Tipping in America

by Alexander Cockburn

Tip-skimming has surfaced in Boston, and there can’t be a tipper in America who, on hearing the news, doesn’t exclaim, “The greedy bastards!” In a lawsuit filed March 7 in Suffolk Superior Court, five former servers from the venerable eatery called Locke-Ober say the restaurant made them kick back the bulk of their tips to management. Then, when they made a fuss, they were fired. When they complained, the suit alleges, they were fired. Suits are being filed against three other restaurants by employees. The waiters allege that the restaurants are breaking state labor laws by grabbing their tips

Sue Anne Foti, who has been a waitress for 25 years, worked at Morton’s, the Chicago steakhouse on Boylston Street, for two years before she was fired in November. ”They forced us to pay the management’s salary,” she told the Boston Globe. ”I’m a single mother and I’ve got two kids. They were taking food out of my kids’ mouths.” Skimming tips allows restaurant owners to pay managers less out of their own pockets, because the tips make up the difference.

Appearances to the contrary, greed isn’t unique to Boston. This must be happening across the country. Soon we’ll be asked to make it standard practice to tip a minimum of 30 per cent: 15 per cent for the workers, and 15 per cent for the management.

Hovering somewhere between charity and a bribe, the tip is one of our most polymorphous social transactions. At its most crude it can be a loutish expression of authority and disdain. At its purest it can approach a statement of love. At one end of the scale we had the foul decorum of those old lunch places where the men thought it their right to pat the waitresses on the backside. If a waitress objected to these caresses the tip would be thrown into the dirty plate.

At the other end we have the elevated snobbism of Marcel Proust, for whom the tip was a profound and complex form of social expression. ‘When he left,’ writes Proust’s biographer George Painter of one meal in the Paris Ritz, ‘his pockets were empty, and all but one of the staff had been fantastically tipped. “Would you be so kind as to lend me fifty francs,” he asked the doorman, who produced a wallet of banknotes with alacrity. “No, please keep it – it was for you”; and Proust repaid the debt with interest the next evening.’ Of course he also used tipping for the coarser purpose of inducing certain waiters to partake in those sessions of mutual masturbation which was apparently as far as Proust proceeded in his erotic encounters.

Hanns Sachs who grew up in Vienna at the same time as his ‘master and friend’ Sigmund Freud wrote a memoir of life in that city in the late nineteenth century in which he devoted some testy pages to the growing complexities of trinkgeld, complexities which he took to be evidence of the decadence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Everybody had their hand out for prescribed portions of trinkgeld – the coachman, the doorman, the hatcheck girl, the waiter, the wine waiter, the headwaiter, the maitre d’hotel:

“Every door which you had to pass was opened for you by someone who demanded a tip; you could not get into the house you lived in after 10 p.m. nor seat yourself in the car in which you wanted to ride without giving a tip. Karl Kraus, Vienna’s witty satirist, said the first thing a Viennese would see on the day of Resurrection would be the outstretched hand of the man who opened the door of his coffin.”

Doctor Sachs’ indignant portrait is clearly reminiscent of today’s taxi driver, doorman, hatcheck lady, waiter, and so forth, all of whom, from Manhattan to San Francisco and from Chicago to Corpus Christi expect and usually receive similar trinkgeld. Is America therefore in decline? Visitors to the young republic found to their surprise that coachmen and waiters refused their tips. An organization called the Anti-tipping Society of America, founded in 1905, attracted some hundred thousand members, most of them traveling salesmen. But anti-tipping laws were declared unconstitutional in the same year that Congress passed the Volstead Act, and Americans entered the twenties buying bootleg liquor and tipping big.

Tipping is even bigger money now, with well over five billion dollars per annum being left on plates, scrawled on credit cards, squirmed through taxi partitions, and slapped into outstretched palms. This is not so much an art as an item in the federal budget serious enough to provoke certain government provisions designed to insure that the U.S. Treasury gets its tip too.

That’s the trouble. Tipping is a paradox: formal yet informal, public yet private, commercial yet intimate, voluntary yet in reality so close to compulsory that most people, across the years, have little difficulty in remembering the times they felt compelled to leave no tip at all. If tipping becomes an entirely mechanical act, beneath government supervision, it loses its vitality.

A tip must, however fleetingly, be the acknowledgement of a personal relationship, which is why the process can instill such panic in people plunged into a ceremony where much is uncertain and where only a special familiarity will teach one the proper mode.

Due contemplation of the appropriate tip, in size and allocation, discloses not only what sort of place you are in but what sort of person you are: the sort who self-righteously calculates fifteen percent of the pre-tax total and gives fifty cents to the hatcheck girl, or the sort who bangs down a big tip with the vulgar flourish that says, ‘There! I’ve bought you!’, or again someone like Proust, who saw the tip as a perverse gift.

At the conclusion of an excellently cooked but badly served meal at Boeuf sur Ie Toit, Proust (in Painter’s words) ignored the person who served him so badly and ‘Summoned a distant waiter and rewarded him regally. “But he didn’t do anything for us,” protested [Paul] Brach and Proust replied, “Oh, but I saw such a sad look in his eyes when he thought he wasn’t going to get anything.'”

The tip can become a bond between tipper and tippee, leagued in a transaction against absentee ownership. We tip waiters, doormen, hat ladies, taxi drivers, and hairdressers. We don’t tip flight attendants. Last week there were reports of a tip sign at one airport askin g for trav ellers to tip the security people checking your bags. Bank clerks, no; croupiers, yes. The modalities are complicated, ever-expanding. The service economy, exploding decade by decade, will affect the tipping process. Seen more darkly, this could mean two increasingly divergent classes, one rich and one poor, with the latter increasingly dependent on tips, gratuities, presents, and other pretty expressions of the master-servant relationship to get by. Tipping in America may therefore become an ever more complex and fraught affair, approaching the status of necessary alms-giving as for the well-heeled traveler in India.

It would be better, some argue, to give up tipping altogether, as they tried in the old days in Eastern Europe and China. Tipping is, after all, about the relationship between served and servant and should play no part in a free society of equals. It depends on what one thinks the origin of tipping is. It can be traced to the primitive gift exchange, the amiable and generous distribution of surplus goods and cash which, in its most abandoned expression takes the form of the potlatch, where the surplus was either disposed of by common consumption or heaved over the side of a cliff.

Me? I’m a 20 per cent guy, as a rule, unless the service has been lousy. Women tend to be tighter in the tips. Smokers and drinkers tip better than the live-clean crowd. Working people tip better than the rich folk, taxi drivers tell me.

In a perfectly equal society everyone would exchange equivalent gifts–portions of the surplus. Everyone would tip and everyone be tipped in universal rhythms of generosity and gratitude. But, of course, modern society is not equal and the surplus wealth is unequally controlled and allocated, so the distribution of surplus wealth must always be an expression of power and of domination.

All this was understood perfectly by P.G. Wodehouse who approached the intricacies of the served-servant relationship more boisterously than Proust, but who expressed it with equal realism as in the scenes at the end of so many of the Wooster-Jeeves sagas, in this case The Inimitable Jeeves.

“Jeeves!” I said.

“Sir?” “How much money is there on the dressing table?”

“In addition to the ten-pound note which you instructed me to take, sir, there are two five pound notes, three one-pounds, a ten shillings, two half crowns, a florin, four shillings, a six pence and a half penny, sir.”

“Collar it all,” I said. “You’ve earned it.”









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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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