The first time I saw him, he stood silhouetted against the glass in the door of the bookstore/bar. Tall and lean, he had pale skin with ginger hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. He perched on a barstool and ordered a beer, then another, and a vegetable empanada after veryifying that there was no meat in it. Oh – one of those, I thought, then remembered how I’ve become more and more one of those myself – picky people who won’t eat this and won’t eat that, for health reasons, for philosophical reasons. Still, there was something imperious about him, like he was putting me through my paces. Fine, I thought. I’m here to serve.
After several hours of eating and drinking at the bar, he paid his tab and stood waiting for his change of fifty cents. There was something extra purposeful about the way he held his hand out that told me he wasn’t planning to leave a tip.
No tip! No tip? Had I done something wrong? I’d been pleasant but not obsequious (he’d been the only bar customer on a Tuesday early afternoon). I tried to remember if there’d been any hint of a foreign accent – Europeans sometimes don’t know that it’s customary to tip a dollar for a drink. He’d had three beers and a snack. Was he Canadian? Irish?
He stood at the end of the bar, draining the last drops from his pint glass. Ah, I thought, rushing to give him the benefit of the doubt – he’s really poor and spent exactly as much money as he has on something to eat and drink. That last fifty cents, that’s it for the week for him.
Then he ordered one more beer.
Again, no tip. It bothered me so much, I wanted to ask if there was something wrong. That’s crazy, I thought – a confrontation, over a few dollars? Let it go. But I felt bummed out for the rest of the day. That he hadn’t tipped me. That I cared that he hadn’t tipped me.
And then the next day – there he was again. Hi! he said, so cheerily I realized I was now his friend. I decided to take the high road – yes, I would continue to provide him with excellent service, service with a smile – no tip required! Still, his stinginess, determined or innocent I wasn’t sure, rankled. How could a person reach the age of forty or even fifty or more – he looked like someone who took care of himself and I knew he didn’t eat meat – hell, why was I spending even a second thinking about this guy – he wasn’t paying me enough to obsess over his eating habits! Let it go, let it go.
He came in another day needing change for the parking meter. I’ll be back for a beer, he promised. Okay, I nodded cheerily – looking forward to that.
It’s been a month, and he’s a regular now. I’ve verified with a co-worker that it isn’t anything personal – he stiffs everybody. With a pained smile I greet him once or twice a week and dutifully place a gleaming pint in front of him. Be zen, I tell myself – the feel of the glass, the grain of the wood I slide the beer across, a smile on his sandy face. Who cares about money?
I was looking up the schedule at our local yoga studio the other day. I’ve been going once a week for a little while and even though I’ve always had a problem with the aesthetics of yoga – something about the length of the pants, or the way the yoga people look so enlightened after class as they stand in the coffee shop with their mats over their shoulders that they don’t notice anyone else in the world and bump those blasted mats all over the place – I really like it. I’m scrolling down the yoga studio page and there’s a stark portrait of a man in an impossible twisted pose – torso bare, arms where his legs should be, legs horizontal, feet splayed and – it, it can’t be. My hands claw the laptop screen, maximizing to get a better look at the face. It’s him! Ponytail man, No Tip! The guy’s a fucking yoga master.
What do they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear? Maybe he’s been sent to teach me.
Or maybe I’ll burn my yoga mat.
Or how about this – at the end of his time here, his master teaching session – he walks into the bar and drops a hundred dollar bill or two in the tip jar, like a guy who’s been staying at a luxury resort tips the staff at the end of his stay.
“You guys have been great,” he’ll say, shaking hands with all of us behind the bar. His hand is warm and dry. Then he’ll pose one last time, silhouetted in the glass of the front door, his shoulders broad. Then he’ll bow.