Getting stiffed

They were nice. A couple of couples in their mid-fifties, perhaps. The men were brothers, and their wives were along for the ride. From the outset, I started joking with them. I tend to do that with my customers. When they're at the tavern, I want them to have a good time. It kind of goes along with the atmosphere.

We were empty. They were trying to figure out where to sit. In my opening remark, I suggested they didn't necessarily have to sit together if they didn't want to. One of the brothers, the bald one, told his brother that I was alright, and they were going to have fun.

And they did. I suggested good beers for all of them, and even went to research what Weissbier Spaten brewed. The brother with hair had three expensive beers, while the bald one stuck with three pints of Spaten. The wife with glasses also experimented with a couple of beers she had never tried before.

The other spouse just had a coke.

They had good dinners. They had a good time. We joked around a lot. I felt good.

The spouse who wasn't having anything to drink snuck up to the bar. I have a rule that whoever gets to the register first can pay if they want. She said she'd pay for some of it, definitely, but wanted to see how much it would be first.

So, I rang her up, and the total came to $100.83.

Without saying a word, she handed me two new fifty dollar bills and a one. It's somewhat unusual for people to pay that large a bill in cash. So, I dutifully pulled a dime, a nickel and two pennies out of the register and handed it to her. She gave me a very strange look and walked away.

When I wait tables, I don't think about the tip. I really just want people to have a good time and figure they'll pay me what they think my service was worth. I usually make over 20 percent.

On this table, however, I made zero percent. Totally and utterly stiffed. I walked back to the table to clear it, and there was no cash. This was after they had walked out, and I had wished them a good time at the Arlo Guthrie show they were downtown to see.

I didn't chase after them. I wasn't really pissed off. Just confused. I thought I'd done all the right things. They didn't say anything. They just didn't leave me a tip.

This is a very rare thing to happen. Sort of unsettling. People usually honor the practice of tipping, but there's no rule that says anyone has to. So, I turn my questioning inwards. Was I too jokey? Did I offend her?

I didn't tell Katie about it for a while. I felt stupid about it, and thought maybe there was some way I could avoid telling about it at all. I thought somehow she'd be mad at me.

But I told her, in a matter-of-fact way. In fact, I decided on the spot I was going to let it go and not fixate about it. It's not my problem. So, it became another anecdote for us to share. We also gave her a name, too, but I won't share that here.

Another time this happened to me, I was in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. I worked at a pizza place and had a two-top whom I thought were great, and I thought we had a good time. But, the wife paid, and told the hostess on the way out that I was way too arrogant.

Now, that one I can fixate on, because I was actually given a clear direction. There was something to stew on, something to cook into a full blown psychosis. Remembering it, I wonder: Was I too arrogant tonight?

It doesn't matter. I don't wish the woman who had the coke any ill will at all. She had her reason, and I'll never know it. Maybe they're not doing well financially. Maybe she's from Australia, where they apparently discourage tipping.

It doesn't matter. In fact, I appreciate the thought process that was kicked off by getting stiffed.


Pushing it

Lately, I've not felt like much of a runner. I'm too concerned about hitting a patch of ice to brave the outside, and don't like the much narrower sidewalks. So, instead I've been hitting the treadmill.

And, it's not nearly as fun and it's hard to get entirely motivated. On a real run, there's a destination. Running five miles in one direction means you have to travel at least another five miles to get home. On the treadmill, it is key to have something to listen to or something to watch.

Except, the other night I had to turn off a showing of the movie Waiting on the treadmill because I was laughing so hard. It's been a long time since I've worked in a chain restaurant, but the movie hit home, so I had to turn it off. I don't think it's good etiquette to laugh hysterically while running in a crowded gym.

It's also hard to listen to radio comedy, so I've stayed away from that. What usually works is something from the BBC for the first 30 minutes before I switch to music.

Today I was listening to "Start the Week" from Monday, which has a fascinating discussion about the role of the Home Office in the United Kingdom in contrast to the role played by the Foreign Secretary. Perfect to accompany a two-mile warm up, treadmill or otherwise. The discussion wrapped up with a conversation about Emily Dickinson.

This was around the time I was trying to hit my ten-miler pace. I'm trying to practice doing it for as long as I can. Today I wanted to run at that speed for four miles, but learning about Dickinson's epilepsy was kind of distracting. Without a destination in mind, on a real course, I couldn't quite get there.

So, when the show wrapped up, I checked out the Radio Clash podcasts I've downloaded and came across this gem which kicked me into absolute overdrive.


Oh, such a rush. Such a feeling, to know I can run fast if I'm motivated. I don't like to run with music outside, but at the gym, it's a necessity. It feels like dancing to turn the pace up as fast as I can when I'm warmed up and ready to go. I lose all sense of etiquette and smile uncontrollably.

I had so much fun, I forgot that I was training. I forgot I was burning off some stress by working as hard as I could. I ran faster and then slower and then faster and then walked for a few minutes to cool down, having met my goal of "running" 7 miles in under an hour.

Any of us can push it if we're sufficiently motivated. These days, it seems like so many problems are intractable. Are they? Maybe there's a narrative that hasn't been crafted yet for each on them. Telling stories is hard. But, to tell a story is to push through until a message has been delivered.

So, I've just written a story about a mundane experience, but yet, in doing so, I feel like I've better connected myself to that hour spent at that time, in that place.


Washing the dishes

Last night I spent six hours at a dish machine, clearing out goop and grime left over from plates that had been served to people with more money than me. On some days, this kind of thing bothers me. Last night, however, I felt like I was doing the most honest work I'll do all year. I didn't have to talk to customers. I didn't have to do anything except be part of a team.

A chemical analysis of the dish sink would not be recommended. I plunged my hands into the bottom of the sink many, many times in search of something else to wash. Line pans. Skillets. Dishes. Knives. Spatulas. Tongs. Wine glasses. I cleaned it all.

Michael, the sous chef, was very patient with me. He reminded me to use a Brillo pad in order to get the encrusted black and brown stuff off of items that had been in the oven. He made sure I had the sink filled at least half way through. He kept telling me to add soap to make sure the grease was being sufficiently cut.

I had volunteered to do the shift because the regular dish guy had to be at one of his two other jobs. He's a nice guy, George. I was glad to make some extra cash to pay for everything I need to pay for in the coming weeks.

I wish I could say the experience has given me renewed energy to clean my house. Sadly, I don't seem to be able to apply the same amount of zeal to scrubbing my own floor, to getting around to my own dishes. I suppose it is a question of motivation. I don't feel much of it at the moment. This could be winter. This could be the lingering effects of recent tragedy. It could be that I've got a serious seven-year-itch in terms of being here in Charlottesville. It could simply be that there's no one around to tell me what to do.

The snow is falling again. I can't seem to find my gloves or my wool hat. I suppose I could use some of my hard-earned cash to replace these items, but I don't think that I will. I will improvise.

In a moment, I will drive to the gym in order to have my body jump-start my mind. I will take a broom with me to clear the windshield. My wipers are broken. Most of my car is broken, and I have less than two weeks to clear inspection. I've spent a lot of money getting half-way there, and I'll spend a lot more to clear the hurdle.

But what if I come up short? What if, despite all my best efforts, I fail anyway?

Last night, for those six hours, I got a temporary break from feeling like Sisyphus. None of the grime, the goop, the broken lobster shells, the bits of bone, the discarded lettuce, uneaten rice and squash bothered me.


Learning what it means to be human

These days, I'm thinking a lot about what it means to be human. What makes us who we are? Most of my thinking is directed at me, as I try to figure out how to live my life in a more healthy manner. But, a new documentary series podcast on BBC Radio 4 is reminding me that my own struggles aren't unique, and that there's a heritage in our species that must be remembered to fully appreciate who we are, as individuals, and as members of a global community.

So far, I've listened to five installments of the History of the World in 100 Objects while doing a deep organizational cleaning of my house. Everything in here is a mess, and I'm trying to fix myself up with an eye towards improving myself, fixing everything that at times seems hopelessly broken. The series is reminding me that I'm not alone, that other humans have lived before under very different circumstances.

Each of the 100 objects is in the British Museum, and is narrated by museum director Neil MacGregor. The story of an axehead found in the Olduvai Gorge helps explain a time when humans' brains expanded due to an increase in protein, in part due to better tools. Yet, the one on display may also have been adorned in as a status symbol.

What kind of society did these hunters live in? What kind of society do we live in today, in our age? Who are we? Can we fix ourselves? Can we become better? I don't have any of those answers, but I did want to share this brilliant documentary podcast with anyone looking for something interesting to listen to today.