each scrambling waiter pursuing tender doggedly in fiercely competitive, packed lanes. In the most toxic of waiterly environments, waiters will start politicking to get the best sections (bribing and/or intimidating the very young hostess … taking 2 more tables than they can handle, letting other waiters and managers run the food, they still collecting the tip). Fighting amongst themselves in the worst ways. In these cases the restaurant manager is obviously in that business because nothing else worked out for them, and they don‘t care to get this delicate table-waitstaff balance right. On the nourishing side of the coin, we tip each other when we see each other. They say novelists and marathon runners can pick out one of their own with one Napoleonic glance of genius. I believe the same is true of waiters. I do at least know that we watch when another is at work. When I worked as a waiter at a steakhouse, I’d get the choicest tips from those who “had been there.” One couple, black, young, pretty followed me to my expo line to present me with a $30 tip simply because the way I let them try different wines didn’t make it seem as if I was hassled. She was a waitress and he a manager at a Cracker Barrel, where they met. They said beyond the basics they could tell when a waiter was being fake or overly attentive.
VZDS seems to have it figured out. Their waitresses have such self-possession and elan that Id’ be scared not to treat them with my Friday best.
What I mean to say is that waiters are a sensitive kind. I’ve spent a good deal of years doing it and also observing the transactions when I eat, since my high school days as a Denny’s regular where my attention to the wait staff–Lenae, Michelle, Rachel, Abby, Dirty Steve–bordered on the unacceptable. Treat them with the respect of someone who is doing their job, doing it right the best they can. Their heads are busy, and, it seems absurd but it’s there, their sense of self worth (even the educated ones) are determined on a table-to-table basis. The real pros have an automatic style that partially alleviates this helplessness, but it’s never completely remedied I don’t think. The reason waiters develop their own little sociology charts on who will and who will not tip is because their livelihood depends on each tip. At Denny’s it was a family restaurant and I still can’t fathom how they do it, or how the dancer from OC, new to Oklahoma on scholarship, can keep such a good natured disposition working the I-hop, knowing that the nights earnings might stack up to $50 or $60 total. If nothing else, tip your waiter because they must, like a skilled actor, act unnaturally at ease with a job that’s anything but–the multitasking feats a young Taylor would perform nightly at the steakhouse taking a room to herself still astound me. Simultaneously she’d harness politeness, keep 4 orders in her head, keep flexed an arm full of pre-bussed plates, while dodging another waiter and giving a nice turn of the eye to the boss who made her seating chart that night while being told she just got sat again.
Perhaps the most sensitive waiters are the ones carrying some pride from their most recent college degrees. In arts culture its pretty acceptable to keep waiting while waiting to become the next Steven Soderbergh or Regina Spektor… keep working on your masterpiece, I say, if indeed the waiters are at work on it. I urge the business major to keep scouting the WSJ and Yahoo when he gets off his shift and says bye to the cooks. But what if your table doesn’t know that you have that degree? Tables with degrees will often ask and nod their heads and offer their goodwill that your doing it the Horatio Alger way. But that of course doesn’t always happen, and in those cases I ask my fellow servers to please be patient.
I recently sat down with a waitress, 28, who hates it when tables talk down to her as if she doesn’t have a college degree. She comes from a kind like the Magnolia Café waiters in Austin, TX who don’t have to be nice to you at all because they are waiters in Austin. This is a new breed of waiter that certainly differs from the steakhouse pro or the Denny’s/I-Hop scraper-by. “I have a degree, I have talents that I use daily…don’t talk to me like I don’t know what’s up…” This sort of thinking can’t be healthy for us, and I’m not sure what you have to do to detect this kind of waiter. But they are out there, and they are watching you and your manners as you eat.
In my experience 90 percent of the tables were fine to deal with. But you do get the manner less. And like with anything else, I tell the proud waiter, go forth in your passions the best you can. Perhaps it’s the traps that keep such conflicted waiters in the game. Going out with your brothers-in-arms and drinking on your tip share until 2 a.m. I’ve been there and my savings account doesn’t thank me for it, though it felt good at the time.
To that waiter, I say you are just like the rest of us, and I see the work that you do, and I love that you are there for those seemingly endless eaters of the world. I hear Bob Dylan gets it, tipping his Mickey Mantle waiter a Benjamin years ago before or after a Zoo show … Cheer up. The poets know you, and respect you:
“I mete and dole/ Unequal laws unto a savage race/That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I hope we get out of this drifty place eventually. But an outstanding pride cannot be good for the health. Developing blank expectations for each table is the best possible strategy. Some will tip, some will not. To the diners I refer to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who said, “we are all just trying to get through this thing, whatever it is…” The waiters of the world are indeed a part of this thing, and deserve our best when our night on the city rests on their work.
Postscript: Danny Marroquin knows Valentines Day is coming up, so if any waiters or concerned diners want to e-mail their concerns, I will welcome them and offer a brisk and considered response as I can.