Explosion of the New Gilded Age
It’s a wet and dreary Monday afternoon and I’m driving to the hospital where I work part time. The dark clouds hanging low in the sky have soaked up what’s left of the day’s sunlight, causing the headlights from passing cars to generate diffuse halos in the misting rain. As I drive down the street I spy a Dunkin’ Donuts on my left. I’m working the evening shift and my bloodstream’s crying out for coffee My internist told me to cut back on the stuff after I got diagnosed with gastritis. I pull into the doughnut shop’s parking lot anyway. I have to be awake and alert for several hours. My doctor doesn’t.
I walk into the shop and wait in line behind the truck drivers, landscapers, soccer moms, and teenagers ordering their late afternoon caffeine fix. Two young men are working behind the counter. As I listen to them chat with the customers, I detect an Arab accent. I’m not surprised. Many of the Dunkin’ Donut franchises near me are owned by Arabs. As I wait in line I idly wonder what part of the Middle East these young men are from. Egypt? Jordan? Saudi Arabia? Who knows? A linguist might be able discern a regional accent, but I can’t. I smile inwardly as I remember an Arab woman I dated for a few months. She introduced me to Arab cuisine and gave me a glimpse into a culture that’s always been a mystery to me. We smoked that hookah more than a few times.
“Sir?” the young man behind the counter says, interrupting my reverie. “What can I get you, sir?”
“A medium coffee, please,” I reply. “One cream. One sugar.”
“One milk and one sugar?” the young man repeats.
“One cream and sugar.”
As the young man prepares my coffee I look at the tip jar on the counter. The clear plastic box holds a lonely dollar and a couple of orphaned dimes. Normally I just put the change from my coffee purchases into tip jars like these, but put I detect an opportunity here. I am writing a book about tipping after all.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I ask the counter man as he hands me my coffee.
“What about?” he asks, looking suspiciously at me.
I glance behind me. No one’s waiting on line. “I’m a writer,” I explain. “And I’m writing a book about tipping.”
“Really?” the young man says. “Are you pulling my leg?”
“No really,” I say. “I’m for real. I wrote a book about waiters. I was on Oprah and everything.”
I’ve learned that telling people I was on Oprah gets their attention.
“Can I ask you about your tip jar?” I ask.
“Sure,” the counter man says. “Hey Amjad,” he says, waving to his coworker. “Come here.”
“What?” the other worker asks.
“This guy’s a writer and he wants to talk about our tip jar.”
Amjad looks me over. “What do you want to know?”
“How much do you make a day from the tip jar?” I ask.
“Rami and I split what’s in the jar,” Amjad says. “We walk out of here with fourteen to fifteen dollars every day.”
“Is that a normal amount?”
“No,” Rami says. “We used to take home twenty dollars a shift.”
“So the tips have gone down?”
“Ever since things got bad,” Amjad says. “People are tipping less.”
“They still buying the same stuff?” I ask. “Coffee? Doughnuts? Sandwiches?”
“People aren’t cutting back on what they buy, mister,” Rami says. “They’re cutting back on what they tip.”
“I don’t want to ask what you make an hour,” I say carefully. “But do you count on what you get from the tip jar? Is it a big source of income?”
“You better believe it mister.” Amjad says. “Rami and I work six days a week. We both used to take home almost five hundred bucks a month from the tip jar.”
“Wow,” I reply. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Since things got bad,” Rami says. “We’re taking home, what Amjad? One-fifty less a month?”
“That’s about right.”
“That’s a hit,” I admit. “Would you say the tips you receive are essential?”
“The boss here pays us what he pays us,” Rami says. “But we need the tip money.”
“One more question,” I say.
“What?” Rami says.
“Does the owner ever skim from the jar?”
“He’s our uncle,” Amjad says smiling. “He better not.”
“That’s all I need to know,” I say, dropping a ten spot into the tip jar. “Thanks for the information.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” Rami says.
I walk back to my car and drive to the hospital. The hospital sits on the top of a large hill. The employee parking lot, of course, is at the bottom of that hill. I slip into an empty slot, kill the engine, grab my umbrella, and begin the ascent to the main entrance. As I walk, I think about what those young men at the Dunkin’ Donuts told me. I hear about Americans tightening their belts on television everyday. Many Americans are in genuine financial distress, but let’s face it, some aren’t. I fear that some people are using the current economic situation as excuse to rationalize their new found parsimoniousness regarding tipping. If you can afford to go out to eat, order soy mocha lattes, or order a box of pastries, you can afford to leave a tip. If you can’t, you shouldn’t be buying those things.
I know some people are angry that there are tip jars in places like Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. But as Amjad and Rami illustrate, they count on that money to help make ends meet. Don’t get angry at them or the tip jars. They’re a symptom, not a problem. Many tipped workers aren’t paid a living wage which causes the American public to basically subsidize the labor costs of both small businesses and multi-billion dollar corporations alike. Annoying isn’t it? Over the four plus years I’ve written this blog tipping is a hot topic. The normal retort I get from the uber red meat capitalist commenters when I discuss this stuff is “You don’t like my tip? You don’t like the money you make? Get another job you bum!”
But now the tables have turned. Many of those “uber capitalists” are now working for (or used to) enfeebled companies that are going hat in hand to the American taxpayer for over a trillion dollars worth of taxpayer (and Chinese) backed bailout funds. Yet again, the American public is subsidizing the foolishness of private and corporate greed. Even as the average American worker suffers, CEO corporate beggars arrogantly fly into Washington on private jets. Food pantries are running out of canned goods, families won’t have a turkey on the table this Thanksgiving, and these morons are still clinging to the trappings of excessive pay and greed. Maybe those bums need to get another job.
I don’t know squat about economics. Maybe the bailouts are a good idea. Maybe we do need to rescue the auto industry. I hope the outgoing and incoming Presidential administrations can work things out. Things are bad. And they’ll get worse before they get better. But don’t stiff a tipped worker their pay. That’s not the way to go. They need to contribute to the economy too
I walk into the hospital’s main entrance. Clusters of people are sitting in the waiting room. Many of faces that look up at me as I walk in are Latino, African-American, or Arab. Most of them probably don’t have health insurance. I’m sure those bankrupt idiots flying on Gulfstream Vs have health insurance. Assholes.
I walk down to my unit. There are some people there who will never be well no matter what the economy does or who the President is. They say change is coming. It had better come fast. As they posture and debate in Washington, we’re being hit with shrapnel from the explosion of the New Gilded Age.
You’d better duck.