Gentleman Scholar

What Should a Gentleman Tip a Racist Cabdriver?

Stiff the chump? Throw a wad of bills in his face?

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Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

What is the tipping etiquette for ordering at the lunch counter or picking up takeaway meals? There is no delivery or table service to express gratitude for, and the person running the register likely had nothing to do with the food’s preparation. My husband, who clocked many years as a waiter, says that no tip is expected for handing over a $4 sandwich and not to worry about it unless the order was especially large or complicated.

Thank you for your question.

Some takeout customers tip 20 or 25 percent. Tipping at that level makes sense if the order totals $10 or less, or if you are nurturing a mutually generous relationship with a sushi chef. But, in general, that’s a bit much, isn’t it? At the other extreme, some takeaway-ers do not tip a dime, even when signing for a cargo crate of Cobb salad. This practice is unsupportable in a world where it is common to fork over an extra buck for a lousy cup of fancy coffee—and where, right now, hundreds of ceramic cups sit on Dunkin’ Donuts counters, reflecting orange and pink in the hard air.

Dunkin’ Donuts is an interesting conceptual space to examine the question of where it is not wrong to not tip. Should we draw the line there, at Dunkin’, while greedily receiving an order of glazed Munchkins? Because of its coffeehouse aspect, Dunkin’ now shares a mission with chains that are selling macchiatos sprinkled with quasi-artisanal sensibility. Therefore, its franchisees are able to get away with placing tip cups at their registers. And yet Dunkin’ Donuts is, of course, fast food—“an American global doughnut company,” in Wikipedia’s phrase, which roundaboutly conjures visions of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

Should we give proper tips at fast-food chains? Signs point to no, I’d argue, guided by two hold-the-line notions: If you are getting food from a chain that operates a drive-through window at any of its establishments, you should regard tipping as polite but optional. If you are getting a sandwich from something that more closely resembles a concession stand than a diner, then tipping is, likewise, agreeable but noncompulsory.

Does the buck and change I tip on a fried-egg sandwich get distributed among the guys in the kitchen? Is the hostess at the Thai place divvying up that Jefferson? Is the manager at the empanada shack skimming the tips and padding his pockets? That’s none of the customer’s concern. Your basic obligation is to give a token of respect, and I believe that a buck and change is the approximate price of that token in the situation you describe. If your goal is to be remembered as a choice customer, you will find occasions to pad that sum.

What’s the correct tip for a racist cabdriver?

Help me think this through.

A few months back, the wife and I went out to see a rock show. Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks were in exhilarating fine form. At the crown of the encore, they covered the Troggs, converting “Wild Thing” to a squalid wail, and we the audience debouched onto a side street, looking to relieve the baby sitter. The wife and I hustled up to the avenue, where I rushed a half of a block ahead, downstream toward oncoming traffic. I hailed a taxi. The driver did not stop.

This is not a good habit, but I sometimes plant kicks in the rear fenders of available taxis as they pass me by. A guy can only suppose that the driver disapproves of his complexion, and sometimes the supposition ignites a spark of outrage and he kicks a moving cab.

I kicked the cab, and the driver paused for a moment (as if he were considering a conversation) before proceeding down the block. And then he stopped for my wife. I got the door for her, and slid in.

“Why’d you kick my car?”

I shut that question up asking why he failed to stop. I barked a mildly sincere apology and began to give directions, tersely, heavily garnished with murderous pleases, and all down the expressway I was in a steam and trying to calculate what to tip.

There clearly would have been justice in delivering no tip, and I worried that to stiff the clown would reflect poorly on me or my kind. There was a thought for tipping an offensively large amount, in the spirit of throwing a wad of bills in some chump’s face, but that’s expensive and brings to mind Whitley Marion Gilbert overspending to spite an offensive shopgirl in the third season of A Different World. There was the desire to leave an insultingly low tip, and though I was really in the mood to be insulting to the guy, I decided to try to be (or to seem) magnanimous (or something).

I concisely extracted a word of apology, tipped about 18 percent, and saved the receipt. What would you have done? Thanks in advance.