Friday, July 17, 2009

Fifteen Percent of Nothing

At taxi school, my instructor, a tall, heavy-set and impeccably dressed man named Al threw out a hypothetical situation to the class: Suppose you pick up someone at an apartment complex. It's an elderly woman who uses an walker. You assist her getting into the car, then fold up the walker and put it into the trunk. You then drive her to a grocery store. The fare is $7.50, which she pays for partly in cash and partly with a discount voucher the city distributes to senior citizens. How much should you expect for a tip?

"Three dollars!" shouted a man from the back of the room, as if anything less would be an insult.

Al smiled, then nodded to a middle-aged man with his hand raised.

"Fifty cents?" the man asked meekly, making some in the class laugh out loud.

Al then formed a circle with a his index finger and thumb, holding it up for the class to see.

"Zero," he exclaimed. Al warned us that we should never pressure or harangue passengers for tips. It's unseemly, he said, and could be the basis for a complaint. Besides, we should think of ourselves as ambassadors for the city, sometimes the first face a new visitor sees when the arrive or the last one before they leave.

Okay, point made. But the fact is cab drivers depend on tips. In my case, it accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of my pay. I don't get health benefits, no retirement, no unemployment insurance or disability. The car has no collision insurance, so if I hit a telephone pole, the repairs come out of my pocket. As it is, I earn, on a good night, maybe $17 or $18 per hour. Full-time cabbies drive 12 hours per day, six or seven days a week. By the end of the week, they're zombies, sleeping and eating in their cars, taking spit showers in public restrooms. They might have time to get their kids off to school or tuck them in at night--maybe--but they don't have much of a life outside of work, and they sure don't have much to show for it.

But since the economy tanked, zero is increasingly what I am expecting. Business is down, way down. Not only are fewer people taking cabs, but those who do are tipping less. Yes, cabs aren't cheap. For little old ladies living on fixed incomes a dollar-fifty tip on a $10 fare might make a dent in a budget, particularly if you depend on cabs every day to get to the grocery store, doctor appointments, community center, etc. But frequently, I find the best tippers are the little old ladies, especially those living in subsidized housing. They seem to understand our predicament.

People who used to tip well, businessmen, students, tourists and the like today seem to be keeping a tighter grip on their wallets. Where 15- to 20-percent used to be the norm, nowadays it seems to be 10- to 15-percent. Everybody seems to be acting like they're just one step away from the street.

Another problem for cabbies is Boston is increasingly an international city. A lot of people I pick up come from cultures that simply don't get the concept of tipping. I took a carful of Swedes to Andover not long ago, a flat rate, something like $55, and after I handed them back the change they all just got out and walked away. I was about to roll down the window and yell out my harshest Swedish curse ("Saab You!") when one of the group ran back and gave me, what's this, a whole five dollars. While I don't like to cast aspersions on one's nationality or culture, it's difficult when you repeatedly have a car full of students from the Middle East going to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where it's nothing for them to drop three thousand bucks in a night entertaining friends, to then have them scrounging around the bottom of their pocketbooks for a couple of lowly dollar bills for the cabbie.

But it's not just foreigners, everybody it seems has gotten cheaper. I used to hand the change back to customer and wait for them to hand back the tip. But it seems once the money's in their hands it's harder for them to part with it, so instead I now ask, "How much would you like back?" just to make it clear that tipping is the custom. If they say they want it all back, I'll give it all back--with a smile.

But it's tough.

I recently had one guy who had a $6.25 fare, handed me a $100 bill and then got ticked off that I didn't have the coin on hand so he could leave me a fifty-cent tip. Instead, I got bupkus.

Thanks, Al.