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Kathryn Spira

Tipping is Not a City in China

I've used this phrase for many years, and let me tell you why. 

When I was bartending and waitressing, about 70 percent of my pay came from tips as compared to hourly wage. Back in the day I was only paid about $2.50 per hour.

Two seemingly unrelated, recent articles brought this to my attention.

First, I read about Mike Tyson and his hobby racing pigeons. What drew me to the article was a picture of Mike holding a pigeon at a recent event about racing pigeons. I admit to know nothing about the subject, but I do remember waiting on Mike back in New York City at Columbus Restaurant on Columbus Avenue and 66th Street.

The second article was about Gov. Cuomo's proposed minimum wage hike for hospitality workers to $7.50 from the current $4.90 rate. The lower rate is predicated on the idea that most of tipped workers get their pay from tips and not hourly wage. But that isn't always true. My encounter with Mike Tyson is a case in point. It went as follows.

Mike was sitting at my station which was one of seven tables I was responsible for. He was on a date drinking a $100 bottle of champagne, no food or appetizers, just nursing the bottle slowly and basically holding court for his admirers while I was losing money and patience.

The owners of the restaurant, Charlie and Paulie Herman, cared more about the clientele than the wait staff, so Mike's clogging up a table was my problem, not theirs.

When Mike finally got up to leave, he left a $2 tip for his $100 tab. I was furious. I grabbed the $2 and said, "Look, Mike. This isn't right. This is how I make my living, with tips. You sat at my table for a good two turns. You're allowed to stay as long as you want, but I have to pay bills."

To give Mike his due, he apologized, said he wasn't raised around money and didn't really know the right amount to tip. He asked what I thought would be fair. I said $20 and held out my hand. Without missing a beat, he reached in his pocket and took out a twenty. He handed me the twenty and said, "This is all new to me." You could say it was a teaching moment. He was back at my table weekly and never made the same mistake again. In fact, he requested my station thereafter. I think that the experience growing up tough made him respect the confrontation.

There were times when I got a great tip however. That same night, I got a wonderful tip from property owner Mike Grabow with whom I am still friends. He offered a rent controlled apartment with an open court yard in the West Village that I snapped up and wound up being very happy living there.

But some customers weren't so easy to work with.

I remember a French family of tourists who came to my station at Chumley's and had a multi-course dinner and then left 22 cents for a tip. I was so irritated I chased them out of the restaurant up onto Bedford Street and threw the coins after them. I can't print what I said to them. I was hot.

Thereafter, my mantra was, "Tipping is not a city in China." In fact, according to a New York Post article, one bar threatened to have the phrase printed on T-shirts for the wait staff. It is often found on tip jars and near the register at check out. 


About Kathryn Spira

Kathryn Spira, a native of Cleveland, OH who pursued an acting career in NYC and Los Angeles, now pursues freelance writing from Caroga Lake in Fulton County, New York. Previous columns may be accessed at her web site