back to the Black Table

Many of my friends love to remind me how I've never really worked a job that meets their minimum difficulty requirement. I don't understand how they could think this. Being a 16-year-old putz in a bow tie sweeping up a theater after middle school savages, post Home Alone, have deposited Milk Duds and jizz all over the floor apparently doesn't qualify as appropriately strenuous. (Moviegoers, I know you think nothing of dropping your shit all over the ground when the movie's over, but, I assure you, someone does have to clean that up.) Working in an oncologist's office as a glorified secretary, at the age of 26, dealing with evil insurance companies while assuring elderly Virginia that everything's going to


be OK even though I know she'll be dead in a month, I guess that's not a real job either.

No. I've never worked in the service industry. I have never been a waiter, or a bartender, or a concierge. I have never been tipped, or waited on a rude customer, and therefore, I am weak and they are strong and it is impossible for me to understand their suffering.

This came up after going to dinner with my parents and sister just before Christmas. Because Dad was driving, we went to Red Lobster, that suburban "seafood" restaurant chain that I suspect is responsible for at least half of the United States' triple bypasses. It is not enough at Red Lobster that you are eating greasy, heavily salted, slightly rotten fish; no, they have to cake it in fried gunk, cover it in Velveeta and wrap it up in a thick coat of lard. I think if they could figure out a way to deep-fat-fry beer at Red Lobster, they'd do it. But Dad loves it, if just because it torments the long-suffering blood pressure pills he has been taking since he was my age. (The pills have petitioned for annexation, but the paperwork is stuck in a stuffy, crowded and cramped aortal tract.)

Anyway, the teenagers handling our food after picking their noses and delivering baby cows screwed up our order, and I got my food late and Dad didn't get his at all. Our server didn't seem too bothered by all this; he was too busy smoking a cigarette at the bar and chattering on his cellphone, I think. I commented that this disinterest and incompetence should be reflected on the tip. And then my sister burst into flames and started levitating.

My sister Jill, if she got anything from our family, got a work ethic. After six long years, she will graduate from the University of Illinois this May. There are many reasons it has taken six years, but one of the biggest ones is her slavish devotion to her job in the service industry. Jill has worked, counting off the top of my head, at about 14 different bars and restaurants in the greater Champaign-Urbana area, several of them simultaneously. To a man, every witness to her work proclaims her one of the best bartenders/waitresses they've ever seen. It's something to see.

One time, after Dad and I saw a basketball game, we dropped by Jill's bar afterwards, hoping for free beer. The place was packed, overpacked, flooding with drunk college students. Jill was the only bartender on the clock. And somehow, everybody got their drinks promptly, the TV was changed from one game to another to another and Jill still had time to tell us what she wanted for Christmas. She never even broke a sweat. I bet no one waited at the bar longer than 30 seconds. It was amazing.

Since then, Jill has progressed to fancy restaurants, the real desirables, the ones where rich people take their rich spouses to eat rich delicacies. You know the restaurant where Jill works is a nice one because the seats are low to the floor and pearly white; somehow that has become shorthand for "fancy" in the culinary industry. She is incredible at her job, and she makes her living off the tips. So I think she earns every bit of that 15 percent.

The last two paragraphs were, essentially, the defense I gave to my sister when she put the spork to my throat after suggesting we penalize the waiter for poor service. "You NEVER penalize for poor service!" she screamed. "Tips are how we SURVIVE!"

I then -- calmly, I thought -- explained that excellent service should be rewarded and poor service should be punished; after all, no one has to tip. Just like in any field, if someone is doing their job the way they are supposed to, they will benefit; it would seem that the notion of tips is capitalism is immediate, efficient microcosm. Jill tightened her grip on the spork and lowered the hammer.

"You don't understand at all," she hissed. "You've never worked in the service industry; you have no idea how hard it is."

I was tempted to jump into the famous Mr. Pink explanation in Reservoir Dogs ("Two words: Learn to fucking type!"), but Jill was dangerously close to scooping out my esophagus through my right nostril. So I backed off, and explained how I always tipped 15 percent, unless someone was horrible, in which case I'd drop it down to 10. Then she grabbed the butter knife and started throwing shrimp tails at me.

"15 PERCENT!!!! ARE YOU CRAZY? HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LIVE ON THAT??!!!" As she broke the souvenir "captain's feast" glass on the table and rammed the jagged end into my ear, she explained that the wait staff is paid less than minimum wage and that 15 percent is insufficient to make up for that disparity. Hoping not to choke on my own blood, I defended myself, pointing out how unfair that was, how minimum wage should be exactly that: Minimum. But I was feeling foolishly cocky.

Jill, hear me out.

I'm listening. But realize I could clip your jugular in half a second.

Don't you think that our entire country's economic system is founded on the notion that the customer is always right? I mean, you are in the service industry. So serve us. We will tip what we find appropriate. You have to be nice to us no matter what, even if you'd rather spit in our food. We tip because we want to, because we reward people … not because we have to. And 15 percent is a perfectly appropriate number. We don't owe you anything; we tip you because you served us well. Just like I served those patients well, and how I hope I serve my readers well. If I don't do those things, they will find someone who can.

But the customer ISN'T always right. You have no idea how difficult it is to be good at this. And you sit there, all smug, "serve me, serve me." Screw off.

But, Jill, you have no idea how difficult it is to be good at writing for a magazine. But I have no vessel for my readers to tip me if they appreciate what I do.

But you don't make less than minimum wage either. And you don't have to deal with your readers on a regular basis either. They don't whine and complain to you, and treat you as less than a human being.

Jill, the customer is always right!

I don't remember much after that. There was a lot of blood, though, I remember that part.

We ended up tipping our lousy waiter 20 percent and went on our way. In the car, we started talking about Jill's graduation, and how proud we were of her. As tends to happen in such conversations, we started talking about what Jill was going to do after graduation. She wants to go to Paris to study at a vineyard, pursuing her true passion of fine wine. But in the meantime, if that doesn't work out, she says, if she has to, she'll "waitress for a while. The money's good."

I rest my case. After all, waitressing and bartending can't be near as hard as sitting on my fat ass all day, surfing the Web and chattering on the phone.


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