On Friday, during the slush of a winter storm and while I was running around getting ready for Shabbos guests, David Sax was complaining about tipping.
Normally, I might write this off as some fool who wields the written word well, log in to the Judy Miller Times, add to a comment stream, and be done with it, but this is a guy, like me, who loves the Jewish delicatessen. This is a guy who was able to take his love and passion and, perhaps wiser than me, parlay it into a career. Or if not a career, certainly something where he gets to travel across the continent, eat tasty Jewish vittles, and presumably get paid to sign books and speak at events in shuls and community centers across North America. As the JM Times article notes that he lives in Park Slope, one could venture a guess that he’s doing pretty well at something I’d call “living the dream.”
So, a good part of your present occupation is getting paid to eat, write about, and talk about Jewish Delis. You do well enough at that, and probably some other things too, that you’re able to live in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn. And by Brooklyn, I also mean the US. And THIS is how you repay the folks that bring you your food? By writing an article about tipping that included gems like this one?

Yes, I know you’re all underpaid. But guess what? So am I. When I get $500 for an article that I think is worth $1,000, you won’t see me e-mail the editor, saying, “Just so you know, service isn’t included.” Do I ask you to come into my workplace and supplement my meager income? No, I don’t.

Ah yes. I was going to start this piece wondering if Sax, Canadian by birth, was merely too stressed about the Men’s Hockey medal round but couldn’t write about that for the Times. I was then going to wonder if maybe he forgot that this is New York. You know, not Ontario, where food servers will be getting $10.25 an hour when the minimum wage rates go up in a month and where everyone already has health insurance. Because, David, we don’t have that here. We don’t have anything close to that here.
But I say Canadian by birth because he sounds an awful lot like some Americans I know. What? They’re getting screwed? Well, I’m getting screwed too, so TOO BAD! I’m sorry, I know writing is hard work, but are you really comparing your daily struggles with someone who lives off tips, doesn’t have health insurance, and is shlepping large platters of food on their feet for most of the day? Or someone who’s driving a cab so they start the day in the hole because they have to rent the cab from someone who owns the medallion?
But that’s part of my point. We’re all struggling. I’m in between jobs, myself. I know that it IS hard to freelance write. Just like it’s hard to drive a cab, wait tables, work at a Starbucks, and make ends meet. Many of those gigs DON’T pay enough. Many of those gigs DON’T include things like health insurance. And your piece is littered with extreme examples which are a result of the larger problem, not the creators of the larger problem. And yes, David, you DO go into their place of work, you DO know how the system works, and as such, YES, you should already be expecting to tip the second you decide to get in a cab, go to a bar, coffeehouse, restaurant, hotel, casino or any service industry place where folks need tips to live. You even seem to know this, ending your article with a throwaway line about continuing to tip but working for a higher minimum wage, and a note in your line about always tipping 15 percent. While your piece smacks of “get a better job!” at least you have the decency to not say it, perhaps somewhat aware of how bad the economy is, and that these jobs, while not paying enough on their own for people to survive, are at least something for people.
As someone who was geeking out THE VERY SAME DAY THIS TIMES PIECE WAS PRINTED about 80-year old delicatessen trade journals and quoting how firmly union Rebecca Federman noted they were, I would expect you to understand the working class roots of Jewish delis and have some empathy for working people trying to make a living. Surely in your travels to Philly, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle (just since 2010 started), you must encounter hundreds, if not thousands of people that need tips to live. Even the pilots you encountered, which you mention in your article, are getting worked harder and HAVE TO WORK harder than ever because their pay is so little. Why you chose to feature a few working people who may have had practices that rub you the wrong way (a NYC cab that ran TWO red lights? Only two? A bartender that gave you singles? The nerve! What was he trying to imply, you should put something on the jukebox? That jews like music? What a bastard!) instead of the countless other folks (taxi drivers that are more cautious, bell hops in the hotels you stay at, waiters in all the delis you eat at, and the bartenders that make sure to give you a Lincoln instead of five Washingtons for example) that do what you need and want to the best of their ability because they need the money shows, to be kind, a bit of misplaced anger.
Whiskey is cheaper by the bottle. So I drink it at home, mostly. Fair trade coffee, sugar, cocoa powder, and organic milk is STILL cheaper per cup than Starbucks. Food is cheaper to cook at home, even in keeping a kosher home but being a treyfatarian out, so I’ve been honing some great recipes. And like these facts, service workers need tips to survive. We need to change the system, yes, but we also need to be conscious of what’s happening now. If, when you do the math in your head, you realize that the extra $1.50 that brings the tip on a $30 dollar check from 15 percent to 20% means you can’t afford it, put the $34.50 towards groceries instead.
So here’s the deal, David: You print something visible and public (ideally in the Times, but I know you can’t control whether they’ll print you) demonstrating you truly understand the importance of tips in service workers’ lives (on your 3-year old blog, for example, no mention of “minimum wage” and “tips”only involves burnt noodle tips and tips about what to eat at one post) and say it more positively than excoriating all people who need tips to live on the basis of three people who’s practices you didn’t like, and start tipping 20 percent in places where tips are customary. You do those things, and I’ll cheerfully buy your book and review it here. See? Win-Win. And we’ll both work to raise the minimum wage and support the glorious working class tradition of Jewish Deli, and the lovely folks who bring us said food when we eat, by tipping 20%.
(Special thanks to TheWanderingJew, wizard in all links and ways Canadian.)