I started working in food service when I was 16 years old. I bussed tables. I would steady my bus bin on my knees and move the waitress' tips under the steak sauce. I did a quick count of what I thought was there while I wiped down the table — the bills splayed open like a deck of cards. Sometimes, I could feel the waitress watching me, itching to get back and inspect the amount. Would she make rent this month? Would she be able to go out tonight? Would she buy that new toy for her kid? The details of her life hung on the generosity of relative strangers. Were they giving or were they greedy?
I loved seeing the waitress' delight when someone gave a much bigger tip than expected. It was like they had won the lottery. The amount didn't really matter. An additional $5 or $10 or even $20 wasn't going to radically alter their financial state. But, in that moment, and the ones that followed, it altered their idea of the goodness in the common man. That's what I loved, and it's what got me addicted to being tipped myself.
You could say I got a contact high, standing there, watching them. I realized I'd like to waitress, too. I launched my serving career in college, with a shaky outstretched hand.
I started at the Student Union Ballroom. Professors would pop in over their lunch hour for the buffet. Tipping wasn't great in a venue like that. About $1 was mainstream, if not the max. One dollar per person — if that — per table, per day. I didn't leave with much, but I didn't need much, and at least I got lunch for free. I was living on loans and had no concept of when I had to pay them back. My need was more basic: The money I walked away with reminded me that I was loved. Because even though tipping is customary, it is not required. Everyone who left me $1 loved me, I thought.
I earned a Bachelor's degree in advertising, but I didn't get a job in advertising. Instead, I put my apron back on. I love a clean, crisp apron, with its hard creases. I tied it around my waist, and waited. I waited to see what the people would give me.
Eventually, I needed a sure way to make rent. So I took a desk job, complete with a salary. But choosing the desk over the coffee shop pained me. I didn't know how I would feel, there, behind a screen, with no one to serve.
I've had many desk jobs since. The steady paycheck provides a welcome stability, but I couldn't bring myself to leave the food service industry. Which is why I still work at a cafe — specifically, at a Starbucks. It's an optimal job for me. I adore coffee. But even more so, I love being the person who hands the coffee to someone desperate for a cup of joe like their life depends on it. I am incredibly social. I love talking to as many live human beings as I can. I am constantly trying to soak up their experience, their perspective, their joy. I feed off of social interactions.
But more than anything, I love the tips.
I love the power at play the moment when a person decides whether or not to hand over more money. Not money for the item they will consume. Money directly from them to me. I haven't necessarily "earned" this money. It's just something the customer wants to give me, because they can. Because they like me. And because they're decent.
In that moment, I have the opportunity to see, with true clarity, the generosity of the human spirit.
It's not actually money they are giving me. It's a little bit of freedom. I can use that money in any way I choose. I could buy candy. I could buy beer. I can buy whatever I want.
This is what they are really saying when they hand me that bill: "I give you autonomy. Selection. Freedom. Do with it what you will. I trust you."
And it's not just being tipped that gives me a rush. Being on the other side of the equation does it for me, too. Tipping itself is an invigorating act. When my husband and I eat out at restaurants, he slides the receipt over to me before filling out the tip portion. He has learned to let me see it — let me weigh in. My tipping method is a simple equation: Take the amount you had in your head, and add to it. This is our chance to show someone else our generosity. This is a direct line of care, and I always give more.
These days, I think we are experiencing a suffocating lack of connection to the human spirit. But every time I work a shift at the coffee shop, I stare down the barrel of generosity. If someone doesn't hand me a dollar, I look into their eyes and I thank them as if they had. And when someone does? I hold their gaze and, in a glance and a smile, try to acknowledge what they've done. I try to show my gratitude for their generosity. I think:Thank you for loving me.