gratuity n. a tip given to a waiter, taxi cab driver, etc.


I have known a life tipping and being tipped. It started back when I was 16 and was working at my first job and spanned all the way through college. I was a waitress at a locally famous ice cream shop when I was in high school. I still marvel at the fact that I was even able to hold down a job with high school classes, track practice and homework – and no car. I used to report for work at about 5 or 5:30pm, tie on an apron and not sit down until close – which was around 11 pm. I scooped ice cream and made sundaes, egg creams, and cream cheese walnut sandwiches (for the seniors that frequented the place.) I received an actual paycheck every two weeks, but the tips were the entire reason why I thought the job was worth it. Now, I understand that I was no waitress tour d’force. I was 16 and barely getting any sleep, but I was always courteous and made really good sandwiches and sundaes. However, the managers that employed me had a system of pooling all of the tips earned for the night into one big bowl and then splitting it up amongst the soda jerks, waitresses and managers. This was pure bullshit. If I worked my ass off and earned a big tip, it should have been mine outright…and let’s face it, the guys behind the counter had it way easier – far fewer customers and they didn’t have the job of scraping down the grille at night. So, needless to say, I was dishonest…and of course I kept those really big tips.  I was morally against giving them up. I had earned it! After working there for about 6 months or so, I was let go. Not because they found me out, but because I was calling in sick too much…I think. I always wonder if they were on to me.

Now that I am a stay at home mom, I tip people all day. At the Dunkin Donuts drive through in Newark, there is a little cup with a quote from Gandhi attached with masking tape waiting for me as I reach for my coffee: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I wonder if the girls that I see in the morning get the double entendre. Unfortunately, I don’t always tip them. I have a system…they get a dollar every few days because they aren’t really serving people like a waitress would. However, I have my favorite Dunkin girl who calls me honey and sweetheart and asks me how I am doing. She always gets $1, no matter what. I suppose somehow I think this is okay even though I am applying rules to my gratuity giving…and as I mentioned above, I have big issues with that.

It seems I have developed a system over time of how much to tip and to whom. If the service was good at a restaurant, I always tip well – over the required amount. Bartenders always do well by me too. The guys at the car wash also get a nice tip as long as they don’t dog the vacuuming too much and it gets at least 80% clean (I have a dog and baby.) Tips are a random sign of gratitude and kindness. When you give a tip, you don’t usually write it down or record it so you can claim it as charity later. Of course, when traveling for work you do, but in daily life tipping is an act of gratitude…unsullied by trying to take credit for something. I like to think that when someone is asking me for a tip, it’s their silent way of asking for kindness; a token of gratitude for a small good deed done. It’s an invisible exchange of well wishing between 2 people who don’t know each other and may never meet again. If you think about it in this respect, tipping is a pretty amazing act of random unblemished kindness. There are those who would say that we should always be nice to each other and serve each other well without having to be rewarded. I wish we lived in a perfect world too, but we don’t. Gratuity is a way of inserting civility into the daily chaotic, sometimes mean, place we live.

All of this thinking about tipping brings back a favorite memory of mine involving gratuity. My husband and I used to frequent the best bar (in my opinion) that ever existed in Providence, Rhode Island. It was called the Custom House Tavern and was tucked in the basement under an old historical limestone building on Weybosset street. The sign still hangs there if you walk by, but the bar has since been boarded up and the upper floors turned to condos. It had a wonderful hammered copper bar and huge glass antique windows that looked out onto a cobblestone street. It was dirty. The furniture was old and rickety, only there to serve the purpose of seating its occupant, not to look nice. This was before smoking was outlawed in bars and I can remember many a night that I had to step outside to get a breath. As much as I didn’t like breathing in the smoke, it created an ambience that doesn’t exist in bars anymore. There was a small bathroom right next to the bar whose window glowed green when someone occupied it and you had to squeeze around people sitting to get to it. Above the bar were old antique tavern puzzles hanging. I always wanted to play with them, but never did. It was a place where you could find psychotic poets scribbling in tiny notebooks or even homeless people wondering in for a cold Newcastle. But every Saturday night it sparked to life with the “Lullaby of Birdland” being played by a small, lovely, jazz band. There was a saxophone and a bass – sometimes a trumpet or drums depending on who could make it. The leader and vocalist was named Buzz and if you sat close to the bassist you could hear him singing out the chords quietly to himself to keep time. The could play the hell out of Ellington’s Caravan.

During the intermission and at the end of the evening, Buzz would pass around one of those clear plastic barrels that usually housed Utz pretzels, but whose chief employment now was to collect tips. “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank your bartender, thank your servers and the band. And always remember to spey and neuter your pets,” Buzz would say as the barrel made it’s way around the small room and bar.

The largest tips I ever gave were on those Saturday nights – and it was money well spent. A tip seems such a very small amount to pay for such music and company…and the sweet memory of those nights.

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2 thoughts on “gratuity

  1. Stephanie says:

    I was so excited to find this! I used to love the Custom House jazz band too. I think they were called Jazzbeau?

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