Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Tip on Tips

It was on a Sunday afternoon in September 1975 on my initial visit to America that I first learned about the custom of tipping. I remember it well, as it was two years to the day before the occasion of myu birth. I had been visiting a Cocktail-and-poodle bar on Upper East Side with my confidante, personal Jungian archetype, and sworn enemy, Gelbson. We had just worked our way through the hors d'ouevres and the Pomme au Frittes and had arrived at the faux pas. We were replete and leaned back, casting our eyes over the pleasant mise ene scene. It was then that Gelbson chose to open conversation with me on the subject.
"It is an unspoken rule," he said, "That you must know of."
I leaned forward wildly, afraid that I had breached some law of etiquette unbeknownst to myself (but beknownst to Gelbson). "What is it?" I whispered frantically. "Tell me - please - I beg of you!"
"I cannot speak of it," said Gelbson, "Except to say that the things I would say of it must remain unsaid."
"I say!" I replied, impressed with Gelbson's deep and direful tones.
"Instead," said Gelbson, rising from his chair and dusting his smock off with a feather duster he had procured that afternoon from Tiffanys, "I will show you. In such matters as tipping," he continued, "Things must be shown - not told."
And he showed me.
Signalling to the waitress with his index finger, Gelbson waited until she had sashayed her way through the milling crowd, a tray of Ming China delicately balanced in either hand. Then, with the slightest, most graceful of movements, Gelbson pushed the tip of his index finger forward on to the waitresses hip, upsetting her most delicate balance and sending her crashing to the ground, amidst several screams and the smash and tinkle of precious antique china.
Gelbson turned to me, a look of infinite satisfaction and wry amusement on his face.
I watched, horrified, for an instant before berating my companion thusly:
"THAT was IT?" I cried. "THAT was tipping? It's... it's... it's BARBARIC!"
"It's American, kiddo," smiled Gelbson, raising both palms in the air.
"But... why have I never heard of this?" I cried. "It's outrageous that in a civilised, ordered, modern society, THIS! - should be expected of anyone! - let alone on a regular basis!"
"That's how things are done here, kiddo," insisted Gelbson. "Now - are you going to tip the waiter for your meal - or shall I?"
The water stood by my seat, the slightest curl of French superiority on his lips.
"It is expected in zees country, sir," he said. "Not so much in Paris, but zees is America. We have a saying in old Europe, you see: when in Rome - do as ze Americans do. Ze bastards have all the spondulicks, after all."
The Waiter stood there expectantly, but it was all I could do to reach out two small, quivering hands and upset his balance just enough to send him crashing to the floor.
"Good God!" I shouted. "What have I done?"
I leaped from my seat to help the French waiter from the ground. Before I could reach him, however, he had returned himself to his standing position with a practised, not to mention maladroit, ease. With a dignified, "Merci beaucoup, sir - I hope you have a pleasant day," he waltzed over to the adjacenty table, where a snuffling overweight man was complaining that he had found an orangutan hair in his soup (most unusual, as they had only advertised Symbionese monkey hairs on the menu.)

Over the course of the next few days, Gelbson and I dined in a number of restaurants in Manhattan while he trained me in the finer points of American tipping. In other words, we went on a tipping rampage. I can still remember, even now, the fiendish zeal that seemed to possess Gelbson as he sent waitress and waiter alike crashing to the floor by way of initiating me into this curious Atlantic custom. As much as I tried to fit in, I feel I could barely imitate the manner in which he shoved all classes of serving staff to the floor with barely concealed malice. Nevertheless, it is with no little pride that I admit that I gained some proficiency in the art by the time my visit to Manhattan was at an end.


It is curious to me now, on returning to New York, to consider that the practice of tipping is now coming in to some vogue in Australia. I discussed the matter with Gelbson as we consumed some local lager in a pub on Brooklyn Heights yesterday.
"Do you think it will catch on?" inquired Gelbson.
"I don't know," I replied, meditatively. I considered the matter as I absent-mindedly paid the barmaid and sent her crashing to the floor before picking up my beverage.
"I suspect not," I continued, after some moments. "We Australians prefer a system where the wage is minimum, the prices high, and children may be paid no more than a higher subsistence fee set by the Government due to an expectation that they live with their parents. So much more civilised, don't you think?"
Gelbson grunted non-committally and opened his Wall Street Times to see how his stocks in the start-up adult internet search engine, Bloogle, were doing today...


nailpolishblues said...

In my experience Symbionese monkeys often do pretend to be orangutans.

alexis said...

Here's my tip: faux pas with a drizzle of maraschino and grated dark chocolat. Poifect!

Mark said...

Are you familiar with the practice of cow tipping, Tim?

TimT said...

Not personally, but I am familiar with it in theory!

Email: timhtrain - at -

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