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"Balancing Act: Mary Heebner Reflects on the Kindness of Strangers"
Travel+Life v. 4.0 2000

by Mary Heebner
Photos by Macduff Everton

In the 1970's I knew of a fellow who tipped a pretty waitress at Denny's with a tab of LSD. She promptly called the cops and the thwarted Romeo served two years in jail. Not a good tip. In the same Aquarian decade, another friend's tip was a napkin with the neatly printed phrase "You discover who you are by acting naturally." A good tip. The calligraphic diner was philosopher Alan Watts and the waiter, an artist, embarked on a career in letterpress printing.

I am no Emily Post but when it comes to tipping, I follow my instincts and sense of reciprocity. Six years spent waitressing through college and graduate school has forever marked me as a softie. I remember working a swing shift in a Palm Desert diner, fishing nickels out of Coke glasses only once- the night I quit. I've known firsthand that in the United States, service industry workers rely on their tips to make ends meet. And having traveled a fair amount over the years, I know that in dozens of countries, many have no source of income other than the coin pressed into the palm.

I also know that tips can solicit the kindness of strangers. Recently I was working on an art project in New York and, on the way back to a Soho studio, cappuccino in hand, I tripped on a chewed up sidewalk and broke my foot. Suddenly I found myself wanting to fling money at people, grateful that they would open doors for me, carry my bags, and get me to the airport the next day for my trip back to California.

As it turns out, the word "tip" is an acronym for "to insure promptness" -a polite bribe, a nudge in the right direction, a thank-you-very-much before the deed is done, that lies somewhere between a well-placed bet and a mini-insurance policy. The gentler word comes from the Latin gratuitus, meaning "voluntary." A gratuity for a service done that one could do yourself- hailing a cab, serving dinner, carrying luggage- is a gesture that both ingratiates and insulates due to the anonymity of money.

Rather than a prompt for promptness, though, a tip these days is usually an after-the-fact gesture. One with no universal standards. My mother's rule of thumb, "double the tax and add a little," works stateside for the math-challenged like me, but foreign travel requires more insight. A glaring misconception in the feel-good talk of globalization is that currencies are equally interchangeable. To say, "it's nothing" of an amount that is clearly something in another culture undercuts the very people you wish to thank. It's these tips of the balance that are far more disconcerting then ruminations about whether to leave $3.38 or $5.00 on a table in Santa Fe.

While my daughter was studying in Nepal, she groused that a movie crew encamped at Bouda, a holy site on the outskirts of Kathmandu, had turned the entire town topsy-turvy. Small boys fetching cups of Nescafé costing pennies landed tips that amounted to more then their fathers made in a month. How could someone be so unconscious, I wondered, only to find myself traveling soon after in Moscow, when my friends and I took our guide to a "tourist" restaurant instead of the one she recommended. What we paid for her lunch alone would have paid her son's tuition for a month of language school. Her embarrassment at our seeming extravagance only distanced us from one another, and has since served as my reminder, while traveling, to be mindful of the currency of the country I'm in- not its exchange rate in the United States.

To say, "it's nothing" of an amount of money that is clearly something in another culture undercuts the very people you wish to thank.

A finIn fact, when it comes to guides and drivers (familiar faces in a crowd, a wealth of information, and, on occasion, my rescuers from disaster) personal gifts can go the distance that the anonymous greenback cannot. Nike shoes, a leather wallet, a watch, a book, a useful tool, a sketch or a photograph become a gesture of friendship to a kind person you may never see again. Of course, those key people who manage to enhance my state of well- being in a matter of minutes (the hairdresser, the masseuse, and the manicurist ) also get my special consideration. When a massseur rubs and oils the stresses of a 14 hour plane ride into oblivion, the sky's the limit when it comes to the tip.

al tip: A smile or heart-felt greeting can do wonders for someone bored out of their mind opening doors all day, aching from standing at attention in a lobby for hours on end, or tired from serving up heavy platters of food as if it were effortless.

Cover your bets and be generous.


Copyright © Mary Heebner 2000