Tip, You Bastards
by Amy Reed
illustration by Justin Wambult-Reynolds
I’M NOT A real waitress. I stand behind a counter writing your order on a pad of tickets that has not changed since the 1950s, when women like me wore starched white uniforms and paper hats. Sometimes roller skates.
I use my college degree to encrypt mysterious instructions like “OMM” for omelet and “WW” for whole-wheat toast. Were I to make the journey to your table, walk those two yards and hold the pad in my hand rather than rest it on the counter, my work would warrant a tip. But I work behind the counter, and my jar collects nothing but the thirteen cents change that you throw in like trash.
I could spit in your food, but I do not. I could do a lot of things, but instead I say “good morning” over and over, through gritted teeth for seven years now. “Anything to drink with that?” “What kind of cheese?” And you keep ordering the same thing over and over, and you keep bringing your kids in and rearranging tables, letting them lick the salt shaker while you talk on your cell phone, letting them throw their Cheerios and bananas all over the floor, leaving the mess for me to clean up on my hands and knees like some minimum-wage Cinderella while you waltz out with your five-hundred-dollar stroller. And no, you did not tip.
I could accidentally spill your soy chai latte on your designer purse, but I do not.
I could hit you over the head with your yoga mat, but I do not.
I could tell you about this girl, my co-worker, who has another job as an X-ray technician. I could tell you about the girl who was on the dean’s list at Stanford, and another who teaches ESL classes for poor immigrants, or countless others who are putting themselves through school or working three jobs to pay off student loans. I could tell you about all of our great talents and accomplishments. I could tell you about my IQ. But I do not. You would not care. You would say, if you acknowledged me at all: “Well, I work at Clear Channel and make six figures. I had a trust fund in college. Too bad for you. Now make me my bagel.”
I could spit on your bagel, but I do not.
Did I tell you I’m in grad school? Did I mention my IQ?
I have a fantasy. I have many fantasies that have developed while wiping down tables with bleach-drenched towels or stocking cups or making carrot juice. They usually involve humiliating medical students or men who order for their dates, but this one is my favorite. It involves two men, scientists perhaps, PhD candidates working on their theses. They’ve had a few afternoon beers. They are hungry. They want me to serve them. But before that, they want to prove their superiority. They want to make an example.
I am ready to take their order. I have been ready to take their order. A line has formed and the doctoral candidates continue whispering to each other, completely oblivious that there are other people in the world. One of them finally speaks. He pulls a hundred-dollar bill out of his wallet and slowly pushes it towards me. He leans on the counter and, after noticing my breasts, says smugly, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you can tell me the scientific name for the green sea urchin.” His friend laughs.
I look the doctoral candidate in the eye and calmly tell him, “Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis.” His mouth drops. His friend’s mouth drops. I grab the bill out of his hand. The restaurant starts cheering. Each and every one of the housewives and independently wealthy patrons has a sudden epiphany: Their waitresses are all probably smarter than they are. They empty their wallets frantically, rushing to redeem years of bad tipping.
Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, bitch.
God bless you bartenders and waiters, you construction workers and gardeners, you strippers and security guards, you few who look me in the eye and ask how I’m doing, pouring dollars into my tip jar out of solidarity. And God bless you Southern gentlemen who trick me with your confused tourist ways and mistrust of the counter system, you who call me ma’am and surprise me later with a five-dollar bill on the table, hidden discreetely under ravaged plates of eggs benedict. God bless you solitary people who come in at the same time every morning for the same large cup of coffee to go, who tip a dollar and a smile at 7 a.m. And God bless you few, kind professionals, some of you rich, some of you very rich, who have not forgotten when you had a job you hated, a job that insulted your intelligence and abused you daily with its insistence that you would never amount to anything. God bless your memory, your thank you’s. And most of all, your money.
Amy Reed is in the MFA writing program at New College of California. She left food service to start an exciting career as a secretary.