Not too long ago I sprained my ankle playing basketball and was unable to walk for several days. I had no food in the apartment during my ordeal so I was forced to order all of my meals in. It was a great indulgence which I thoroughly enjoyed. Yet by the eighth meal on the fourth day, with my ankle slowly recovering, my foray had devolved into a horrible compulsion. It was the take-out version of King Midas. I was sick of Benny’s Burritos, I was sick of Two Boots, Mama Buddha, Burritoville, and all of the fucking restaurants in the neighborhood, and I was petrified by the amount of money I had spent on them. But I was unable to stop. It was with great remorse, therefore, that I picked up the phone to place my dinner order with Baby Buddha. I felt like the binge gambler who bellies up to the blackjack table at 4 a.m. trying to make his voice sound fresh and natural, as if this were an interesting game he had just come upon. I ordered Hot and Sour soup and Bean Curd Chinese Homestyle.
Six minutes later my doorbell rang.
Baby Buddha is a nice little Chinese restaurant located on the corner of Washington and Bethune, two blocks from my home. It has picnic tables outside and is reasonably priced and I eat there often despite having once witnessed a waitress picking her nose while shelling peas.
The Asian man who delivered my food was a very thin older man, who wore glasses and a bicycle helmet. He smiled at me.
“Wow. You were really fast,” I said.
He smiled at me. He didn’t understand.
“$8.20,” he said. His accent was so thick I had to check the receipt.
$8.20? I had a five and five ones, that’s it. I wondered: should I give him ten dollars for a $1.80 tip, or nine dollars for an 80 cent tip? One seemed too high to me, the other seemed too low. Maybe I should give him ten and ask for 75 cents back? That felt petty. It’s 2003, one shouldn’t ask for coinage back when tipping. If the price had been, say, $8.50 instead of $8.20, then I would have given him ten dollars, no problem. But with $8.20 I was stuck.
My life as a paperboy in Pittsburgh suddenly appeared before me. All those early mornings, out at 5:30, delivering papers in the dark, in the cold, in the rain, in the silence. I saw myself again, age twelve, waiting patiently outside a front door on collection night as the customer rummaged through their purse or their wallet, or sunk their hand into a pocket filled with jingling coins. I saw myself standing there, watching helplessly as a dollar bill was peeled from a moneyclip, and hoping that maybe this would be the time another dollar bill would be peeled from it, and another, and a five dollar bill, and a hundred dollar bill, and on and on, a tip without end. I wanted the tip that would end once and for all my shabby life in a small apartment with my single mother who could not afford to give me anything. I had fantasized that if I grew up and had money I would be the big tipper, the twenty-dollar tipper. I would do for others what had never been done for me.
And then I thought: it only took him six minutes to get here. I gave him nine dollars. His speed had worked against him.
“Thank you,” I said and took the food.
He smiled at me.
“$8.20,” he said.
I froze. It was code for “not enough tip” and it frightened me.
“Oh,” I said, as if I hadn’t realized what the price had been. “One minute, please.”
I left him standing in the hallway and went to my desk drawer. I felt vaguely affronted by being sent back to retrieve more money, like a schoolboy being sent back to his seat to redo his classwork. Inside my desk I found one nickel and one dime. There was no more money after that. I took the two coins and in a symbolic act of defiance of the blackjack dealer, I put the dollar bill in the drawer and shut it proudly.
“Here you go, sir,” I said to the delivery man without looking at him, and as I went to hand him the two coins, the nickel fell and dropped on the floor. It clinked loudly and rolled and spun. I could feel him standing above me, looking down as I hobbled and stooped to pick it up, my sore ankle causing me to linger bent over.
Toward the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II, there’s a scene in which a Vietnamese general is standing on a cliff, shooting across a ravine at Rambo. The general, dressed in a crisp military uniform, is old and skinny and bespectacled and cross-eyed and has horrible aim. The battered, near-naked Rambo, very calmly, very methodically, takes out his bow and arrow as the bullets ping impotently around him, and with his great, handsome, muscular arms, pulls the bowstring back and blows the Vietnamese general away with one shot. It’s the comic relief in the midst of tragedy and tension, and when I saw that scene years ago I roared with laughter.
I remembered that laughter as I righted myself and handed the delivery man fifteen cents, and I suddenly felt very American and very far removed. I was ashamed at myself and embarrassed. But there was no undoing it now.
The delivery man looked at the two coins in his hand and then looked at me.
“Thank you very much,” he said with a heavy accent and a fake smile.
I pretended he was sincere.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Good night, mister,” he said without moving off. He was looking at me directly in the eye, the big smile on his face, the two coins displayed in his open palm, as if they were exhibit A.
“Good night,” I said.