The significance of tipping for services began for me in 1965 when I was unceremoniously delivered to the office of the manager of the Ft. Leonard Wood commissary, or grocery store for those who aren’t into military lingo. My new, and first, boss was Mrs. Mabel Steward, who drove daily from the community of Evening Shade, south of the post, to supervise the operations of the store. At the age of 16, I began a job that was as consistently physically demanding as any I have held since, a job that was compensated entirely through tips for service. I was a bag boy, packing groceries into paper sacks and delivering them to car side and loading them in cars. My clientele was military, usually dependents, and ran the gamut from frugal to generous. I have never forgotten the delicate dance that occurs between a service provider and the customer, and the significance of a generous tip. Haircuts were mandatory and a white shirt and tie was the standard.
First the ergonomics. Lifting double bagged canned goods into cars as well as watermelons, cartons of tripe (yes, tripe), as well as handling fragile goods on a good day was tough work. On a rainy day you learned about expediency and efficiency. Each customer from the bread and milk folks to the beginning of the month, double cart loads, needed to be met with a smile and courtesy. Occasionally, you encountered the customer who tipped poorly or not at all, which required a little more effort, but a customer they were and unpleasant responses were not acceptable to Mrs. Mabel. In those days, military families lived month to month and the first 3 days of a new month were met by huge orders of groceries and better tips. We averaged about 5 customers, packed and loaded, per hour with the bread and milk folks adding a few more. We worked behind 12 cashiers, all with the big manual NCR cash registers, and these folks could really fly on their machines. The cashiers knew full well the significance of their demeanor on the compensation of the bag boys, and could converse with customers and check with NASA like efficiency.
Near the end of the month, you would average around 10 bucks a day in compensation. Earlier in the month, you could count on a number of 20 to 25 dollar days with the best tips being a dollar on a double cart carry out. We knew who the good tippers were. There were far more customers who requested a particular bag boy than you might expect, and they compensated accordingly. As hard as it might be to believe, a number of the carry out “boys” were grown men who supported a family with this work. We had a break area and our breaks were not scheduled, but loitering or leaving registers unserviced would bring the affable Mrs. Mabel out to correct the inefficiency. Our responsibilities included keeping the floors clean behind the registers, stocking bags and policing spills and such up. When it snowed, we manned the shovels and kept the loading areas snow free and safe. It was damned hard work, well compensated for the era, and priceless in terms of human relations. Before the end of my tenure in this rather menial job, I was selected to supervise the bagging crew. I began understanding supervision and teamwork at the age of 17, lessons you will not garner at Harvard or Princeton. I also began understanding America’s fascination with titles, as we referred to ourselves as “commodities packing and transfer specialists”, far more impressive to the girls in school than “bag boy”.
Today, Sharon and I overtip by the standards that currently exist. It is because I understand the tipping concept and because we absolutely love to see Americans work for a living. When time permits we talk with our waitresses and waiters, and mention their efficiency to the managers and floor supervisors. In turn, these service providers remember us, often calling us by name when we are seated, resulting in a pleasant meal or other service where tipping is customary. From experience, I know that an extra dollar or two on top of a normal gratuity means much more to the provider than it does to me. After a long day on your feet, seeing to the needs of customers, a dollar or two in extra compensation from each customer results in a broad smile when the provider makes it home, kicks off their shoes, and tally’s the days income. I know this……again from experience.
Only a seriously, mathematically challenged individual does not understand that increases in the minimum wage will be passed directly to the consumer. These increases will tend to shrink tipping and result in layoffs and business failures. Tips, where permitted, will make more difference than ever before. A large, vanilla Diet Coke at Sonic, even at happy hour, is worth at least a buck for the purveyor of this nectar……a transaction that leaves all concerned feeling better. Tips, my dear readers, are important.
Have a great weekend!