Gratuitous Tipping

I worked as a server in restaurants for almost 20 years. I started in a coffee shop in the middle of North Dakota and ended in one of the highest profile fine dining restaurants in the fabulously sophisticated food-centric San Francisco.

A few months ago I stopped for breakfast at a diner in Landers, CA on my way back from an all night gong concert in the desert. (Yes- I regularly attend all-night gong concerts in the desert.) I went to the type of place that has endless breakfast variations, most of which include multiple types of breakfast meat.

Sunday mornings in any restaurant are a swirl of activity- from families in their Sunday best going out after church to groups of college students wearing dark sunglasses gleefully consuming large quantities of grease and caffeine to assuage their hangovers. In addition to the usual Sunday morning suspects I noticed a man on a scooter and his wife treating their pastor to a plate of eggs. It was delightful and exciting to be so far outside of my comfortable bubble in Los Angeles. Needless to say, fresh cold-pressed green juice was not on the menu.

It took almost 15 minutes for my waitress to approach my table. In that time a busboy brought me coffee and a hostess took my order. I could see that my waitress was harried. One table wanted ketchup, another table was missing their French fries and everyone wanted more coffee. When she finally reached me I told her someone else had taken my order and she seemed relieved. She called me hon. I love it when women call me hon. It’s familiar in a small town kind of way without seeming condescending or confrontational.

My breakfast came without her, the busboy dutifully filled up my coffee, and the hostess checked in to make sure I was enjoying my mediocre hash browns and slightly overcooked eggs. I didn’t see my waitress until she dropped the check after the busboy cleared my plate.

I knew her situation. I’ve been in her situation. I remember my first waitress job in a truck stop in Jamestown, North Dakota. I used to bring home a Styrofoam cup full of change at the end of a shift, all the while envious of the far more experienced blonde waitress who raked in dollar bills instead of change. It took years for the restaurant nightmares to end after I left the restaurant business. Waiting tables is one of the most stressful jobs in America. Even though the waitress this day hardly engaged with me I identified with her in a very real way. I saw her.

As I was going to the cashier to pay the check I found her by the coffee station and slipped her a 20-dollar bill. I said simply,

Thank you for your service.

I wanted her to know that the work she does every day is seen and appreciated. Without looking at the money I handed her she smiled and said, “Thank you.”

As I was paying the cashier she found me again with tears in her eyes. She touched me and looked into my eyes and thanked me again. I know this wasn’t about the money. I sincerely doubt that a 20-dollar bill could or would change her life. I think this was about the fact that she truly felt like she was seen. For the bargain basement price of 20 dollars I had given another human being proof that she had value. Proof that the work she does every day is significant. When I looked up at her to acknowledge her thanks I felt like I could see into her soul. For a brief moment she wasn’t a waitress and I wasn’t a city girl with extra cash in her wallet, for a couple of seconds we were two souls seeing the essence of each other and the grace and generosity of the universe.

It has been said that the greatest gift you can impart to anyone is the gift of showing them that they are seen and that whey they say and do matters. For the bargain basement price of 20 dollars I saw this powerful truth in action. Worth every penny.

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