Sunday, August 2, 2009

Turn Your Head

Text printed on a tip jar aboard Tallink’s M/S Star: The more you tip, the nicer we are.

Perhaps there wasn’t enough space on the jar to fit what the bartender really wanted to write: I’ve had a bad day. All my days are bad. The esprit de corps around here rivals that of the Gulag crews who dug the Belamor Canal by hand with shovels made entirely of wood. Won’t you, please, thirsty consumer, go away and not trouble me with your business?

I used to think it was worse in the USA, where the old rules of tipping have been thrown out the window, and even Starbucks employees (with health benefits!) expect tips after you’ve stood in line twenty minutes to wait on a long-haired philosophy major change his order three times and finally decide on a caffeine-free double grandé latté sprinkled with protein fiber powder. In America, there are tip jars in places like bookstores and movie theatres—as if twenty-five bucks for a hardback and twelve dollars for a movie isn’t enough. Tipping is such a part of life that the Internal Revenue Service taxes waitresses on tips whether they actually receive them or not. After Broadway performances, where tickets can cost hundreds of dollars, actors appeal to the audience for additional contributions. Bloggers have “Feed Me” buttons with express connections to PayPal. Tipping in America long ago stopped meaning a little something added for good service. It’s become an institution in itself.

Which is why I prefer Estonia. Like this country’s tax code, the rules for tipping are more simple and straightforward. If you are pleased with the service, you tip a little bit, often just rounding up the bill or not waiting on your change. Servers don’t yet feel entitled to tips, and I’ve even had instances where a waitress chased me out the door to return money I left on the table. “No, that’s for you,” I’ve had to explain, though this happens less frequently now that cruise boats full of Americans regularly dock in Tallinn. Damned Americans. They’ve gone and ruined this country, too.

But even in America I’ve never seen a tip jar as cheeky as Tallink’s: The more you tip, the nicer we are. Just how nice could the bartender be? What is the upper limit of his niceness? Would “nicer” mean a smile? Eye contact? Would he give me free salted nuts with my beverage? Would he carry my bag to shore and pay for my taxi home? Somehow, I suspect “nice” for him means not sharing the negative aspects of his job with the passengers. “Nice” means he’ll keep “nasty” in check.

I don’t expect their workers to be nice to me; I just expect them to do their jobs. Which most of them do, in fact. But the tip jar goes too far. It reads like a Christmastime message from UNICEF: Just a few cents a day can change the life of this starving African child.

I know the M/S in the vessel’s name means Motor Ship, but the bartender’s message makes me imagine shirtless, sweating Estonians shackled twelve to an oar beneath the auto deck, driven by a whip-wielding Soviet-era manager. He lashes at them to shut up about positive reinforcement in the workplace and row faster, those who slack off or die at the oars unceremoniously rolled overboard.

If I’m to believe what I read in the papers, then Tallink may not be the most employee-friendly place to work. The looks on their employees’ faces would seem to confirm that. I understand they work long hours for little money, but so do school teachers and shopkeepers and nurses. And, even in America, when’s the last time you saw a tip jar in a hospital?

But if a Tallink employee is dissatisfied, why can’t he reserve expressing his displeasure for when Enn Pant or Ain Hanschmidt are on board? Why hold it against me? I’m only guilty of buying a ticket.

And isn’t it, in principle, supposed to be the other way around? Isn’t—especially in this economy—the customer king? It might be equally tasteless (and might earn you a gob of bartender spit in your beer), but it would seem more appropriate for the customer to hold a sign reading The nicer you are, the more I tip.

But I understand. I once was chained to the oars in the service sector. I was a stock boy at Kmart, one of North America’s megastores. My job was to clean up the aisle when a mother emptied the contents of her baby’s diaper on to the floor (which, surprisingly, happened about as often as a Tallink passenger vomits in a deck passage). When I wasn’t on diaper detail I had to clean the grease off the store’s restaurant’s hamburger grill, all the while dressed like a Mormon missionary in a white shirt and necktie. When I was lucky enough to be allowed to sack groceries, company policy required me to look every single customer in the eye and say, “Thank you for shopping at Kmart!” My boss, Mr. Siegel (I was not permitted to address him by his first name) allowed no shorter version. A simple “thank you” did not suffice. I got out of there fast and went into the plumbing business. I still had to pick up turds, but I didn’t have to wear a necktie while doing it.

My advice to the Tallink bartender: You’ve got to get out of there fast. Like Huck Finn, you got to light out for the territories ahead of the rest. Before Aunt Polly in her sailor outfit gets ahold of you. But in the meantime, while you’re waiting to make your getaway, try to pretend you’re not unhappy.

When I lived in New York I knew a 24-year-old girl who married a 70-year-old gazillionaire. He was a shriveled up, bitter old guy who was downright mean. “How can you stand the sex?” she was once asked at a table with friends. She raised her left hand to show us the three-carat diamond on her finger. “When he climbs on top of me, I just turn my head and stare at this rock.”

That’s what you’ve got to do, Mr. Bartender. Turn your head. And if your rock isn’t motivating, then you might, perhaps, look at the door.

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.