Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cumulative Tipping

I’ve never been much of a fan of tipping, even though I’ve worked for tips before in the restaurant business and as a taxicab driver. The problem, as I see it, is that it’s entirely subjective. Most people agree on what constitutes a reasonable tip for reasonable service, but the definition of “reasonable” is painfully elusive. Another problem with the current system is that tipping is based on the size of the bill, not on the quality or amount of service provided.

One of the biggest problems I have with restaurant service these days is the "fake service:"
  • Waiters who suggest “superior” entrees, as though they’re offering you an inside tip on a winning horse. If the entrees weren’t all good, they wouldn’t be on the menu.

  • Waiters who congratulate you on your choice, as though you clearly have a keen culinary eye. I know what I want, I don’t need validation.

  • Waiters who return to the table again and again, interrupting your meal or dinner conversation, to ask if everything is OK. If it wasn’t OK, you’d already know.

  • Managers who creep up to the table just to make sure the waiter has been asking you if everything is OK often enough. If it wasn’t OK, the waiter would have told you about it.
So I’m often tempted to reduce a tip based on the amount of bogus service I’m forced to endure, which of course is the opposite of what the restaurant intended.

The amount of service a waiter is able to perform for a customer is limited, which limits the opportunity to do it well:
  • Service must be prompt, with an understanding that there are busy times in restaurants and times when they are short-handed. If service isn’t prompt, waiters have to expect a reduction in tips, even if it’s not their fault.

  • Service must be accurate. Duh. If you can’t get the orders straight, find another line of work.

  • Waiters must be knowledgeable, able to answer questions about the items on the menu and how they are prepared. Waiters must know before they take an order if a menu item is no longer available. However, waiters can fake knowledge about wine, because wine snobs are just bullshit artists anyway.

  • Service must be flexible, allowing for the little peculiarities of diners. Salad dressing on the side? No problem. No onions? Just remove them. Whole wheat toast instead of hash browns? Yes, sir.
Simple, right? But the hard part is the small intangible things that distinguish a good waiter from an ordinary one:
  • Eyes in the back of your head. Waiters must be able to spot an unhappy diner from across the room, at any moment, drop what they’re doing and race to the rescue. There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering you don’t have silverware and spending ten minutes trying to flag down your waiter who is rushing around and NOT LOOKING while the gravy on your steak is slowly coagulating.

  • Personality. If you’re good at what you do, and it’s a busy night, you won’t spend much time at the table with your guests. So you have a brief period of time to make your guests feel welcome. However, you’re not auditioning for a part in a movie, so know when to shut up. If you don’t have a personality, please don’t try to manufacture one, it’s always a horrible failure.

  • Obsessive attention to detail. Nothing makes a better impression than a waiter who handles things you didn’t even expect them to handle. Once, while having coffee after a meal, I poured some cream into my cup. The waiter, rushing by with a tray of drinks for another table, ducked and grabbed my cup from me before I could stir it. He quickly returned with another cup of coffee and another pitcher of cream, because he had noticed that the cream was curdling in my coffee, indicating that it had gone sour. Now THAT was a waiter.
Even waiters who meet the minimum requirements and are able to excel at the intangibles run a risk of being stiffed by difficult or disgruntled diners, it’s just the way tipping works. So I propose a new system to replace our current, unreliable system. This system ensures that diners get the service they demand, and that waiters provide the service the diner requires. I call it Cumulative Tipping.

When diners are seated, they will find a slip of paper on the table, containing a list of service objectives the restaurant is trying to achieve, each with a little space to write in an amount. So a list might look like this:
    Waiter arrived promptly__________

    Drink order taken and delivered correctly__________

    Waiter courteous and knowledgeable__________

    Meal arrived within a reasonable time__________

    Order accurate and complete__________

    Extra service__________
As the evening progresses, diners write in small amounts for each service item, which are visible to the waiter with each visit to the table. Cheap diners will get less attention than generous ones, and can’t really complain about it (although they will). When the meal is complete, diners may add to the cumulative tally any additional amount they desire to further compensate the waiter, which will typically be a proportion of the total bill.

Oh, and there will be one last item on the list:
    Guy who thought this up________

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Hair Apparent

My dad is 85 years old, and is getting to the point where his vision is failing, his hearing is failing, his memory is failing, and his ability to multitask is seriously compromised. Recently, he overstayed a visit at a friend’s house and was forced to drive home at night, in the rain. He came to a stop at a crosswalk that is protected by a stop sign, and then stepped on the gas. Unfortunately, a pedestrian trying to get home in the rain dashed into the crosswalk in front of his car, and my dad clipped her as he pulled away.


He stopped immediately, and someone called the police. The careless pedestrian wasn’t seriously hurt, but of course she’s suing his insurance company. It shook my dad up pretty badly, and he’s starting to think about not renewing his driver’s license, which would be a huge relief to his children.

But mostly, we’re worried about his grooming habits. My father has impossibly thick, wiry eyebrows, and dangerously fertile nose hair. It’s a wonder he can breathe.


He’s also blessed with a full head of hair, which he has cut regularly. But he refuses to trim his eyebrows or nose hair in the belief that doing so “stimulates growth.”

Most of his children have inherited these characteristics, and while we’re happy there’s no baldness in the family, the eyebrows and nostrils are a problem. My sisters pluck and wax their eyebrows. I trim them all the time, or they’d quickly become functional awnings. I didn’t ask my sisters about their nose hair issues, but I’ll reveal my personal grooming secret: I pluck them.

Some people react with horror or pained expressions when I tell them, but trust me, you only cry for the first 200 or so. These days I don’t even blink.

To prepare my father for my brother’s funeral, my sister Peggy dragged him outside for a touch-up. She needed heavy artillery to work on the eyebrows, so she used a pair of poultry shears:


After the eyebrows were trimmed down to pre-puberty dimensions, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her husband Lee’s nose hair trimmer, which whined and chattered like a weed trimmer.


When she was finished, she returned the nose hair trimmer to her husband. To his credit, he only voiced a token complaint about the use of his grooming tool. I suspect he threw it away when nobody was looking and bought a new one. I would. I mean, he's my dad, but still.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Melancholy Journey

My brother Patrick died a week ago, the growing tumor in his brain finally squeezing off the last of his life functions. His widow arranged for his remains to be cremated, and set up a funeral service to be held at the local Catholic church the following Monday.

After receiving the bad news, I made arrangements to fly to St. Louis on Saturday, then went home and took one of my suits out of the closet. Suspecting I had gained weight, I tried it on and discovered to my horror that I couldn’t even button the pants closed. None of them fit. I raced out and bought a suit, begging the tailor on staff to make the alterations the following day so that I could pick it up on Friday night.

I flew out on Saturday, my mind fighting depression by focusing on things I normally don’t notice. For example, I kept re-reading this message on the back of the seat in front of me:


What does this mean? There’s no other time I could fasten my seat belt. I can’t wear it while I’m standing up. Shouldn’t it just say, “Fasten Seat Belt?”

Usually I take an aisle seat, but on this trip, I was able to slide over to the window seat and marvel at the view that I normally ignore. Here we are crossing the mighty Mississippi, with huge rafts of barges waiting to be loaded or unloaded and moved along what was once North America’s greatest commercial highway:


I stayed with my sister Peggy and her husband Lee as members of the family assembled from other parts of the country. They have a sweet, friendly Golden Retriever named Phoebe who kept me amused, and reminded me that it’s important to be enthusiastic about visitors:


On Monday morning, we drove to the church for the funeral Mass. I saw family members and family friends I haven’t seen in 10 years or more (often with good reason). There are a lot of stories I could tell you about them, but I won’t. I was trying not to dwell on the family nonsense when the service started, and I realized I was in for a treat.

The priest must have been a frustrated thespian, unable to find his calling in the theater. So he drew upon what he believed to be his greatest strength and applied it to the Catholic Mass. When reciting the words of Jesus Christ, he lowered his voice a couple of octaves and spoke in a manner I can only describe as a poor imitation of William Shatner. When consecrating the wine, he bent over the altar and spoke directly into the chalice, as though talking to God via a cup-and-string mechanism. People’s heads were swiveling, stifling laughter, staring at one another in disbelief. As for me, I got my money’s worth.

After the service, people headed down to Patrick’s house for a reception. The house is located out in the woods in a secluded area, and you see sights like this along the way:

stlouis 046

Patrick’s widow described the reception as an “Irish Wake,” which suited Patrick’s friends perfectly. Patrick liked social events that involved alcohol consumption, and he would have been right at home at this one.

After we left, I drove back to Peggy’s house and passed this ostentatious marble mausoleum, which I thought looked like the headquarters of some comic book superhero:

stlouis 047