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Around and About with Richard McCarthy: Here’s a tip, embrace the change


Monday, January 17, 2022

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, I went to a little Italian grocery store down in the South End of Springfield, ordered a sandwich at the deli counter, and said to the counter person, “It’s really something, isn’t it?” She answered, “The end of the world.” After a respectful pause, she asked, “Mustard or mayonnaise?”

In these present times of the prolonged pale of pandemic, ever-worsening climate disasters, and dire political division and foreboding, I thought I’d tell a “mustard or mayonnaise” story, or, in this case, a pumpkin or banana nut bread story.

Recently I stopped at a coffee shop where I was not a regular customer. I wanted to get a baked treat to go along with the mug of coffee I’d brewed at home. I selected a slice of pumpkin bread. When the counter person rang it up, she announced that the cost was $4.01. I had four dollar bills and a $20 in my wallet, and no change on me. I looked to see if a little dish was set out with pennies for such “penny-short” transactions, but I didn’t see one.

I put the four singles and the $20 bill on the counter, and the counter person and I then spent some awkward moments staring at the bills, waiting to see who was going to make the first move. Seeing that she was dug in, I decided to “force the moment to its crisis” and said, “Break the twenty.” She handed me back my four singles and broke the twenty. I would note here that my dictionary defines broken as “violently separated into parts.”

I felt ticked off, believing I was being played for a tip, that she supposed I would put all or some of the coins in the tip jar. Instead, I took the three five dollar bills that she gave me, put them in my wallet, put the 99 cents in my pocket, said “thank you” in a neutral voice, trying for neither a heartfelt or a sarcastically ironic inflection, and left.

Whatever noble aspirations I set out with that morning had been trumped (no pun originally intended) by my ego’s pique at the counter person’s asserting her will over mine. The whole transaction left me with more unease than satisfaction.

About two weeks later I stopped at the same coffee shop. I couldn’t tell whether it was the same counter person, what with the mask and all. This time I chose a slice of banana nut bread to go with my home brewed coffee. The cost was the same as the pumpkin slice, so when she rang it up, she announced the payment required was, you guessed it, $4.01. I had a $5 bill in my wallet and handed it to her, fully expecting to get back 99 cents in change. But this time the counter person did not hesitate to reach over the counter, take a penny out of the tip jar, put it in the register and give me a dollar bill for change.

It occurs to me now that this second $4.01 transaction was a serendipitous opportunity for me. I might have seized it by putting the dollar bill in the tip jar. That would have been a cathartic moment, some might even say a kumbaya moment, and a nifty way to end this column. But what I did was put the dollar in my wallet, thank the counter person genuinely, and go on my way.

I am thus left with the vow to myself that in order to catch up with my two no-tip transactions, I shall triple my normal tip the very next time I am at a coffee shop. I am also left with the suspicion that the next time I think a counter person is positioning me for a tip, I might behave differently.

Despite the fact that I doubt I’ll ever want to break a $20 bill for a penny, I might recall that life is about so much more than what I want. I might conclude that some battles are lost in the winning, and that disquietude is not a welcome outcome for me after interactions with other human beings. Perhaps most important, I might remember that I know firsthand what it is like not to have $20 bills to fret about breaking.

I might, in short, just throw the money in the tip jar.

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.