It’s raining buckets and I can’t find my umbrella. As I watch the heavy raindrops knock the leaves off the trees outside my bedroom window I curse under my breath. I’ve got an appointment and I’m running late. The rain’s going to make me even later.
Trying to weave between the raindrops I run out to my car. Of course I’m unsuccessful and get soaked to the skin. As I settle into my seat I glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror. My hair’s now a matted, tangled mess. To make things worse, rainwater’s leeching out of my pants and soaking into my underwear. I key the ignition and turn on the heater. Maybe I’ll dry off before I get to my destination. I put the car in drive, flick on the windshield wipers, and pull away from the curb. When I reach the end of my block the driver’s side wiper blade snaps off and flies into the street.
Re exposing myself to the rain I open my car door and lift up the wiper blade arm so it doesn’t scratch my windshield. “Fuck fuck, fuck!” I yell when I get back inside the car, slamming my hand down on the dashboard for good measure. But the rational part of my brain tells me that my little temper tantrum won’t get me to my appointment any faster and advises me to get my wiper fixed pronto. I make a quick call, tell the person I’m going to meet that I’ll be twenty minutes late, and start driving to the service station near my house. As soon as I’m two blocks away from my house the rain stops. In my rearview mirror I can see it’s raining cats ands dogs, but the path ahead is free and clear. I’m on the very edge of the thunderstorm. It’ll overtake me if I don’t drive fast enough.
When I pull into the service station I see there’s a line of cars outside the garage waiting to be serviced. I groan. I can’t wait half an hour to get my wiper replaced. I need it now.
I walk into the service bay. Paolo, my mechanic, is busy changing a Volvo’s oil. In the corner of the garage a parrot squawks loudly in it’s cage. Paolo keeps the parrot around for company. He claims it talks, but I’ve never heard it speak a word.
“Hey Paolo,” I call out. “I’m in a jam. I need to get to an appointment and my driver’s side wiper blade’s busted. Can you help me?”
Paolo wipes his hands on his coveralls and smiles. “No problem,” he says.
I look over at the waiting room where half a dozen people are waiting for their cars. “Thanks,” I say. “I know other people were here ahead of me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Paolo replies. “It’s a quick fix.”
Paolo disappears into the stockroom. When he reemerges he’s holding a thin box containing a new wiper blade. Together we walk out to my car.
Paolo looks at the threatening sky overhead. “It’s going to rain,” he says.
“It’s raining by my house already.”
“You look like you got caught in it. “
I finger my wet clothes. “Tell me about it.”
“You can’t drive without wipers,” Paolo says. “It’s not safe. Just give me a minute.”
Paolo’s been my mechanic for five years. He’s honest, conscientious, and very good at his job. In his early fifties, Paolo’s from the Ligouri region of Italy and lives with his wife and a divorced daughter who recently moved in with her young son. Paolo also suffers from a heart ailment and has no health insurance. Little snippets of a man’s life I picked up in casual conversation and filed away in my mind.
“How’s your grandson?” I ask as Paolo wiggles the new wiper blade into place.
“He’s good,” Paolo says. “Getting bigger by the minute.”
“They do that.”
“And he won’t stop talking.”
“They do that too.”
There are two reasons why Paolo’s taking care of me ahead of the people cooling their heels in the waiting room. The first reason is I never use the waiting room. I always hang out in the service bay and chat Paolo up. The second reason? I always tip him.
It’s never much. A five spot here and there, a twenty at Christmas. Auto mechanics may not appear on the approved “to be tipped” list found in etiquette books, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m a mechanical idiot so it’s in my best interest to cultivate a good relationship with a mechanic who won’t snow me. And those tips bought me something else too – prompt service when I needed the most.
“All set,” Paolo says. “You’re good to go.”
“What do I owe you?” I ask, pulling out my wallet.
I hand Paolo a twenty and a ten. “Keep the change,” I say.
“Thanks man,” Paolo says, “Appreciate it.”
After Paolo and I shake hands I get into my car and drive away. I look at the clock on my dashboard. I spent a total of four minutes at the service station. Now that’s service. As I head down the street I think about the convenience my tips bought me. Opponents of tipping will tell you that it’s a shame to have to pay someone for kindness and extra attention. They’d say that Paolo should’ve been sympathetic to my plight and helped me without regard to remuneration. Other people would say you get what you pay for.
Tipping, as I’m discovering, is a very strange phenomenon. Existing in a netherworld off human emotions, social utility, and economic theory, it defies easy classification. Tipping is both rational and irrational, self serving and altruistic, a form of freedom and control, and beneficial and harmful in it’s social impact. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Tipping is a human activity. And. like all human activity, it generates a certain amount of ambivalence. Maybe that’s why people get so hot and bothered when discussing tipping. Deep down there’s no one answer to why people tip. And that lack of clarity is unnerving. Man, I have my work cut out for me.
As I head toward my destination the clouds open up and my car’s suddenly enveloped in a torrent of water. I flick on my windshield wipers and smile. Say what you will about tipping, but because I spent a few bucks the path ahead is free and clear and crooked ways have been made straight. I wish it could be that way for everybody.