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.