BY DAVID H.
I understand my wife’s disdain on evenings when I claim that I’m “too scared” to call for delivery food. While I see the horror in possible awkward situations that might arise in the arrangement of dinner delivery, it happens infrequently enough to consider an actual fear of it borderline ridiculous. This fear of the awkward encounter, however, makes all sorts of sense in certain situations, certain undeniable points of human interaction that have the potential to go horribly, horribly wrong.
I never mind tipping within proper, organized confines — restaurants, for instance. I am guaranteed that, as long as I meet the fifteen per cent threshold, I won’t be confronted, embarrassed, called out, berated or belittled in any way by an irritated, under-tipped server. The guidelines are there so that people like me are still able to function in society.
There are some moments that don’t have such clear parameters, however, leaving folks like myself without much comfort when faced with these situations; for instance, Amy and I were once being driven to the airport by her father, Larry, after our Christmas in Atlanta. Larry, a regular flyer, was offering me tips on how to get a awkwardly huge gift I had received that year checked in with no problem.
“They only care around weight, not size, but you should still walk up there with the expectation that they will check it for you, in case I’m wrong.” As a measure of security, Larry said he would drive to the outside check-in area, at which point I began to get nervous.
“Don’t you have to tip those guys out here?” I asked, trying to get my voice above the emanating whisper.
“Yeah, but not more than a couple of bucks,” he assured me. I felt less than confident that the outside baggage checker would be happy with “a couple of bucks,” but Larry was, after all, a seasoned traveler. I tried to relax.
When we arrived, I managed to hoist the box out of the back seat and began lumbering towards the check-in counter, hoping I could somehow slip under the radar. I’d just try to walk up, calmly and assuredly, place my box on the scale…
But I took no more than three steps before hearing the callous voice of the bag checker yell at me.
“That box is too big!” The guy was actually working on getting someone else checked in, but felt it imperative that he cease his current transaction to bellow that at me from 20 yards away. That’s how ridiculous my package apparently looked.
“I thought it was weight, not size,” I said dumbly. “Isn’t it the weight?”
“Weight and size, man,” he said dismissively. I still carried the box over, but with a deflated sense of the ease with which I’d be able to get my present home. I dropped the box in line and waited my turn. Finally it was my turn.
“It’s too big, man,” he immediately repeated. “It’ll cost $100 to get that home.”
“A hundred dollars?” I asked incredulously. I began to plead. “I have to get this home for less than that. What do the measurements have to be?”
“Well,” he drew out, as he strolled my way from around the counter. He pulled out a tiny measuring tape and began measuring in foreign ways. The guy would measure the length, and then measure the width, add them together and the tack on the measurement of the depth.
“What exactly are we measuring here?” I asked. I guess it was total surface area, but with just a single number instead of a cubic footage.
“Your box is 76,” he said firmly.
“76 what?” I asked, confused.
“Inches.” There seemed to be a disconnect, but I decided to play ball.
“Okay, what number do I have to get it down to?”
“54. Yeah. It’s got to be 54 inches.”
I kind of stared at him longer than I meant to. “So if I add up all the sides, and get it to 54, I can take the box with me?”
“Yeah, that’s what it’s got to be,” he replied. I figured I could make that work by cutting the box at the corners, further down the flaps and then folding these flaps, overlapping them.
“Do you have a knife?” I asked simply.
“No, we don’t have knives.”
“Nope, sorry man.” I closed my eyes a moment and pulled out my keys. I removed the tape from the box and began hacking rough cuts down past the flaps. After doing so over the next 5 minutes, I refolded and asked for the measuring tape. I felt stupid measuring it his way.
“Okay, it’s…it’s ‘64’ now.”
“It’s got to be 54, pal,” he responded. I tried to hack a little bit more, but I was starting to get too close to the contents of the box. I wouldn’t be able to get it down to 54, no matter how much cutting I managed to do.
Seeing my plight, Larry stepped in with a question that was actually more of a promise than an inquiry.
“Can’t you help us out?”
And with that question, I really freaked out. When you ask someone in the service industry to “help you out,” all bets are off. There are no more rules. There’s no fifteen per cent, and there’s no “couple of bucks.” There’s just you, the bagman and a vast void of uncertain expectations, none of which I felt I could meet.
“Let’s see what we can do,” the porter quickly suggested. With that unspoken guarantee of unknown compensation, the bagman re-measured.
“All right, we can get this on. But you know,” he reminded me, “this would normally cost $100.” He asked for our tickets. While Amy pulled those out, I pulled out a five-dollar bill, hoping against hope that it would suffice. He scanned the tickets, which didn’t go through. I knew this was because Amy and I had had to reschedule our tickets earlier that week.
“Oh, I’m not going to be able to check you in down here. You’ll have to go upstairs and work with them. But they’re not going to let you take this box.”
“What should we do?” I responded dejectedly, still clutching the five tightly in my hand.
After a moment of hesitation, in which I saw his eyes go from disinterest to something that was either Christmas Spirit or greed, he said, “Hang on for a minute.” He took our tickets and walked into the airport.
Larry suggested that I probably ought to give him my five as soon as he got back, so he would know we appreciated his help. I wrapped it up tightly, so I could make my subtle slip of the bill upon his return. He came back a few minutes later, but only to retrieve our IDs, which he said he’d need to get us checked in. With my license, I also gave him the five. He didn’t look at it, but gave a quick thanks and walked back into the airport.
Something about the interaction flooded me with relief. People don’t really get mad about tips, at least not to the patron’s face, I reasoned. Besides, a five is a nice, classy tip. I mean, they make an honest hourly wage down here. I was sure of it. It’s not like they’re waiters. He’s probably earning $10, heck, maybe $12 an hour. Every tip is nice, but you don’t really have to sweat the amount. You give what you can give.
I waited, pleased with myself and realizing that things were going to be okay after all.
After about 10 minutes, the man returned. “All right, you guys are good to go.” My imagination was beginning to detect a sorrow in his voice that I immediately snuffed. Larry and Amy began putting their bags up on the scales and gathering their belongings. At this point, the bagman walked very close to me and whispered into my ear.
“You know that box was going to cost $100 to ship, right?” he said quietly, but sternly. It was bordering on threatening. My horrible, irrational and regularly derided fears were coming to fruition.
I was being called out for a bad tip, and it was getting awkward. I tried to play dumb. It’s the only defense I’ve perfected in my life.
“Yeah. Geez. That was crazy. Thanks so much. And Merry Christmas.” Maybe the last sentence was a bit much.
“I got you guys checked in, you know? I got that box on there….”
“Yeah, I really appreciate it all. It was awesome.” What could I say? The bagman decided not to respond, but simply looked down. I looked down to, and then saw that he still had my five, wadded up in the palm of his hand. He shook his head from side to side, slowly and showing disappointment in me, and maybe even all of mankind.
He shook his head, and he made a sigh. Not just any sigh though, but that kind where you keep your lips together so they rattle while you breathe out. Sort of like a horse noise. The bagman made that noise so that there was no mistaking that five was not enough. I was a bad tipper, and he was telling me so.
I pulled out my wallet and extracted another five, which I gave to him and lied, “This is all I have, man.” I gave it to him, and without another word, he walked back around the counter and began soundlessly pulling our bags to the back. I watched, still and silent, not knowing how to process this new David, the one who is no friend to the service industry. Word would surely get out about me.
As a last ditch effort, I offered a hearty “Thank you!” with my hand outstretched, palm facing my new sworn enemy. With a mere raise of his eyebrows, he turned his head back to his counter, suddenly interested in the papers that had been sitting there. I turned around, rolling my carry-on luggage to the gate, and wondering if I’d even see my package waiting for me in Boston.