Nantucket Essays

At the Counter

by Robert P. Barsanti

The Morning Bun is a ball of croissant dough, interspersed with layers of butter and crusted over with sugar and cinnamon. The lines at Wicked begin at six in the morning and, if you have been tardy with your alarm, you will find yourself sitting on the outside patio waiting for the next rack of buns to come out of the oven.

With the luxury of off-season appearing before me, I didn’t need to press the end of summer into one final round of Morning Buns. The array of customers, drinking coffee and waiting for their names to be called, didn’t have that luxury. They were anxious, but patient, for the most part. In that crowd were dads who promised the buns to their families, Yelpers who believed their phones, and the poor assistants who had been charged by the billionaire’s housekeeper to get a dozen or two for breakfast. I got coffee and a muffin, then dropped a hair more than twenty percent tip into the Tips for Tuition cups before yielding to a family from New Hampshire with big appetites.

It can’t be easy. The staff had posted signs, made t-shirts, and mounted the dry erase board into the most visible place: “ You need to wait for the Buns.” But every morning, Chad or Becky came in on a surfboard of entitlement and demand their Morning Buns. They flash their black Amex cards, speak to the manager, and threaten digital apocalypse on one message board of another. None of them, of course, can get the ovens to work faster. But, if you are worker, you smile at 7:30 in the morning, you are polite, and you hope that the next customer offers a smile and a bigger tip.

I am not sure the bigger tips are worth it. When money is power, tipping is judgement. On one side of the counter, the tip has become the real pay. The pay check is for the landlord and Netflix, the tip jar is for beers and burritos. Tips evaluate you; thumbs up for a few dollars, thumbs down for a few coins. You must feel a little better about yourself knowing that the man in the suit left you a twenty.

On the other side of the counter, tips make a pricey indulgence more expensive. You can leave some money with a swell of patronizing generosity, with a spirit of communal brotherhood, or with an ooze of guilt. Somehow, the price isn’t enough for the store, and your generosity is expected. Even if the cup wasn’t there, someone would want to tip just so they could feel the Patrician Pleasure of Giving Something for the Effort.

In the bright modern future, lit like the real estate ads, most stores have gone to a digital register like Toast, where a screen hectors the customer into a prescribed tip. Toast offers us the worst of both worlds. For the worker, the precious beer money is now visible to the Goblins in the IRS. For the customer, a burst of generosity has become an expected burden.

Our society has changed in the last twenty-five years. You don’t need to be a banker or a realtor to see how far the gap has grown between those who have and those who don’t. For those who have never sold baked goods or revealed the truth of the Missing Morning Buns, the workers have become a class below. To the Chads and Beckys that come into the bakery bellowing, the workers are Not Our Kind. The workers won’t be at the Chicken Box or enjoying the break at Nobadeer, they will be on the boat back to Hyannis. As we continue to off-shore the workers, the island becomes a hotel where the guests will never be on the other side of the counter. To those workers, they are no more Nantucketers than they would be Hiltons.

We would live—and work—in a better world if everyone had spent some time on both sides of the counter. The world whispers to you differently when you wear another man’s Tevas. One woman has four children and has been stuck in a line for a half-hour while she keeps them polite and amused. Another bags up the fourth hour of an eight-hour shift. A warm smile of recognition would go far to cross the counter between them. We all would like a brownie with a sprinkle of empathy. It’s not easy for anybody.

The great lottery ticket in life isn’t two acres at the end of Devon Street, it’s finding work that we find meaningful. Even that meaningful work comes with its share of sneers and lashes. Even meaningful work comes with a wine glass of humiliation.

For most of us who get a paycheck, work is a day job. Our real jobs start when the car is back in the driveway. Our souls catch light when we weld beams into sculpture, pile fish upon fish on the beach, or read the children into deep sleep. We endure the work— the scooping, the meeting, the selling—so that we can be free after we punch out.

But you have to be lucky, now. You have to have had the good fortune to have bought in the last millennium or to have a decent landlord or to have employee housing. The last generation of workers is slowly passing as we become a Caretaker Island.

If you are lucky, you have to accept weeding, cleaning, and scooping as your day job so that you can take a Tuesday in October to stand in the moors and watch the hawks circle. In December, you witness the first flakes as they fall on the town. In March, you can hear the surf at Cisco roar throughout the island. You pay for all of this at the counter in August.

Articles by Date from 2012