Gratuitous Display

The American diner and the viral tip
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If you work at a diner, you have reason to be pleased to see Donnie Wahlberg come through the doors. In 2017 the actor and singer live-streamed his post-work meal at a Waffle House in North Carolina, at the end of which he added a $2,000 tip to his $82.60 tab. “My mom waited tables, and my dad tended bars,” he explained on his Facebook page. This year on New Year’s Day, he and his wife, the actress Jenny McCarthy, left $2,020 to their server, helping establish the #2020TipChallenge, a trend that encouraged people to leave a gratuity of seasonal generosity though most were expected to opt for $20.20.

Stories of employees of humble establishments receiving extravagant tips have become a meme of sorts, regularly picked up by local news stations and international tabloids alike. These social media challenges formalize and coordinate our instinct to honor people in the hospitality industry, whose professional role is the demanding one of looking after the general public. In July, Virginia waitress Aubrey Suykerbuyk received $650 from a customer as part of the Venmo Challenge, a kind of digital collection plate in which people gather small donations from friends on the payment app Venmo, and then surprise a worthy recipient with the final jackpot.

This habit of leaving life-enhancing sums on the tip line goes beyond hashtag campaigns. Suykerbuyk joins a line of servers who in recent years have received large tips from customers: Alesha Palmer in Gun Barrel City, Texas ($1,000), Janet Ballard in Dublin, Georgia ($1,100), Sam Meyer in Euclid, Ohio ($1,070). A digital picture of the check is part of the expected architecture of these stories — for some of them, we literally have the receipts.

The meme has a pre-digital ancestor in the 1994 film It Could Happen To You, which was based on a true story. It’s an American fairy tale of boom-and-bust fortunes, one in which that culturally powerful and mercurial space — the “family diner” — is portrayed as a hub of human kindness, and the restaurant tip as a vehicle for people’s moral decency. The movie is about a New York City cop who doesn’t have the cash to leave his bankrupt waitress a tip. Instead, he promises to give her half his lottery ticket if it wins, which, dear reader, it does.

The tipping meme is a digital retelling of a long-held romance between the American cultural imagination and the diner. In the film Fried Green Tomatoes, based on Fannie Flag’s novel, the narrator, Ninny, reflects on the community that coalesced around the Whistle Stop Cafe, a diner in a rural Alabama town that sold the eponymous dish. “When that café closed,” the old woman recalls at the end of the film, “the heart of the town just stopped beating. It’s funny how a little place like this brought so many people together.” Gen-Xers in particular might remember the Peach Pit in Beverly Hills 90210, where the owner Nat handed out free milkshakes and burgers to his favorite high-schoolers, often with a wise, avuncular smile. At the end of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, after years of harrowing experiences and thwarted love, Chiron, the protagonist, arrives at a diner where his old friend Kevin is working. Once inside, he can take out his grills and accept his friend’s nurturing — the chef’s special of beans, rice, chicken, and fried onions. Whenever I am allowed to cross the Atlantic without worries of contagion, I spend some time in a small lakeside town in Canada where my favorite breakfast place is “Just Like Mom’s.”

These accounts of extra-large tips reinterpret familial support as random acts of economic kindness, a customer temporarily transforming into a fairy godparent. The atmosphere of the “family diner” produces “family-style” relations across commercial transactions. Wahlberg’s Facebook post invokes his parents, the servers in the Waffle House carrying reminders of his mother and father. But it is precisely this connection between small-town restaurants and “the family” that gives the diner such a strange position in the culture. Whether represented as a bustling joint in the middle of town or as a welcoming roadside haven, the diner figures as a satellite of home. The unthreatening fare — fruit pie is the prime example — welcomes everyone.

From Comfort to Menace

But the aesthetics of the archetypal diner harmonize into a song about home comforts that is always slightly off-key. There are the couch-like booths, their ruptures repaired with duct tape in the make-do fashion of harried relatives. The signage is cozily hand-written, but signs themselves are signs of an institution. The little curtains that nudge the sill next to the booth are strung from a rail halfway down the window. In a diner, you’re always halfway home.

After all, the diner isn’t really like your home; the chef probably isn’t your mother or grandmother. There is always that lurking sense that, though you may have “your” booth, this is a public place. Your booth is similarly possessed by a hundred other people. The surfaces are laminated for maximum wipe-ability. At any moment, strangers can walk in through the door and sit down next to you, and who knows what’s on their minds?

In fiction, as in life, people love a diner for one of two reasons: because it’s a place where everyone knows your name — or where no one does. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks has become a shorthand for the melancholy sociability of the night-time eatery, so enduring because it shimmers between the anomie of atomized urban life and an unlikely kind of comradeship.

Sara via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The diner’s overt hominess shifts with deceptive ease into a kind of sinister façade. The sheer, abundant normalcy must surely cover something else. Since the eighteenth century, Gothic fiction has understood the dramatic power of turning the home inside out, making its protections a kind of trap, deforming maternal care, in particular, into a barely concealed threat. The Gothic remodeled the sheltering home into a haunted house. So, too, with the American diner, that not-home away from home.

In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov purposely estranges a sense of Americana to reflect the perversion of his subject. The book’s terrain is one of motels, lonely highways, and, of course, good honest hometown diners, where the bulbous lights fringing juke boxes, to Humbert Humbert’s warped imagination, adopt a “gonadal glow.” In The X-Files, you know that if Mulder and Scully go to a diner, things will take an unexpected turn.

Quentin Tarantino revels in the diner’s two-faced nature. Pulp Fiction’s circular story begins and ends in a restaurant with classic pink banquettes and glass-fronted walls. In the opening scene, two criminals improvise a robbery. They’re thoughtful, cutesy kinds of heisters. They call each other by treacly nicknames: Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. “I’m not gonna kill anybody,” Honey Bunny says in a high voice, childishly resting her head on the table. Moments later, she leaps up with her gun and breathily threatens to “execute every mother-******* last one of you.”

The Hate Tip

It’s apposite, then, that the tipping meme reflects the diner’s ambiguous position as a place of both comfort and menace. Generous tips are benevolent expressions of what is actually a polarized, two-faced meme. The viral image of the celebrity donation has a disturbing shadow side.

In a Virginia diner in 2016, on the line on the bill where server Sadie Karina Elledge would look for her gratuity, she read instead the message: “We only tip citizens.” Around the same time, in a North Carolina diner, Alexandra Judd’s “tip” was a reminder of Leviticus 20:13, the Bible verse that calls for the death of a man who has sex with a man. Similarly, in a Missouri diner, Eddy Cabrera’s tip was substituted with a bigoted fragment written on a paper napkin: “Adam + Eve Not Adam + Steve!” In an IHOP in Oklahoma, Taylor Stewart’s tip was “Gay is Wrong!”

In a Mexican restaurant in Alabama, Charrito’s Bar and Grill, another zero-tip customer was banned for writing a racist slur on the receipt. On Charrito’s Facebook page, the management denounced this hate speech using a discourse of kinship inseparable from the popular idea of the diner itself: “We are a local family owned and operated business, our employees and most of our customers are like family.”

Here again we have the use of simile, with the bridging word “like” connecting the world of the diner to the familial sphere while also emphasizing its separation. The tip meme reminds us that the principal separation between the “family diner” and familial spaces is a monetary one. The two opposite and extreme types of diner stories both focus on that moment of consumer power: the bestowing of the gratuity.

In the exaggerated economy of the meme, love is a large tip, and the absence of love is not only no tip, but gratuitous aggression and judgment. The meme shows how money and a sense of moral superiority can be conflated. And so, instead of cash, a moral pronouncement is left instead.

The Private Made Public

The blank space above the tip line has always been a febrile zone, where civic, rather than familial, power relations are exercised. In Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities (1998), Kerry Segrave traces the roots of the practice to the European aristocracy’s custom of giving extra money to their social inferiors. Saru Jayaraman, in her 2016 book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, describes the manipulative sexual politics of a tipping economy, in which women servers must “objectify themselves to get their tips.” And a 2015 study found that, in the American hospitality industry, people of color and especially women of color are over-represented in casual restaurants and diners, where tips are lower than in the fine-dining sector. It’s not surprising, then, that both generous and spiteful guises of the tipping meme stress marginalized groups. That the gratuity is essentially a form of power is plain in the way it places these groups even further at the whims of others.

By focusing on the monetary, and therefore political, relationship between customer and server, the tipping meme exposes the tension of the diner’s homely status, a tension that has always contributed to the diner’s power in the American imagination. The “home-style” diner has echoes in the German word heimlich, meaning home-like or homely, the ambiguous meaning of which Freud used to develop his theory of the unheimlich, or uncanny, something that feels at once familiar and eerie. Filmmaker David Lynch loves a diner because it chimes with his own uncanny aesthetics. The hyper-ordinariness of the Double R Diner in his Twin Peaks makes the unfathomable events that occur there even creepier. In Mulholland Drive’s Winkie’s Diner, one man tells his friend how he keeps dreaming of them being in this very spot and both being frightened. The man whose dream it is realizes something. “There’s a man in back of this place,” he says. “He’s the one who’s doing it. I can see him through the wall. I can see his face.”

The diner’s life as a digital meme offers some of this uneasy Lynchian vision. Social media’s circulation of images lets us see through walls too: We look into homes where people are having parties, or through the walls of hospitals into the recovery area, or to where Donnie Wahlberg sits somewhere across the world, enjoying his waffles and readying his generosity. In the dimension of the digital diner, we peer over the half-curtains and see the festive compassion of strangers, as well as the ugliest expressions of fear and loathing.

The tip meme’s revelation of a secretive transaction replicates the diner’s uncanny position between public and private space. Like many aspects of the digital revolution, the meme converts something private into a widely publicized and disseminated event. In so doing, it subverts the discretion typically associated with these “discretionary” extras. The trappings of “getting the check” underpin the once hallowed, tacit nature of this exchange. In many places, the bill arrives in its own demure, shielding booklet.

Eric Parker via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Built into this ritual is a confidential rapport between guest and server. The adding of the tip is usually a kind of closed, two-way trial — no reporters allowed — where both parties are in the dock, and both sit in the judge’s chair. Was the service bad? Are you a cheapskate? Or, in the case of abusive messages, are you a terrible person? When all is done, the faux-leather booklet folds noiselessly shut.

The viral tip, whether reporting philanthropy or prejudice, bursts the privacy of payment. One can understand wanting to share extraordinary good fortune, or likewise to publicly condemn bigotry. But as with all social media images, other details are revealed as well. Bills are, after all, highly intimate things, a little list of private appetites fulfilled. The people who informed Sadie Karina Elledge that they only tip citizens had two gyros, “greek salad small,” something impersonally rung in as “Canned Drinks,” and, to cap off the pathos, there was an instruction to “add onion rings instead.”

In this viral digital image, the coziness of the diner, down to its gentle accommodations, literally hits up against the hateful nonsense in the tip line. And while the distinction between care and hatred is stark, the frailty of specific bigotry merges with the general frailty of the human body, which, bigoted or not, needs food to sustain it. The photograph of the check brings to mind the hours after the grim deed was signed: the signatory sitting at home somewhere nearby, his digestive system mulching down his gyro and Greek salad, small. Did the onion rings replace fries? No doubt he cast his mind back now and then to the valiant stand he’d just taken at Jess’ Lunch.

Townsquare Media via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In this way, the tipping meme dramatizes the strange interplay between intimacy and servitude that exists in any profession that involves “taking care” of one’s clients and customers. The trope of the American diner in which the public become “like family” is a modernized version of the aristocratic home, where servants occupy liminal positions as paid members of the homestead, both inside and outside the family unit. In terms of economic power, the dynamics between servant and employer are evident, and yet the servant also holds the power of being witness to the pathos of the employer’s private life: the sickbeds, the underwear on the washing line, the hidden sorrows, the refuge of comforting dinnertime “favorites.” Now, the servant’s act of witness combines with the platforms that smartphone cameras and social media conspire to provide. In its act of revelation, this two-faced diner meme exposes the weird power relations inherent in any place where the security of home — its food, its nurturing, its warm smiles — is institutionalized and commodified.

The transformation of the tip from private exchange to public address dismantles its aristocratic heritage and works to level the power politics involved. While an economy of gratuities inevitably places servers in a vulnerable position, the viral quality of the tipping meme allows some reversal of this vulnerability. The camera phone has created a new kind of defense, in which the perpetrators of abuse are the ones to be exposed online. Just as some may want to use the tip line as a soapbox from which to project their prejudices, the photographing and posting of these messages allows their victims to make a more far-reaching reply. Thus, the tip line is converted by digital technology into a screen, a jumbotron, an international broadcast.

All Screens All the Time

The more the check becomes a jumbotron, the more self-conscious we’ll be around those unassuming strips of paper. We know that the amounts we leave or the messages we write on them could turn into a public declaration, with personal or political consequences. In 2018, a server at a Texas restaurant admitted to faking a racist message on his bill and posting it on his Facebook page. After the defaced check was picked up by news outlets around the world, he received international sympathy. This hoax in itself demonstrates how the bill is now perceived as a potentially global platform. This conversion of the once-private space into a politicized stadium likewise creates novel anxieties. The writer Lauren Oyler recently tweeted sarcastically that she is excited to be “canceled” after someone posts “a blurry photo of my name tipping 0 on a credit card receipt because I usually tip in cash.”

Oyler’s jesting fears are the next stage in our awareness of social media’s panoptic gaze. For over a decade now, we’ve been told to be careful of the words we post online. Social media itself is an uncanny space, sharing with the American diner that beguiling combination of homeliness and threat — the crowdfunding and the trolling — where one’s predominant audience of simpatico regulars can be infiltrated at any moment by a malicious stranger lobbing opinions from the corner booth. But this textual caution will increasingly extend from the digital sphere back into the physical world, as it becomes easier to upload our analog textual traces.

The viral tip is part of a broader phenomenon in which the ease of making digital imagery — which can be shared at unprecedented rates — is turning all the surfaces of the world into potential screens. To spoil the predictable end of It Could Happen To You, the police officer and his lottery-sharing server end up married, and they begin their honeymoon in a hot air balloon with the words “Cop Weds Waitress!” printed across it in giant letters. In our era, the surface itself does not have to be large to broadcast our personal feelings or milestone events. Our camera phones let us inflate any message to the size of blimps and beyond.

Meanwhile, the family diner continues to haunt social media feeds, its analog mix of warmth and chill having made the successful crossing to digital. In early July, a man in Boise, Idaho was at Big Jud’s burger restaurant with his family. During the meal, he wrote “F*** OFF” in crayon on one of the free face masks that his server, Alesia Jones, had provided. As the management pointed out in a post on their Facebook page, masks are mandated in Boise. This post included a picture of the profane mask: yet another surface turned, through digital technology, into a billboard visible around the world. Jones received a seven percent tip from this table, and then was overwhelmed with well-wishers who heard about the story online.

Laurence Scott, “Gratuitous Display,” The New Atlantis, Number 62, Winter 2020, pp. 59-68.
Header image by Lauren Sharpe via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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