Crooked Ways Made Straight

It’s raining buckets and I can’t find my umbrella. As I watch the heavy raindrops knock the leaves off the trees outside my bedroom window I curse under my breath. I’ve got an appointment and I’m running late. The rain’s going to make me even later.

Trying to weave between the raindrops I run out to my car. Of course I’m unsuccessful and get soaked to the skin. As I settle into my seat I glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror. My hair’s now a matted, tangled mess. To make things worse, rainwater’s leeching out of my pants and soaking into my underwear. I key the ignition and turn on the heater. Maybe I’ll dry off before I get to my destination. I put the car in drive, flick on the windshield wipers, and pull away from the curb. When I reach the end of my block the driver’s side wiper blade snaps off and flies into the street.

Re exposing myself to the rain I open my car door and lift up the wiper blade arm so it doesn’t scratch my windshield. “Fuck fuck, fuck!” I yell when I get back inside the car, slamming my hand down on the dashboard for good measure. But the rational part of my brain tells me that my little temper tantrum won’t get me to my appointment any faster and advises me to get my wiper fixed pronto. I make a quick call, tell the person I’m going to meet that I’ll be twenty minutes late, and start driving to the service station near my house. As soon as I’m two blocks away from my house the rain stops. In my rearview mirror I can see it’s raining cats ands dogs, but the path ahead is free and clear. I’m on the very edge of the thunderstorm. It’ll overtake me if I don’t drive fast enough.

When I pull into the service station I see there’s a line of cars outside the garage waiting to be serviced. I groan. I can’t wait half an hour to get my wiper replaced. I need it now.

I walk into the service bay. Paolo, my mechanic, is busy changing a Volvo’s oil. In the corner of the garage a parrot squawks loudly in it’s cage. Paolo keeps the parrot around for company. He claims it talks, but I’ve never heard it speak a word.

“Hey Paolo,” I call out. “I’m in a jam. I need to get to an appointment and my driver’s side wiper blade’s busted. Can you help me?”

Paolo wipes his hands on his coveralls and smiles. “No problem,” he says.

I look over at the waiting room where half a dozen people are waiting for their cars. “Thanks,” I say. “I know other people were here ahead of me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Paolo replies. “It’s a quick fix.”

Paolo disappears into the stockroom. When he reemerges he’s holding a thin box containing a new wiper blade. Together we walk out to my car.

Paolo looks at the threatening sky overhead. “It’s going to rain,” he says.

“It’s raining by my house already.”

“You look like you got caught in it. “

I finger my wet clothes. “Tell me about it.”

“You can’t drive without wipers,” Paolo says. “It’s not safe. Just give me a minute.”

“Thanks.”

Paolo’s been my mechanic for five years. He’s honest, conscientious, and very good at his job. In his early fifties, Paolo’s from the Ligouri region of Italy and lives with his wife and a divorced daughter who recently moved in with her young son. Paolo also suffers from a heart ailment and has no health insurance. Little snippets of a man’s life I picked up in casual conversation and filed away in my mind.

“How’s your grandson?” I ask as Paolo wiggles the new wiper blade into place.

“He’s good,” Paolo says. “Getting bigger by the minute.”

“They do that.”

“And he won’t stop talking.”

“They do that too.”

There are two reasons why Paolo’s taking care of me ahead of the people cooling their heels in the waiting room. The first reason is I never use the waiting room. I always hang out in the service bay and chat Paolo up. The second reason? I always tip him.

It’s never much. A five spot here and there, a twenty at Christmas. Auto mechanics may not appear on the approved “to be tipped” list found in etiquette books, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m a mechanical idiot so it’s in my best interest to cultivate a good relationship with a mechanic who won’t snow me. And those tips bought me something else too – prompt service when I needed the most.

“All set,” Paolo says. “You’re good to go.”

“What do I owe you?” I ask, pulling out my wallet.

“Twenty-five”

I hand Paolo a twenty and a ten. “Keep the change,” I say.

“Thanks man,” Paolo says, “Appreciate it.”

“No problem.”

After Paolo and I shake hands I get into my car and drive away. I look at the clock on my dashboard. I spent a total of four minutes at the service station. Now that’s service. As I head down the street I think about the convenience my tips bought me. Opponents of tipping will tell you that it’s a shame to have to pay someone for kindness and extra attention. They’d say that Paolo should’ve been sympathetic to my plight and helped me without regard to remuneration. Other people would say you get what you pay for.

Tipping, as I’m discovering, is a very strange phenomenon. Existing in a netherworld off human emotions, social utility, and economic theory, it defies easy classification. Tipping is both rational and irrational, self serving and altruistic, a form of freedom and control, and beneficial and harmful in it’s social impact. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Tipping is a human activity. And. like all human activity, it generates a certain amount of ambivalence. Maybe that’s why people get so hot and bothered when discussing tipping. Deep down there’s no one answer to why people tip. And that lack of clarity is unnerving. Man, I have my work cut out for me.

As I head toward my destination the clouds open up and my car’s suddenly enveloped in a torrent of water. I flick on my windshield wipers and smile. Say what you will about tipping, but because I spent a few bucks the path ahead is free and clear and crooked ways have been made straight. I wish it could be that way for everybody.


Comments

Crooked Ways Made Straight — 62 Comments

  1. Tipping the mechanic can never hurt , but in this instance I feel that Paolo took good care of you because you have the common sense to treat your mechanic with respect , and maintain a good rapport with him in the process. Mechanics often take a beating from their customers. Take it from one who know’s – Nice customers who don’t cause BS are a leg up on everyone else.

  2. Another good story. I can’t wait for your book! I’ll bet it causes a whole lotta debate–couldn’t hurt sales. And, Jack is absolutely right.

  3. People… pay to have someone else replace a wiper blade?

    I’d think it’d be faster and less cut-in-line-y to just buy the blade and pop it on yourself. It’s not like it requires tools or specialized knowledge or anything.

    Maybe it’s a New York thing.

  4. Some people who tip are using the money to try to “cut to the front of the line”. People in the service industry know who those assholes are.

    Good customers that are not full of BS tip as another way to say thanks. We know when our services are appreciated and are more than happy to help out when a good customer is in a pinch. We are not helping out for the money!

  5. As someone with 130K miles on my 10yo car, I know the importance of a good mechanic. That said, I’m with Sigvald on this one. Replacing your wipers is right up there with pumping your own gas, popping your trunk, and operating your car stereo without professional help. This is why it only took four minutes. This is also why Paolo took care of you first – because it required no effort on his side. Also $25 for one blade seems a tad overpriced… by like 200-300%? Sorry Steve. I’m your biggest fan, but I couldn’t keep quiet on this one.

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  7. I have tried changing my own wipers. I broke stuff and ended up having to have my husband fix it! $25 seems like a bargain to me. Plus, Steve was in a hurry and it was raining. It may be easy for most, but not for everyone!

  8. /agree that you were gouged. I can go to any Napa, Pep Boys, or Checker and get 2 of their top-of-the line wiper blades for about $25. If I go mid-range (I won’t go cheap — that’s a recipes for disaster in the 1st storm) it’s more like $18-20.

    They take about 10 seconds to install without tools too ;)

  9. My husband, Manpants, ALWAYS tips. He’s an Italian from Long Island and I think it is so culturally ingrained in him that the concept of NOT tipping would be as unacceptable as . . well, I have no idea. The mechanic, the moving guy, the pest control guy, the plumber, the gas utility man . . . you name it. That token — and it is usually not much more than a token really, a five or ten here or there — is always appreciated by them and we see the benefit of that small token in the quality of service and attitude. I have no idea what I’m doing, so I go all 1957 and leave it to him because I get uncomfortable. But we are all about the tipping — and you said it — 4 minutes in and out of that garage. Pretty much says it all.

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  11. And it’s not being an entitled yuppie to establish a good working relationship with someone you give repeat business to and to let them know that you appreciate what they do. Just my opinion. And Manpants and I do NOT have the income to qualify as “entitled yuppies”.

  12. I have no idea what effect your comments about tipping have had on other people….but since reading your book (and this blog entry reminded me) I have taken a whole different attitude toward the practice.

    Thank you for opening my eyes. Your comments have been of benefit both to me and to the people I deal with :-)

  13. Hey Waiter,
    I am a fan of your writing style..But I have a question.

    Suppose you live on a tight budget (I am a grad student and don’t make much). So, I cannot afford to tip everyone like you. What bothers me most about this tipping thing is that we are forced to tip even real bad waiters(I mean the case where you are the only customer in the eating place and still your waiter messes things up). He/she doesn’t care much cause atleast he is entitled to a minimum tip. So, I feel like I am stealing tip money from some real good waiters (who actually deserve a higher tip) because I am forced to tip some incompetent waiters.
    Now because some people (like ur story above) tip even for small services, people on tight budgets cannot expect better service because they cannot tip everyone. So, don’t you think there should be a limit or a boundary on this tip thing?

    MS

  14. Steve didn’t tip to get at the front of the line, he ASKED. He didn’t mention the tip until the work was done. Geez. At least read the story. Now, I’m not saying the mechanic didn’t know Steve would tip, but it certainly wasn’t the impetus for getting at the front of the line.

    That being said, having a mechanic put on a widshield wiper blade in New Jersey, when rains coming, and you are ill-equipped doesn’t seem unreasonable. I’d rather do it myself, but I have a garage.

  15. If Steve had waved the money under the guy’s nose as he asked to be shunted to the front of the line, THAT would have been an assholish thing to do. But, he didn’t. He simply asked–not unreasonable considering the ease of his fix–and THEN tipped the guy out of gratitude. There’s a BIG difference there…feel sorry for the person who can’t see that.

  16. $25 for a $3 wiper blade and 4 minutes of labor?!?! That’s a $330/hr labor rate! And you think you’re not being snowed?!

  17. Don’t forget to tip the shucker at your favorite oyster bar. Steve: I’ve got a few shuckers for you to interview if you come to Boston. Let’s break bread. Dinner is on me.

  18. Waiter – I’ve read your blog for five years. It’s great; I love it. I’m from England. This is the first time I’ve commented. People don’t complain about tipping for ‘kindness and extra attention’. That’s *exactly* why we should tip. People complain about tipping for the service they pay for, that’s it.

    Cheers,
    Sam

  19. dear waiter,
    as a server, there is something to be said for an unexpected good tip. it brings joy to my heart, restores my faith in humanity just a little bit, makes me hate my fellow humans just a little less, makes me more inclined to be patient with others, flash a genuine smile… not because of the money, but because to that person, i am a human, not a coffee dispenser. i am worth a token of appreciation, not a tip-receptacle that must not be pissed off for fear of repercussions.
    i, like you also tip all kinds of people. because they help me. because i want to make their day a little brighter. because i know that a little recognition can make a crap day bearable. because the world needs more genuine smiles.
    thanks for sharing!

  20. LMAO @ “entitled yuppie”. i’m not saying it fits, but after getting to know you from your blog during your waiter days, it sure is funny.

  21. I don’t tip my mechanics with cash. They are a union shop and make a very nice living wage plus health benefits.

    I’ve been with them for 15+ years and totally love and trust them.

    I do stop by every once in awhile with a 12-pack of their favorite beer during their Friday-after-work “Safety” meetings, though.

  22. I agree with Steve; it would be worth it to me too to have him fix the blade. I don’t consider myself an idiot just mechanically unsavvy like Steve. I’d gladly pay to have my oil changed, wiper blade fixed etc. Let’s put it this way: you CAN cut your own hair too but most people don’t. It’s easier and comes out better to have someone do it :)

  23. I paid about that much to get my windshield wipers replaced. Granted I got two, but the nice man installed them for me for free. I didn’t even think to tip him. My bad. Next time I’ll know better.

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  26. I also concur with the several other comments above–while I may have bought the bottom of the line, you can get wiper blades for $2-3 at Wal-Mart and install them in 5 minutes. Nothing against your bud Paolo, but he fleeced you. I suppose you saved time not having to run into a store, but still…

  27. You don’t get a wiper blade for $3. You might be able to get a cheap refill for that, but if something “snaps off”, Waiter needs more than a refill. $25 isn’t cheap, but from a mechanic, charging some labor to a guy in a rush, it hardly rises to the level of gouging. It’s not like he had the time to comparison-shop.

    And it’s not just the cost. Depending who he’s meeting, $25 might be worth the money not to get his clothes or hands messy. Brown-Eyes might not appreciate that ;-)

  28. I am a big fan Steve but I’m a little irked by this post.
    Ok, you didn’t pay the man to jump the queue but there was an entrenched pattern of behaviour and your previous payments (and friendly attitude) no doubt got you preferential treatment.
    I don’t know who was in the waiting room or what their situation was but I think it a bit presumptuous to assume that your need was as great (in fact, greater) than theirs.
    Indeed Paolo did them a disservice by ignoring the order in which they arrived and serving you first. He might have made $5 off you but how much did he lose by them seeing him take care of you – some blow-in off the street?
    Would you feel the same way if Paolo was a surgeon and you needed a transplant?

  29. That happened to my husband the other day. I felt bad because I was the one who’d replaced his wipers that time. I wish I could remember what brand it was. Being my husband, he just drove the rest of the way without a wiper blade. I think maybe it wasn’t coming down as hard as yours was. We still need to get that replaced. I think I paid about seven dollars apiece for those blades.

    I also think that regardless of your usual tipping your mechanic wouldn’t have rushed you to the front of the line had you needed something that took a little longer like an oil change. But who can really say what someone else would or would not do, so maybe he would. If I was waiting in line though, and I saw someone else come in and get helped in front of me, I might decide not to tip because I wasn’t being respected.

  30. Waiterrant Fan, your comparison of Steve’s situation with people waiting for a transplant is stretching it a tad. But truth is, people certainly don’t get organs on a first come, first served basis, now do they?

    The idea that we stand in line to claim our right to something is ancient, but not always practical. WHY should someone who needs a 2 minute snap-on repair wait until after the mechanic has rebuilt a transmission just because the transmission was there first? THAT’S what makes no sense. And anyone who thinks the 2 minute repair should wait until thier transmission is fixed is the entitled yuppie. Not the other way around.

  31. waiterrant fan: It took all of four minutes to change the blade. I dont think anyone in that waiting room even noticed. Steve took and takes care of the mechanic, so in turn the mechanic took care of him. Dont tell me you’ve gone through life without a favor a or two

  32. He cut the line. It doesn’t matter if he used money, charm, or magic fairy dust to do it. Those people were waiting, and he cut ahead.

    If Steve had written a story about waiting in line and then watching some “entitled yuppie” cut ahead of him (by whatever methods, for whatever reason), you’d all express utter shock and outrage at the behavior.

    Why does almost everyone who posts comments feel the need to be such a lapdog?

  33. My reply to those whom are upset that Steve “Cut in line” – Auto repair shops are not like the deli line where you take a ticket and wait. At many shops the mechanic may float between jobs and attend to several things at once. The mechanic stopping momentarily to fix the blade was nothing out of the ordinary. Although if he was dropping a motor in a car , that probably would be a really bad time to ask for that done. 25 bucks is expensive but that is the going rate. Also,if Steve is inept with fixing anything as he described – he is likely to have saved more money by not breaking anything and getting it done right the first time.

  34. The blogger formerly known as “Waiter” used to be a seminarian, and thus knows of the great theological debate about “faith” and “good works”: was faith alone enough to get you into Heaven, or would good works alone do it?

    In the end, the whole argument is a non-starter. If you’ve got “faith” then you _will_ do the good works as best you can, because the faith requires that kind of behavior.

    In the same way, money and respect are two sides of the same argument, at least in our money-based culture: what’s more important — money, or respect and gratitude? In a case like this, it’s the same thing — gratitude equals money, because it’s the _only_ way to make a difference in the mechanic’s life in gratitude for the difference he made in yours.

  35. What if life were a journey an exploration and we’ve been walking in circles without a roadmap to our goals and destinations?
    What if a book showed how to make your life smoother, fuller and decreased frustrations?
    Would you read it?
    Jess Stearn, “The Power of Alpha-Thinking”

    I found it in the library and wanted to share.

  36. Nice story, but I have to agree with others that you may want to learn how to change a wiper blade. Very useful skill if you want to do any traveling around this great country of ours.

  37. Yes! A new post, and another great one too. What is it about tipping that separates people? I think it comes down to two things: understanding and kindness. If I had never spent so many years in the restaurant business, I would never really comprehend what it entailed. But tipping, in this circumstance especially, is also a measure of human kindness. Yes, you generated a beneficial outcome for you, but I don’t believe that was your motivation all along, rather a perk. May be it gives hope to the notion that the nice guy does in fact finish first…

  38. Paolo is wise. If I get hit with five martini’s and a Pina Colada and someone then steps up to the bar only wanting a bottle of Heineken, I stop what I’m doing and get the beer in four seconds, regardless if I’m tipped or not. It’s the resourceful thing to do.

  39. What if all the people in the line would tip $5 … ? Would you then tip more to get to the front of the line? To me it sounds like tipping can be used more as a bribe and to cut lines that as a sign of appreciation. At the end, the people that can afford the biggest tip will get to the front of the line. The poor people in line will just have to wait. How nice. But perhaps poor people are in no hurry. Ever…?

  40. Here’s the thing about tipping – Some of us who are against it aren’t against it on principle. We’re just against a mandatory tip.

    If someone does a good job, by all means tip them. But the situation with waiters is wrong. Waiters should get paid for the work they do at least. Any tips should be entirely related to the level of service rather than 15% for lousy service.

  41. Hi, I heard your great interview with Faith Middleton the other day! I enjoyed it so much, I thought I’d stop by and say hello.

    That was a great post, and you are so right about tipping! Paolo sounds like a great guy too.

  42. Waiter, I have a legal question for you. I have been working for a new restaurant for a few months, and last night I had a table dine and dash. The restaurant made me pick up the tab. I am furious. In ten years of serving, I have never had a place make me liable for the tables check.

    I was wondering if you knew of any laws regarding this? Or if you had a direction you could point me in for finding laws regarding this.

    ps. great blog! Been a fan for years.

  43. “He cut the line. It doesn’t matter if he used money, charm, or magic fairy dust to do it. Those people were waiting, and he cut ahead.”

    To your “stop kissing up” line, I will counter with “take the stick out of your a**”.

    My mechanic does this kind of thing all the time, and when I’m the one waiting, I don’t mind at all that someone hops in for a quick fix. I’m perfectly OK with it, because I may need a quick fix myself someday. The work all gets done in a reasonable time, and quick priority jobs get done sooner. Flexibility, have you heard of it? Everyone wins, in my opinion.

  44. Nice story Steve.
    I can’t believe all the comments crying about line jumping. Its not the “tip” the guy was after it was doing a quick fix for a “friend” Steve knows the guys family story and has been going there for years. As a bartender when I see my long time customers come in, who I have spent many hours talking with, and I know what they drink I just pour their beer while I am waiting on others. Its not because of their tip its because I know them and like them. So when they sit down I slide their beer in front of them and continue with everyone else. Nobody crys “line jumper” I think all those cry babies probably think they get crappy service everywhere they go and complain on an email to the company when they get home. The fun part is when management gives the compalint to the server and she spends a couple hours at home signing up that email address for every offer of junk and porn available!!!! Revenge is sweet

  45. Would you sorry begrudgers please get a life. The mechanic took a couple of minutes to get a good customer back on the road. He didn’t move another job back by more than those same couple of minutes. So the most anyone ahead in the line can say is ” I was supposed to be out of here at 9:00 and now it’s 9:04, my whole day is ruined!!!!” Has life become so tiny?

  46. I think at its core, tipping should be voluntary.

    My country (Singapore) does not have a tipping culture. Service tax is factored into the meal.

    That said I still do tip people either for exceptional service, or people that do menial jobs for little money, like the cleaners that clear up food trays at food courts. Sometimes, they recognize me & clear my table first, but that’s not really the reason I do it.

    It’s a gesture that feels warranted and because I make it because I want to and not because it’s mandated, obligatory or expected, it means more to the person receiving it.

    The part I dislike about tipping culture is when bad service staff still expect it.

    As with your relationship with your mechanic, it’s based on friendship, not tipping. I think it’s far more pertinent to him that you know about him and his family and care to ask, than that you slip him some extra every once in a whlie. It helps, but human interaction always means so much more.

    As for queue jumping, it took 4 minutes, and it was a safety hazard. If I had a grocery cart filled with stuff and the person behind me had a bandage and painkillers for someone who got hurt, I’d let them go first. I can afford to wait the extra minute a lot more than he/she could.

  47. When you stepped up to the counter and declared your distress about being late to the meeting, you were also announcing that the gig of fixing the wiper blade would evaporate if not attended to within the next twenty minutes, and as a repeat customer you were threatening him with a recurring income evaporating.

    He calculated you at bringing in a few hundred dollars in the next couple of months, possibly more, and decided he couldn’t afford to offend you.

    Also, since your business could be resolved in minutes, it could serve as an advertizement to the customers in the waiting room of the advantages of being a repeat customer, without inconveniencing them overly.

    He may also genuinely like you, but that doesn’t mean his decisions aren’t based on what builds the business.

  48. I’m new to your website, so I don’t know if you’ve written about it before: What’s your opinion on tipping pizza delivery people? I delivered pizzas during a couple of terrible Illinois winters, and know that rain, sleet and snow don’t preclude cheap bastards from neglecting to tip. My personal opinion is that the worst weather in the world is 35 degrees and raining steadily, far worse than snow. On a night like that, a hot,fresh pizza rates a tip for the poor guy or girl with wet shoes and rain dripping off his/her nose.

  49. I don’t know where you guys are buying a 3$ wiper blade, but you can toot that horn all day long too, keep your 3$ blade and the disaster it will bring when it fails one week from new.
    Just bought new blades for my 95 civic @18 dollars a piece, so maybe the price isn’t so great, but i’ll be damn if im going to buy a 3 or 5 dollar blade and have it fail in a downpour. That would be as smart as buying a 10 dollar car tire and wondering why it blew out on the interstate.
    Remember he 1. was late, 2. was in a thunderstorm, 3. Couldn’t see in the rain 4. In New Jersey, never been there is there an Autozone every block?

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