Giving a good tip is rarely a bad decision

May 02, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

John Kerry, the Democratic party's nominee-apparent for president, is a big tipper, we learn from The New York Times.

That newspaper reported that Kerry leaves a 20 dollar bill for the room maid when he stays at a hotel, which he is doing a lot these days. Good for Kerry. Another reason to vote for the man when the opportunity arrives. Good tipping is a sign of good breeding, though certainly Kerry's enemies will see this as another example of his lust for spending, especially when it's not his money. Presumably, the campaign treasury picks up Kerry's hotel tabs, tips and all.

I don't know why Kerry chooses to leave such big tips behind for the hotel staff, but there are plenty of reasons for giving good tips to service staff. For one, it should make them feel happy, noticed and appreciated. For another, they tend to be at the bottom of the national earning scale. Finally, if you don't tip them and they remember it the next time they are caring for you, better look out.

My own tipping habits took form early in life in a rather traumatic way.

I was in London with a cousin at the age of about 10. My mother arranged for us to take a taxi from the hotel to Madame Tussaud's, the famous wax museum. She gave us some money - about 10 shillings, I think, maybe five. The Cockney cabbie got us there safely, chatting amiably all the way. Upon arrival, I gave him what I had and my cousin and I disembarked and headed down the stairway to the museum.

Then I heard a voice shrieking obscenities. I turned and recognized our cabbie standing at the top of the stairs, his face beet-red. He was shrieking at me! The man took a coin and threw it at us. "Tike yer bloody thrupence, bloody sniveling Yanks." Thrupence is three pence. Not much, but it was all that was left over after the fare had been paid. This was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life up to that point.

My only other scary experience in the matter of tipping occurred some 20 years later in a Turkish bath in Istanbul, where I was working on assignment. The main bath in Istanbul is a magnificent place. Nothing funny goes on there, so far as I could tell. There were separate baths for men and for women. The experience began nude in a large tub, a sort of Jacuzzi. Lots of steam. In the next step a Turk came and scrubbed me with the equivalent of a scrub brush for floors. Then back into the steam bath. Then out again while the Turk threw buckets of cold water at me. Then came the massage. This was no gentle massage. It was a beating and pummeling. Then, with my face down and the Turk on my back twisting my limbs, I heard him whisper.

"You tipsy?" he asked.

"No," I said.

Wreeench! The Turk seemed to be breaking my arm.

"You no tipsy?"


Wreeeeench! The pain was unbearable.

"OK! OK!" I said. "I'm tipsy."

"How much?" the Turk demanded.

Then it dawned on me that he was not asking if I were tipsy. He was asking whether I would be giving him a tip. Believe me, I gave him a huge tip. After all, as with Kerry's hotel tips, I was on assignment and this was not coming out of my pocket.

And I never again visited the Turkish bath in Istanbul. It took me a week to recover.

In the Middle East, where I spent a lot of my working life, tipping has its own dimensions. The line between a tip and a bribe is barely discernible. It's hard to tell the difference between a tip and what the Arabs like to call bak-sheesh. Generally, a tip is something one gives after being served. Bak-sheesh is something you give to get something done. In the harshest circumstances, bak-sheesh is something you give in order to prevent something bad from happening.

When I first arrived on assignment in Beirut in 1973, I noticed that everyone else on the flight was gliding through customs and passport control without any trouble. But I was being questioned thoroughly at both stops. This happened a couple of times before I mentioned it to Boulos, the driver who would drive us to the airport.

"Put five pounds in your passport when you present it, or a few dollars, if you have no pounds," Boulos advised. I did this and was never delayed again.

So, of course, there is a fear factor in tipping, especially if you're tipping in a restaurant or a saloon where you expect to return, perhaps frequently. I always tip no less that 20 percent of the tab, and never less than a dollar. I like to think this ingratiates me with people who are serving me. My imagination conjures up all sorts of malevolent things that might happen if I were not to tip. Would they poison my food and drink?

A few months ago I was at a restaurant on Charles Street where the bartender was so inattentive, so unsmiling and so preoccupied with her visiting friends that for the first time ever, I left no tip at all. It took a lot of courage. But you can bet I'm not going back there, either. Who knows how she'd get even.

Last week I wrote about Gary Black, the last chairman-owner of The Sun. I was mistaken when I said the newspaper and its properties were sold for $600 million. The amount was $660 million. But correcting the mistake offers the opportunity to tell my favorite tip story.

When the deal was signed, Black and his fellow board members gave a nice tip to William McGuirk, of the Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co., who had overseen the sale. They gave him half a million dollars.

Gary Black, of all people, knew that one always tips the croupier after a fantastic go at the casino.

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