In 1993, a middle-aged man in a wrinkled dress shirt, stained vest and ill-fitting pants decided not to shower for a week.
He came to work one evening -- as a waiter at a mid-level French restaurant just outside the city limits of Boston -- after downing two to three bottles of what smelled like filthy bathtub wine (which might be why the shower was off-limits).
All night he haphazardly slurred his way through the tables. He forgot to bring drinks to couples on dates, he ground pepper on adults' laps and spilled escargot butter on a high school girl, whom he yelled at for "being in the way."
After the girl and her friend paid their bill, the man went to their table to collect his tip. There he found two dimes, one nickel and three pennies -- his performance evaluation for the night, clearly enumerated and painstakingly arranged on the linens.
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It was the first and last time I tipped appropriately at a restaurant -- and I've thought about it a lot over the years. At first I was proud. We left two dimes, one nickel and three pennies because it was 1 percent of the bill. We didn't want him to think we didn't have the money for a 15 to 20 percent tip. We wanted him to understand it was an indictment, not an oversight -- that he did a 1 percent job.
Now that I'm an adult, though, and know that tipping 20 percent or more is compulsory no matter the quality of service, I realize he most likely did not run the numbers in his head or come to the intended conclusion. Instead he sent a curse to the heavens, a pox on my young, snotty, cheap, insulting, escargot-eating head.
Tipping is one of the most confounding practices, one that bothers me every time I think about it. We somehow decided as a society that we would reward people as a sign of our appreciation whether or not they've earned that appreciation. And if we don't, we're disgusting, awful people with no character.
I tip 20 percent or more even if I sit at the table for an entire week before someone notes my presence. Even if the waitress forgets my order, puts her finger in my never refilled drink and makes it clear she does not want to be there because work is stupid. I would tip 20 percent or more even if the waiter were to sit down at my table, tell me I'm fat and then order me to get my own pizza to work off the weight.
Oh, I talk about not tipping all the time. I take pleasure in it. I'm finally going to take a stand and do the right thing. This is nuts, I'm not leaving this person a good tip. This is what's wrong with all the generations that aren't mine. Do you have a dollar and a pen? I'm leaving him a dollar with a note on it, telling him why.
My friends and I discuss it. We swap stories. We lament it. People today ... they just expect to be tipped without trying.
But then we do this:
"That was so rude! I'm putting a big, fat zero on the tip line. What a jerk! ... (bill comes) ... Two times three is six, right? Seven dollars it is. That waiter was right, really, we should get our own food ... who is he, Jeeves?"
To talk about this makes me a terrible person, you understand. Good tippers are seen as decent people. Talk show host Chelsea Handler has made it clear she tips big and often because she was a waitress and knows how little one can make. The rest of us fall in line because we sort of know it too.
The first question I ask when I find out a friend has waited on a famous person is, "What kind of tip did Oprah leave? She's such an angel!" And I sure do commiserate when I find out someone was slighted.
I read a memoir a few years ago by an author who recounted her time as a waitress at Otto in New York, where a number of celebrities allegedly indulged in terrible tipping behavior. The "worst of the worst," though -- and I know all this because of much late-night cyberstalking trying to figure out the author's pseudonymous references -- was apparently Michael Stipe. The frequency, Kenneth, was zero. He left zero tip on a $2,000 comped meal, something he was apparently known to do.
Here's my Michael Stipe apologist take on it (assuming this really happened): He didn't know he didn't leave a tip. He has people for that. Or maybe he thought Mario Batali, the restaurant's owner who invited him there for comped meals as a friend, took care of it like a good host should. Or maybe the service was appalling and he actually took a stand.
Regardless, the story has stuck with me. Michael Stipe ... $2,000 feast ... no tip for the people who kept the food and drinks coming ... societal degenerate.
Societal degenerate. It's how I feel putting a slash mark through the tip line when I pick up takeout, which I only do, by the way, when the person who handed me the slip isn't looking. If they are looking, they get $2.
I used to passive-aggressively take out my non-commensurate-tipping angst on baristas. Yes, I did. Baristas. I have never in my life tipped at a Starbucks. You handed me my coffee, thank you. Why are you still looking at me?
I used to justify this because I paid for my coffee with a debit card. Sorry, no cash, friend. Then I paid for coffee with the Starbucks app. Sorry, no debit card, friend. But now Starbucks has updated its app to include the tipping option.
No escaping it now.
From what I understand -- and I haven't tried it yet because I'm annoyed -- you have to awkwardly select the "no tip" option WHILE THE BARISTA WATCHES YOU DO IT.
And the button doesn't just say "no tip," either. Nope, it says something completely different: "Hi, I'm an awful, horrible person who lives outside the norms and I don't think you deserve this because it's coffee ... because I'm not made of money either ... because you didn't do anything more than what's expected ... because I will have the escargot, please."
Liz Farrell is the editor of Lowcountry Current. Follow her at twitter.com/elizfarrell.