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The Tipping Point

There is something the matter with Kansas!
photo: Kate Englund

Bleecker Street, Saturday night: The air is edibly humid; partygoers clog the streets, clutching wads of bills in their sweaty hands. While everyone is out spending their cash, I'm busy making it, cocktail waitressing. As I seat four new customers with unidentifiable accents, I take a second to look around. Chichi Europeans look amused at authentic New York frenzy, Long Island chicks suck down cosmos like they've seen Carrie do on Sex and the City, old rich guys order tequila shots for cute girls. Money is flying everywhere. As usual, I'm darting around, serving nebulous fun in liquid form, beaming, and swooping up bills left on the shiny wooden tables.

After my new foursome's first round of drinks, I ask over the din, "Where are you from?" As effusive as can be, they tell me they're actors from Budapest, and it's their first night in New York. They're also enthusiastic and unrelenting drinkers. They eventually order $180 worth of drinks. Proud of my sales, I present them the check. They pay in cash, leaving me a tip of . . . $7. The radiant farewell smile I just gave them instantly turns into a scowl.

It's happened again.

Two middle-aged men from the Bronx, who've been sipping Jameson all night, overhear my complaint to another waitress. One winks and says, "Don't worry, sweetie, we'll take care of you." They leave me a crisp $50 bill.

New Yorkers are the best tippers on earth. They've been aware of the minimum dollar-a-drink rule ever since they got their first fake ID on West 4th Street. Some don't like it, but most know it. And most do it. But whether they realize it or not, the tip they leave highly depends on the shrewdness of their server.

Waitresses, cocktail servers, and their privileged cousins, bartenders, are often thought of as shameless flirts, cheerful Pollyannas, manipulative sex goddesses, or tough-as-nails task jugglers. And we are. We take on one or more of these qualities, depending on the situation. A bunch of guys? Touch often, laugh often, generally validate their manhood. A stern eyebrow-raising couple? Be sure to check on them every five minutes. A group of loud, drunk women? Make friends with the bartender, so you can give them a couple rounds of free shots. As a rule, the drunker they are, the better they'll tip. Late-night service jobs aren't like the rest—there isn't as much double-the-tax-and-a-little-more logic as there is in your basic sit-down restaurant. If we show you a good time, we expect a tip. And New Yorkers usually oblige. We not only learn how to multitask and deal unflinchingly with sputtering drunks, but also to nurture a symbiotic tip-your-server relationship.

Nothing embodies the city's rat race mentality and capitalist go-getting more than the custom of tipping. This system was not thought up by wily waiters plotting a get-rich-quick scheme or by sleazy men ready to create an intricate sexual-exploitation dynamic. These things are part of the bigger picture, but both would be irrelevant were it not for the business owners' idea of tipping as salary in the first place. It certainly works out for my boss. Cocktail waitresses, unlike waitresses and bartenders, usually don't even get a piddling shift pay. As far as my manager is concerned, there is a direct correlation between my income and my ability to hustle. There are no guarantees, he once told me, but if you really work your ass off you can succeed here. And if you make $37 one night . . . hey, shit happens.

Of course, paying no hourly wage is technically illegal. But perhaps the reason shamelessrestaurants.com, a finger-pointing website detailing restaurant owners' shady practices, hasn't orchestrated a revolution is because tip money ain't bad. On the night with the Hungarians, I walked away with a bundle of $235 for seven hours of work. Tip money not only pays the bills, it can sometimes provide a sense of accomplishment more than any fixed 9-to-5 salary.

There's just one glitch in the tipping system: tourism. There's nothing like summer for an owner of a bar in midtown or the Village—sales double, even triple, every night in the wake of a tourist-packed evening. But the hordes of visitors present a serious conflict of interest to a well-trained manipulator like me: They just don't know the New York deal.

We mustn't blame them. Some tourists really don't know. Good ol' Americans don't have the audacity to leave nothing, but they will honestly pat themselves on the back for giving 12 percent. Internationals are even worse. Although often pleasantly surprised at the attention, foreigners seldom connect good service with dollar bills. Waitresses around the globe are stereotypically slow; if they're not rude, they're at best nonchalant. But why not? They get a steady paycheck no matter what, enough to pay their rent and take care of the kids.

And then there are the tourists who only pretend they haven't heard of tipping. Last summer, I tended bar with a Frenchwoman I'll call Kayla. She once spent the whole night chatting it up with a group of French people en français, discovering, to her delight, that they had been here for months. "They must know the proper way," she whispered to me. She was left with exactly one dollar—four quarters stacked atop each other. Kayla craned her neck to see if the manager was in sight. When the coast seemed clear, she followed them outside, hurled the quarters at their car, and screamed in French, "You forgot your change, assholes!"

There are ways to get around this problem. Without the option of auto-gratuity they'd have in tonier restaurants, some servers resort to drastic measures. On one of my first days working at a little tourist hot spot of a jazz club, a bartender I used to work with let me in on a little secret. "Overcharge whenever possible," she cautioned. "If you hear a weird accent, if you can just tell by the look in their eye, the beer is eight bucks rather than six. You keep the extra two—they'll never know."

She's right. Fumbling drunk people in a strange, crowded setting will almost always fork over whatever money you ask for. "Aida," one of my former co-workers, overcharged all the time. "That's $118," she announced one Friday night, without so much as a stutter, to three toasted, cavorting Floridian lushes she "had a bad feeling about." The real amount was $98. A silicone-breasted blonde handed over her card, not even asking for a printout. Sure enough, the gratuity line on the charge slip later read $5, but Aida just shrugged. "I took care of the tip," she said. "Works every time."

One must be careful when attempting these antics. Nobody wants to face the wrath of New Yorkers who think they've been cheated (although waitstaff has been known to dupe natives mistaken for out of towners). When the summer heat—and the tourist invasion—come around, the most seasoned New York bar workers leave their old tricks behind and come up with new ones. In a world where we don't even depend on the boss for our salaries, the American value of rampant individualism is more annoyingly resonant than ever. We're used to feeling alternately validated and powerless. Maybe someday we'll be able to run around being rude all night.


Nona Willis-Aronowitz has written forThe Brooklyn Rail.


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