Waffle House. Midnight. I was on the road. I pulled in for supper because everything else was closed and the coonhound in my passenger seat was hungry.
I was somewhere near central Alabama. A place where there are more log trucks per capita than anywhere else. Although that’s not saying much. In these parts, there aren’t many capita.
The joint was quiet. My dog waited in the truck while I got takeout.
There was a lone businessman sitting at the bar. He was scanning Waffle House’s updated, concise menu,
“This menu used to be bigger,” the man said irritably.
“Sorry,” said the waitress. “That’s our newer menu.”
“But, why is it so small?”
“You’ll have to ask management.”
The Waffle House menu has gotten considerably smaller, you might have noticed. Used to, the menu offered everything from tomato juice to khaki trousers. Now they just serve up their greatest hits.
Which is good with me. I love this institution. We ate Waffle House takeout at my wedding.
The man at the counter, however, is not so easily pleased. He is dressed in slacks and a necktie. His shoes look like they cost more than a Steinway concert grand. He is driving a Benz.
I was getting the impression that if his food didn’t come out dead letter perfect, he was going to paint the walls with it.
The waitress brought his plate. The man ate while playing on his phone. She kept his coffee level. His water glass never got below the rim.
But he still wasn’t happy. He asked for ranch dressing. She told him they don’t have ranch. They only have mayonnaise ever since the menu got smaller. The man was chapped when she delivered a handful of mayo packets as consolation.
“Gross,” he spat. “I’m not putting mayo on hashbrowns.”
“Sorry, sir. This is all we got.”
“You need to expand your menu.”
“I apologize, sir.”
He finished his meal. He paid his bill. He left without thanking anyone.
And as the man’s Benz wheeled out of the parking lot, I overheard the waitress say to the cook, “That guy didn’t tip me. Can you believe it?”
She seemed hurt by this. Not mad. Just hurt. A waitress lives and dies by tips. I’m not sure people realize that it is customers who pay the bulk of a waitress’s salary in America. Not the restaurant that employs her.
Even so, she put on a cheery face for yours truly.
“That man stiffed you?” I said.
She shrugged. “It happens.”
“Sometimes. I knew he wouldn’t tip.”
“Oh, I can pretty much look at someone and know who will tip good and who won’t.”
I took a sip of my coffee while I waited on my takeout. “How do you spot the bad tippers?”
She laughed. “Oh, I don’t want to stereotype.”
“Please,” I said. “Stereotype. I won’t tell anyone.”
She looked at me.
“Well,” she said. “I’ve found that guys who think they’re all that, just don’t tip. Usually they have nice cars and nice clothes. They look successful.
“You can do everything right. You can fill their coffee, give them extra stuff, be real sweet, but they’re not going to give you anything. Yesterday, a guy tipped me three cents. I actually cried. Three cents. That’s worse than nothing.”
“Who else tips bad?”
Shrug. “Sometimes, grumpy older customers. You know, the kind who always look mad? If they come into the restaurant and start complaining about every little thing, you know you’re not going to get tipped enough to buy gumballs.”
The cook entered the conversation. He was built like a linebacker.
“I started out as a server,” the cook said. “And us servers used to fight over who got to wait on the homeless looking guys because scraggly guys with beards always tip huge.”
The waitress nodded in agreement.
“Yep, there’s something about guys who look like they just rolled off a park bench. Scraggly beards, wrinkled clothes. Old guys who look like they don’t have pot to you-know-what in. They tip really good.”
“Who else tips generously?” I asked.
They thought about it.
“Single mothers,” the waitress said. “If there’s a mother in here, and she looks tired and worn out, she’s probably going to tip me 20 or 30 bucks. One time a single mother tipped me a hundred dollars.”
“And young people,” added the cook.
The waitress agrees. “Young people are really good about tipping. You’d think it’d be the opposite. But nope.
“We millennials get a bad name, but I promise you, a millennial will out-tip someone my dad’s age every time.”
“Every single time,” the cook said to underline her point.
“And truck drivers, too,” she said. “Truckers always tip good.”
“And anyone who is wearing muddy boots,” said the cook.
“People who clean hotel rooms,” she added. “If they’re wearing maid’s scrubs, they tip good.”
The cook laughed. “Seems like the worst tippers are always the ones who look like they have the most money.”
I was fascinated by our conversation. But alas, the road was calling. I had to be in Atlanta by tomorrow morning and I had miles to travel. I walked to the register to pay my bill.
“What about me?” I said, handing over my cash. “Do I look like a good tipper?”
She wrinkled her face like she was trying to see through me. She looked me over, head to heel. Then she smiled. “Well, your beard does look a little ratty.”
Man, this gal is good.