So this one time, it was getting toward the end of the night, and the cooks had already begun cleaning their stations and piling things on the line, crowding the plates and bowls usually stacked there. Somehow I, evidently, brushed one such stack as I passed by —a stack of ten heavy dinner plates, to be exact — and I could do nothing but watch them fall and shatter on the tile floor. A spectacular noise followed, one that brought the humming restaurant to a standstill and every eyeball on me. I ran outside and cried aside a dumpster. I was certain I was going to get fired, but to my luck: an ex boyfriend of one of the bartenders decided to stop by after spending a day at the races. He was hammered and she eventually threw a glass of red wine on him. My ten broken dinner plates were no longer good gossip by the next morning.
Or this other time, I walked up to a table, a two top, to start a service: I introduced myself and went to fill their water glasses. The guy in the couple put his hand in front of my water pitcher. “Whoa,” he said, his tone betraying that I’d really offended him. “I don’t drink water. I’m from Philadelphia.” And because I was a waitress I apologized and took his water glass away, as if him being from Philadelphia were readily identifiable, and Philadelphians not drinking water was a thing.
These are the kinds of stories I find myself often repeating about my years as a waitress. They’re funny stories about how people are terrible. Waitressing was work I loved and work that taught me just about everything I know. It’s work I’m thrilled I no longer have to do. It’s work I remind myself that if I had to, I could do again.
I’ve waitressed in America, in three states, as well as abroad in New Zealand, where there wasn’t tipping. Only in California we earned actual minimum wage in addition to tips. In Rhode Island waiters could earn no hourly wage if a manager could show you’d earned sufficient tips in a given week. Managers would therefore schedule us for a shitty shift, like a Tuesday lunch, to balance out every busy one, like a Friday night, buying themselves five or six hours of you standing around cleaning their restaurant at no cost to them. In Iowa, tipped staffers were supposed to receive a “subminimum” hourly wage but the guy I worked for didn’t do that. He instead paid us nothing, making some excuse about us owing taxes on our tips. I asked for paystubs nonetheless, for tax purposes, and to show his math. He never gave them; he’d done this for years. The waitstaff often talked in hushed tones about reporting him, but then feared that if the place went under, all the other staff would lose their jobs.
I’ve never been subjected to more blatant sexism and run o’ the mill rudeness than when I was a waitress — by managers, by (male) kitchen staff, and mostly by customers, who, because they pay our wages, are always right. (“I’m so sorry sir, of course you don’t drink water.”) I’ve known a lot of waiters, some of them part-timers like me, mostly other students looking to make rent. I’ve known plenty of waiters, though, who are lifers. They are uninsured. They live cash-based and often difficult lives.
The thing is, even when the life got really shitty, all of us waiters knew we were treated better than the runners, who are treated better than the bussers, who are treated better than the prep cooks, who are treated better than the dishwashers. I’ve never witnessed more vile racism and abuse of power than in the back of a restaurant. We would often be mandated by management (legally or not) to pay a percentage of what we’d earned in tips to support staff, as they were called, whose hours were longest, work was dirtiest, and overall compensation lowest. I’ve worked aside many people who were undocumented or people whose legal statuses we didn’t discuss. I’ve worked aside many people who were extremely poor, who couldn’t communicate with their employers, who were generally susceptible to abuses so much worse than mere wage theft. I’ve often wondered at what someone like me, who’s privileged enough to no longer work in service, should do about what she’s seen behind those swinging kitchen doors and in those dirty basements. Maybe someday I will write a proper essay about what it’s like to switch between listening to someone bitch about the temperature of her steak and conversing with a mother of five who hasn’t seen her kids in three years.
Eater’s excellent new feature by their chief critic and data lead Ryan Sutton about Danny Meyer eliminating tipping from his restaurants is a great look into the economics of restaurants. It convincingly shows why tipping is bad and why eliminating it can be the beginning of positive change.
Science of Us also weighed in after Meyer’s announcement, responding to the misperception that eliminating tipping means that quality of service will decline. Citing several studies, it shows that whatever correlation there is between between those things is miniscule. Additionally, studies show that tipping encourages all sorts of other awful shit:
The Times also published an Op-Ed that unpacks the social and economic ramifications of the two-tiered tipping system, in particular the fact that tipped employees aren’t going to benefit from the minimum wage increase going into effect in New York: “The omission of these workers in New York not only perpetuates an unfair pay system — in particular, one that reinforces pay inequity for a largely female work force — but also extends an ugly, racialized history. The practice of tipping originated in the aristocratic homes of feudal Europe. Then, in the 19th century, Americans returning from travel abroad would attempt to tip workers here to show that they knew the rules of Europe.” It continues:
I realize you may not nerd out about this stuff the way I or other people who work or have worked in the service industry may, but this is about you, the customer, too. For now, you should still tip. You should tip your waiters 20% and your bartenders a dollar a drink, and your baristas, too. They — and the others you don’t see who get a small cut of it — probably really need the money. But like us, I hope, you’ll also welcome an end to the tipping system, and accept the slightly higher prices that change will demand.
The Jamaican novelist Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize this week for A Brief History of Seven Killings. (ICYMI, here’s an essay he published in the Times Magazine this spring.) As news of his win went around, so did a story about how many times his first book, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected by publishers. Nick Greene, who’s worked in publishing, tweeted some great thots on the matter:
‘lil things: Sign up for Alex Halperin’s weekly newsletter about the ~marijuana~ industry and all the weird news its sometime legalization is creating. Play with this map that lets you see how fucked cities you love will be by climate change. Peruse this charming Brain Pickings post about E.B. White’s penning of Charlotte’s Web: “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.”
Check out this Tumblr called Portraits of America, which recently visited Iowa City:
p.s. Speaking of Iowa City, remember UIowa’s new president? He published a letter this week called “Why I Came to Iowa” that I suggest you read while reminding yourself that this wasn’t written by a high school junior, but someone being paid over half a million dollars annually to run a major research university.