I’m no stranger to the service industry. In fact, when I decided to get a second job, I knew the only way I would make good money at a night job would be to earn tips. I knew this because after I graduated high school, I worked various day jobs while going to college, but I always supplemented my income by waitressing at night. If I made $10 per hour during the day, I knew at night, I could make $15 or more waiting tables. When I decided it was time to get my hustle on again, I thought of pizza delivery because I could earn tips without the inevitable back pain, leg pain, and side work that go with serving gigs.
But there’s an ugly side to working in an industry where workers rely on tips. I’m talking about stereotyping people based on how some service industry workers believe certain groups of people tip or don’t tip.
I don’t just mean racial stereotyping, although that certainly occurs. There are all sorts of stereotypes out there about tipping. Here are just a few that I’ve heard throughout my years in the service industry:
1. Smokers tip better than non-smokers.
2. Men tip better than women.
3. Drinkers tip better than non-drinkers.
4. Old people tip in change, if at all.
5. If an attractive woman waits on a (hetero) couple and the female half of the couple grabs the check, that server is not going to be tipped well.
6. If a customer requests to speak with a server’s manager to tell him or her about what a great job the server is doing, that server is going to get stiffed. (This one is actually true.)
7. If someone asks a server for a special favor and promises a big tip in the end, that server is going to get stiffed. (This one is true, too.)
8. Women servers should remove their wedding rings, so men will tip better.
9. African-Americans don’t tip.
10. Indian people don’t tip.
11. Chinese people don’t tip.
12. Military people don’t tip.
13. Teenagers don’t tip.
In my experience, with the exception of 6 and 7 (I’m still bitter about these, over ten years later), these stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. They’re not actually true, and the times that they seem true are few and far between. But they remain nonetheless. I think it’s because people prefer a predictable world. It makes us feel safer somehow. When you wait on a hundred AARP members who tip 20%, and then one leaves you a quarter, you think, “I knew it! Old people are so cheap.” It makes you feel armed for what lies ahead. The next elderly person you wait on can’t possibly hurt you because you know who they are.
I wish I could say I never succumb to the temptation of stereotyping, but during my stint as a pizza delivery driver, I had a couple of bad nights. Normally, I tried to be above it. Like when Lou, my favorite driver (the Thai man who spoke kitchen Spanish) tried to engage me in a lesson on the realities of our industry.
Lou: “Oh no, look at you next ticket.”
Me: “What are you talking about?”
Lou: “Look at the name. Gupta.” [Eye roll]
Me: “Oh, come on, Lou, you don’t actually believe that stuff, do you?”
Lou: “It true! Not my fault!”
Me: “Well, sure, if you go around acting negative like that, no one’s going to want to tip you.”
Lou: “Oh, that what you think? Eh, maybe.”
Later that night, Lou asked me how that delivery went. “Fine,” I said. “He gave me five bucks.” I thought this would make him see the light a bit, but instead, he replied, “Oh, you got lucky then. That good tip for Indian.” Sigh.
But like I said, I did have a couple of bad nights.
I remember a certain weekend during which I seemed to encounter just about every bad stereotype known in the industry. On Friday night, I went to one guy’s house. He appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties, and he seemed friendly enough. Then his wife came to the door and grabbed the credit card slip. She crossed a dark line through the area marked “gratuity” and shut the door quickly without handing me a dime.
Later on I stopped by another house and was greeted by a developmentally disabled boy, probably about thirteen. He told me his mom was not home, so I handed him the credit card slip to fill out (his mom had apparently called the order in from her office since she had to work late). He could barely write his name at the bottom of it, and he was too young to know how to tip, so I got zilch on that delivery as well.
On Saturday night, I went to an apartment where a bunch of late twenty-something’s were having a party. An African-American guy asked me how much the pizzas were for and paid me in cash, rounding up to the next dollar. This left me with a few pennies. Fuck, I thought. With gas and depreciation, I am officially paying to deliver pizzas, rather than the other way around.
I remember getting teary-eyed while driving from house to house that weekend. Why were people so shitty? Why were old married women such bitter, hateful creatures? Why did it have to be the black guy who ordered the pizzas at that party? What kind of a mother leaves a disabled teenager at home to take care of the check? She could have called in the tip when she ordered! Probably some single mom, always looking for a handout.
It’s amazing how years of liberal education and political idealism can be abandoned because of a few bad tippers.
But that Sunday night, things changed.
I struggled on my first delivery. I could not find my customer’s house for lack of streetlights, and when I finally did find it, the gate did not work. I had to park at the bottom of a seemingly endless driveway and walk uphill to the door. An elderly man greeted me. He asked me if I would come inside and set the pizzas on the counter.
Sure, I thought. And I’m sure you’ll give me a nice shiny quarter for my trouble.
When I walked inside, I saw a gray-haired woman seated on a couch. “Hello, there!” She sang. “Thanks for bringing these inside.” I set down two boxes – a pizza and an order of breadsticks – and handed over the credit card slip. The man appeared to do some calculations, then added twenty percent to the bill.
I practically skipped back to my car.
The next couple of deliveries went smoothly, and everyone seemed to be tipping me generously. It occurred to me that perhaps the universe was trying to tell me something. Like, not to become an asshole over a couple of lousy tips.
Later in the evening, I walked up to a modest home and rang the doorbell. There were the usual sounds – a dog barking, some feet shuffling down a hallway. Then the door opened and I was greeted by a young boy who appeared to have Down’s Syndrome. He was proudly holding up a ten-dollar bill. “This is for you!” he cried.
A dark-haired woman in her mid-forties stood behind him with her hands on his shoulders. “He was so excited for you to get here so he could give you the tip.”
When I got back to my car, I drove a few blocks and then parked on a dark, quiet street in the neighborhood. After turning off the engine, I sat there for a few minutes in complete silence. I pulled the folded ten-dollar bill out of my pocket and stared at it for a long time. The universe was indeed trying to tell me something. Listen, I told myself. Just listen.
On my last delivery, I drove to the far end of a never-ending, cookie-cutter, behemoth of an apartment complex. I could not find close parking, but it did not matter since the customer had only ordered a medium pizza (not too heavy to carry) which came to about $19. After walking about one block, I rang the bell and an African-American woman opened the door. I smiled and handed her the pizza. After looking at the bill, she fished a twenty and a five from her purse and handed them to me.
“Keep the change,” she said.
“Oh, thank you so much. That’s very nice of you,” I said.
“Sure,” she replied. “You work hard.”
From that point forward, I felt a sea change from within. I decided not to let a couple of bad days turn me into an unrecognizable version of my former self. I decided that no matter how bad things got, I would choose to be happy, not bitter. I would work hard and sometimes that would have to be my only reward. And I reminded myself that bad tippers are everywhere, as are good tippers. As Lou and I discussed one evening at the pizzeria:
Me: “You know, I’ve noticed that if I get stiffed by one customer, the next one always gives me a really good tip.”
Lou: “Yes, that how it happen. Universe always balance things out in the end.”