Gratuity

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12/30/2011

Neighborhood: West Village

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Everyone thinks the French are so cute. But I’m a waitress, so I know better. I deal with plenty of tourists. I don’t mind them while they’re at the restaurant and I do my best to decipher their accents and answer their questions—though I do draw a blank when they ask me where all the actors hang out.

What bothers me is when they leave and I see their tip.

Hordes of European and South American tourists come through the restaurant and leave paltry tips or none at all, unless we add it to their bills. Just last week a family of eight from Colombia spent a hundred and twenty dollars on dinner and left a ten dollar tip. They waved at me when they left, thinking we were best friends because I spoke to them in Spanish, have a friend living in their hometown and plan on traveling to their country soon. I felt bad for resenting them, but it was a slow night and I needed all the tips I could get.

It’s not their fault they’re unfamiliar with our tipping system. They don’t know that, as a waitress, my hourly wage is less than the Mexican dishwasher’s. But fortunately it’s not the restaurant that pays most our check—it’s the customers and their tips.

The West Village restaurant I’ve been working at for four months serves Balkan and Mediterranean cuisine. We also have a wine bar, and though we do have wine from Italy, France, and Spain, many of the regulars come here to try our wine from the Balkans—stuff they can’t really find at other restaurants. But the French are different. They come here to drink Bordeaux.

On slow nights we pass out wine coupons. A customer with a coupon gets a free glass of our house wine. Usually when people get free wine, they feel inclined to order food, drink more wine, or at least leave a cash tip. It’s because of the coupons that a young French couple ended up at the bar.

Though they finish their glasses of our house red—a Pinot Noir from Italy, they make it known that it had not met their expectations. It is not my favorite either, but I’ve never complained about a free glass of wine. At least our coupon ploy worked because they decided to buy two more glasses of wine, and because they are French they felt entitled to sample over half our wine list.

Most customers, when they dislike a wine, will politely ask to sample something else, but this French couple made a histrionic show of their disapproval. Their lips, which arched and curved gracefully when speaking to each other in French, puckered grotesquely and they vigorously shook their heads at every wine they tried until they finally settled on two glasses of Bordeaux.

“Eet reminds us of home,” they said, and ordered some meats and cheeses to accompany their wine. Their cheeks got rosy as they imbibed and spoke softly. If they were bitching about our wine selection I would not have been able to tell by their tone since the French language seems to be devoid of hard consonants. They could have been comparing the Tempranillo to horse piss and it would have all sounded like docile cooing to me. There are some moments when I almost thought the French couple was cute, but I always managed to recover my senses.

After sipping the same glasses of Bordeaux for two hours they finally requested the bill twenty minutes after we were supposed to close. The man left a tip of one dollar and twenty cents after spending over twenty dollars. He smiled at me as they grabbed their coats to go, as if the experience had been equally endearing for both parties.

A buck twenty? Oh no, buddy. You can keep your smile.

With that smile he is in the same club as the Colombians and numerous other international visitors. The whole herd of them will have grinned and waved their way through countless New York City restaurants by now, blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are a waitress’s worst nightmare. The Colombians were a lost cause, but it was not too late to reach this Frenchman. It was not about the money. It’s not like a bill of twenty-something dollars will ever fetch a large tip. It’s just hard for me to let bygones be bygones.»

For my mission to be successful I had to quickly engage the French couple in this small talk before they left, and I had to do it with a smile—though all I really wanted to do is fling a glass of Bordeaux in their faces.

“So, how long have you been here?” I asked, trying to look casual with my elbows on the bar.

“Oh, I hev been here fur a monz,” explains the girl. “I hev an intairnsheep,” she added. “He eez my friend. He eez visiting for a week,” she said of her male companion, who offered another ridiculous smile.

“Okay!” I said, hoping the foreigners would not detect my false enthusiasm. “And how long will you be staying in New York?”

“Fur two more weeks,” replied the guy. I didn’t know about the girl, but estimated that since he was a tourist he would probably eat out every meal, which meant that there were at least forty-two different waitresses he would be shortchanging.

“Hmmm, okay….that’s great!” I gushed, causing the French man to look at me expectantly, perhaps thinking I would tell him some important insider information. Like where all the actors hang out. The girl, on the other hand, had already put her jacket on. That was my cue to hurry up and stop beating around the bush.

For dramatic effect I quickly dropped my smile and peered straight into the Frenchman’s pupils. “Well, since you’ll be here for a while you might as well know that in New York City you are supposed to leave at least a fifteen percent tip.”

I guess my affectations worked because the girl suddenly started to get anxious.

“Ow much did you leave?” She asked her compatriot, her face beet red instead of cute red. In the time that she’d been here she already figured out about gratuity, but it didn’t matter what she knew if she wasn’t paying the bill.

The guy looked at me for an answer. He hadn’t even looked at the bill when he put down his cash.

“You left one dollar and twenty cents,” I said.

Words were exchanged in rapid French. The man blushed. I wish I could have sugar coated this learning experience for him, and perhaps it was bad form to educate him in front of his female companion, but as most Americans know, getting schooled on another country’s dining etiquette while abroad is hardly ever a graceful experience.

Most people react by getting defensive or repeating the obvious. “Well, it’s not like that in my country,” they say before expounding on the virtues of their way of doing things. I waited for the Frenchman’s rebuttal, but never got one.

“I’m sorry, I deed not know,” he said, which surprised me.

The man seemed so genuinely remorseful I felt obliged to dish out some good old American optimism. “Well, it’s okay, because now you know!”

He put two more dollars on the bar, which I did not expect him to do. Now it was my turn to feel remorseful. I decided to appeal to the French’s sense of patriotism in an attempt to uplift his spirits and quell an impending sense of guilt.

“Yeah, things are different in France. In France your waitresses get a wage …and….and…gratuity is included in the bill…” My discourse devolved into babble about living wages, vacation time and health care, until eventually the Frenchman’s smile crept back onto his face before the couple left.

“Good bye! Come back again!” I said out of habit, knowing they wouldn’t.

Robin Kilmer graduated from Bard College in 2007 and worked for three years at a public school in the Bronx. She hopes to one day successfully converge two diametrically opposing forces: writing and making a living. Until that day she is working as a nanny (and a waitress).

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