Mr. Pink, about to break out the world's smallest violin.
"I don't tip because society says I gotta. I tip when somebody deserves a tip. When somebody really puts forth an effort, they deserve a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, that shit's for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they're just doin' their job.... The words 'too busy' shouldn't be in a waitress's vocabulary." — Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), from the opening scene of "Reservoir Dogs" (1992)
Sunday night I had dinner with some friends at an Italian joint called Mi Piace in Pasadena, where we encountered Bad Waitress. (Yes, you may use that as the name of your next band or movie if you like.) You've probably met her yourself: She knows nothing about the food — what's in it, how it's prepared — or the drinks (like what the bar scotch is), or what constitutes a martini (olives are the default; a lemon twist makes the drink into something else that is not a "martini," and should be a special request). OK, that last one is really the bartender's fault, but she was so clueless I didn't even bother to say anything. I just drank the thing, and it was fine.
But, you see, that's what passive-aggressive workers do to customers: They attempt to make us feel guilty for expecting the minimally acceptable service we're supposedly paying for when we spend money in a public establishment. As is the habit these days, Bad Waitress made herself scarce for most of the evening, and was nowhere to be found when it was time — and long past time — to pay the bill. Perhaps because we were a party of eight (we'd made reservations), she figured she didn't have to do anything because, as the fine print on the menu explained, her tip was automatically added to the check. But Bad Waitress didn't deserve a gratuity — even though one was required. I guess we just have to chalk that up to the cost of eating in this mildly upscale joint. (I have an idea: How about if they put taxes and tip amounts alongside the prices of each dish on the menu, so you can see your total price for that particular item? It's kind of like the tax and shipping calculators used on shopping sites like Pricegrabber.com?)
Anyway, that's what got me to thinking about Mr. Pink...
I have many friends who have worked in the food service industry (and still do), and yet I agree with Mr. Pink that a tip should be given as an expression of appreciation for a job well done — and nothing else. Bad service is epidemic, and perhaps bad tippers are, too. Maybe there's a correlation there, though I couldn't say which is the chicken (free range) and which is the egg (cage-free, scrambled). And I don't understand why we deem some workers worthy of tips (taxi drivers, doormen, pizza deliverers, baristas, barbers, hotel/motel housekeepers) and others unworthy (cooks, garage mechanics, movie concessions and ticket sellers, dental hygienists, customer service people at Home Depot...). I know I tend to leave a higher percentage tip at little mom-and-pop places and dives (my preferred haunts) than in overpriced trendy places (which I nearly always avoid) where I know the wait staff is raking in hundreds or thousands a night in tips anyway.
But the last time I checked, eating out is not a charitable activity — at least not for people who work for a living. Mr. Pink is right. We shouldn't tip because we feel social (or economic) pressure to do so. Now, I feel bad that people are working for low wages, even in some pretty fancy joints. And those people should not be underpaid. What really makes me feel bad, though, is knowing that by tipping I am supporting a system of coerced noblesse oblige that allows businesses to underpay their workers and deprive them of benefits. Customers are expected to pick up their moral and financial slack in the name of de-facto charity — a system I find corrupt and insulting to both workers and patrons.
This is not unlike the significant numbers of Wal-Mart workers who are so grossly underpaid that they have to go on public assistance of some kind (food stamps, etc.) to make ends meet — so that taxpayers are subsidizing the largest retailer in the world, allowing them to continue to shaft their own workers while we as a society keep giving them money to keep getting away with it. We think the money is going directly to the workers who need it to buy food and pay the rent, but in reality it's underwriting the company's costs of doing business at the expense of their employees. And that's wrong. Any for-profit company that needs to rely on public charity to stay in business shouldn't be in business. Somebody else will come along who can compete in the real free marketplace.
In the immortal words of Mr. Pink: "When I worked for minimum wage, I wasn't lucky enough to have a job that society deemed tipworthy.... [Working at McDonald's is hard, too] but you don't feel the need to tip them. They're servin' ya food, you should tip 'em. But no, society says tip these guys over here, but not those guys over there. That's bullshit...."