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.