Sunday, May 2, 2010

Counting pennies in public

This week's Complaint Box is about the annoyance of not getting change in full. When I got to the part where the writer, Steven Jay Weisz, mentions "several bloggers who have posted" on establishments withholding pennies, I was reminded that I'd done so here. No, you're not "the only one cheap enough to complain about it," just the only one to get the message out to a wider audience. We, the Cheap, demand our pennies!

The column is provoking ire, blatant anti-Semitism, and fine, some of the sort of over-the-top entitlement that gives cheapness a bad name. Yes, the man should have gotten his change, but no, the fact that he did not isn't the world's greatest tragedy. Nor, to his credit, did he present it as such.

As always, when anything related to tips and food service comes up, the 'This guy is so fancy, what with his eating in restaurants and having published this one thing this one time in the NYT, no doubt he's never worked in food service himself' brigade is out in full force. Given that the author is an actor who plays roles like a chauffeur on "Gossip Girl", it strikes me as very unlikely he's never once worked in food service or similar. His objection, like mine, is very much a principle-of-the-thing one: part of frugality is knowing exactly where your money goes. This in no way conflicts with paying (and tipping) fairly. But it does mean being one of those people - who wants to see the pennies, who asks how much the specials cost, etc., and then dines out only as often as the budget allows. Such behavior is not the height of social grace, but nor is it unfair to restaurants' waitstaff.

< tangentially related babbling >What's so odd with the phenomenon of tipping is how it both permits workers to be altogether stiffed, and allows for the conflation of work with charity in a way that just couldn't happen in other arenas. As in, say you're at H&M, and you get to the register with the new outfit that comes to $29.90. If pressed on the matter, you might, depending upon your own income, agree that the cashier could use the implicit ten cents more than you. But it will never come up - if you leave the store realizing you're out a dime, you figure you've inadvertently donated to H&M, which does not leave warm and fuzzy feelings. Meanwhile, every encounter with prepared food or drink requires an assessment of relative need and power. Sure, a 50-cent tip on a $1.50 coffee is excessive percentage-wise, but it will at least go to the server, and isn't the job of serving $1.50 coffee sadder than whatever job requires drinking it? What if it's the other way around, and the barista job is actually the less sad of the two? The barista not getting that tip has no way of knowing if the beverage is the weekly luxury of an office worker making $15k a year or the stingy choice of a latte-avoiding CEO, and the customer will register as 'entitled yuppie' regardless.

The expansion of tipping - both in expected amount and in type of establishment - seems to be a way of asking the haves to remember their privilege, yet one that targets the very purchases also purchased if not by the have-nots, then by the have-not-quite-so-much contingent. I suspect that no one ever tips on a $10,000 handbag, a $100,000 couch. (On delivery is another story.) Yet I recently noticed a tip jar at a vegetable stand at the Union Square Greenmarket. Not one of the pseudo-rustic organic ones, but one of the this-actually-spreads-out-trips-to-the-grocery-store-season-permitting ones. I mean, yes, in the world as it exists, the person selling the vegetables probably needs the change from the purchase more than the person buying them. The gap may not be as great as the anti-food-movement contrarians would have it (for example, many NYC farmers' market stands take food stamps, and it's not an oddity to see someone paying that way), but yeah, it's there.

But the presence of a tip jar reinforces the notion that ramps and kale are of a piece with lattes and macchiatos. Which they are culturally, perhaps, but not nutritionally. One is rich-people-nonsense that, as they say, spreads the wealth, while the other ought to be accessible to all. The jar also suggests that the person selling arugula is even more severely underpaid than suspected. It also promotes the idea that shopping at the farmers' market isn't just about getting good food, but also about donating to a cause, and not only donating in the sense that prices tend to be high, but literally paying above and beyond the cost of the food to show one's support for the endeavor.< /tangentially related babbling >


Anonymous said...

It's not anti-semitism to note that the writer appears intent on reinforcing age-old stereotypes. Next week I expect an article from a black person complaining about how expensive fried chicken and watermelon are getting.

Phoebe said...

Um, yes, that is anti-Semitism, particularly because the author never even says he's Jewish. The anti-Semitism is in assuming the name plus the penny-pinching equals Jew. (I happen to think the author's got the right idea, and that Jew or not, he has nothing to be ashamed of.)

Anonymous said...

So, you going soft on kale? dave.s.

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