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Determining How Much is Enough:

I’m not a big tipper. But I do believe in the tipping system if it can be called that. Tip-based incomes create a larger economy and give the individuals involved a certain amount of scheduling freedom that allows, among other things, actors in my plays to have some flexibility in scheduling their lives. But it also creates a somewhat dysfunctional system of communication between customers and those who provide service. The dysfunction is that a certain amount of tip might indicate nothing other than the fact that the person paying is also having a hard time of it right now.

And you’d like to think that waitpersons (as opposed to waiters and waitresses) and others understand that. But it’s hard to be on your feet for a long shift and then get less than what you expected in a transaction that seemed to be going wonderfully. They liked you, you even liked them. Then the tip wasn’t what either of you hoped it could be.

Some environments may be isolated from the pull of our current economy. When four grown adults have somehow run up a tab in the hundreds of dollars eating a single meal, with full knowledge that right after the earthquake Haitian children were eating dirt to fill their stomachs, then using a low tip to communicate there was something negative about the service on that feast seems almost as creepy as the initial plan to stuff one’s self with “cuisine” rather than write an additional check to Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders. Here’s where I could say, “But that’s just me…” except that right now, I don’t think that it is.

A friend, who frankly needs money, has just had a turn of good luck in picking up a tip-income job at one of the most well-known hotels in Los Angeles. This is an industrious person who was dumped by a boyfriend with resources who had given signals they might get married. Then one day he simply changed his mind. She needs money for rent and food, not haircuts and drugs. The venue she’ll be working at services “stars” and people with status of one sort or another. There’s a kind of unwritten code about tipping in such places and I think it goes something like this: You may have made a load of money in films that often featured vulgarity or maybe women killed with farm equipment, but if you turn out to also be a lousy tipper… we’re going straight to TMZ with it.

But let’s return to the earth’s surface. Last week I got a haircut. I needed a haircut and it needed to be done by someone who can do haircuts. That’s a skill and talent, and it deserves compensation. The fellow who cut my hair chatted in a warm and engaging manner about cars, motorcycles, and the Bush administration. The tip I left reflected my positive feeling about the experience, and it was also a reaction to his telling me that he rides a motorcycle to Santa Monica everyday to work from Ventura. His ex-wife got the car.

But should that same percentage apply to a meal in a “family” restaurant? I honestly don’t know. I was in San Jose on an overnight trip regarding a creative project. Because it was fast and because I don’t care about restaurants all that much, my partner and I ate at a Denny’s. Everything was fine, but there’s such a strong sense of standardization in an operation of that sort and there’s only so much effusing you can do over a patty melt, even if it happened to be the tastiest one you ever ate. Our tip was standard and a bit more, but not the same as the hair cut tip percentage. Is that wrong? Is there any reason a tip should be less generous in an eatery where the menus wipe clean with a sponge and there’s a machine near the register that allows you to take a chance on winning a stuffed toy?

When I go to see my dentist there’s a guy working in the below-ground parking structure and he’s there every single time I go. I habitually tip him just for handing me my keys, because there’s nothing more than a twist of fate between my sunshine-filled life and his subterranean eight-hour shift. He’s always very pleasant, very positive… and he works in the modern-day equivalent of a cave.

In the very funny 1988 film “Midnight Run” Charles Grodin chastises Robert De Niro for leaving a handful of change after a meal. “These people live off tips!” Grodin nearly yelps. The scene has mixed currents because Grodin is a prisoner in De Niro’s custody for having skimmed the books of a big drug dealer, although Grodin’s character gave most of the money to charities Robin Hood-style. Meanwhile De Niro is running out of money for either of them to eat.

That movie is a favorite because it’s such a rarity: A well-written comedy that concerns itself with moral choices. Now consider whether that last sentence could be the definition of life itself. Then I suppose on some days we’d grin at the absurdity of some, if not all, of the inequities of life, but earn that grin with some level of sustained consciousness about the possibility that just a little more… just a few more bucks… might actually mean a great deal to the people involved. We can’t be Rockefeller in every single transaction, and we shouldn’t when the service has honestly not been that good. And we’re not Rockefeller. We’re just other humans in this slump of slow times and hard choices and sluggish money. Still… that was one hell of a patty melt.

in Opinion
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