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    At Your Service

    The Performance of Working for Tips

    By Kathryn Watson

    September 7, 2020
    • David Bruce Young

      I need to begin by saying that I enjoyed every word of this article. The author's word pictures will make me shiver for some time. I want to comment, but not because I violently agree or disagree, but because the article makes me want to engage. I am not sure how many coffee shops are in neighborhoods like this one. I now live in Carson City. And it is too small to have a wholy poorer or tougher section. But I lived for 30 years in Tacoma. And I don't think there was a single coffee shop on the generally poorer east side of the city. There were some downtown and in Parland near the PLU campus that would have had nighbors like she discribed here. To me the best part of the message was, "Tip no matter what." I started doing that several years ago at around 20%. Even with this we will have trouble keeping our tips from being demeaning. But our behavior and attitudes can surely make it worse. I also like to shop at places like In-And-Out Burgers or Hobby Lobby who make an effort to compensate their workers. While we were clamoring for a $15 minimum wage Hobby Lobby and Mardells Christian Books (owned by the same family) were paying 16%/hour, more than twice the minimum wage in Oklahoma where their headquarters are.

    I can still see myself at the front entrance of the coffee shop. We’d show up to the storefront, whichever girl got there first, and go through the motions of opening the store. Padlock on one side. Padlock on the other side. Small lock in the center, heave-ho the chain, lift up the gate. Sometimes an old woman named Janis would be waiting outside, chain-smoking and wearing lipstick at seven in the morning. She’d frown at us if we were late, but she would never tell on us. Her order was black coffee, in a mug.

    We’d set up the big brewers, prepped with coffee that was ground and weighed the night before. We’d put on the muzak, which would treat us to George Michael or Gloria Estefan, and then we’d turn the volume as low as we could get away with. The brewers would make their own kind of music – groaning, sighing, hissing. Depending on the season, we’d turn on a dusty ceiling fan or the space heater. We’d wrap bakery rolls in saran wrap. Somebody would have to go across the street and get the Daily News and the Post. These old German brothers would come in; they looked identical, so we called them “the twins.” They paid in coins, and they smelled like coins, too. The twins and Janis would trade pieces of the newspapers while we waited for everybody else.

    We were always so cold, or else suffocating in the heat. There was mold in the ice machine, which you could guess just by the sickly tint of its rimmed metal lip. There were electrical problems. There was a hutch stacked with curios that nobody ever bought, tea cups and tea balls and expired biscotti. I cannot begin to describe how dusty it was, a watery kind of dust, like it had leaked out of somebody’s rheumy eyeballs.

    The idea that the money we made was something we could control was a powerful delusion, the kind of shared belief that bonds women together as they tell the lie back to each other, a thoughtless lie.

    We were wearing makeup to try to improve the tips. We’d put it on in the bathroom, trading mascara, which you should never do, but to show up without makeup to a shift is unthinkable. If you forget your own, the sisterhood will have your back. Then we would sit at this uneven green table, so bored, and we would look at things on the computer, and we would laugh, breathing in the stalest air on earth, while George Michael sang “I’m Never Gonna Dance Again.”

    In the middle of the Great Recession, I was working for five dollars an hour (this was after I negotiated). The money wasn’t really supposed to be in the stingy hourly rate. It was in the tips.

    Tips were, in theory, acquired by committing to memory the idiosyncratic coffee tastes of several dozen regulars, mostly retired men from the neighborhood coasting along on pensions or investments. But tips are, in actuality, a ratings system based on how well you can maintain the facade of cheerful degradation, the illusion that you love being at the mercy of somebody else. You have to earn your money on top of earning your money, all under the guise of a morally suspect opportunity.

    Across the street from our coffee shop was a methadone clinic, a pizzeria, and a bar. Next door was another bar, a nail salon, a barbershop, a music school, and a sushi place that kept changing its name but using the same menu. All of the people who went into all of those places were our customers, too. We were selling them coffee, but not really. We were selling a performance of us college girls selling the coffee, and the same people would come every day to watch. They were buying tickets to their own show, a show where they were the star and we were the supporting cast.

    They were buying tickets to their own show, a show where they were the star and we were the supporting cast.

    Foucault writes that power isn’t something that can be possessed, in the traditional sense. Rather, power is a network – of relationships, of exchanges, of trades and takings. He says that power is an energy system, omnipresent, coming from inside us, coming from everywhere.

    Except energy is ability; energy is potential. Energy can be converted to matter, or not. This is not the case with power. There is not potential power versus power made manifest. When you have power, you are powerful, whether you are using your ability or not. Power is like gravity, giving things weight. The owner of the coffee shop, our boss, was a man whose weaknesses had taken him over. But still, he retained us in his orbit, with our cash pittances in envelopes on Fridays and his demands that we make the floor less dusty, a demand which I believe would be equivalent to asking someone to vacuum Kansas.

    This owner had bought out the previous owner using money from a wrongful injury lawsuit. Most of his time was spent sitting in a small office room, eating atrocious food. He would sit there ordering customized rhinestone appliques for his old black Hyundai. He would sit there playing a Facebook game called Restaurant City using two different computer monitors. He would sit there coming up with comically bad ideas that he thought would make the shop more profitable, ideas that included selling oxtail soup and unrefrigerated meat pies to serve alongside caramel lattes. Fast-food containers, overdue invoices, and greasy napkins would pile up at this den of iniquity, his desk. He would sit there, and sit there, and never help us do anything, because, he explained, we were getting paid in tips.

    When you have power, you are powerful, whether you are using your ability or not.

    When the city shut off the electricity because he didn’t pay the bill, he sat there while we explained to the customers that the coffee was going to be cold. When the coffee supplier delivered dozens of heavy boxes once a week, he sat there while we carted them in on hand trucks, boxes piled so high you couldn’t see us walking behind them. He sat there as his life and his livelihood and his business and his reputation dissolved like foam on a cappuccino, and when it was gone, he blamed us for it. He would sit back there all day and then he’d take half the tips as if he’d worked the shift.

    I still remember so many of the customers. I remember their orders, and what I’d have to do to get a tip. There was the retired politician who was always replete with $50 bills. He was eager to slip them into your palm, but sometimes he would try to kiss your hand. He would compare us, inexplicably, to whatever celebrities were on Page 6 that day, and his eyes were always narrowed. Because of a generous donation long ago, he had an eponymous wing at the local zoo – the reptile house. I am not making this up.

    An anesthesiologist would come in during the afternoons. He had a two-hour drive home, and he’d stop for an espresso. His eyeglasses magnified his clear blue eyes, which were filled with something bitter. He would stand at the counter and opine about how much Italian men love their mothers, or Hemingway, or offhand complaints about women. I would fold my entire body inside the hollow counter space so that I appeared as a spectral floating head while he talked at me. He never even noticed. One time when one of us got a nose ring, he snapped. “You could’ve looked like Grace Kelly, but now you look like a piece of garbage.” He punished us with no tips for a couple of days. We made it a point to never learn his first name, and I still don’t know it.

    We often wore flip-flops to our shifts. Our toes would become caked in the sooty runoff from the espresso machines that dripped onto the ancient, stained wooden floor, and the grit from the wood and the crumbs from the coffee filters would create a gradient of various shades of brown on our feet, sort of a temporary tattoo. This was completely vile, but not all of our customers thought so. One of them, a lawyer, would come to get a coffee, dark with 2%, on his lunch break. He wouldn’t look at our faces to place the order. He’d only hold up two fingers, mouthing “two-percent,” his eyes fixated on our sooty toes. Not even breaking gaze with our feet when he swiped the coffee and dropped an extra dollar in our tip jar.

    Once, we were so tired of it. We bound our feet up in brown paper bags and shuffled around like that when he came in. He was so mad, our little toes obscured just out of reach from his hungry gaze. So it would go. Foucault wrote, “Wherever there is power, there is resistance.” We could only resist in the smallest of ways, a protest song hummed on the way to the battlefield. We wanted our tips. We wanted to have jobs. We wanted to go home.

    An ancient barber would come in and try to talk to us, through yellow teeth that were collapsing into each other. He talked about his home country, and the way the women acted there, implying there was some shame in being unwed and working inside a dustbin coffee shop next to a nail salon. He would order three espressos with sugar, which I know now was a twist on Turkish coffee. All I knew then was that we had one espresso machine and it was very slow; making a triple shot, one shot at a time, took an eternity . . . I actually feel I’m still there, standing there, waiting for the barber’s espresso to finish brewing, while the whole rest of my life has been a daydream. After all of that, he’d complain if it was cold. He’d grab on to our arms and our hands, uncurling his scent of shaving cream, puckering his face and spitting out the drink if he didn’t like it, asking us to make it over again. He’d leave us a dollar on the days he left pleased.

    This one guy would walk up right behind me and put his coffee in the microwave, which we kept on the floor. He would pop it in the microwave, right after I poured it. I can’t tell you why the microwave was kept on the floor any more than I can tell you how this man survived drinking coffee at the temperature of boiled lightning, day after day. He had an exotic bird he called his sweetie and a part-time job at a golf course that was really a way of playing endless golf, for free. He talked with his hands, and he tipped no matter what. I remember all the people who tipped no matter what. Most of them were women.

    I think about how little agency they have and ponder the line between indignity, being brought low, and humility, an extraordinary virtue.

    What I remember most of all is the chain. In the wintertime, it felt like frozen lead. In the summers, it smelled like smoke that had been sweating. No matter the temperature, its iron residue would leach into our fingers as we pulled it down, hand over hand, to raise the heavy gate that opened the coffee shop for business. We would think about it with dread, as we were trying to sleep, anticipating the fog of the earliest morning and kiss of chainmetal on our skin.

    “In a world dominated by commodities, persons come to be valued by the same criteria as commodities – marketability, profitability, and consumability,” said Daniel Bell. I think about myself in a service function, at the mercy of working “for tips,” that haunted descriptor which defined most of my time in the workforce.

    Today I serve a different sort of needy and demanding person, now with the power dynamics entirely reversed. I bathe my children and I wash their clothes and I make the same meals again and again. There is no profitability in this, but there is infinitely more love.

    Meanwhile, I think of the workers in my old shoes, chasing tips in their own raggedy, espresso-covered flip-flops, either exposed to a potentially infectious public all day long or laid off and frantic about where the rent is going to come from. I think about how little agency they have and ponder the line between indignity, being brought low, and humility, an extraordinary virtue. I say a prayer for their security, and put on a pot of coffee.

    Contributed By

    Kathryn Watson is a full-time freelance writer who lives with her husband and two children in Staten Island, New York. She writes about art, books, faith, and culture. You can find her byline in Literary Hub, Insider, Breaking Ground, and Curbed magazine’s Personal Space column.

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