Monthly Archives: September 2011

Remember When There Were No “TIPS” Jars?

I don’t remember exactly where I was the first time I saw one – a plastic container placed next to a cash register, with “TIPS” enscrawled in black magic marker.  A Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway or the dreaded Starbucks perhaps.  “The gall of these people!” I said to myself.  These cashiers…I mean, these baristas…trying to expand the tip zone like the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War.  Well, I never signed on to that treaty!  See if I care!  And proudly I accepted and kept my three pennies of change.

At the time, I did not think the trend would catch on.  But soon after that I saw a tip jar at the supermarket.  I was picking up Yodels for the week and noticed the plastic container in front of a young man bagging groceries.  So not only had they stopped making new episodes of Sex in the City, but they had spun off the bagging function of the supermarket cashier, so that the cashier could focus more on making small talk with customers and co-workers, and the bagger, or bagging-agent, or comestible transport administrator, could focus more on piling five-gallon containers of laundry detergent atop cartons of eggs.

“Perhaps I’ve been wrong about this tip jar phenomenon,” I said to myself.  “Perhaps the tip jar is this person’s sole source of income.”  And for a moment my mind was changed about the tip jar.  I still didn’t leave a tip, but I at least thought about it.

Unless you’ve been in a coma and without an Internet connection for the last ten years, you know that these tip jars are everywhere now.  Convenience stores, delicatessins…even the guy who sold me fireworks out of the trunk of his car had a little plastic container with “TIPS” written in several different languages.  And I would had left money in the tip jar at the library had the funds not already been earmarked for late fees on Ivanhoe, which I was supposed to read in 11th grade.

I thought back to when I had first started going to the diner with my friends, during high school, and had first confronted that labyrinthine branch of etiquette known as tipping.  I remembered the arguments over my friend’s “no change” rule, which meant that he never left change on the table, even if we only got coffee, which cost $1.50.

“But that’s a tip of, like…” I said, punching my calculator watch, “…like, 66 point 6, repeating, or point 7 if you round-up.”

“So?  Just give ‘em a dollar.  You can’t leave change,” he said.

“Says who?  What’s wrong with change?” I said.  “I love change.  I like the way it sounds when it jingles in my pocket.”  And to demonstrate, I took a few steps towards the cigarette machine, jingling the change that was in my pocket.  My friend rolled his eyes and shamed me into replacing my nickels and dimes on the table with a crisp dollar bill.

As the “TIPS” jars proliferated in the early 21st century, I suffered from more than a little insecurity.  Was I to simply accept this unilateral imposition of custom as I’d forced to accept the “bless you” custom after someone sneezes?  Were these cashiers and baggers doing me a favor by providing a receptacle for the change that must surely burden me and leaving me with more room in my pocket for receipts?  I tried to discuss these issues with someone, but my therapist fell asleep during my diner story.

The only way to solve this dilemma would be to contact the only person I knew who could help me—the same friend who had shamed me into leaving a dollar instead of change.  I arranged to meet him at a bagel shop we both enjoyed, and on my way over I was having second thoughts.  My friend probably left wads of cash in the plastic container.  What if he told me to do the same?  As I got out of the car and pressed the button on the door-locking remote repeatedly until I heard the confirmation honk, I reminded myself that I was not bound by anything he said.

The line was long and I saw that my friend the tipping expert was at the front of it.  He was passed a tray with a bagel, a large chocolate chip cookie, and a Yoo-Hoo.  He handed the cashier a bill and was handed change in return.  And then I saw it—a plastic “TIPS” jar next to his hand, which closed over the change and went in his pocket as he walked away in search of an open table.  I blinked but I had seen correctly: my friend had ignored the “TIPS” jar.

As I approached the cashier, I thought I knew what I was going to do.  I thought I would leave no change, convinced that my rule had won out in the end.  But when the cashier handed me the change, and looked me in the eye, and smiled, and said, “Thank you for your business,” my heart melted, and I saw myself capitulating, and dropping my change as if my hand had been possessed.

“Thank you—‘preciate that,” the cashier said.

Heart pounding, mind reeling, and stomach growling, I took my tray and turned towards my friend, who had not yet seen me.  And I stood there, wavering, not sure if I could bring myself to eat with such a miser.

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Remember When Roommates Were Random?

I came across an article the other day, “When Roommates Were Random,” that discussed the recent trend of finding one’s college roommate on the Internet.  Apparently, the moment that high school seniors get accepted to their school of choice, or safety school if they harbored illusions about their own talents, they go onto Facebook and websites dedicated to finding the perfect college roommates.

So now an incoming freshman can match up with another freshman who is not only the same level of neatness, but also someone who keeps the same study hours, who likes the same color schemes, who feels the same way about politics, religion, and the Star Wars prequels.  If you are going to be living on campus, you can find someone who is so much like you that it is well-past midterms when you realize that the reason your roommate gets up and goes to bed at the same exact you do is because you are looking into a mirror.

The housing application I filled out before freshman year asked me two questions: Did I smoke, and was I neat?  I truthfully answered “no” to both questions.

“Great,” I thought, “now they’ll definitely match me up with someone who is just like me.”

The next thing I knew I was standing in front of the dorms on the far side of campus, my new home for the next nine months assuming I didn’t flunk out first semester, which television and movies had told me could happen.  My parents stood beside me, wondering if I was going to be as messy at college as I was at home, and when my roommate was going to show up.  The only thing we knew about him was his name, that he was from Kansas, and that he was getting to campus a few days before me..

A young man who looked exactly my age rode up on a bicycle.  He had brown hair and a healthy look about him.  A very All-American look.  He braked near a bike rack, and I walked over to him and introduced myself.  As we got to know each other, I learned that he ran cross country, and that he ran ten miles at practice every day.  He learned that I had once bought a BB gun to shoot squirrels in my backyard.  Freshman year began, and with cross country practice, the evidence I generally ever saw of my roommate was the growing pile of trash in his corner of the room.

We had been given a small gray wastebasket upon arrival where we could toss our rough drafts of papers or literature from campus groups promising to make us activists.  These wastebasket could be emptied in a larger bin on the floor, but it was all the way at the end of the hallway, and generally I would tolerate a bit more garbage in my life rather than leave my desk and computer and Internet, which I had never used before college, and which, I was discovering, had a lot of interesting things on it.  Since my roommate ran ten or twelve miles a day I figured he would be a lot more comfortable with getting out of his chair than I was, but he too didn’t seem much in a rush to empty his wastebasket.

I don’t know when exactly the garbage in my wastebasket began to peek out over the rim like an iceberg in the North Atlantic.  One day I noticed that I wasn’t so much tossing the garbage in the wastebasket as carefully balancing it atop older layers of garbage.  And that I had been doing so for some time.  I realized what I was doing and was disgusted with myself, and reached a point where I was either going to change direction and throw out the trash, or press on into unchartered territory.  Then I looked over at my roommate and saw that he was doing the same thing, but in sneakers and wrist bands.  “If he’s not doing it, then I’m not doing it either,” I said.  I wasn’t about to upset the karmic applecart in the room.

By Halloween our garbage piles had reached ghoulish proportions.  Mine was already beyond the top of my computer monitor, and by merely scanning the midsection of the mound I could review the last few weeks of my life.  It was a kind of journal, and by turning my head I could do the same with my roommate’s garbage.

I imagined that one day anthropologists would use the empty cans of Dr. Pepper to date my roommate and I and make groundbreaking conclusions about how males aged 18-to-21 lived at the turn of the second millennium.  They would note the matching sets of Nutty Bar wrappers at isolevels of garbage, and conclude that humans were much more do the same thing and conclude that my roommate and I had been eating Nutty Bars at around the same time (assuming a constant rate of Nutty Bar consumption), and the discovery of only one box of Nutty Bars, peeking out from a sub-pile of orientation materials and promissory notes, would lead them to conclude that we had shared the Nutty Bars, giving birth to a new theory of altruism between males aged 18-to-21.  As I let a crumpled napkin flutter down atop the pile, I swelled with pride at my contribution to science.

By Thanksgiving our efforts at balancing in the air were no longer having an effect, and the goal had tacitly become one of containment on the ground.  Our respective monuments had reached a critical mass where the peak could go no higher, and any new additions tumbled down the mountainside to a final resting place by my feet and chair legs.  The ground pile, being shorter, spread in area more quickly.  It was ivy spreading across the floor, around our chair legs, into the bedrooms.  I considered entering it in a student-run art show, but I let the entry form get buried under a family of Little Debbie’s wrappers.

We were too superstitious to clean up the garbage during finals.  That December morning we were both returning to our respective homes for the colossal holiday break, we stood before our respective piles, holding our luggage, and I could tell my roommate was thinking the same thing I was: Is it sanitary to let this garbage dump sit around all break?  For a moment we almost did something about it.  But I think we realized that the thing that had brought us together in the truest tradition of dormitory life—a world-class indifference to filth—we wanted to continue into spring semester.

So we left the room as it was, shook hands, and went off to spend a few weeks in the care of people who would pick up after us.

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