On Sunday night my air conditioner emitted a stifled scream, thunked heavily several times, then died. My A/C’s demise wasn’t a surprise, mind you. I figured it was going terminal when the compressor started groaning several weeks ago. I should consider myself lucky. I bought the unit second hand off a waiter six years ago and I’m amazed it lasted as long as it did. What can you expect for a hundred bucks? And since I can’t stand the heat, not having air-conditioning classifies as an emergency. I was hoping my old unit would rattle on for one more summer, but now I have to bite the bullet and buy a new one. Buying new appliances wasn’t in my budget for the month, but I can’t stand sweating.

So on Monday morning I drive to the appliance store in the center of town. When I tell the saleslady my bedroom’s dimensions she suggests a 8000 BTU unit. My old A/C was 5000 BTUs so anything I buy now is a step up. I decide on a smart looking Energy Star rated number with a remote control and hand the saleslady my credit card. As she’s ringing up my purchase I realize that I’m forty-one years old and never bought a new air-conditioner. I’ve always skated by with second hand units or my previous apartments came with A/C already supplied. Luckily for me I know the saleslady’s family. She gives me a nice discount and offers to have her husband deliver the unit to my house and install it for free. In a country filled with impersonal big box stores it’s nice to get some small town local merchant service.

Al. the saleslady’s husband, and his helper arrive with my new A/C two hours later. Since the unit’s heavier than the old one, however, it’ll bend to the vinyl window frame unless it’s supported by a 2×4 cut to exactly twenty-eight inches.

“You got any wood?” Al asks. I blink at the him uncomprehendingly.

“No,” I reply.

“Got any screws?”


Al sizes me up in a second and sighs. He can tell I’m retarded when it comes to anything mechanical. I must’ve been asleep when God passed out the do-it-yourself genes. I’m so bad I need help replacing a light bulb. Tools? I think I own one screwdriver.

Luckily I know Al. His daughter’s married to my landlord’s son. We’ve broken bread and swilled homemade wine at Italian Christmas and Easter bonanzas together. After grousing for a few moments Al announces he’s heading back to the store.

“Back in a minute,” he says. “Let me get the right tools to do the job.”

“Thanks,” I reply, feeling like an incompetent boob.

Al returns half an hour later with wood, a tool box, and a saw. Turns out putting the unit in my window’s a bitch. I never could have done it. After a few minutes of measuring, sawing and lifting, my new A/C’s purring in the window, blowing out sweet, wonderful, cool air. My contribution to the effort? I put the batteries into the remote.

“There ya go Steve,” Al says. “Enjoy it.”

“Thanks Al,” I say, handing him a twenty dollar bill.

“Whoa,” Al says, holding up his hand. “You don’t need to tip me.”

“It’s not for you,” I reply diplomatically. “Go buy your assistant some beers after work.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I’m writing a book on tipping,” I reply. “Remember? So I’m screwed.”

Al laughs and takes the money from my outstretched hand. “Thanks Steve.”

“No problem.”

“You know what?” Al says. “I overtip.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“When I go out to eat I give the girls 25%. Always. I make more money than them so I figure, why not? They need it more than I do.”

Smiling inwardly, I remember that classic conversation about tipping from the movie Reservoir Dogs. Al bears a passing resemblance to one of the gangsters that opined tipping was a good idea. God, I hope he doesn’t read this.

“Then your reward in heaven will be great,” I reply.

I see Al out, say goodbye, and head back upstairs to sweep the sawdust and Styrofoam flakes off my bedroom floor. As I’m pushing my broom I think about how tipping often acts as a lubricant, making everything in life run a little smoother. I didn’t have to give Al a tip nor was he expecting one. But when you’re mechanically disinclined like me, shelling out a few bucks to get a job done right is a small price to pay. Tipping often makes up for our inability to do things and salves our conscience when people perform tasks for us that we’d rather not do ourselves – whether that that something’s installing an air conditioner, hauling a couch up two flights of stairs, or expressing a dog’s anal sac. Tipping says thank you, but you get something else for your money too – less headaches.

When I finish sweeping I lay out on my bed and luxuriate in the cool air that’s rapidly turing my bedroom into a meat locker. Buster jumps onto the bed, circles several times, and plops down next to my head. Withing seconds he’s snoring. I guess Buster likes air conditioning too. As I listen to my new A/C sing it’s soft mechanical lullaby, I hear another set of snores rise and fall alongside Buster’s. When I realize I’m the one sawing wood I dreamily pull a blanket over myself and fall into a deep sleep.

Twenty bucks was never better spent.

57 thoughts on “Lubricant”

  1. Jack says:


  2. Editor K (a 20% minimum tipper) says:

    OMG, a post without a bunch of misplaced apostrophes, screwed-up grammar, missing words? Congratulations. Sure was nice to read one.

    Reason #1 why I haven’t yet bought your book: I’m afraid of the morass of typos I might have to wade through. And many editors suck at their job.

    Good luck, anyway.

    P.S.: About that woman who died in your arms (mentioned a few posts back)? Sure would be nice if you’d include a link when you mention it.

  3. DogsDontPurr says:

    There’s a little auto parts store that I go to quite frequently. I have a short or something, and my tail light is always burning out. The first time this happened, the auto parts guy came out and helped me install the new light. He was super sweet, and the bulb was practically free, so I tipped him. He tried to refuse, but I insisted. Since then, I’ve had to go back for a bunch of different things (my car is falling apart!), and every time this fellow gladly offers to help, and I always tip.

    Well, it turns out that that was money seriously well spent. When I had to have some major work on my car, he did it practically for free. The dealership, on the other hand, would have probably charged me $400. Needless to say, he got a really good tip on that job!

  4. Debbie Gibson says:

    Wow! 4th!
    I just had something to say about tipping that I never thought of before in all the years I have been reading you! Good write, BTW.
    Amount is relative. When I use to work at My Little Cafe $5 would be a nice tip. When I did massage-it was almost an insult!
    $20 – $100 and even once $200 for Christmas was the going rate.

  5. PK says:

    Given your personal relationship with the installer, it is a little awkward to tip him, no? I’d have dropped off a nice bottle of wine, or case of beer, in lieu of cash. But you’re the expert, right?

  6. Jeff says:

    Glad to see you posting more frequently, Waiter!

    It’s still weird seeing you post your real name now…

  7. courtney says:

    Ugh! We live in Florida (which means our air is on about 9 months out of the year). Ours was out for almost a month because the part was on back order (whole house unit). I feel for ya. Luckily it sounds like you didn’t have to go without for too long.

  8. Elthon says:

    Wow, I have an electrician working at my house this week: when I bought the house, I paid a contractor to do some remodeling and fixing up, and one of the jobs was to rewire the whole place.

    Fast forward to the beginning of June, and power going down in my house. An electrician acquaintance of mine came to check, and, well… the contractor seems to have taken most of the new cables with him, only installing short lengths where they would be visible. I had outlets wired with 1 mm cable, when the usual for a 127v outlet is 2.5 mm. Can you say fire hazard?

    Damn right the electrician who is working there right now will be very well tipped for his effort, even if he insists in charging ridiculously low prices.

    And nyah nyah, I CAN change my own light bulbs!

  9. shawn says:

    I am mechanically uninclined as well. I can’t do much of anything with tools even though I have plenty of them ( given as gifts to me ). What’s even funnier is that I come from a family of general contractors. My grandpa and my dad own a family run contracting business so you can imagine how weird it must be that I cannot work a tool.

  10. Michelle S. says:

    I will GLADLY pay AND TIP for work I don’t have to do. God bless air conditioning.

  11. Consultant Calamities says:

    Great story! I’m glad you gave him a $20.

    Well spent!

  12. CJ says:

    as a vet student and part-time vet nurse, i know too well the horrors of expressing the dreaded anal sac. always reminds me of the bog of eternal stench from “labyrinth”…it’s a smell that stays w/you and won’t go away. wish there were more tips involved for performing that particular job! =P

  13. Carroll says:

    Am loving the increased frequency of your posts these days, Writer. Seems like your Doorstep Muse is taking good care of you this summer 🙂

  14. LA ex-waitress says:

    Man, Editor K is an ass. I’m a copy editor, but I’m not WAITER’S copy editor. I’m here for the content.

  15. The Bartender says:

    Good Point. If you ever vist a Subway sandwich joint, leave a tip. They have to ask several questions of customers all day long so that you get what you want. Their job would absolutly suck without a gratuity of thanks. And no, I don’t work at Subway but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

  16. Summer Diary says:

    Some time back I was giving my friends a birthday treat. I asked the waitress to keep the change, mostly because I had turned 20 then and the waitress looked the same age. Now, the keep-the-change is not exactly tipping I guess. But all my friends, as soon as we were out of mall, were right on my neck asking me why the hell did I have to tip! The world is full of Mr. Pinks, you see 😀

  17. auto waitron says:

    editer K… hasnt bought your book yet…. thats cuz your cheap and just like moochin off the blog…. and how you like my grammer? lol yes part of it is on purpose to push yer buttons, and other part is my inner ee cummings

  18. Suzanne says:

    I’m with LA ex-waitress! Its one thing to point out an error, but is there anything worse than a grammar snob?

    Oh, and “The Bartender?” I lol’d. 🙂

  19. Michael says:

    Steve you should have called me. I move again and I have two a/c I’m not using. Could have used another $100!

  20. Rich says:

    If you lived in Boston, you wouldn;t need an a/c this year. We’re down to 8 weeks left of summer, and we it has been chilly and raining for at least a month.

    And Editor K? Bite me.

  21. thanks says:

    glad to see you’re posting more…

  22. Joe Powers says:

    I work for a food delivery service, we are also a full service off-premise Catering business. It’s amazing how many times we get stiffed. You are totally right about how far a tip goes in making things run smoothly in life. We are kind of like waiters on wheels, delivering food hot and fresh from the 30 Restaurants that have accounts with us. People are so ignorant. Most of our drivers are mature adults, we are not the “Pizza Boy.” You would think when we come to the door people would realize this guy needs the money. Like you, I could write a book about my experiences with these morons on a mission that I deliver to.

  23. Anonymous says:

    So let me get this straight: you finally come into a little bit of money for the first time in your life, so you buy expensive new appliances, toss money at someone else to figure out how to install it for you, and congratulate yourself for “buying local”? You sound like one of those damned “yuppies” you talk about so much.

  24. Jim says:

    @23: You’re bitter. Lighten up.

  25. kcbelles says:

    I never understand why folks like Editor K & Anon #23 come to a blog if they don’t enjoy reading the content. Good grief – it’s his blog; he can write whatever and however he damn well pleases. Don’t like it; don’t come back. That simple. Jeez.

    And I’ve seen poor writing. I used to read fan fiction until I couldn’t take the bad grammar and just general bad writing. Once in a while, you’d find a gem, but after I determined it wasn’t worth it, I don’t go back. Steve’s stuff? I’ve not noticed a lot of errors in his writings. Sure, occasionally; who’s perfect? And who cares? Since the majority is well written, oftentimes I don’t even catch whatever they’re grousing about.

    Glad to see you’re not letting the negativity get to you, Steve – I, for one, am always glad to find a new post.

  26. John says:

    Hey Steve, good post!

  27. Aussie Ben says:

    It’s funny you should mention that Reservior Dogs scene.

    I’ve found myself using that scene in arguments both for and against tipping.

    In most cases though, I’ve ended up quoting the line “cough up a buck, ya cheap bastard!”.

  28. Anonymous says:

    @25, @23 never said they didin’t enjoy reading the content, they were pointing out an issue with the content. These comments are not just a place for people to gush about how great Steve is, it’s a place for conversation about the content and his writing.

  29. xKitchenstaff says:

    @25, @23 never said they didin’t enjoy reading the content, they were pointing out an issue with the content. These comments are not just a place for people to gush about how great Steve is, it’s a place for conversation about the content and his writing.
    BTW, I agree with PK that a bottle would have been more appropriate given your relationship.

  30. bohica says:

    Waiter does readers a favour by leaving comments open. There are rare grammatical errors; what you find are a FEW typing errors. Big deal. If you don’t like it, why come read? Most of us read for content: good old entertainment.

    xKitchenstaff, seriously, you had to post twice? You should talk: PROOFREADING IS OUR FRIEND.

    @#2, I have never heard someone try so hard to make himself something he’s not. I’m betting Waiter will do just fine without you buying his book.

  31. Gerald says:

    I suspect it’s a cultural thing, but living in a non-tipping country, my response to this same situation would be quite different. Either I would have acutally gone with him for a few drinks and paid for them, or done so the next time I saw him out, or have had a few in the fridge ready to share.

    Although it seems similar to tipping, its different. Not only are you spending money, but you are spending time and listening. In my culture a $20 tip in the way the waiter gave it would be seen as almost offensive and degrading. It would say although you have just done me a favour out of friendship taking you considerable time, my time is to important to spend with you and I’m just going to buy you off with cash.

  32. Vidya says:

    Love your site. Such a treat to read.

  33. Bob Dobbs says:

    A couple of the bolts holding on our refrigerator door sheered off sometime back. Since it was on extended warranty, I called for service. And a guy came out and took care of it.

    The frig’ door was mounted on the right at that time, and it would have been more convenient to mount it on the left. I asked the guy about it — it wasn’t warranty work — and he said the company would charge me $30. And then he smiled and went ahead and just did it, which took all of five minutes.

    So I tipped him half. Tipping when a worker does something for you that they don’t have to is more than thanks for a job well done — it’s acknowledgment of one person going outside the strict bounds of his job to do the right thing for another person. It’s even more praiseworthy when they _don’t_ know you.

  34. Snoopy says:

    Like this post.

    Seems as if you are digging into the deeper social meanings behind tipping and money exchange.

    I wonder if you have read The Gift by Lewis Hyde. A well regarded tome on the subject of barter, gift giving and cash that is surprisingly beautiful and poetic.

  35. Jennifer says:

    Geez. I think we could keep this more lighthearted. This situation confuses me a little. I have always been told you do not tip electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and other craftsmen – this seems to fit that situation.

    Steve, in your book could you think about writing about tipping “activity” people. Examples include assistants on sailing / SCUBA diving cruises, trail leaders for horseback riding, etc. These activities are already so expensive, tipping seems excessive.

  36. Carole Flynn says:

    Hey WR: I’ve never bought a new air conditioner either, but let me know how you make out with yours. I don’t know whether it’s being cheap, stupid, or a procrastinator, but buying an air conditioner has always been last on my priority list. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three and undoubtedly much more since we (my husband and I) actually have central air (“What?” you say), and we still use one of those units in our bedroom. I digress unnecessarily. I’m really trying to kick that habit, so back to the air conditioners.

    The source of my problem dates back to my childhood (don’t worry; this isn’t yet another tortured soul’s memoir excerpt about a messed up childhood). Not that I couldn’t go there. My stepfather, Hank, was an engineer.

    He was handy with tools like Al, but unlike Al (or perhaps not, I don’t know Al), this made Hank inclined to dig things out of other people’s trash, because, “They were tossing out perfectly good things that just needed fixin’.” So our “cooling systems” (as Hank liked to refer to them) were pilfered from the side of the road and *refurbished* by Hank. This didn’t mean changing filters or checking the wiring; this just meant plugging the air conditioner in to see if the motor still made a sound. If it did; that was all the refurbishing required. He’d stand back and comment how “wasteful” the rest of the world was.

    Hank wasn’t your average engineer. He used to be a Chief Engineer on a fleet of Merchant Marine oil tankers that sailed the Persian Gulf during the 1970s oil shortage. Rough seas, rougher countries, even stories of pirates back then, and actually heartwarming ones of rescuing boatloads of refugees, but I digress again.

    Hank was used to working on boilers the size of your average semi-tractor trailer, so the bigger the air conditioner he saw curbside, the better. During the summers, our childhood home looked like it was hemorrhaging metal. Enormous silver cubes bulged out of every orifice of our home. It looked more like a metal recycling plant than a home. And when all the air conditioners were simultaneously “on” at least they dimmed the sound of the airplanes overhead as our house was situated near the landing zone path for the second largest airport in New England. Again, I digress.

    Hank still probably has about twenty of these monsters in his basement. They are hernia-popping heavy (this is why at eight-one he’s no longer able to still poach these roadside discards anymore, much to his dismay). And, when our upstairs central air conditioning starts sputtering (yes, we have a downstairs system too, talk about inefficiencies) sometime around mid- to late-July, in our overheated desperation, my husband and I will turn Hank’s stockpile. Talk about hypocrisy. We actually can afford a new air conditioner, and to fix our under efficient upstairs central air system, and we have three master’s degrees between the two of us. What are we cheap, stupid, procrastinators?

    BTUS? Couldn’t tell you how many the ones Hank has given us have. By the size of them, I’d guess 70,000 or 80,000 with the effectiveness of maybe 10. Energy Star Rated? Only if Energy Star has a rating for filth, something akin to a pornographic XX or XXX. Most of these units (a euphemism for these oversized contraptions) were discarded in the 1970s. They all smell like smoke. There’s nothing like a *vintage* air conditioner that has been force-fed packs of Marlboros, Camels, and god knows what for at least a decade; had it’s nicotine addicted ass kicked to the curb by a chain smoker, only to be adopted by a nonsmoking stranger not even thoughtful enough to put a nicotine patch on the thing. If there were a PETA for air conditioners, they’d be all over us. Beyond that initial neglect, the units have been imprisoned in Hank’s musty basement for three decades.

    Once you’ve coerced a crew of men (luckily my husband has five brothers) to haul this moldy ATM-size thing upstairs, once you’ve bolted, nailed, screwed, stapled, duct taped, and glued this thing into your window casing for fear the two ton unit might fall out of the second story window–that would be a big “Ut Oh”–there’s no going back. When that air assaults you, all a couple of overeducated nonsmokers can do is continue the dysfunctional denial and say, “That feels cool.”

    Family is all too quick to exit.

    “Iced Tea?”

    “No thanks,” they say scampering haphazardly away like coackroaches after a light has been turned out.

    The aircotine conditioner stays there until late September. At that point, my husband and I finally muster up the courage to rally the troops we call family (surely they refer to us in more detached terms) to remove the rusting beast, hopefully without busting the window or the window casing. There’s always the fear it will be dropped out the window during the extrication process. I think the best way to remove the thing might be with the “jaws of life.”

    I wonder if a dropped air conditioner emits a sound during its last gasp for life, like a dropped piano atonally emits its last eerie chords before it splinters into a pile of sticks. I think this Herculean hunk of metal would just cough if it were dropped from that level and maybe ask for a lung x-ray.

    By October, with the fresh air streaming in through our bedroom window at night, the nicotine withdrawal begins to set in and my husband and I become very irritable with each other. There’s the battling for covers, the whining about who has the better pillows, the fighting for the remote. None of this happens in the summer.

    This year, I guess we could invest in a new air conditioner or maybe some nicotine patches instead.

  37. FB says:

    Considering that plumbers make around a dollar a minute for the work they do on your house, and carpenters and electricians make similar amounts…. They are skilled and trained craftsmen who receive compensation in amounts appropriate for the job they do. It’s not unreasonable to not tip them.

  38. Sara in PDX says:

    I’m with you Steve.Gratitude can go a long way.If we all could be a little kinder, things would run more smoothly.

  39. Todd says:

    So very true! I would much rather spend a few bucks and have the job done correctly than try to prove something to myself and Eff it all up!
    Being in the service industry has helped me to learn that I can ask for help when needed and not be ashamed and if it is something that I just don’t want to do, giving the person performing the service a little gratitude with words and a couple of bucks is worth it for my sanity and maybe it gives the person performing the service a sense of self worth as well.

  40. LostBoy says:

    What a delight! Thanks for the journey through your dilemma. I’ll be back for more!

  41. Bill says:

    And then, ala the movie “Brazil”, central services showed up and trashed your apartment because you illegally fixed your AC. Welcome to Obamanation 2009.

  42. Hugh says:

    You DO know they make PORTABLE AC units, that only require a window to port the clothes dryer type exhaust out the window? I.E. NO FITTING A WINDOW UNIT? But, I forget, you live in liberal looney leftland.

  43. Stephan says:

    I can’t even believe some people still consider AC a luxury or optional. I can deal with 40 below just by throwing on a sweater or wrapping up in a blanket, but let it get above 80 and it’s AC or nothing! And yes, tipping in that situation would be a no-brainer. Same here as far as the mechanical dis-inclination goes: I would just offer iced-tea/lemonade, get the hell out of the way and then hand out the gratuity.

  44. Patrick says:

    Hey Steve- Just wondering why my comment is still awaiting moderation? Thank you-Patrick

  45. English major says:

    STEVE! Steve, Steven!!!! Please, for the love of the written language learn how to write correctly in English!

    You are an published author and lauded blogger-please show more respect for language, communication and accuracy. Allow me to point out the consisent, albeit small, error that is made…the I vs. Me. See below.

    You wrote: But when you’re mechanically disinclined like me, shelling out…

    The correct usage would be: ….mechanically disinclined like I (am), shelling…..

  46. English major says:

    STEVE! Steve, Steven!!!! Please, for the love of the written language learn how to write correctly in English!

    You are an published author and lauded blogger-please show more respect for language, communication and accuracy. Allow me to point out the consisent, albeit small, error that is made…the I vs. Me. See below.

    You wrote: But when you’re mechanically disinclined like me, shelling out…

    The correct usage would be: ….mechanically disinclined like I (am), shelling…..

  47. meangirl says:

    wow, carole flynn….why don’t you just publish your own blog. adding you COPIOUS rambling thougts and experiences with air conditioning is NOT of interest after just reading a blog from Steve-o that was on the same topic….really girl!

  48. Jim says:

    Waiter ~
    Just a heads-up.
    2 years ago, I bought a $200 AC unit (definitely not top-notch, but it was a Whirlpool).
    Anyway, this summer I put it in the window and turned it on. Long story short, it didn’t work anymore.
    Manufacturer Warranty was 1 year. EXTENDED warranty cost $30 for an additional 2 years! Yes, that’s right THIRTY dollars – had I bought the extended warranty, I wouldn’t have been out $400 in 2 years.
    So, I suggest that you read the warranty card and send it in. It could be worth it in the long run.
    [Side note: When I took the broken AC unit to the appliance recycling warehouse, there were hundreds of new-ish AC units all over the place! They don’t make ’em like they used to!]


  49. Butch says:

    English Major…
    “You are an published author”
    Are you serious? you are actually giving grammar lessons with bad grammar?


  50. Suzanne says:

    I agree with meangirl…

    Also Butch… good catch! I lol’d.

  51. jan in chesterfield says:

    Too bad some people are more interested in correcting your grammer than just enjoying your blog. I say if you don’t like it don’t read it. I do enjoy reading you. Your site is like an old friend to me.

  52. Susan says:

    Steve, have you ever heard the phrase, “Those who can’t criticize?” Ignore them. They are just trying to steal part of your pie because the can’t get any of their own.

    I love your blog and have been following it for many months. When you announced that your book was being published I was as proud as if you were my own son. Having worked my way through college, (and later, through rough times), with waitressing, it was amazing to find someone who could intelligently verbalize that very unique business.

    As long as you are out in the open and making a difference, you’re going to get the lunatic fringe who feel it is their right to cut you down. They call it constructive criticism. The intention is anything but constructive and its not worth anyone’s time.

    My only request is that you monitor opinions before you post them — I’m probably correct in stating that none of your fans enjoy people like English Major, Editor K and Anonymous. But that post from Carole Flynn was a gift!

  53. exserver says:

    English Major: Look up hater in the dictionary.
    Although if you have it I don’t think you have ever used it.
    Steve your blog rocks!

  54. Carole Flynn says:

    Thankfully, The Waiter has made room for everyone at his table–those who connect with his astute observations and are inspired to post personal experiences, those who offer him “tips on tipping” for his next book, and those who protest about the food and service yet keep coming back for refills.
    Waiter: Congratulations on your recent paperback release. Thanks for providing “dessert on the house”–the bonus material and afterword.

  55. Carole Flynn says:

    Congratulations again. I rarely recommend books, but I recommended this book to countless readers earlier this year; many of them are STILL telling me how much they loved this book.

  56. JR says:

    A 5000 BTU ac from walmart costs $80… you paid a hundred for a used one?

    And shame on you for titling an entry with the tittilating title “Lubricant” without even a single sexual undertone. I thought it would be about you being stuck in an elevator overnight with Brown Eyes, a bottle of expensive wine, assorted produce, and six quarts of vegetable oil.

    Ya bastid.

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