Tipping Point.

Tipping Point. September 22, 2013

I heard today that some restaurants are ending the tipping practice in favor of paying full-time real wages to their staff, and it made me think of my old Christian peers and how happy they undoubtedly are to get that news, because now it means they don’t have to make excuses anymore for why they don’t tip. (Yes, I really do have a story I can relate to just about everything. Why do you ask?)

Wayback Machine is set to about 1990:

I don’t remember the name of the Mexican buffet my church liked after services, but it was a great little buffet. You walked into this always-crowded place and there was a glass-wall chamber right up front with an ancient Latina woman making tortillas by hand with a press and a griddle; you could see her from any part of the line. Then it was a Luby’s-Cafeteria-style progression through a series of Mexican-American dishes (enchiladas, chiles rellenos, tostadas, and Biff’s favorite, taquitos) and from there carrying your tray to a table, where a waitress brought you tea (unsweetened; this was Texas, not the Deep South, and sweet tea wasn’t common at the time, so you were trusted to make your tea as sweet as you wished with sugar, honey, and colorful packets) and a basket of warm, deep-fried puffy squares of doughnut-like pastry affairs called sopapillas which you were meant to split slightly, fill with a dollop of honey from squeezy bottles, and eat. When you ran out of food, which you would, because you would go there having starved yourself all day long, you raised a little plastic Mexican flag on a miniature flagpole; it’d fly about a foot off the table to signal the waitress to come by and get your order for more food, more tea, or sopapillas or whatever it was you’d run out of. The food was plentiful, hot, and completely amazing. This entire experience was yours for some ridiculously low price, like $3.99 or something per person, plus whatever you tipped those poor, hardworking waitresses in their sunset-colored, ruffled cotton flamenco dresses.

Right around the corner from this place and through a remarkably pothole-filled parking lot was a little Mexican-American religious bookstore specializing in the Jack Chick ouevre: tracts as well as the comic books, a rare gem to discover back then. You could buy any of them individually or shrink-wrapped in bulk. I wonder now if it was one of these tracts that finally pushed that restaurant owner to the brink.

Let’s just get this out of the way: tipping is mandatory in most American restaurants. If you go to a restaurant where tipping is part of the servers’ wage structure, and you don’t tip, then you are cheating those servers out of their livelihood. The IRS requires servers to report on their tables’ tabs under the assumption that tips are being paid on these tabs, so if you’re not tipping, that server has to pay taxes on your bill just as if you had. If you don’t think that tips are good or feel they are unfair, that’s fine, just find restaurants where tipping isn’t part of the wage structure (because they certainly exist) or stick to fast food, and eat where the prices actually reflect a full wage for the restaurant staff. Otherwise, whatever you or I privately think about tips, tipping is how restaurants can offer you lower prices on your food, and tipping is how their staff survive.

English: Tract by Jack T. Chick (also known as...
English: Tract by Jack T. Chick (also known as a “Chick tract”) entitled “Love The Jewish People” inside a restroom stall of a United States restaurant in Jacksonville. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). You’ve probably seen these, even if you didn’t realize at the time that that’s what they were.

That said, it shocked me to discover in college that Christians–especially Christians in groups–have a lot of trouble with tipping, either adequately or at all. I had a lot of friends who were servers. They were great people–friendly, flexible, and possessed of the patience of saints. I didn’t go to restaurants without my parents till I was in college, and they were “leave a dollar” types, so I didn’t get exposed to tipping till then. I got educated quickly by my server friends. And I learned just as quickly that all of them despised Christians, especially the groups that came in after church. They found these church groups pushy, loud, eager to “just want tew invite yew to our church fay-low-shee-ip,” and because most of these Christians weren’t rich people but wanted the rich-person experience of eating out, stayed for long periods of time and didn’t order much actual food (here’s a great writeup of what I describe). Worst of all, of course, they didn’t tip. Or they tipped pennies or small change. Or left tracts that looked like money or were, like the Chick tracts, cute little comic books that didn’t help anybody pay the rent. They wanted everybody to know they were Christian, but didn’t want to actually hold up their end of the social contract that is restaurant dining. (Is this characterization fair? Maybe not; studies are a little divided though servers’ experience seems consistent. But it’s still the characterization.)

Theories abound about why Christians don’t tip. One theory in one link I’ve given here is that the problem is that tipping is for an earthly pleasure, eating, so isn’t seen as imperative as charitable giving for spiritual reasons (questionable assumption, but I can see someone making it). Sometimes the Christian in question doggedly believes that tipping is optional, a “reward” for excellent service, and not the mandatory obligation that the IRS certainly thinks it is. I’ve heard people theorize that the reason is because servers are working on Sunday, so are clearly less church-going and godly, therefore less deserving of money than the person eating there. I think most of the time it’s poverty, with the Christian having enough money to pay for the meal but not much else, and figures at least the restaurant is getting a little of the Christian’s money rather than none of it, or else simple anger at “having to” pay more money for the meal than the price on the menu.

One thing I do want to say is that I don’t think innocent ignorance is an adequate explanation; tipping’s been part of our culture for too long for church groups to just be the one pocket of cultural ignorance in America that just hasn’t ever grasped the concept here, and most of us have friends or family members who’ve been involved in foodservice/hospitality, so ignorance just doesn’t work as an excuse.

One heartbreaking thing I hear often is a reflection of a sense of superiority and class discrimination. It’s bad enough the restaurant wants $8.99 for that breakfast platter–that’s already highway robbery, I’ve heard people say; they’re not paying more than that just so the server can live it up. If the server wants more money, then he or she should get an education and a better job, which to me sounds like a way of punishing someone for their misdeed of not working elsewhere–but of course, the person eating there won’t find elsewhere to eat; the restaurant is victimizing its employees, but that doesn’t mean the Christian shouldn’t participate in that employee’s punishment if the food is good or the prices are low. It makes me cringe to type that, but I’ve heard it and read it countless times. Then again, it still blows my mind that the same Christians who insist, kicking and screaming, on getting Sundays off work never seem to care about going out to restaurants and stores on Sunday where others must work for their benefit.

And, too, there’s something to be said for how people treat “the least of us.” When someone gets temporary power over another human being, so often the result is abuse and cruelty. There’s a good reason why mistreating servers is such a red flag for dates: because sensible people know that such petty cruelty and abuse will come out against the partner in due time. When someone truly believes he or she is superior to someone else, and thinks that the lesser person must take whatever is dished out without complaint, and that moreover even, this lesser human actually deserves any kind of treatment received, and that ultimately there’ll be no repercussions at all for anything done to this lesser human being, well, then, that’s when the veneer chips away and the facade falls apart. You see what a person is really like when this kind of power is placed in his or her hands.

This ain’t new, either. Remember, I began hearing this stuff in college from my friends who were servers and couldn’t stand Christians, which is why Biff and I always tipped at least 20%. We regarded tipping as a mission of sorts. When we walked into a restaurant, we knew that servers who didn’t know us would be dreading us, because we were very obviously fundamentalists. Our job was to leave a good impression while having a good time. So we not only tipped well but tried to be aware of how we spoke to and treated our waitstaff. We did not proselytize them or act unruly or unreasonable. (Hey, Biff wasn’t all bad.)

Though we were ridiculously poor, Biff and I took our responsibilities seriously. Once when we went out to a hugely expensive restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel with a family member treating us (squid-ink pasta, quiche Lorraine, and raspberries where raspberries never belonged–oh, 80s cuisine, you are missed), the family member tried, I’m so not kidding, to walk out of the restaurant without paying the bill at all. We reached the hotel lobby when the server caught up with us. When Biff and I realized what had happened, we were just mortified; while the family member was settling the tab, we found a way to get all the money we had on us at the time, $7, into the server’s hands and apologize to him; we knew it wasn’t enough, but we also had just figured out by that point that our family member would not tip a single red cent. From then on, when eating with anybody we weren’t sure tipped well, we made sure to carry with us enough money for the tip and pre-emptively offered to cover it.

So tipping was important to me both as a human being and as a Christian. At this Mexican place, for example, we normally left $5. That was about a 50% tip, but it seemed reasonable to us considering how many baskets of sopapillas and plates of taquitos those brightly-dressed servers brought us while we indulged in the only sin fundamentalists allow: the sin of gluttony.

At first we were the only people from our church who ate there, but news caught on–Pentecostals know all of the buffets in a given town within a 20 mile radius, I think–and it quickly became the go-to restaurant.

I’m sure at first the manager of the place was thrilled at the crowds, but that enthusiasm clearly died quickly once the reality of Christian guests sank in: unruly children, loud voices and ostentatious prayer and Jesus talk, aggressive proselytization of the very Catholic servers, long stays clogging up the tables that new customers needed, a huge mess left afterwards, and no tips. Or tracts strewn on the tables, or loose change. And the restaurant was supposed to be happy to get our business.

Well, that happiness didn’t last.

I wish I’d been a fly in the church office for the conversation that ensued between this manager and the pastor after a few weeks of this act. I understand it peeled the paint right off the walls. I don’t know what got said, only that a tract-tip had been the tipping point about tipping. Whatever it was, the pastor chose to make his entire next Sunday morning sermon that next weekend about tipping and how people perceive Christians who behave boorishly in public.

I still remember that one, decades later. I knew the sermon wasn’t directed at me, but I still cringed so far down into the pew that my skirt rode up. My cheeks burned. He laid into us–in his usual fatherly, sweet and loving way, of course; he wasn’t a mean person like that crazy pastor who screams insults at his parishioners. He’s still alive and would be just mortified at those sorts of evil displays. But he made absolutely sure that every single person in that building knew that what the bulk of his church had been doing at this Mexican buffet was not going to be acceptable anymore. There would be tipping–oh yes, there would be tipping. And there would be moderate attempts to restrain the children and not leave a disaster wreck to clean up. And there would be politeness to the servers. And there would be “fellowshipping” of no more than a couple of hours so other patrons could use those tables.

The flock was stunned and ashamed, and there were a lot of tears of repentance and a lot of tongues-talking during the altar call. Everybody pledged to behave themselves and it was like being in a tidal wave of sudden social self-awareness.

Talk about using one’s power for good, huh? I bet every minister reading this is wishing right now that s/he could make such an impact.

The shocking thing is that someone had to tell these fine, upstanding members of God’s chosen bridal party, in their fine, clean Jesus clothes and wearing their fine, big ole Jesus smiles, how to behave like civilized human beings in an inexpensive restaurant. I don’t think it had occurred to any of them that how they acted while in their Jesus clothes and wearing their Jesus smiles reflected not only on themselves (which hadn’t bothered them at all) but upon their entire religion (which clearly bothered them a lot). Being thought of as skidmarks on the underwear of society by every server in the greater Houston area hadn’t been troublesome, but the idea of someone going to Hell because of how Christians treated that person? That got through. Though, you know, maybe what finally broke through was the idea of not getting to eat at an incredibly delicious and cheap Mexican buffet if they didn’t clean up their act. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Hey, however you get there, right?

The message was taken to heart. The change was shocking to behold and thorough, as well as lasting, and the restaurant manager called the pastor to thank him after a couple of weeks.

Thank goodness.

I still miss those sopapillas.

And I still tip like crazy. I don’t have the money to eat out a lot much at all anymore, but when I do, it’s like being part of my community; I’m there for an experience. I’m an incredible cook, if I do say so myself. I can make just about anything that strikes my fancy if I want. And I can make a great meal in just a half hour, way faster than it’d take to get dressed up and drive to a place, order, and eat. I don’t have to eat out for convenience’s sake or because the place serves something I can’t otherwise access. When I walk through the door of my favorite places, I want the servers to smile when they see me. I want them to like me and enjoy serving me. I want to interact with my companions and servers alike and enjoy their expertise and care. Eating out isn’t just a one-way experience to me. It’s like being the only audience member at a play in a way, you know? Like I’m giving my time, attention, appreciation, and money, and getting much more in return. I guess I’m kind of old-school that way.

I think this mindset pays dividends of love and kindness in many ways–some direct and physical. One waitress said she adored “working with me” and insisted that my date and I sit down and eat when we accidentally arrived a few minutes before closing one night (we had forgotten it was Sunday). A harried hotel staff administering a relative’s wedding in the 80s liked me and Biff so much they gave us free pumpkin cheesecake–a delicacy just beginning its ascent in American cuisine–because the chef had just tried making some and they wanted to know what real people thought of it. One Italian place I love (non-chain, family-owned, amazing) routinely “tries out” new traditional-Sicilian dishes on me and the people I take there–pickled vegetables, cakes, you name it–because we’re always appreciative and love trying new things. It’s always a party when I arrive at these places. The staff at a hotel I stayed at for a few weeks while apartment-hunting liked me so much they made sure to stock my favorite flavor of muffins in their continental-breakfast bar and made sure to let me know where the fun, offbeat places to visit were. I think people just naturally flower and blossom when treated well. And I doubt most Christian non-tippers have ever experienced any of these direct or indirect pleasures.

We’re all just human beings getting through our day, and at the end of the day, all we really have to show for this life is how we impact those around us. At the end of my life, I want to think back and remember all the lives I’ve touched and made better.

How I treated “the least of us” is going to matter much more to whatever lies beyond this life (if anything) than how often I prayed, what name(s) I invoked then, and what nonsensical rules I followed from which holy book.

Tipping itself might be just a small thing, but it’s indicative of a much bigger thing, and I’m glad that the people who depend on those tips are perhaps going to find life much easier as restaurants slide into the more European/Asian model of not using the tip system. Until then, though, it’s up to us to work together to find the most loving way possible of getting through these waters.

We’ll be talking about mental illness next–talk about difficult navigation through the waters of life, huh? I really hope you will join me as we take the next turn in the river together.

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