Nantucket Essays

Freedom Has No Tip Jar

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

At the Juice Bar, the scoopers put up a sign over the ice machine that read “Relax, things could be worse.  You could be on this side of the counter.” When I found this sign, I was one of about thirty people with my hands on my money and my attention on the flavor list.  My wait was not long, nor was it rude, nor was it unpleasant, but I was there in a lull.  I dropped a hair more than twenty percent tip into the Tips for Tuition cups before yielding to a family from New Hampshire.  I left happily slurping my watermelon cream.

It can’t be fun.  For hours, one tired and annoyed face follows another in front of you.  Each has demands and commands; “Could I have that in a dish?  Do you have rainbow sprinkles instead? Do you have rum raisin in a soy based ice cream?”  I suspect every fourth customer swings out a credit card and mentally stumbles and stutters at the impossibility of a plastic transaction.  It can’t be fun to stand behind that counter at eight o’clock at night, pushing the credit cards away, and just keep scooping.

I’m not sure the tips are worth it.  Money is power; tipping is judgment. On one side of the counter, the tip has become the real pay.  The paycheck keeps the landlord and Bank of America happy, the tip jar is for beer and burritos.  The tip is also judgment.  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 or with a spirit communal brotherhood or an ooze of guilt.  Somehow, the price of the ice cream 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.

Our society has changed in the last twenty-five years.  You don’t need to be a banker or an occupier to see how far the gap has grown between those that have and those that don’t.  We have become an island where you stand on one side of the counter or the other; you are tipped or you tip.

We would live, and work, in a better world if everyone had stood on both sides of the counter.  The world whispers to you differently when you wear another man’s Teva’s.  One woman has four children and has been stuck in a line for a half hour while she keep them polite and amused.  Another scoops out the fourth hour of an eight hour shift.  A warm smile of recognition would go far to cross the counter between them.  Everyone would like a brownie sundae with a sprinkle of empathy.  It’s not easy for anybody.

At the beginning of Moby-Dick, in “Loomings,” Ishmael says “Who ain’t a slave, tell me that?”  Everyone, even the top bankers in New York, stands on the other side of the counter.  Everyone, whether they wear a bespoke Italian suit or a “Young’s Bicycles” hat, does the bidding of someone else; either “The Board would like you to take this in a new direction” or “I need jimmies with this one.”  Everyone gets marching orders.  The nature of work, for most of us, is that we have to do things that we would rather not do.  We all need to stand behind the counter and smile when we would rather not, even if we are the head of CitiBank.

The great lottery ticket in life isn’t winning riches upon riches (although I would take that check), it’s finding work that we find meaningful.  Even that meaningful work comes with its share of sneers and lashes.  You may work helping the most needy children in the world, but you will still find yourself searching for plastic flamingos at nine o’clock at night.  Even meaningful work comes with a wine glass of humiliation.  We are all slaves to something.

In September, the wind blows the season to an end.  The clouds seep in from the northwest, the windows shut, and the last waffle cones slide across the counter.  The BMW will travel off-island with the last ice cream dripping into the fine Corinthian leather.  Tomorrow, meetings, bullet points, and mission statements await the BMW.  And tomorrow, the sun will rise over Wauwinet, the bluefish will bite off the South Shore, and the trashmen will come for the dumpsters.

Two middle-aged trashmen, complete with spare tires and gray hair, picked up and emptied one of the dumpsters down at the strip.  Neither of them looked as if they found deep and satisfying meaning in their work.  Neither looked as if it has led to great riches in their lives.  Both seemed content.

For most of us, 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 “slave” work—the scooping, the meeting, the selling—so that we can be free after we punch out.  Freedom has no tip jar.

You need to glisten in the Madaket sunset in order to live here.  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 taste the first flakes as they fall on the town.  In March, Cisco roars throughout the island.  You pay for all of this at the counter in July.

Remember February.

Articles by Date from 2012