What We Can Learn About People In Restaurants and Costco Parking Lots

I’m a server at a restaurant. And as a server, I am completely dependent on the goodness of strangers in order to make money. Nobody is forced to leave a tip after their meal… Not even large parties where the gratuity is added to the check. If someone complains and says, “Hey–I don’t want to pay this automatic gratuity,” they don’t have to. You can’t FORCE someone to pay a gratuity. I know this from experience… I have taken perfect care of a table before, and–for whatever reason–they declined the auto-grat. One of those times, people actually said, “I only give 10% to God… You think I’m giving him 20?” But despite the existence of these kinds of people, I have been serving long enough to know that it always seems to even out. For every unbelievably cheap person out there, there seems to always be someone who is generous enough to make up for them.

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For every person like this out there, there is someone with a soul.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the name of the game is trying to get people to leave me money. Sure–I want them to have a great experience, and have a really nice meal… But when that check goes down, if I have to choose between someone thanking me profusely for how impressive my service was, or someone quietly leaving me an extra $20 on top of their regular tip, I’m choosing the money every time. Sorry verbal tippers out there–We can’t pay our bills with your kind words. 

Different servers do different things when they bring the check to the table. Some people write little messages on the check… Like “Thank you!” or “Come back again soon!” I’m not one of those people. Here’s what I do: I leave the check without a check presenter. You know–those little fancy booklets that have a little slot for credit cards? I don’t use them. And here’s why: I believe that the best way to encourage people to be generous is to make it harder for them to keep their cheapness a secret. When people have those books, it’s super easy to leave a crappy tip–with half of the book in the air, like they’re shielding their answers from the kid sitting next to them in middle school–and then just close it up so that no one other than their server (as well as the rest of the service staff in the restaurant after we show everyone) will know what a jackass they are (if you’re interested, I wrote about “How To Not Be A Jack Ass” here, and I wrote about “What Christians Need To Know About Tipping” here). But without that very effective hiding place for their stinginess, their lack of generosity is on display for all to see. Sure, they can still fold it in half… or flip it over… or strategically place the pen across the line where they wrote in the tip… But they still have to consider the possibility that someone they KNOW is going to catch a glimpse of their tip. Or lack thereof. Like SCOTUS Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

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You can learn a lot about a person by how they behave in Costco. What you can learn about me is that I’m in love with that little onion grinder thingy they have…

You can watch this same test of integrity play out in the Costco parking lot. Some time, take a couple minutes and watch what people do with their shopping carts when they’re done with them (Well, I call them shopping carts… My wife and now my kids call them “Buggies.” I was certain that this “Buggy” nonsense was only some quirk specific to her immediate family… Until she showed me an ACTUAL SIGN in West Virginia that said, “Buggy Corral.” My mind was blown. Though for some time I suspected she and her kin might have planted the sign).

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Apparently, there are people who refer to them as “Wagons” and “Carriages.” In case your Kroger is located in the Old West.

Anyway, watch to see if people take them back to the the Shopping Cart Return/Buggy Corral. If you watch closely, you’ll see that people are a lot less likely to push two of their cart’s wheels onto some grassy knoll if there are other people around. Their behavior changes based on who’s watching. MOST people, that is. Some people don’t care at all… They wear their indifference for the people around them like some sort of badge of honor. But as far as I can tell, there are four main types of people… In Buggy Returns and in life. Here they are:

  1. The person who is going to push their buggy onto a grassy knoll while waving at everyone driving by and wearing a t-shirt that says “I don’t give a f*ck about your stupid buggy return areas.” This person also has a higher probability of having a gun in their glove box (next to a copy of something written by Ayn Rand), a red hat in their backseat (so to speak), and at least a mild sympathy for the Confederacy.
  2. The person who believes they ALWAYS have a set of eyes on them. Jesus’ eyes. Always watching… Judging… Ready to catch you doing something wrong–like not putting the buggy where it goes–so he can give you a guilt trip. Keeping you afraid of the possibility of being sent to hell like almost everyone else on the planet to be tortured for all eternity. You know… The “Good News.”
  3. The person who is going to look for a return, but if there isn’t one close by, they just might ditch it somewhere. They’ll look around to see if anyone is watching… If not, they will shove their buggy somewhere it’s not supposed to go. If they make eye contact with someone, they might walk the extra 30 steps to the buggy return. They have a sense that shoving their cart halfway onto a curb is probably making someone else’s life harder… But they’re tired, you know? And at least they didn’t leave it where it can roll away. Like SOME people. Ehh, they’re probably going to forget about it in a few minutes anyway…
  4. The person who–for whatever reason–is usually thinking of other people… No matter who is watching. Maybe he knows the feeling of having to to pick up after inconsiderate people who spend their lives thinking “Someone else will take care of it.” Maybe she has had a job where she watched people rationalize and hide and lie to themselves about their own selfishness, and–through some twist of fate–she now walks around with that compassion and empathy at the forefront of her mind. A person who is outwardly-focused… Focused on “loving neighbors,” one might say…

And before you get all “Plank and Speck” on me, I am well aware that I am not even CLOSE to functioning at a level four all the time. Maybe not even MOST of the time. While I’m serving, there are times when I see the ice needs to be refilled, but my feet are sore, and I’m tired… And I push two wheels of the metaphorical buggy onto the curb. Especially when no one’s watching. So don’t get me wrong–I have the capacity to be every bit as selfish and lazy as the next guy… The difference is that I’m just aware that when I have those times of times of compassion and empathy and action and integrity and selflessness, I am way closer to getting it right.

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The party of “Me First” with the ideology that turns selfishness into a virtue… A match made in republican heaven.

And this is the part I don’t get about some people right now… Politically, and even somehow managing to rationalize it spiritually: Some people seem to have talked themselves into thinking that a “me-first,” screw-everyone-else mentality is morally acceptable. Possibly even morally superior. And I think it’s morally repugnant. A me-first, “America First,” healthcare-denying, immigrant-excluding, refugee-banning, wealth-worshiping, poverty-demonizing, all-lives-mattering, privilege-protecting disease of the mind and soul has infected a disturbing amount of people in this nation. Things like compassion and empathy and selflessness are looked at as signs of weakness. Or a punchline. Or even an evil enemy with nefarious names like “socialism” or “political correctness.” So I have compassion for people who have been duped into believing #2… I have empathy for people feeling #3… But I cannot–for the life of me–figure out how people can’t seem to understand that #4 is such a BETTER version of themselves than #1.

Because it is better. It just is. It’s not that one is “right,” and one is “wrong” necessarily… There are always going to be exceptions and reasons for times when focusing on yourself has to be a focus. But as a balance… As a guiding principle… As a way of life, selflessness is just so clearly BETTER than selfishness. As a human guideline, as a spiritual guideline, and as a guideline of people who value anything at all about Jesus, it’s just better. It’s a better version of ourselves, and it’s a better version of a society worth having. But the disagreement over this basic starting point is what makes me wonder how we’ll ever get through this deep division we are in right now, where we have such starkly different concepts of something as simple as the Goodness of being outwardly focused. Oh–Wake up, world. Open your eyes, clouded by fear… And see your neighbor. See the virtue in taking care of each other. See the possibility of a better world, and start working on it like someone’s watching…

If you’d like to support me, my writing, and this blog, you can do that HERE or HERE. If you like something you have read here, share it with the people in your life. You know what? If you like something ANYWHERE, share it. Stay hopeful, stay loving, and stay active and brave in your resistance of this attempt to paint selfishness as a virtue. Love your neighbor, y’all.

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6 Responses to What We Can Learn About People In Restaurants and Costco Parking Lots

  1. Jeff Cann says:

    When I talk about things like returning the wagon to the corral, I tie it to finance. It costs money to collect the wagons. If we all do our part, prices will go down.

  2. Julianne says:

    Love this comparison. Thank you

  3. FYI – as a lifelong Texan, I promise you that no one I know calls a shopping cart a “buggy”. Nope.

  4. joesantus says:

    As th’ 61-year-old atheist/agnostic (but not the anti-theist nor miltant atheist), here’re my non-Christian practices for decades:

    1) USA servers’ lower wages are set (whether unreasonably or not) on the assumption they’ll get a base gratuity, currently of about 20%. I always tip at least 20%. If I’m pleased with the service, I tip MORE than 20%. If the cook burns my meal, if I don’t like the restaurant’s cut of meat, or if I feel the server did do a poor job, nevertheless the server still deserves 20% of the bill total as a tip. If I have a problem with the meal, I complain to the owner or manager, not punish the server by robbing her/him of the 20%; and if I have a problem with the server, I still tip 20% but do complain about the server and service to the owner or manager.
    If i can’t afford to tip 20%, then I shouldn’t be paying to eat at restaurants, since in the US, the understanding is that customers tip 20% as part of a server’s wages. I’ve never been a server, nor am I a rich guy (I’ve lived near the federal poverty level most of my adult life), but I see failing to leave at least 20% as stealing from the server — but apparently, many theists who preach that stealing is a “sin” conveniently redefine tipping to suit their own wallets.

    2)I’ve seen too many shopping carts roll into vehicles or block parking spots and traffic lanes. I’ve observed how one person’s ditching a cart becomes a handy excuse for other people to do likewise. To me, failing to return carts properly makes me unconcerned about any inconvenience or even harm I do to them and their vehicles. I reason that, if I’m not too incapacitated, tired, nor lazy to have pushed that cart/carriage/buggy through a store and parking lot for making my purchase, then I surely am not going to drop dead even if requires as long as a whole five minutes to find a cart return and properly return the thing. (If I DO drop dead returning it, then I prove I had a legitimate excuse.)
    Snowstorm, pouring rain, 100+ F summer temperature, time-demands, my arthritic knees and hips, etcetera — if I was able to find and push that cart for my shopping, then I can’t have deteriorated so much by when I’m ready to leave that I can’t return it, can I have? Even when I hauled our family of six kids when some were still toddlers and crying babies in our van for grocery shopping, and we typically filled TWO carts per shopping trip, those buggies/carriages/carts were always returned properly.
    And, heck, I manage to overcome my fatigue, hunger, pain, and impatience for that earth-shaking task of walking an extra few minutes to return my cart, without that assistance of the god those many Christians who don’t return their carts loudly claim will empower them when they ask for help…

    • Khlovia says:

      Excellent point that one probably won’t die of fatigue in between car door and carrel and back–especially if one managed to slog through the entire shopping experience, plus the long trek through the parking lot back to one’s car, without collapsing.

  5. Khlovia says:

    Hey, you forgot #5! My husband and I always, 110% of the time, return our cart to the nearest carrel, whether anybody is looking or not. The extra 10% comes from the fact that we also collect any strays we happen to spot on the way. Neither of us is the least bit Christian. He’s an adamant atheist and I’m an occasional Pagan.

    Lovin’ your blog.

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