THE MAIDS in some of the hotels in Miami Beach are on strike because they want more money. They want to get it by mandatory tips. I am unfamiliar with the working conditions the maids must endure, but even assuming the worst-that making the beds and scrubbing the toilets are strains on the backs of the heartiest of women-I'm still not certain I'm with them.
My problem is the research I did in 1975 - a 12-month exploration into the jungles of tipping and its tangle of manners, pressures and economics. My research involved few of the techniques of standard inquiry - phone calls, legwork or headwork.
I took a bolder tactic: I didn't tip. The Commerce Department has no way of toting what Americans hand over in tips every years, but whatever the sum - my guess is a few billion - not a nickel last year was mine. For 12 months, the opened palms of waiters, maids, porters, delivery men, taxi drivers, doormen, parking lot attendants, ushers and elevator operators went ungreased by me.
The grimmer statistics first. By unofficial tally. I endured 194 curses, 132 sneers, 75 threats, 13 blocks at the exit (in Japanese or Greek restaurants), six fracases, four near-beatings and one windshield-pounding.
The last, occuring after a meal in an Italian restaurant, is worth recounting because it captures the emotions of a servant class convinced that it has been wronged by what it sees as the monied class.
Alfredo, the waiter for my party of six, didn't realize I did not tip him until we were gone from the restaurant. We were in our car, feeling happy, and pulling out when Alfredo sprang from the darkness and began pounding the windshield. The others with me were stunned. ("It's Washington," shrieked my aunt from Florida, "and we're being mugged." It's a holdup, I said, but another kind.) I had taken the check and, in everyone's assumption, had left a tip. To all but me, it was unthinkable that I wouldn't tip, because Alfredo had been prompt, cheerful and had recounted the history of linquini (da Vinci loved it for breakfast, he said).
As the pounding increased, I got out of the car and attempted a dialogue. I told Alfredo that he had served us well, I respected him as a human being and was grateful to him as a waiter of immense skill. He called me a stiff. Further, if I dared return to the restaurant, he would kill me. It didn't help that the car I was in - a friend's - was a Cadillac. Nor was Alfredo particularly moved by my words of respect for his humanity. "I want my 15 per cent," he said amid the pounding. "Screw the respect."
ASIDE FROM what I learned about the international styles of untipped waiters - Italian waiters become violent, French ones feign astonishment and ask, "Did you forget somezing, Monsieur?", the Japanese block you at the door with their hands at their sides in karate formation and the unimaginative Americans merely curse you - I was heartened by one or two findings.
The first is that not all of the untipped seethe with rage. Many of them believe - rightly so, to my mind - that their wrath should be directed toward management. In a conversation with one waiter - admittedly not of the usual stock, because he was getting his masters degree in economics - he said that he was trying to get his fellow waiters to reject all tips. They could then confront the manager with their piteously low salaries, demand a fair wage and be free of the strain of grubbing for tips.
He had gotten nowhere with his idea. The other waiters, he said, were convinced that tipping was in the best traditions of the free enterprise system: hustle, show some flair and the customer would reward you with a bigger tip. That wasn't so, my friend had discovered. Some nights he deliberately gave sloppy and slow service, and he made the same in tips. Other nights, when he hustled, he earned no more.
This waiter might not have known it, but he was a Marxist. Once when Marx was walking through the Soho district of London with his friend Joseph Engels, a beggar approached. He asked for money. Engels reached into his pocket and was about to come across when Marx pulled at him. "Don't give him a thing. That way, he'll join the revolution."
Occasionally, the strains of Marxism surface in American politics. Last year a bill passed the Maryland House of Delegates that would have banned mandatory tips or service charges in restaurants. The bill eventually died.
It isn't likely that legislation can elevate waiters and the others to the dignity they deserve - a fair salary. People will have to do that. Americans who pay through the nose have been conditioned also to pay through the emotions. A tip represents payment as much for the service - which should be provided anyway - as for the servant's good feelings. We want to be thought of as Good Guys, Mr. and Mrs. Benevolence, Ms. Free Spender. Like book writers who crave the good review, tippers fear criticism, and never mind if the critics have no ground for their blasts.
I have not decided whether or not to keep on with my stiffing. I saved money in 1975 - about $600 - and I enjoyed the occasional opportunities to tell taxi drivers and waiters that they had it backwards: I was their friend and their boss was the cheapskate. If the boss wanted to jack up prices, that was free enterprise: I would either pay or live without the service.
But the curses and threats, which bothered me little at the end (in fact, I delighted at the more imaginative insulters), affected others. The woman with whom I live has confrontation enough in her life: she is a nurse, a PTA volunteer, a shopper at supermarkets on Saturdays and the mother of our three sons. To avoid more hassles, she began leaving restaurants five minutes before I did - "I need some air, love. I'll meet you outside." In taxis, she would take the door seat (the quicker to get out) and never talk to the driver for fear she would learn of his sick wife or unemployed son and well up with mercy at tipping time.
So it's a little war, as always, between economics and emotions. One thing for sure, I've never met any tipper who didn't feel that what he gave was more than he could afford while knowing that the waiter would see it as less than he deserved.