The converted boat on the Alsea River, upstream from Waldport, Oregon, looked like an ideal place to dine.  The Alsea is wide there, tidewater country, and my widowed father, the man he was sharing a beach rental with, and I had decided to try the place.

It took 20 minutes to get seated, and the place was empty.  That was a bad start.  The time from ordering to being served made me wonder whether the owners had called over to Waldport, got the dinner there and brought it back.  The vegetables were cold, most of the entree had to be sent back, and when they asked if we wanted dessert it was oh no thank you give us the check please we are leaving sooooo quickly.  Even so, I would have left a tip.  My father did not, saying it was only the second time in his life he hadn’t tipped.

He was 89.  I didn’t think it wise to ask him about the other time.

Fast forward a decade to a Denny’s in Bakersfield, right by Cal 99, where getting seated was slow, in part because some guy had to break a $100 bill to pay for his dinner, and the manager needed to be called.  Another guy didn’t speak much English, and after laboriously going through the entire bill, he was asked about a tip.

“Zero”, he said.  I cringed.  Not even a quarter.

Forward another year, to the PDX Park and Fly driver, taking me over to the airport.  I was alone, but then a group of seven lightly dressed people, young, beautiful, and probably rich, heavily loaded with bags, going some place nice, got on, with a lot of heavy lifting done by the driver.  They got dropped off first, with the driver’s lifting everything again, and nobody left a tip.

As we went to the next concourse, the driver was so angry he drove right by it and we had to loop around.  I had to hear him rant for another 5 minutes and had less time to catch my plane.  Had he a gun, given the current climate, he might have been on national news.  But I understood his anger.  I didn’t know what kind of day he had.  He might have been a bad diabetic, he might have lost a job and found this one, told that “the tips are good, so we won’t be paying you much per hour.”  I don’t know.  I had crappy service, and I hauled my own bag, but I still tipped him.

Because you do that, unless you yourself are pretty badly off.

Several years ago, which these days is the number I think plus 8, Dear Prudence had a column about tipping.  A lawyer from DC commented that he tipped on the basis of service; if the service were bad, he didn’t leave a tip.

Prudence let him have it with both barrels blazing, using terms like “Buster,” “arrogant,” and “little boy,” telling him in no uncertain terms that tips are what allow a lot of people to “sort of get by,” rather than to be on the street.  “Sort of get by” means living in a car, a big step up.  With tax breaks for real estate, oil, new companies to relocate, agriculture, the IRS makes sure it cracks down on tips, bringing a whole new meaning to “regressive taxation.”

Dear Prudence changed my behavior.  I’ve seen my share of bad service over the years, and while a lot of it is the employee, I bet more of it is system flaws and short staffing, for which upper management is responsible.  You know, “Your call is important to us” becoming visual, rather than auditory.  Many employees are single parents, on their feet for hours, most of them probably don’t feel well, which affects mood.  Don’t believe me? Imagine how well you would deal with the public if you had hypertension, diabetes, chronic back pain, or a major medical bill on a kid.  I bet their personal life is a lot worse and more complicated than the stuff I whine about.

After that Dear Prudence column, I became a better tipper.  There is a little bit of an art to it, because too much can be construed as arrogant, although these days “too much” has a high bar.  I’ve tried to learn along the way who should be tipped, like guides, which for years incredibly I didn’t tip.  I learned when a guide borrowed (permanently) my Steri-Pen and another client said “take it out of his tip.”  Big oops moment. I’ve been good since 2009.

The people I try to tip well are the drivers, the waiters and waitresses, and people at kiosks selling food.  These people are minimum wage. In Anchorage, the waiter had just moved there from LA.  He had a girl friend, so he was likely to stay.  Life is good in early August, but in three months, business won’t be.  The tourists will be gone, and it’s dark.  He was personable the service good, and I tipped him well.  The next night there, we again got good service from him.  That might be the best tip of all, coming back.

I carry a lot of singles with me when I travel.  I either leave one or two on the driver’s seat when he is lifting my stuff off or I just give it to him. Whatever works.  He will find it.  If I can’t afford this, I shouldn’t be traveling.

I’ve gone to a straight 20% at restaurants, rather than 20% for good service, 10% for bad.  People need to live.  I am trying to leave cash separately and pay for dinner with a credit card, because card charges and employers both may deduct something.  These people need the money: some are refugees trying to get a break, others students, trying to survive, and the guy at Sea-Tac, my age, who was dealing with bagels as professionally as I dealt with patients deserved a couple of bucks left in the jar, where they all are split up. Got extra change?  Dump it.  If you can afford an organic chemistry experiment on your coffee, you can afford a fair tip.

The guy who drove the boat at the bear viewing deserved a good tip.  True, the viewing was terrible, but it wasn’t his fault that bears don’t like to come to a lake on days when jerks are buzzing around in high powered john boats.  He was doing his job, he knew how to drive the boat, and he was pleasant.  I couldn’t have asked for more.

Know what?  If after a trip you can’t count what the tips cost, it was a good trip.

I have my limits.  I guide at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska every spring.  At least once, somebody tries to slip me a $20 after a tour.  Mind you, the tour itself is $25, and some of the tours are worth 50 times that for what we get to see in the morning or evening.

I tell him thanks but please put it in the big tower collector in the Visitor’s Center.  A $20 that is visible is a good reminder to others.

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