Paying it Back

“Oh, my God, there’s a tip jar!” the professor in front of me exclaimed. I looked over and, sure enough, a tip jar sat in the middle of the bar filled halfway with one dollar bills. Neither one of us was used to this. Usually, at academic functions students serve and tips aren’t allowed. But these guys didn’t look like students. Far from it. “Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “I’ve got cash. I’ll tip them.”

When I got to the bar I ordered my drink and conspicuously stuffed a five dollar bill into the jar for both of us. The server nodded and then for the next hour made sure we got generous refills and extra hors d’oeuvres.

I did the same thing recently at another event, a fundraiser for a local charity. When I finally got up to the bar after waiting on a long line, I asked the harried server where her tip jar was. She said she hadn’t put one out. So I waited until she found a jar and then put a five dollar bill into it. She gave me extra cannoli later on.

I don’t do these things for extra cannoli or to look big–five bucks doesn’t exactly make me a high roller–but to show appreciation to the worker and increase the amount of generosity in the world. At least that’s how I see it. How could you not act generously given that we’re all vulnerable, we all need each other, and we’re all going to die someday? That’s the long view, though, and not everybody sees it that way (see the video at the end of this post).

There’s also a cultural side to tipping. I grew up in a lower middle-class family with working class roots. I was the first person to go to college. Along the way, I had the usual jobs you’d expect a kid like that to have. My father also drove a cab in his time off from the fire department (see Prodigy for a Day), and my mother got a job in a supermarket deli. We knew the value of money and the importance of tipping, which we also saw as a sign of respect.

That attitude may not work in other places. In Northern California where I live now, I don’t see tipping in most business transactions. People may assume it’s not expected or might embarrass the person providing the service. They may think servers make enough money anyway, what with some places paying $15-20 an hour for entry-level positions. It’s also possible that tipping is going on but I just don’t see it.

To wit, my daughter had to explain to me that it wasn’t necessary to chase down the DoorDash guy to give him cash since she had included a generous tip in the order. “Dad, that’s why it’s called DoorDash,” she said. “They come, they leave your order at the door, and they dash.” I told her to watch how she talks to me.

So, tipping may have a generational angle, older generations being more accustomed to tipping in cash or even having cash. I made it a point years ago to have cash after coming out of a store and not being able to buy Girl Scout cookies because I didn’t have any cash on me. The girls and the mom with them stared at me. I swore never to let that happen again.

Tipping may be going the way of business cards and letter writing. Certainly, letter writing has been on the endangered species list for years unless, of course, you count those interminable Christmas newsletters. But I have noticed that almost no one carries business cards. When I produce mine (I never leave the house without a pen and a little stack of business cards), people take it, offer an apology for not having theirs, and act embarrassed. This allows me to offer absolution by telling them to think nothing of it. At that point they’re practically indebted to me.

That’s a sort of trivial game–a “trivial pursuit,” for those of a certain age–that can be fun. But the real point is the importance of carrying cash and dispensing it when the person serving you could just as easily be your brother, sister, mother, father, uncle, or you. It’s an easy way to pay back. So just do it.

Image credits: feature by Taylor Davidson; DoorDash by Erik Mclean. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedorahere. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.


  1. Coming a bit late to the “tipping discussion”, I guess. I have two different takes on this practice.

    First, I would like to eliminate all tipping and simply have the business owner build that benefit into his prices, and pay the staff accordingly. That eliminates guessing snd spreads the cost among all patrons, rather than have some more generous customers pay better than the less generous.

    But since that is not about to happen in my lifetime, I figure the server can use the money more than I will miss it, and I have standardized on 20%. That’s up from 15%, but hey this inflation is a killer for everybody.

    1. If you have employers pay it, they’ll either want to deduct it, or pass the cost on to the customer. Then it’ll be regulated with another government unit keeping tabs of the amounts and controlling limits. Is that cynical ?

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