Saturday, February 24, 2007

bad tips because you're pretty

I am a writer and a book publicist and because these jobs don't pay me nearly enough for me to make a living, for three nights out of every week, I am also a waitress.

It's going on 8 years now that I've been waiting tables in some capacity to pay all the bills that my chosen career won't, and since that career is finally progressing at a satisfying clip, I am just beginning to think that the end may be in sight...However, I am not there yet. All of this is quite alright with me because, in the restaurant where I work is a cash cow, and I can also use it as my personal human nature laboratory, a.k.a. the perfect setting within which I may conduct my little blonde vs. brunette experiment. In the month of February alone I have waited on almost 400 people. I'm certain that in just this month, I have come into direct and intimate contact with more judgement leveling strangers than most people who work in offices with cubes and water coolers and the like. Each and everyone of these unsuspecting patrons is my own personal guinea pig, and every single night that I work, these customers unwittingly provide me with vast amounts of information about human nature itself. The blonde/brunette thing is really just the tip of the iceberg. I could write a whole, book called Undercover Waitress. It would be a lot longer and a lot more depressing, I'm sure.

The trendy tapas restaurant where I work is always busy. We don't take reservations which means that we usually have at least a few tables full right off the bat when we open at 5:30--the after work crowd, old people who eat absurdly early, or people who are smart enough to realize that if they don't stake their claim before we even open, they will never get a table. This past Friday was no exception. Yet for some inexplicable reason, on this particular Freaky Friday, my section was predominantly populated by women. Contentious women, difficult women, and competitive women, kinda bitchy women. Here's an example of how the one of those women spoke to me when I approached her table to say hello:

ME: Hi, how are you this evening? Welcome. Can I start you off with a drink? A glass of wine or a cocktail?
DARK-HAIRED WOMAN AT TABLE 46: (Curtly) No. We just sat down. We haven't even looked. (She glares up at me until I back away, mumbling something like "Okay, sure, settle in, take your time, there's really no rush...)

It was a lovely way to start off our rapport, and ordinarily would have inspired me to be just as curt back. Curiously, I was feeling pretty zen about my life on Friday, and despite the fact that this woman's curt tone stung, I was able to shake it off as I walked away from the table. Sure, fine, the dark-haired woman at table 46 is a bitch, I thought to myself. It's Friday night and before long she'll be gone and before long this night will be over and I'll be $300 richer. Maybe I'll buy myself some new jeans. Ooh, I'd better call Shanna to see who's got the good sales right now...

As though on autopilot I slipped instantly into a formal, hands off approach with table 46. I spoke precisely and knowledgeably while talking with them about the menu, acted polite yet aloof while taking their order. Save the friendliness, the schmooziness, and the big, bright smiles for other tables, I thought, feeling proud of myself for conserving my energy. Show those big doe eyes to the tables occupied by men with money, who can be easily beguiled by such charm.

I was feeling inexplicably fine about the situation with table 46, and felt even better when I vented for just a quick second to my female co-worker, Sarah:

ME: Table 46 needs to calm down with her attitude. It's not my fault I'm prettier/thinner/younger than she is.
SARAH: Ugh, I hate that! Seriously, it's not your fault.

About 10 minutes after greeting the bitchy brunette at table 46, my section filled up. From that moment on, I was sufficiently busy that I completely forgot to feel phased by her cold attitude. I kept my visits to the table to an efficient minimum. Soon enough, the women were looking at dessert menus, and shortly thereafter, I was dropping their check. The damage hovered around $80.

I did not think about the woman at table 46 again until I picked up their check 15 minutes later, to enter the tip into the computer, and close their tab out for good. Good riddance. But when I opened the check presenter, I did a double take:

The bitch only left me $9.

I squinted my eyes and looked at the tab more closely. Maybe I read it wrong and she'd actually left me $19. Ha, as if. No matter how closely I looked, there was just one number scrawled in the "Tip" line: a fat, round loop bobbed precariously atop a curling, comma stem.

Whatever, I thought. Bitch. Fifteen-percent-er...No, wait a minute, that's not even 15%. $9 on $80-something is barely even 10%...a pathetically low tip, the kind that you usually reserved for terrible service. Was my service terrible? Had I done something wrong? Quickly I rehashed the the details of our interaction in my head:
  • I greeted the table promptly.
  • My beverage, bread, and water service was equally prompt.
  • Their food came out quickly...but not too quickly for tapas.
  • I checked on them several times during their meal to make sure they were enjoying everything...I even said things like, "Are you enjoying your chopped salad and corn on the cob?" I mean, who says that?
  • Their sangria glasses never went empty.
There were no screw-ups, no complaints, nothing at all to write home about, on either end so far as I could tell. I am most certainly a proud person, but I am also an unflinchingly self-critical person, and the first to accuse myself when my performance, as a waitress or otherwise, is sub-par. And no matter how scrutinously I went over table 46's dinner in my head, I could see no reason for the unjustly bad tip.

I walked back by table 46, on my way to the furthest corner of my section, table 50, where a party of four had just been seated. I looked closely at their hair, their clothes, the Crow's feet and frown lines that were just beginning to crease their faces. The women betrayed none of the stereotypical red flags of bad tippers: they weren't old, they didn't seem like they were from the 'burbs, they weren't from Europe. They were dressed in nice, if pedestrian, casual Friday outfits, and they weren't acting coarse, like people who'd never dined in a real, live restaurant before. Judging by the Louis Vuitton wallet the dark-haired woman had so prominently displayed on the corner of the table, she could certainly afford to leave at least a few more dollars for her nice, sweet, hard-working waitress.

Why??? I thought, shaking my head as I passed their table. Why the shitty tip?

We were pretty busy by the time the women from table 46 got up to go. Still, I couldn't help but cast a few imploring glances at them as they lingered, finishing up their sangria and their insipid conversation, before heading off to what I had ultimately decided were boring lives. They appeared in no rush to kick off another, presumably because their weekends were lame and spent undoubtedly, alone. What better fate could possibly lay in store for such a cheap woman?

Later that night, as lay in bed, trying to erase the details of an otherwise non-descript Friday evening from my head, it dawned on me: perhaps the bitchy, shitty comment I made to Sarah about table 46 was more on the money than I could have guessed. Perhaps she did think that I was younger/thinner/prettier than she, perhaps in her mind that is my fault, and an offense worth punishing with an embarrassingly small tip.

Do people actually leave bad tips because their server is pretty?

Yes, I decided as I began to drift off. Really, honestly, I think they do.

No comments: