Christmas is the time of year when men of good will should remember an ancient principle, one surely more ancient than the holiday itself: the tipping point.
My experience in life has been that tidings of comfort and joy are nice, but when chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost is nipping at your nose and Yuletide carols are being sung by a choir, the garbage men would really appreciate a double-sawbuck each. And maybe a cold one. Collecting the refuse of 500,000-plus citizens (and battling rats and cats and folks who double-park) is thirsty work and I tip them every year most willingly. It fills me with the spirit of the season to see them coming down the alley as the holiday approaches.
Sometimes they wear those cheap red Santa Claus hats with the white cotton ball on top. Sometimes they have festooned the garbage truck with bits of decorative material. A ratty wreath. Some tinsel. Something someone has thrown out. They make a bit of noise. Honk the horn on the truck. They are as the mummers of old. They know how to keep Christmas, as Dickens observed. And they remind us that it is, indeed, better to give than to receive. That, you see, is the other tipping point.
I do not believe that in the city of Baltimore there is anyone more deserving of a few simoleons when the Nazarene’s birthday looms than the dependable men (they are mostly men) of the sanitation department. Theirs is not an easy or a pleasant lot. Never mind rain, snow, sleet, hail and dark of night. Our garbage men are faithful. Bright and early on sweltering summer days or in the bleak midwinter they are on their appointed rounds, interrupted only when the city cannot plow the streets in a big snowstorm. They deserve a tip.
It pains me to see my ungrateful fellow Baltimorons failing to acknowledge this.
Oft times dullards or simply cheapskates will yowl, “Why tip? I pay taxes.” But your taxes are used to prepare the city for the Grand Prix or other bits of city-sanctioned waste. The real waste gets removed every week by the sweat of the brow of these fine fellows. They are the last regular reminder that things work in this city. No one deserves a little kindness at the holiday more than they do. They are Baltimore’s Best. And yet you never see them mentioned in those lists. You never see them on the covers of glossy magazines.
Cops do hard work. True that. But most folks do not encounter the constabulary on a daily basis. Ditto, firemen. In my neighborhood the locals raised thousands of dollars to fix up the old firehouse. We appreciate what they do. But let’s face it— if you are having weekly interactions with the police or fire department something else may be going on in your life.
But the garbage men come every Wednesday like clockwork. Not so very long ago they came twice a week. They are reliable and they do a good job. And I have found that the proper administration of the seasonal gratuity also will ensure that any item will be taken away. For a long time we had bulk trash removal. Like everything the city does it was bureaucratic, complicated and ineffective. But I never had to call bulk trash. I had pre-paid for bulk trash. I was convinced the garbage men would take a body away. They were grateful and I was grateful. And I had indicated that with a friendly seasonal gesture. Fa, la, la, la, la.
When my daughter was in high school she worked one summer as a shampoo girl in a Roland Park salon. Karl Marx, thou shouldst be living at this hour. In addition to shampooing heads, she ran errands, going up to Stone Mill to fetch a salad and making endless runs for the latte ladies. She returned home to report with some amazement that some of the wealthiest customers— some of the ladies who spent the most on themselves— could not seem to find it in their hard hearts to tip the shampoo girl two bucks.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-seller “Nickel and Dimed,” a nonfiction account of what it was like to be working poor in America, was popular then. But my daughter hardly needed to read it. Or Jack London’s “The People of the Abyss,” a famous chronicle of the hard life in 19th-century London or George Orwell’s classic “Down and Out in Paris and London.”
My daughter got a good college essay out of her summer at the salon. And it made her a tipper, a person who appreciates the things that others do for us. She had gone to that salon a wide-eyed maiden. She returned wiser in the ways of the world and a bit sadder, too. She had been nickel and dimed. Nothing beats the school of life.