Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Doing the Archives

When my place of employment moved offices from Potrero to Mission/Mid-Market last fall, we moved into an awkward building stuffed into a nonsensical arc-wedge-street just north of the Central Freeway. While some questioned the timeline for which we were to hang up pictures or how we would avoid, en route to Java Express, walking through piles of poop (and pig heads and moldy jeans and crumpled high heels and nerdles from the plastics store), I of course wanted to know who had lived in the building before us. 

I had already looked up the history of our previous building, a handsome squat one-story catty-corner to Jackson Park. To be sure, that land had been underwater /part of a questionably-navigable wetlands for much of San Francisco’s history, but I found it listed as “a nice business corner fronting a park”  in 1913, with all the modern amenities (including "the streetcar," ostensibly meaning everyone's favorite 22 Fillmore line, which at that point was owned by United Railroads, not yet merged with just-created Muni ).   I also, late one night, while eating granola and reading papers about something else entirely,  stumble into a  grisly report from December 1913, of a man who shot himself in the throat late at night near his shack;  horrified I’d clicked it closed, xxx-ing away unwanted details or suggestions (his claw-like hands around the pistol, blood-stained pillows on an iron bed), never to find the story again.

This the “danger” of archival reading. I want so badly to peel back the layers of every building, but history is full of mad and murdered people. Tautly reported obituaries referencing a death in one’s sleep, and other dryly reported paragraphs of husbands choking wives, mothers poisoning themselves by opening all the gas jets or swallowing cyanide pills, men run over in the street by dray teams.  Pistols - so many pistols.  So,every time I type an address into a search box in historical archives of San Francisco, I run the risk of discovering that a dead girl occupied my apartment, that maybe a husband threw a brick at his wife in my kitchen and then they argued about it in court, that a man took his life after gambling his wages away on a game of dice at  O’Reilly’s Tarvern below. Really,  every girl that lived in my apartment is now a dead girl, but the browsing through the archives sometimes feel like inch upon column inch of lurid details worthy of punk rock album covers of broken skulls and gunshots.

Two personality traits of mine that motivate my historical research – besides a nearly obsequious obsession with the San Francisco & San Jose railroad --  are finding a good story, and telling a good story.  So of course, sitting down to research our office building,  I was terrified that not only would I read the bad news about our old building, that I’d have to  break it to my colleagues at a staff meeting. I'd have to make a rogue agenda item, or stand up and boldy yet solemnly declare, “Guess what, guys, I found out something about our building..."  A lion escaping from Woodward’s Gardens, and rolling around in the grassy lot behind what is now our building would have been on the low end of possibilities. Splashy, gory headline describing details of a frenzied bloodbath triple-murder was another.  I can’t keep that shit in, either. If I find it, you find it too. 

And, you know, I helped a friend move to Long Beach, and she fell in love with a particular apartment that wasn't the right price; the landlord said he was having a hard time renting it but he was firm on the price. I, of course, looked it up and found that an occupant in the late 1960s had been bludgeoned to death by a fireplace poker by his son. My friend claimed I had gotten the address wrong and asked to stop (I hadn't.)

So, I was relieved to discover my first artifact of our office building’s former address was not a bloodbarth but nothing more than a pleasant advertisement for a company called Old Hickory Supply Company. How delightful! I also discovered that it was a uniform store for a number of years in the mid-century (cheerful! Pressed uniforms! I’ll bet it smelled good!).  Evidence of the German heritage in the neighborhood is obvious simply by visiting the nearby Zeitgeist, but we also start to suspect this when Old Hickory sold pleasantly Germanic things like fruit trees and Belgian hares in the spring (three cherry trees and some flop-ears, please!

But researching the occupants that popped up in the directories the most, I sunk into the pathos of a particulary German family, headed by William Muhlner.   Early on into my research, I had already identified early on that I had gotten the wrong parcel number and was researching a lot a few hundred yards from our office building location, but the Muhlners were an irresistible drama. William and his wife Cordelia (sometimes listed as Cornelia) were listed as living on Fell Streets, but the adults/student sons were listed as living at 23 Fell or 27 Oak at various times, until William’s death in 1885, when Cordelia and some of the sons and daughters decamped to 1661 Mission. Interestingly, Cordelia’s son married a woman whose parents had lived at 1661 previously, so it’s likely that when William H. Muhlner and his wife Gertrude moved out (taking Gertrude’s mother with them), they rented the rooms to his mother and their siblings.  The father was a stern German man who died of a heart attack while at the opening of a Grand Verein (a German social club), right there under the glimmer of the gas jets and the stupefying array of cocktails set out for the occasion. Guests had to hurry round to 23 Fell to tell the family.

William Muhlner's father in law, George Carr, was a tinner and then a carpenter who lived on Market street with other carpenters for a number of years. Sometimes the Muhlner sons are listed as living in the same building as Carr and his carpenters, and sometimes George's wife, Alexina, isn't listed anyhere. Sometimes she is. Confusing matters, there is a separate George Carr, also a carpenter, who lived over on Treat. 

William and the rest of the Muhlner siblings (photos finishers, dressmakers, clerks) had a brother, Loius, who was a weather observer at Point Reyes Station.  In 1895, it seems that he took a liking to a girl in Oakland, Jennie Lewis; Louis had maybe lent the family money and was pressing the brother for it, and he was in love with Jennie, but somehow Jennie wasn't as in love with him as he with her.  Scorned,  he gave Jennie a pair of diamond earrings; she accepted the earrings but didn’t seem to reciprocate Louis’ feelings. 

At a dance the next evening at Germania Hall,  Louis spotted his diamond studs on another man!  He approached the man,  Charlie Miller, to inquire why his earrings were "adorning finger and shirt bosom of his rival"; Jennie Lewis said she had merely loaned him, but Mr. Miller seemed to brag that she had given the earrings to him outright.   Louis was enraged. The next day, he sent a decoy letter to Jennie telling her that her beau Charlie Miller was injured in a lodging-house around the corner; Jennie was suspicious and took her landlady to the lodging-house, only to discover a crazed Louis Muhlner.  She declared she wanted nothing to do with Louis, but the following day, her neighbors saw him was roving around North Oakland where Ms Lewis was a housemaid. By  all accounts he was a madman, mumbling and sweating with his hat pulled low over his eyes. He went straight up to Rev. Mooar's house while she was on the porch, and they quarelled until he pulled out a pistol and shot her in the head. She died in the hospital a few days later after opening her eyes only once, unable to speak.

(Note to immature modern readers: a blurb immediately followed the report of the opening day of the trail for a play called "Too Much Johnson"; the sale of seats was reported as "already large"; so you see, it was not all bloody pistol wounds and dead girls in the late 1800s, but theater and innuendo as well).

Cordelia Muhlner and one of the sisters took the ferry to Oakland to see Louis in jail, and he seemed inconsolable (still probably wondering how killing Jennie didn’t inspire her to fall in love with him) and unable to "receive the sympathy" offered by his mother.   The trial - an epic one with generous newspaper coverage -- was resolved fairly quickly. He was later sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, but released early in 1903 for good behavior. A few years after, he petitioned the court for the return of his diamond studs; Charlie Miller  had kept them, claiming they had been a gift, and Jennie's parents had also claimed them. Somehow the Daily Call forgot to report on the outcome. (Found 'em!)(just kidding). Louis later got a job as a weather recorder again and seemed to live a placid life in Marin.   Cordelia died after moving to Oakland in 1904, William and Gertrude Muhlner lived fairly well off lives as William worked his way up in the Spring Valley Water Company, and the youngest daughter, Edith, ended up in a fairly young marriage with a plasterer who verbally abused her for 12 years before finally assaulting her with a hatchet in front of a neighbor, prompting the request of a divorce. Their daughter was a "clever young violinist" at a recital in 1905.

I paused at this point in the research to take in the fact that I was probably going too microscopic into this family.  I don't know that I needed to investigate them at the subatomic level to put together a portrait of our building's former lives. However, subatomic particles converge together to create both haystacks and needles, and we really never going to know what we're going to find.  I kept telling myself to stop with the Muhlners, and to start surveying another family (there were at least six other occupants).  But while looking for something else entirely, I happened to read a 1904 real estate transaction about a Mabel Carr, daughter of a Charles Haseltine. I noted it first because it was near my current apartment, and then secondly my eyes crossed a bit at the Carr. Sure enough, Mabel Carr was the wife of William H. Carr, brother of the Gertrude Carr who married William F. Muhlner over on Mission Street in 1884.

William H. Carr married Mabel M. Haseltine in 1898, which was probably fantastic for the Carr family, beacuse the Haseltines were a big deal. Charles Haseltine was one of the first stevedores in the city, and owned a number of properties. One of the properties he owned was one San Jose Avenue and 26th Street (part of the parcel that Mabel Carr was selling).  Had Charles Haseltine been one of the original owners of property that had to be sold to make way for the 1806 construction of the San Francisco & San Jose railroad, which blew right through the 26th and San Jose Ave inersection (ok, really straight through at Juri Commons). 

I had some reason to believe that there were two Mabel Carrs that were related to the parcels around 26th and San Jose Ave.  And although this felt somewhat confusing, this just seems to happen. Even now:  not only have I met someone else with my same name, I met her while volunteering in the kitchen at a Girl Scout camp in Camas, Washington, of all places.  She is an accountant in Portland and oftentimes I get very sensitive financial information emailed to me (I can only imagine what she gets emailed to her). I believe that there was more than one Mabel Carr because there were more than 3 George Carrs in 1883 San Francisco - including two carpenters - and many more unlisted. Rather than being completely unrelated, I have an easier time beleiving that hey probably all sat around and drank together at the carpenters' tavern on Market and Noe calling each other Mister Carr until their noses were red turnips.

Searching the records, for me,  for a story is really a search for not just dead girls and historic bullet holes, but for unconventional connections.  At the same time that William Muhlner's brother was being released from San Quentin and searching for his diamonds in court to bring back to their mother in the building I currently work in,  their sister in law Mabel was standing in front of a house selling the deed to the property after the death of her father, two blocks from my current apartment.

We are all really just a few molecules away from each other.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The unauthorized and abridged history of Clooney's Pub

 If you like the Mission, drunk middle-aged men, and the Giants, you probably already love Clooney’s.   You’ve probably gazed at the picture above the bar at some point which depicts “Clooney’s, 1936” and imagined yourself a legacy of Irish pubs.

Like most drunks in the Mission, though,  that picture may be a wee bit of a liar.  And before I got any farther, I shall say that I live directly above the bar (the jukebox nuzzles my spirit), and the owners are fantastic. That said, it's a Mission institution, no?  Everyone who, upon learning that I live upon Clooney's guffaws loudly before saying, "Oh, really?"

Anyway. Clooney's has been a pub in the current owner's family (more on the Clooney clan over another drink), yes. But has it always been in this location? And how did it morph from the plank-like bar depicted in the picture into the cavernous horseshoe of modern debauchery?

You already can guess that this tavern did not always look like a brick-front prison with faux-Italiante apartments awkwardly perched – no, no jauntily placed! – on top.  Looking at the Sanborn map of  1889, we can see  2 properties in this corner location (1401 and 1403) both with 1 saloon and 1 flat We can see that adjacent was 1405 and 1407 Valencia,  attached by some sort of wrap-around veranda (a porch? A faux railing? ) likely on the 2nd floor.  The footprint is the same size as the current building, with 2 outbuildings (I’m sure the outbuildings are the precursor to the recycling bin corral and hipster moped parking slot), and just across Osage Alley was a bootmaker on 25th.

The earliest wisp of history of the location is 1884, when Thomas Brady leased the lot to  J. O'Reilly for the lot  (35x117.6), for a period of 7 years at $15 and $20 a month. Jeremiah O’Reilly was listed simply as “liquor saloon, SE corner of 25th and Valencia.”  Jeremiah is listed on the water records around 1888 when the pipes were probably re-tapped, and as the proprietor of the saloon in various directories, until 1912 (he lived over at Guerrero and 25th with his wife Mary and daughters).  There is mention of "Jack Flynn's saloon" at this location in 1892 (someone was assaulted outside, of course), but Jeremiah is listed in every year of the directory.

Fascinatingly, there was a Jeremiah O'Reilly listed as a shoemaker and later a foreman at Buckingham and Hecht, dwelling not on Guerrero Street, but at Twenty-Eighth and Dolores. But  looking for Jeremiah O'Reilly in census records, I came across someone looking for a relative who was a cobbler AND a saloon owner in San Francisco. Will the real Jeremiah O'Reilly please stand up?

In 1891, a real estate agent named J.F. Plumbe was advertising the  property of 1401, billing it as a “candy, cigar, variety” with three living rooms.  And then in 1892 to 1893, there were regular advertisements in the San Francisco Call seeking various positions for “a small restaurant” at 1401.  They needed dishwashers, a “good woman to cook” and some waitresses. We see a lone help wanted ad for a baker at 1401 Valencia in 1894, and then little help wanted, needed or sought after that.  Was it a restaurant? Was it a variety store?   A saloon that sold food? A cigar  shop that sold biscuits? Someone was selling “a lot of Roller canary birds” from the building in 1903, and selling horses in 1907. (Were the horses here? Or were they in one of the nearby liveries?) 

So far, it seems all Irish all the time.  But the restaurant lists Michael Skanca as the proprietor starting in 1896.  Skanca doesn't sound Irish! His waiter was Lazar Radovich in 1897, his cook was John Vojdich in 1898, and in 1899, his steward was Peter Bokariza. All of the workers were listed as residing with Michael Skanca over at 1316 and 1312 Valencia (maybe this is why  May Skanca was granted a divorcefrom M Skanca in 1904, as she told the judge it was "cruelty.")  In 1899, Skanca must have been doing well because he was listed in a partnership “Skanca and Josich” at a popular restaurant venue at 520 Sacramento Street, which seems to be a parking garage now right across from Irish Times, getting us back to Jeremiah O’Reilly, full circle.  Oh, Eire.

Speaking of O’Reilly, in 1904, his saloon was  burgled. The saloon had been closed for polling hours while the country was electing Teddy Roosevelt.  Two men were initially arrested, but later, two youths who were named “the worst in the Mission” by the San Francisco Call were arrested and charged.  They had also burgled a woman on nearby Folsom street by dropping into her bedroom from a hole in the attic while she was out shopping, thieving a gold stick pin.  (A hole in the attic! Really!)

In 1906, shit got real. Not only was San Francisco in the grips of post-earthquake trauma (O’Reilly got his liquor license restored in June), but the railroad depot for the Southen Pacific railroad line was located right across the street from O’Reilly’s saloon, bringing a variety of people down Valencia on the streetcar and from the SP depot at Townsend and 4th.  The line cut diagonal across the intersection (coming from what’s now the Synergy School and through the ugly (sorry!) building housing the chiropractic clinic (an oasis amidst the ugly angles) and the Siron Norris gallery (also an oasis, dude).

One night in 1906, a patron was drinking at O’Reilly’s, waiting for his train to head home to Redwood City.  Reports go that he had gotten paid for a job on Howard Street earlier that afternoon and had made his way from saloon to saloon, eventually perching himself on the (I’m only imagining) fine-grain walnut stool to drink some spirits with ol’ Jeremiah. Around 2 in the morning (guess he missed his train?), two patrons lured the carpenter outside under the pretense of getting him a hotel, and then on Bartlett street, savagely attacked him, lacerating his face and breaking his shoulder. He limped to nearby Bethany church and got help there. Sounds kind of like Clooney’s right now, minus the train to Redwood City. 

In the 1910 Pacific Telephone directory, we see the saloon at 25th and Valencia listed as Donohoe’s Saloon, but never again does that name appear.  Jeremiah O’Reilly disappears from the directories by 1912 (Mary is listed as a widow on Guerrero Street in 1915), and PJ Manning’s name appears at this location all the way through until 1944.  An E.W. Lee (Mr Mayor? Is that you?) appears briefly in 1920, but PJ Manning is back selling “refreshments” in 1923.  There is a Cornelius Donohoe listed as proprietor of a saloon on Minna Street, and another Cornelius Donohoe listed as a teamster; similarly, another P.J. Manning appears as a teamster as well.  Do all Irish saloon-owners have alter-egos as teamsters?

In 1951, the electricity was wired (the label is still on the box downstairs) to Luke’s Tavern, listed until at least the 1970s with Luke Normandy and Mary Kilgannon.  Then it was Clooney’s Pub, though the current owner says that his grandfather used to own a saloon (I believe named Clooney's) when it was on Second and Minna.

I had previously believed "Clooney" to be an elusive, fictional character who has been boozin’ it up since 1886, eternally red-cheeked and smiling.  And the Clooney's were real, but now knowing they're real and in the family, I've found myself much more fascinated with Jeremiah O'Reilly, and even Thomas Brady.  How did one start owning a saloon way back when, and please tell me everything about the pants and cravats they wore.  I also want to know about the taps, how often they washed glasses at saloons and if the saloon ever had shuffleboard.

Next installment:  The apartments that were moved to the building in 1924,  all the single ladies who have lived in them, and the time a crab shell got stuck in one of the toilets in the building.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hitler Wore Pasties

If you would have told me when I was a little girl, that someday, a girl dressed as Hitler would beckon me from a stage with a riding crop and a crooked finger, I would not have believed you. And when it happened the other night, I still reeled with disbelief!

We were hanging right in front of the stage at San Francisco Drag King Contest, waiting to pelt our Latin lover Delicio Del Toro with tortillas during the Ricky Martin number. FACT: I was secretary/honorary vice-president of my friend’s Menudo fan club in middle school; it was called Mano a Mano con Menudo, but my favorite member was not Ricky Martin.

Earlier in the show, I had caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a stripper with an SS (Nazi) patch, and as she scampered up the stairs, I thought that there was no way that someone was going to come out in Hitler drag. I was immediately boggled because I see Hitler is an off-limits punchline. I believe in pushing boundaries in imaginative ways, but what is there to push when we’re talking about Hitler? Though I am -- perhaps detrimentally -- obsessed with the grayscale of human complexity, there are a few things that I see as black and white with little room for interpretation. Adolf Hitler is one of those things.

Anyway, despite my prediction I was going to be pissed and walk out of the Hitler number, I was surprisingly intrigued. It was all very high-energy, dazzling, and bafflingly compelling. I guess I was intrigued with the shock-value, as I spent most of the number with my hand in front of my face in dandy-esque shock (adjusting my cravat so I wouldn’t choke). This version of Hitler sucked his thumb and had a stretchy dong that was manipulated in a ways I cannot actually describe; I was already preparing what we were going to discuss and drunkenly analyze on the way home.

And then the stripper edged closer to the crowd and pointed at me. I shook my head (oh so demurely), but felt someone pushing me from behind. I heard a disembodied voice saying, “go! go!” and I could only squeal and bury my face in my girlfriend’s shoulders. There was just no way that I could have anything to do with a sexualized Hitler.

FACT: My family is part of an ethnic and religious minority group who are historically persecuted by the Russian government. Our family had nothing to do with the Nazi party or Hitler, but escaped government imprisonment, harassment, violence, and torture.
FUN FACT: They are called Molokan, which is Russian for “milk drinker.” Also, when my great-great grandfather was imprisoned in Russia, he was visited by Leo Tolstoy himself, who was a big fan of the Molokans. Finally, aforementioned great-great grandfather wrote a spiritual book that sort of resembles notes from an LSD-trip.

So, I feel a little conflicted. On the one-hand, I am a little flip about my family history, but the experiences of Molokans feel embedded in me on a sub-atomic level. Though there were about 500,000 Molokans at the end of the 19th- entury, today there are are approximately 20,000 Molokan descendants worldwide and only 2,000 go to church regularly to maintain the religion. For every person going to church, 250 died or didn’t carry the identity or religion forward.

And, their story is inspiring: my great-grandparents walked overland from the Caucasus to Spain and then sailed to Los Angeles and then built an entirely Russian-speaking church so that I could, today, experience the sweet freedom to find salvation wherever I find it, and since I can find personal salvation in drag and queerness in general, then do I need to feel conflicted at a drag show? Even if I am not what my relatives had in mind for Americanized descendants (there is even a word for me: ninosh, or unclean), I embody a type of freedom that was certainly part of Maxim Rudometkin’s spiritual trip, and that freedom includes living in a country obsessed with freedom of speech and living in a community of people who think outside of societal norms in an effort to make life better.

On the other hand, even if I found the Hitler-based stage show dazzling from a boundary-pushing standpoint, I still arrived at a place of wondering: why? It’s not so much that I felt offended at watching the Hitler stripper, but that since I believe in drag’s ability to create new realities and identities through titillation and suggestion, I couldn’t identify a point to watching Hitler shake his booty. Watching a jiggling swastika felt gratuitous. And yet, I couldn’t stop watching, even after I refused contact.

But then, does drag have to have a ‘point’? Or, more accurately, is the line from drag to meaningfulness so clear-cut? I am wildly entertained by drag shows where a bunch of hot queers sing Boys II Men, but am not really sure why girls who look like boys inspire such profound philosophizing in me. It may just be because genderqueer fags, particularly female-bodied people passing as men, are hot to me in a way that everyone else isn’t. Is it possible that if the person posing as Hitler had a body type I was attracted to, that the performance would have tilted firmly towards titillation? Or, maybe if it had been a butch Hitler, I would have been more overtly offended because it would have felt more true to life? This Hitler had wisps of blonde hair intriguingly peeking out from under the SS hat, and in that respect, maybe the image existed– for me -- firmly not in drag, but in costumed-stripper, and so for me, the individual components didn’t add up to anything, leaving the suggestion of Hitler-adoration too compelling to ignore.

I think for me, perhaps more pertinent than my family’s history as a religiously persecuted people, is that I grew up in an Orange County suburb rife with active neo-Nazis. Seeing swastika’s spraypainted on lockers or hand-stenciled on items of clothing in abject seriousness was a regular part of my high-school experience. Sometimes, I still cannot process what I saw or experienced. When I read newspaper articles about the neo-Nazis who named their child “Adolf Hitler” and pushed to have a birthday cake with his name on it, I can’t get behind their civil liberties, because all I can see is selfish and ignorant hate that I experienced in high school. Personally, I can recognize that my reactions to seeing someone stripping as Hitler may be related to my own experiences, but then again, it’s not like I have some unique relation to history that other people don’t. I’d bet a million tortillas that there were more Jews than Molokans in the audience, and neo-Nazis are everywhere. I kept looking around the crowd trying to ascertain other people’s reactions, and I couldn’t quite figure it out. There were plenty of people cheering and clapping, but other people may have been similarly as confused as I was.

Interesting that I started the show thinking that Hitler is "always" off-limits, but once the Hitler-with-pasties was about to touch me, suddenly it became more complicated. Drag pushes the viewer to consider the tenuousness of identity and image, and no matter how in your face (swastika) or subtle (concealed package), I realize the folly of hanging my hat on any sort of truth, whether it's about gender, or about ethnicity and history and political correctness. Once again, drag yanks me -- in all of my awkward shyness - to consider something about myself.

Anyway, so with that all said, since I am obsessed with etiquette, I feel that I must comment on the trend of taking one’s shoes off at a show. Peeps, I can understand if your pointed shoes and/or heels are hurting, but standing barefoot on a club floor looks so disgusting that I can barely stomach it. I guess I can’t really say that there’s anything wrong with it – they’re your feet, what do I care? – but I’ve seen this more than once now and am a little flummoxed.

But, just to be fair, I’ll turn the laser beam of judgment on myself: if you are drinking beer in a show, hold onto it with both hands, and don’t spill it, no matter how badly you want to clap for the performers or rip into a tiny bag of peanuts. It’s always a good idea to make friends with the people standing around you by not dousing them with Sierra Nevada, because you never know when you’ll need to shove them towards the Hitler stripper beckoning to you from the stage.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quibbling about the Tip...

Today’s question is about tipping. I had so much to say about this, that I embedded not only the answer but the entire question deep within a historio-philsophical treatise…

If you’ve ever eaten out in a large group, at some point, you’ve probably had some problem figuring out each person’s share of the bill and tip. One person is so often stuck, addled and hunched over their cell-phone calculator, while others helpfully shout out, “I only had an appetizer and 2 Sierra Nevadas, and I put in $12!” If you are successful in accounting for everyone’s share of the food and tax, there is still the issue of the tip. Standard protocol is pretty clear across the county: you should tip between 10% and 20% of the bill, depending on your geography, but the intensity with which people have developed their own personal rating system reflects two things: personal expectations around service, and an understanding of the point of the tipping system at all.

While the lone martyr with the bill is adding numbers and doing some long division (or, if there are non-drinkers staring balefully at the bottles of empty wine on the table, perhaps some robust logarithms to excempt teetotalers from tipping for alcohol), someone else is generally offering amateur analysis on food quality and service to determine how much to tip. You know you’ve heard it: “Well, I didn’t like how she left my napkin on the table.” “I hate when they ask me if I’m still working on my plate – I’m not at work, goddammit!”. If this is allowed to meander for awhile, somebody who wants to appear above such niceties but not contribute to the math will inevitably offer conversational gambits about tipping. “Say, did you know that tips used to be given before the meal?”

The most commonly reference origin of tipping is that in the 19th century, café or saloon owners set out boxes labeled “To Insure Proper Service,” and customers would place money in that box before service was rendered, in order to effect the outcome of their transaction. But, the idea of tipping actually stretches farther back in history, with some reports of tipping-like practices appearing in the Middle Ages, with noted practices such as lords traveling through a particular area tossing beggars coins in order to guarantee safe, hassle-free passage. Whether or not this is classified as ‘tipping’ or ‘bribery’ is up for debate, ,but there is evidence from this time period that feudal lords would give their servants extra money during times of illness or duress.

The first commercially-tied evidence of tipping appears in 16th century England, with brass urns labeled “To Insure Promptitude” were set out in cafes. Cafes of this period were not breezy coffeehouses or sandwich shops near the courthouse, but salons functioning almost as classroom space for gathering intellectuals. As Renaissance brainiacs would philosophize for hours, it became customary to drop coins in these urns to receive continued (ergo, prompt) service. Through the next few centuries, tipping then spread throughout Europe, becoming common in hotels and restaurants, but didn’t catch on in the United States until after the Civil War, mostly because the United States had less of a servant class than did Europe.

Tipping history in the United States dovetails with labor and economic history. By some estimates, 10% of the workforce in the US in 1910 had a tip-receiving occupation, but because tipping was a relatively new phenomenon, social norms around tipping had yet to be engrained. Some servants (notably bellboys) developed signs and signals amongst themselves to identify some customers as bad tippers/no tippers (bellboys would mark suitcases of non-tippers with slight chalk marks, and perhaps drop those suitcases “by accident”). However, as tipping gain popularity, restaurant and hotel owners began to seek ways in to increase their own profit, naturally leading them to seek a portion of the tips collected by their workers.

It is not difficult to see, then, how service-business owners may have a tense relationship to tipping. If a customer knows that she is going to have to tip on top of the bill amount, she may be inclined to spend less (thereby encouraging incentive on the restaurant owner to take some of those tips to “make up” for the depressed income). Or, the restaurant owners may instead lower the worker’s wage, resting on the fact that the worker is also getting tipped as justification for the lower wage. This conflict was seen particularly acutely in the late nineteenth century with railroad porters. New York Railroad encouraged its customers not to tip, and made their workers wear special uniforms without pockets, but the Pullman company took advantage of the propensity to tip, and simply lowered the porter’s wages.

As tipping became more of an engrained norm, restaurant and hotel owners began to see that encouraging tipping could bring in more revenue than raising menu or service prices, because tipping is seen as “optional.” Labor groups at times agitated to abolish tipping, claiming tipping to be a smokescreen by the owning class to keep wages low. Even currently, there is some movement to create a stabilized tip-income flow by instituting 20% service fees on all checks; this is preferable to simply raising menu prices and thus raising wages, because this service fee works out to a lower amount than wages (after all of the taxes and additional costs of wages). This philosophy is reflected in the San Francisco restaurant practice of adding a percentage surcharge on meals to cover employee health insurance. However, this practice seems disingenuous to some diners.
Urbane Libertine spends much of that hazy weekend wait-time in front of Boogaloo’s reading the small, almost-tattered scotch-taped explanation of the meal surcharge (“Rather than raise our menu prices…”) wondering why they don’t just raise menu prices, until we open up the menu and exclaim, “Holy shit! I always forget how cheap breakfast is; I love this place!”

But is a plate or meal surcharge in the same genus as a tip? It’s not optional to pay the surcharge, but technically, one could walk out without paying the tip. However, tipping is so ingrained as a cost of the meal, that one could argue that there would be little difference from stiffing the tip to simply only paying half the bill. For that matter, many of us would be more apt to rip a friend a new one over not tipping than if a friend was, say, shoplifting. We look the other way when people employ nannies and gardeners off the books, but someone who doesn’t tip is a social felon.

So this brings us back to the unique existence of the tip. If we’re no longer tipping beforehand to let the server know that we want good service and we’re willing to pay extra for it (except, I guess, at a café when we drop the change in the bucket before they’ve turned their back to pull our espresso), is tipping just symbolic? If we agree that restaurant workers and other service professionals (cab drivers, hairdressers, the guy who helps you find a parking spot by the Opera House) receive tips because their wages are lower than those in non-service positions, then why do people quibble over whether their server should get 15% versus 20%? If we’re making up for lower wages across the board, why leave 10% if your spareribs came out cold? The essential question, when we really think about tipping is: what does tipping buy us? Does it buy a customer better service? Or does it buy one aversion to being socially outcast by failing to do one’s social duty? Or does it buy customer internal satisfaction by increasing low-paid worker’s income?

According to Michael Lynn of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, a study showed that when waitresses wore flowers in their hair they earned 17 percent more than when they didn't. Another study suggested that waitstaff who squatted beside tables to take the order receive a higher tip than waitstaff who merely stand by the tables. (As a related aside, we at Urbane Libertine can kind of understand why anyone would want their waitperson squatting by their table, but sometimes it feels strange. We also don’t really get the waitperson who actually sat down at our table while taking our order, although given that we were in Santa Cruz, that makes a sort of opiated sense.)

Speaking of being opiated, are you still with us, kind reader? Like I said, we think tipping is a big topic with a lot of confusion, so we’re trying to distill broader topics with which we can grapple.

Most empirical research on tipping has focused on restaurants. Some general themes emerge: people who are ‘generous tippers’ will almost always over-tip (20% or more) on a dining tab (many even tip on top of the added gratuity on a large party), and people who under-tip (less than 10%) will continue to do so regardless of service, and frequently apparently in spite of increases to menu or service prices. Returning momentarily to our fictional group haggling over the tip, you can predict that at some point, someone will point out that the restaurant raised their prices and that leaving a lower tip will send some sort of signal to restaurant owners about how shitty this is. We can logically link tips to service 7 ways until Sunday, but when people are displeasured by elements of their restaurant experience – it’s too noisy at Beretta, it’s too windy at Sky Terrace, I stood in line too long at Café Flore and there were not enough menus, my vegetarian entrée tasted like cow, my blueberry crumble was gummy -- the first place it will show up is in the tip, although things could change with the popularity of Yelp! Yelping it out could fast become a replacement for a shitty tip; if we start leaving 20% tip and then fire up the BlackBerrys on our way out to vociferously describe our displeasure, maybe there would be less confusion over the tip in general.

Granted, I don’t personally believe that many San Francisco diners are actually bad tippers. And, granted, most of the confusion about tipping doesn’t come from people going out to eat; even shitty tippers generally know what they’re supposed to tip at a meal out, but get tangled up when say, getting out of a cab or getting a haircut. Well-intentioned customers seem to get tripped up regarding social customs when tipping hairdressers, dog walkers, babysitters, and even bartenders and bellboys.

With all that said, here’s a question from this week’s mailbag:

Dear Ivy,
Let’s say you call in an order for pickup/takeout at a full-service restaurant, and when you get there, your order is not quite ready. The host invites you to have a seat for a moment until it is finished. While you are waiting, they offer you a glass of water, which you happily accept. Question: Are you obligated to tip? And if so, who should you tip?

The issue here is not that they served you water; you don’t need to tip separately for the water or the fact that they had to re-set the table you were sitting at. But you should be tipping for take-away regardless, even if it’s not full-service. Tip what you normally tip and say thank you for the water.

Having said that, I understand that there is some confusion over why people would be tipping on take-out food --- there wasn’t a lot of service. In most restaurants, the servers tip out the busboys, hosts and bar through a percentage of their tips, but in some restaurants, front of the house tips out the back of the house as well. In those cases, the entire restaurant is motivated by the promise of tips to give you great service, so you’re tipping the whole joint. The burden is more on the server to provide good service because, that’s their job (yes, we at Urbane Libertine have been servers) but the whole restaurant is hustling to make sure you like your mixed baby greens. Even if you get your food takeout (“But we didn’t use plates"), the dishwasher is still scrubbing all the prep plates and sautee pans that your food was cooked on, someone had to answer your phone call and run your stupid credit card, and – surprise! – someone actually cooked your food. Some restaurants pool tips so that everyone gets an equal share, some restaurants mandate that servers tip the back of the house a certain percentage and some may just leave it up to the server on the honor system (remember reporting tips to the IRS? Oh, yeah, that honor system), and many don't tip the back of the house at all but pay them a higher wage than the servers.

As to how much: I think that most people would feel that tipping 15% on your takeout bill is okay even if you’d tip 20% were you sitting down to eat in the same restaurant . When all is said and done, people choose their tip from a socially mandated range, depending on how they feel when the bill is handed to them, and poor service or absence of service is a lot more noticeable to one’s mood than someone hustling behind the scenes and having a sparkly personality. In the end, we’re may just kind of fickle and motivated by our own curmudgeonly and nonsensical instances.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From the Mailbag: To Pay or Not to Pay?

I've been on hiatus here, but since it's Pride, I've been entertaining a lot of conversations about date etiquette and queer perv etiquette in general. Let's start with the simplest question. Who pays for drinks?

"Dear Ivy,

I never have i gone on a real date, well, i just never gave a fuck before.So these days, do i pay for drinks? Only if i think there will be another date, or a chance of me getting laid? Or, do I just pay?

I hate playing a 'guy' role. What are the fucking rules??
Each girl for their own?

Usually I do something lowbaggerish; chicks dug it. But i dont wanna do it this time around.I trust your queer judgements, thats why I ask.”

Firstly, I understand the attraction to lowbaggerish things. The dates we remember the most sometimes include romantical things like a walk along a river at night with a paper bag of cherries and a warm PBR, or a bike ride to a secret picnic spot with a shared baguette, or climbing around train cars on the d-rail in an under-used train yard. Chicks do dig that kind of thing; who doesn’t love something that feels dangerous, nostalgic, and secret? To be taken somewhere interesting with someone makes one feel special and imaginative.

But, I get what you’re saying about this upcoming date. For whatever reason, you’re going on a “real” date, and thus, you’re interfacing with societal rules and expectations. I think it’s interesting that your immediate anxiety is prompted by the expectations around “the guy role.” Why do you think she would be looking for you to fulfill the guy role? Do you think that she may be reading you as the guy because she's reading your presentation as butch, and thus placing herself within an accepted gender framework?

We could unpack the butch stereotype (and I do love to unpack butches), but I think it’s telling that a “real date”-- defined as such by some kind of capitalist transaction in a sanctioned venue -- raises gender questions based on your appearance.

Whether or not we agree with gender stereotypes, some people can be incredibly motivated based on outdated and heldover ideas about who pays for what on a date, and if this girl operates through that gender lens, she indeed could be reading you as guy/butch/masculine -- or anything on that spectrum -- and if she reads herself as a happy participant in those gender roles, then she may be looking for you to buy her a drink.

But let's be absolutely clear: there is nothing inherently about a butch identity that has to lead directly to "the guy role," and there is also nothing about a masculine identity that leads you directly to being butch. Letting someone else dictate our presentation and behaviors based on that perceived presentation can be very tempting when people read us from our presentation, but a lot of the anxiety and questioning we do about what people want from us turns out to be unfounded fear about how society reads us.

Let's also be clear that, for many people, there's nothing wrong with these kinds of gender roles. Some femmes want a butch to buy them a drink, some butches want to hold doors open for femmes, and everyone else for that matter. But let's also be clear that some fags want femmes to buy them a drink, and some people don't want to overanalyze whose paying for what and just want to get in bed. It's easy to get ouselves worked up over the gender presentation issue on a first date when we don't know anything about how the other person sees themselves in the world.

That said, what does it mean to pick up the tab? We are, of course, talking about gallantry. Being gallant is about being confident and gracious. this does not have to be about being a guy, or tapping into an oppressive gender scenario. Paying on a date expresses generosity, confidence, niceness, and – precisely because it is a tradition that has gotten tangled up with these antiquated ideas -- can be as surprisingly romantic as taking someone to a secret, abandoned warehouse to look at the moon. Queers can be so stingy, and after so many dates of burritos in the park or joining a group of friends to go to a queer dance party, a full-service date can be impressive and newsworthy. It doesn’t have to be about being “butch,” it’s about making someone else feel special.

One tactic you can smoothly employ in an effort to be gallant is to offer to buy the first round, or the drinks “this time.” This implies immediately that you’d like to see her for longer than an hour, or again at another time. If you're not sure how much you want to see her again, you can say, “Let me get this” with a smile and see where the evening goes. If you place the cash on the bar, leave your palm there, and make confident eye contact while saying, "Let me get this" with a slight smile on your face, she will probably slide off the barstool with delight. Or, at least, I would.

You’ll know if she wants you to buy all of her drinks if she refuses to buy the second round, if she disappears into the bathroom when the check comes, if she leaves her wallet in the coat check, or if she smiles demurely and suggestively at you as you pull out your wallet for another round. And, this may not have anything to do with you being in a guy role, with you being butch, with you being read as butch, or with what a great date you are. Some girls want someone else to buy their drinks, and there are people in this world who are happy to do so. All you have to decide is whether or not you want to.

She may try to pay her own way, to express her own independence or equality to you, in which case you may want to consider playful fighting or perhaps arm-wrestling in order to settle the score. Whatever the outcome, I think going dutch on a date is tacky. Someone needs to pay for both people, otherwise, what is there to pay back, either on a second date, or in between hot and sweaty sheets?