Sand Upon the Waters
By Tom H. Cook
Writing this has been so difficult, I almost feel nostalgic for the paper era with typed crumpled drafts littering the floor and discarded ideas scrawled and flung in or near my office wastebasket. Tangible evidence of futile yet honest effort. (My mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “You have to at least try.”) Proof, like a runner’s sweat, that I labored, albeit in vain, to reach even my modest standard of journalism. I cannot tell you how many times I have begun this (all right, 15). Now a click exorcises hours of folly.
Why is this piece so hard? In every draft I come off as preaching to my betters. Shrill, sanctimonious, self righteous, and self serving. Why bother? Why not write about the mentally ill gaining easier access to weapons, or the “relaxation” of data privacy laws, or why reading the posts on Next Door in any neighborhood makes me want to move far away? This is about a series of small gestures I have undertaken. As a final disclaimer, I am not setting myself up as a paragon of generosity and I likely do less for my fellow man than you do, yet here is my very short tale.
I have always been lets call it frugal although those that know me have other names for it. In the last few years I have begun to loosen up a bit. This is not about writing checks to worthy organizations (see HLP/March 2004). In non-tipping situations I have taken to rewarding people that have gone out of their way for me. It seems like every minimum wage and a bit higher worker is being rated and evaluated by their supervisor who in turn must report up the ladder and ultimately to the head weasel. This has produced a class of people subtly bullied into feeling grateful for the opportunity to do a difficult, monotonous, unpleasant, and/or dangerous job. Then they must worry that I will turn them in for below average groveling and insufficient servility.
My eyes have become further opened to the squeeze on the working poor. They are “independent contractors,” which translates to no healthcare, seniority, retirement or sick leave. When I have had positive dealing with workers and service people who I feel deserve a bit extra, I help. They do not have to give me a story, but often it flows freely. I assure them that we are off the record and they will get all “5s” from me. Like Studs Terkel, I ask, “What do you do all day, and how do you feel about it? How are you treated by the company?” I am just an old man asking gentle questions. If they have quotas to meet and need to rush off, I let them go.
Countless times I have received an extra coat of touch-up paint on a gate, a few extra feet of cable, or a tow to a slightly out of network repair shop. We are enjoined in a conspiracy, if only for a few minutes. We know I am being overcharged for the product or service and they are receiving a pitifully small percentage. Their lives are far harder than mine (affordable housing may be 50 miles away from where their route begins) yet they see me as a fellow victim of the bureaucratic rules that bind us. Since I don’t come off as an entitled homeowner, the service people I have met are astonishing. This is not a tit for tat or a figurative back scratching. These are good souls trapped in a piecework system with no safety net or union protection. I could not even in my prime (May-August 1977) last a week in their lives.
Often the repair person has fixed problems like mine many times. Just by my offering a cold drink on a hot day they will show me tricks to head off future repairs. I am not polite because of what I may gain, but I am genuinely interested and sympathetic. I never lead with the promise of a gift. Generally it is a Columbo moment (“Just one more thing…”). Often the tip is refused until I mention the extra service they provided me. I don’t give a huge amount, maybe enough to take their family to dinner, pay a bill, or put gas in their vehicle (sadly not all three). Invariably they are flabbergasted The gratitude I receive is more valuable and feels better than what I would have done with the money.
Tom H. Cook is now an occasional columnist. He recommends The Despair of Learning That Experience No Longer Matters by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the April 10, 2017 New Yorker.