I live in Los Angeles, and one of the ways I fortify myself for my morning drive is a morning latte. I don’t really need it. I’ve had coffee at home and will likely have another ill-advised cup at the office. Since I’m a working parent who no longer drinks in bars or takes a cigarette break, I justify my habit as a sort of healthier daytime cocktail hour. I am a regular at several coffee shops near my home, and even though it’s an expense I can live without, I tip every day.
I’ll admit that I tip so that the latte I get is given with a smile, maybe the use of my first name or an inquiry about my children. As a result of my quotidian tipping, two or three drinks a month are usually on the house. But the main reason I tip is to say thanks. I say it with words to whoever took my order or made the rosetta swirl in my foam, but the tip speaks louder. The barristas are often college students, aspiring actors, or new to the American workforce. Many appear to be between careers. I imagine that for most of them, “real” life is elsewhere, in their dream job or the family abroad.
Like most people I know, I’ve had jobs like this. I worked at a café in college, where the occasional tip from someone in my English or history class was a welcome surprise. I was a forgetful but well-meaning waitress for about two weeks in a fancy Boston restaurant. I received respectable tips from my Newberry Street customers, but I suspect that they were out of sympathy or karmic thanks for no longer being in jobs like that themselves. That’s partly why I tip, too. My waitressing stint was the nadir in my already poor youth, a time when I worked three jobs – in a store, the restaurant, and an office – and still ate popcorn or Ramen noodles for dinner, my one and only meal. As a child and young adult, I had no safety net. My only goals outside of paying rent were affording my subway pass and finishing college.
Waking up every day and doing a job that is not what we dreamed of as children is most people’s reality. Even when I was no longer bouncing checks every month, it was years before I could afford regular oil changes on my old car or exceeding the minimum payment on my credit card bills. It was even longer before I could take the financial risk of graduate school or a new car. And I know that I’m fortunate. Thanks to my education, many lucky mistakes and a full resume, I have steady, professional work that pays well enough for me to share.
I can’t give my barristas a new car or pay their rent, and I can’t raise the minimum wage alone. But I can put a dollar or two in the jar and hope that they can achieve some of their dreams.
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