Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tipping Scales by Ace Toscano

So, you call yourself a good tipper. When a delivery guy comes to your door with a ten dollar pizza, you hit him with a buck fifty, the standard fifteen percent. If it's a chick, maybe you spring for two bucks, especially, if she's cute. Twenty percent! Well, don't go all Eastwood on me, thinking you made their day, because, unfortunately, you did not.

A bit of advice, here: if you truly want to be a "good" tipper, you're going to have to forget about the calculators, calculating apps and those seemingly generous percentages that have been burned into your brain. While you're at it, you might as well forget about that clever knack you have of figuring out percentages in your head. That's all bullshit.

What's required here is flamboyancy, an artistic flare. In other words, dude, a buck fifty falls into the realm of chump change. As does two dollars. As does three. A decent tip for a guy or girl who comes to your door with a ten dollar pizza would be a crisp, clean five dollar bill. And I mean a five dollar bill - not five sweaty singles, not a half roll of quarters, not ten rolls of pennies - one honest-to-God Lincoln-laden finski. And that, my friend, would be the absolute minimum. There's always, of course, room for creativity on the upside.

And I can't stress enough that tipping should be a joyful event, not only for the tippee who relies on the generosity of strangers, but for the tipper whose obligation it is to bestow upon this struggling, underpaid underling a substantial reward. I mean, let's face it, who wants to be remembered as a freakin' stiff, even if the one doing the remembering is a lowly hack or greasy-spoon waitress. Not you, I'm sure, and not I.

Yeah, I'm bullshitting. The tippee reaps a little more benefit from the gratuitous transaction than the tipper. Okay, a lot more. Such is life! Still, having been on both ends of these love fests, I know first hand that the Eastwood thing can be extremely gratifying.

Most of my knowledge regarding the art of tipping was gathered during my days as a cab driver and, later on, as the proprietor of my own airport car service, a service that served Newark, LaGuardia and JFK airports. I have an uncanny knack of remembering fares and faces and details of past encounters. Oh, the stories I could tell.

Here's one for you: I can remember picking up a couple in White Meadow Lake back in the 80's. Enroute to Newark airport, the husband decided to confirm the price I had already given him two or three times on the phone, a price, by the way, I knew was at least four bucks cheaper than my closest competitor. "Thirty-two dollars, plus tip," I told him. That was my standard reply. If tipping wasn't already part of the fare's mindset, I figured I'd introduce the idea. "Ida," the fare exclaimed to his wife, "Ace is trying to get a tip from us!" "But, Harry, he's the owner!" cried his wife from the backseat. "You don't tip the owner." This was a common misconception and I was ready for it. "Hey," I said. "This isn't Fugazi. I don't have a fleet of a thousand cars. I'm the owner, here, just like the guy on the corner who polishes shoes for a living is the owner. You'd tip him, wouldn't you?"

Well, as it turned out, since they stiffed the poor owner of Ace's Airport Car Service, they probably would've stiffed the poor shoeshine boy, too. Such is life. To my credit, though, I had been tempted to strand Ida and Harry when they came back from Punta Gorda or wherever the hell they went to, but my nicer side prevailed and I was there to pick them up when they returned. Unfortunately, that was the last time I ever saw them. Next time they called, I was booked up and couldn’t fit them in, if you know what I mean.

Not that I always expect a tip. Sometimes I don’t care. Like the time another dude, also, coincidentally, from White Meadow Lake, had booked me to take him and his entire brood to Newark Airport. He wanted me at his place at 12:50 in the afternoon and had called to confirm several times more than necessary during the weeks preceding his trip. As was SOP for me, I showed up ten minutes early on trip day. He and his family weren’t ready. That’s unusual for people going on vacation. Usually, anxious to get going, they’re ready to pounce. So, I immediately got this bad feeling. Maybe another service poached my fare. I sat there, watching the house, looking for signs of life. Finally, the guy came out onto the porch and held up a finger, signaling, I figured, that he would be out in a minute. Well, I waited a minute, then five and pretty soon twenty minutes had gone by and I was still sitting there. I sounded the horn a few times to speed things along. I mean we were already ten minutes late. Another five minutes went by - nothing. I sounded the horn, again, a little more earnestly. Now, the guy comes running up to the car all sweaty and shit and tells me he's having a hard time finding his cat. "You're gonna be late," I tell him. That’s when he says not to worry because his flight's not until four o’clock and he allowed plenty of time. "Hey, pal," I told him, "I don’t have plenty of time. You made an appointment for 12:50. I'll give you ten minutes free, but everything over that is waiting time." "Waiting time?" "Yeah, twenty dollars an hour."

Well, he wasn't happy about that. He bitched and moaned all the way to Newark. I didn't care. He made an appointment, then he called a half dozen times to confirm, like I'm some kind of sleaze bag, and then he keeps me waiting for a half hour like my time doesn't matter. I mean, I was on a schedule, and I didn’t want to be late for my next fare.

When we got to the airport, he hopped out real quick and began giving orders to his troops about carrying the luggage. They all stood around waiting for me to open the trunk, like I was born yesterday or something and was going to be swept away by the luggage plan. I knew better. He wasn't getting a single piece of luggage until I got my money. "Forty-Five dollars," I told him. "Does that include the tip?" he asked. Yeah, right, pal, like you were really going to tip me. Of course, I know what he's thinking about – now, he's worried about the return trip. "Don't worry about the tip," I tell him. "Just give me the forty-five." He gave me my money, then I popped the trunk. Now all of a sudden he's my buddy and he starts yakking about the return, I shut him up quick. "I won't be picking you up," I told him. "You'll have to make other arrangements." That’s what thirty-six miles of bitchin’ gets you.

Now, I know what you're thinking, but, just because the two fares I've been discussing originated in White Meadow Lake, a predominantly Jewish community, it would be a mistake to formulate a religion-based tipping theory based solely on those people, a big mistake.

Here's another story: Way back before I had ever driven a cab or delivered a chicken dinner, I worked as an installer for New Jersey Bell. Included in the areas we covered was Mt. Freedom, home of several bungalow colonies that served as havens for New Yorkers, again mostly Jewish, desperate to get out of town for the summer. At the beginning of the season, we would be inundated with orders to reconnect phone service to the various cottages.

One day, while out on such a call, a lady asked if while I was at it I might be able to give her an extension in the bedroom. I assured her that it wouldn't be a problem. I mean, that's what I was there for. A nice lady, she didn't care if the wiring showed, so I ran it from the kitchen phone outside and stapled it to the outside of the bungalow around to the bedroom. It took me about fifteen minutes to hook it up, and the lady was so grateful that she gave me a ten dollar bill. When I informed her that we weren't supposed to accept tips, she said to me, "How else am I supposed to say 'Thank You'?"

See what I’m talking about? Give me a time-worn stereotype and I can give you a story that contradicts it. Another commonly held belief is that Blacks and Asians are bad tippers. I'm not saying I've never had a Black fare stiff me. I have. But, it wasn't the rule. And, I should note here that my favorite fare of all time just happened to be a black man.

And, as far as Asians go, I once had a Vietnamese dude give me a fifty dollar bill for a lousy four dollar and fifty cent fare. "Keep the change," he said. Well, he didn't actually tell me to keep it, but he got out of the cab so fast it was obvious he wasn't expecting anything back. It did occur to me later that he probably didn't speak English very well. He had come up to me at a downtown cabstand and handed me a slip of paper with the address of a restaurant on it. I immediately figured "dishwasher." He never spoke a word. So, it is possible that when I said, "Four-Fifty," he mistakenly zeroed in on the "fifty" part. But, by the time this occurred to me, it was too late - I was already two or three blocks down the road.

It’s probably hard to imagine, now, but there was a lot of hatred in the world I grew up in, hatred toward just about everybody - Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and even Italians. I remember a visitor to my parents' house telling a joke about President Kennedy and Black people. I forget most of it but I recall the punch line which was delivered with Kennedy’s Massachusetts accent: "Work with vigga or be replaced by a nigga." It got some laughs, but, I, personally, didn't get it. The truth being that I just didn't feel any great enmity toward Black people. There were none living in our neighborhood. None went to our church. The only blacks I knew were two kids in my class, both girls, neither of whom had ever done anything to warrant my or anybody's wrath.

Not that they had it easy. Like this one day, when we were in the fourth grade, Roger Niksen started tormenting one of those Black girls, Carla Lightner, by sticking baseball cards featuring black players - Junior Gilliam, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson - in her face while taunting, over and over, " Is this your father? Is this your father? Is this one? Is this your father?" I proudly recall that I was the one who came to her rescue that day, telling Roger, in no uncertain terms, to quit bugging her. I swear I did.

Another time I stepped up was the first morning Miguel and Louis Orama, the first Puerto Ricans to enter our school, showed up at North Dover Elementary. There was a lot of anti Puerto Rican sentiment in town, but I didn't let it effect me. We were playing Three Steps, a game we played every day before school. It involved a lot of running. Miguel and Louis were watching us and it was obvious that they wanted to join in, so, I invited them to. They were obviously happy to be included and I was happy because I knew I had done the right thing.

A footnote: several years later, Miguel Orama tapped me on the shoulder while I was sitting at the counter of the fifteen cent hamburger joint situated on the corner of Dickerson and Morris and, when I turned around, he sucker punched me in the mouth. The punch didn’t hurt as much as the idea that, of all people, he had singled me out. But, such is life.

Back to the Jewish thing. Some days, me, Marty Donavan and Roger Niksen would go to the Y after school. Marty always had money to spend at the snack counter and, if he didn't feel particularly like buying something for Roger, the latter would complain, "You're tighter than a Jew." I guess the epithet left an indelible mark on me because I've never been able to shake the idea that Irishmen were tight with a buck.

Dinner must have been an exciting time at Roger’s house. I can imagine Ma and Pa Niksen giving daily reports on the minorities who were conspiring to screw up their lives.

Another time, during that wild few minutes before class began, Roger proudly shared this riddle with us: Why do Jews have big noses? Because air is free. Again, his wisdom just didn't ring true to me. There were several Jewish kids in our class, none with big honkers. In fact, several of them had cute little buttons for noses and I was smitten with one, in particular, who had stolen my heart away. Unfortunately, the Jewish girls were above average in intelligence and knew better than to get involved with me. Go figure.

As for Roger, he, unfortunately, died young from an illness related to drug use and needle sharing. I didn't know him at that stage of his life, but I can imagine him confronting a fellow user, who was unwilling to share his stash, and complaining, "You're tighter than a Jew."

Sometimes I wonder why my grade school teachers never taught us about the holocaust. Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka - some serious shit had gone down there. I can’t help thinking that if I had known about those horrors, I might have become more serious, and not such a fuck up. I might have become a better person. You never know.

Anyway, I've often hypothesized about geographical components to tipping behavior though, again, it's dangerous to make generalities. While living out in San Diego, I drove for a small company that was popular with sailors. Many drivers avoided sailors because, as a rule, they were lousy tippers and there was always the chance that one of them might throw up in your cab. But, I didn't care. When the squids got paid, they took cabs.

On a typical Navy payday, you could look forward to seven or eight hours of nonstop action. Pickup at the base, drop off at a downtown bar, pickup another fare at the downtown bar, deliver to a nightclub out on University, pickup at the nightclub on University head back downtown, and like that all night long. Not many tips, but lots of money. Anyway, one night, I pick up four squids at NTC and take them downtown for who knows what. I could hear whining and complaining as one guy collected money to cover the fare from his buddies. When they climbed out in front of a tattoo parlor, the kid in charge gave me the fare plus an extra five dollars. "I'm from Brooklyn," he said. "Those guys wanted to stiff you." I believed him. Go Dodgers!

Anyway, getting back to a previous thread, my favorite fare of all time just happened to be an African American and a celebrity. And, let me tell you, there are no guarantees at all when it comes to celebrities. I'm reminded of a story one of my fellow San Diego drivers, Joel Lippman, relayed to me back in the day. He had answered a bell to pick up a fare going to the airport from one of the northern suburbs. When the guy gets in the car, Joel recognizes him right away - he's the sports guy from the local ABC affiliate. They shoot the shit on the way to the airport, talking about sports, mostly, the Chargers and Padres and like that. When they get to the terminal, the meter reads $9.90. The sports guy hands Joel a ten spot as he exits the cab and tells him to keep the change. Keep the freakin' change! Joel jumps out of the cab reaches in his pocket for a dime and throws it at the guy, as he's racing for the door, and shouts, "Keep your fucking dime, you cheap bastard." Come to think of it, Joel was a Jewish lad. How's that for irony?

As for me, I had varying experiences when it came to celebs. I used to specialize in baseball players; if I heard they were staying at a particular hotel, I'd camp out there. Not that it was a great strategy for making money, I was just a big baseball fan. One day, I picked up Bruce Sutter - he was playing for the Cards back then - and drove him out to the ballpark. He had walked up the line of cabs asking drivers if they had a newspaper. I did, so he selected me. The reason he wanted the paper, he explained, was he wanted to see how the locals reported on last night's game which he had closed. That was it. No more talking. He sprawled out on the back seat and read. I drove. When we got to the ballpark, I read the meter which tallied something like seven or eight dollars. He handed me a twenty and told me to keep the change. Now, in case you don’t know it, that's class.

Another time, the Phillies were in town, meaning Pete Rose was in the building, which was a big deal for me, though no one else seemed to care. As I sat at the Town and Country, bullshitting with the other drivers, I vocalized my dream of getting Pete in my cab. Forget about it, one guy told me, Pete was already gone. That was a little disappointing, but there were other players, like Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw who still needed rides. So, I waited. When it was my turn, I pulled up to the lobby and who climbs into my cab but Charlie Hustle, himself. I was so excited that I couldn't help telling him the whole story about me hoping to get him as a fare and the other guy saying he had already left, and how this was one of the greatest days of my life. He was unfazed. I calmed down a little bit, concentrated on driving, and asked how his side was feeling - I had read in the sports section that he had strained a muscle in his side playing tennis. That loosened him up a bit. He said it was fine and that the papers had blown it all out of proportion. With that he reached forward between the bucket seats - I was leasing a little Peugeot at the time - and ran his fingers up and down my side showing me the exact location of the strained muscle. I mean, Pete Rose's fingers touching my side. How awesome was that! Anyway, among other things, we talked about the Padres, who miraculously had run off eleven straight wins that spring. He was pretty sure they would fizzle, which they did.

When we got to the park, fans milling around got pretty excited when Pete rode by. On my way out, they flagged me down and asked, "How much did he tip you?" "Well," I told them, "The fare came to $5.60 and he gave me six dollars and told me to keep the change. So, I guess that comes to forty cents." They offered me their sincere condolences. After all, Pete was pulling down close to a million per year. I, however, wasn't all that upset. I held up a little piece of paper, "But, he gave me his autograph."

I still have it, framed alongside his Topps 1981 card. Neither is worth that much to collectors, but they're worth a lot to me.

Anyway, I got a little sidetracked. Back to my all-time favorite fare. I was sitting outside of the Sheraton Harbor Island, all by my lonesome, one sunny San Diego Saturday afternoon when the bell captain signals me up to the lobby. I recognized my fare right away - Scatman Crothers. He wasn't going far, he said, just across the PCH to the airport, so he could confirm his departing flights for later in the week. We exchanged introductions and he seemed willing to talk so we chatted it up enroute. I asked what brought him to San Diego and he explained that he had promised Andy Williams that he would participate in the pro-am portion of that year's San Diego Open, adding, "And I'm a man of my word. If I tell you a hog weighs 80 pounds, don't put it on the scale." Later, when I repeated that line to other drivers, they swore he had said the same thing to them which may or may not have been true. It didn’t matter to me. I mean, repeating yourself isn’t a crime.

I waited at the curb while he went inside and took care of business. He wasn't long and I had him back at the Sheraton in less than fifteen minutes. But, as Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story. It just so happened that for Christmas that year my wife had given me a ticket to the San Diego Open. The ticket was good for all four days of the tournament and the pro-am event as well. So, Tuesday, being an off day for me, I hopped in my car and drove out to La Jolla to see what I could see. There was quite a crowd gathered around the practice green when I got there. They were watching pros like Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd, as well as the many celebrities, including Bob Hope, Andy Williams and my fare of the previous Saturday, Scatman Crothers. I watched for a while, then I worked my way forward between spectators to the red fencing that separated the gallery from the stars. I waited until Scatman was within earshot and called out to him, "Hey, Scatman." He turned and looked over at me and from the way his face lit up you would have thought I was a long lost war buddy or something. "Brother Ace," he said walking over to the fence and extending his hand. "How are you doing?" We shook. He asked what brought me out to Torrey Pines and I told him about my wife and the ticket, blah blah blah, and he said I was a lucky man to have a wife like that and he hoped I enjoyed myself.

When our little exchange was over he went back to his putting, leaving me among my fellow spectators with whom I had been elevated to near celebrity status. "How do you know him?" someone asked. "I used to be his personal driver," I declared, proudly. And that was that. Funny, but that brief experience, with Scatman recognizing me and coming over to talk, might not seem like all that much, but it meant the world to me.

Let me contrast that experience with an encounter I had with another celebrity some years later. I was at Newark Airport waiting at the end of one of the chutes that lead from the planes to the luggage carousels - I was holding my little sign, waiting for a fare - when I spot Joe Pepitone walking straight toward me. I must inject here that I'm a lifelong Yankees fan. Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, Berra, Mantle - those are the guys I worshipped growing up. Granted, Pepitone was not in a league with those guys; but, still, as far as I was concerned, he had been a Yankee and was, therefore, a hero. So, here he comes, walking straight toward me.

Now, usually, I'm not an outgoing, boisterous kind of guy, but I just couldn't help myself. When he came to a stop, not five feet in front of me, I said to him, "Hi Joe, how's it going?" Well, Mr. Pepitone, Joe to his friends, looked left, looked right, and then he boogied on down the road without even acknowledging my existence. To him, I was a non-entity. A friend of mine ran into Meryl Streep once on the streets of New York City. When he bid her hello, she replied, "Sorry, I'm off duty." Next time he brings up that story, I think I'll remind him, "At least she acknowledged you."

Anyway, old Mr. Bowlegs wasn't anything like that. He was a warm and decent human being. And, he was nice to me. Looking into his background, I've since learned that he was a blue collar kind of guy, always working. Early on in his acting career, he frequently took work as an extra and his credits include one performance as a corpse. He began a voiceover career with a Disney animation, The Aristocats, and continued that on television in shows like Hong Kong Phooey and the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon series. I think he had a great respect for the working man because he was one himself.

You know, thinking back on it, I can't remember how much ol’ Scatman actually tipped me. I'm sure he did, but the amount has never figured into the story. What he gave me that day was more lasting and more valuable - he gave me the gift of his humanity. He acknowledged my existence and made me feel like I mattered; I'll forever be grateful for that.

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