The Night I Got a Hundred Dollar Tip
Around 8 p.m. on a recent Saturday, a young, thin blonde reached a manicured hand between the seats and handed me five twenty-dollar bills. They were perfectly folded and creased into a rectangle, as if she'd been planning the exchange, the way you might pass a tip to the valet or to the bell hop, or to the person delivering your pizza, in such a way that the amount isn't immediately discernible. Neither party has to feel awkward about the implication that comes with equating another person's worth to how well you've been served.
I finished my shift a couple hours later and sat at my dining room table in my apartment, eating a made-to-go chef salad from Kroger and drinking a beer. The five twenties were fanned out in front of me. I checked my Uber app for the trip details: three miles, eleven minutes, a $3.90 fare from a fancy steakhouse in Midtown Atlanta to a trendy wine bar in gentrified Inman Park. The unwritten rules of American capitalism clearly state that the only reason you receive a one hundred dollar tip on a $3.90 fare is if you've gone well out of your way to serve a passenger, maybe tracked the person down to return a valuable item left behind. Or the person truly believes that you need the money, believes that five twenties will change your night—the insinuation also being that the person won't miss the money, that there are plenty more twenties where those came from.
I'm a thirty-three-year-old white man with nearly two years' worth of rent in my savings. Although, since moving to Atlanta a year ago, I have been living month to month, more or less, on my Uber/Lyft salary and the small stipend Georgia State University gives me to teach three classes a year. But I knew what I was signing up for. Besides, I don't have any mouths to feed, no serious medical conditions. The woman knew that, too. The woman and I both knew that I didn't do anything to deserve a one hundred dollar tip, nothing more than pick her up and drop her off, her and the man she was with.
I wasn't certain of the dynamic—boyfriend, fiancee, or just a guy with more expendable income than me. He was actually the one who requested the Uber ("Danny," we'll call him), but I never learned the woman's name who handed me a hundred dollars. Danny had opened the back driver's side door for her, and while he walked to the passenger's side, I said hello and asked, "For Danny?" to confirm I had the right people. She remained silent until Danny slid in next to her.
"Um, yes," she said.
"To Barthelona?" I asked, using the Catalan lisp for Barcelona, which was the name of the wine bar they were headed to.
She feigned a laugh. Danny didn't. The joke had fallen flat, so I told them that Barcelona was a chain that originated in Connecticut, where I'd lived for four years. I told them that a few of my friends would lay on the heavy lisp as we pre-gamed or to announce our arrival.
"What part of Connecticut?" Danny asked.
"Hartford," I said.
"I fly in to Hartford all the time for work."
"I'm from Tennessee originally," I said, "but lived in New York and Connecticut for a while."
"What part of Tennessee?" he asked.
"Little town outside of Knoxville," I said.
"I'm from Bristol," he said.
"No shit," I said.
"You two should be friends," the young woman chimed in. "So much in common."
I glanced up in the rearview mirror. Danny and the young woman swapped grins. Danny had curly dark hair and a close-cut five o'clock shadow, was a little on the short side but built, his short-sleeve polo a half-size too small to accentuate his dedication to the weight room.
"You live in the city?" the blonde asked.
My eyes connected with hers in the mirror. I returned my attention to the road. She was an attractive woman, straight white teeth and full red lips and blue eyes, although her skin was whiter than Danny's olive complexion, more of a powdery hue that takes on a hint of pink after too much sun, like mine.
"Decatur," I said.
"Oh," the young woman said. "Well, that's kind of close at least. I've been there once, to that little square thingy they have with all the bars."
"I don't get out much," I said. "Feels like I'm doubling my money doing this, driving people to the bar but not going inside."
"So you do this full time?" she asked.
Since relocating to Atlanta, I've adjusted my ten-minute script for passengers. I tend to leave out my life at ESPN altogether: just stick to working in journalism in a former life, having an Existential Crisis at thirty, putting in my two weeks and traveling the world like any privileged white person, before landing a spot in a PhD program, where I'm "relatively broke" but "happy" teaching English Composition to freshmen while pursuing my writing with "no delusions of grandeur."
Some people ask what "existential" means, or they tell me at least I had my crisis at thirty and not fifty. That last part, about "delusions of grandeur," elicits a few chuckles and a line about being positive. I tell them not to confuse pragmatism with pessimism. The part about white privilege is left untouched, unless the people in the backseat are white and take offense. Why does it always have to be about race? they ask, as if Instagram and Facebook are filled with people of color who've left their corporate careers to become travel bloggers.
We usually just wind up commiserating over the cliche about happiness being more important than money, although I have had people pause for a moment, agree to disagree about all that, people who I'm driving to Kroger for the Saturday graveyard shift stocking groceries and not to a wine bar in Inman Park.
"Oh, wow," the young woman said after my spiel. "I'm such a bad writer. My grammar is ter-ri-ble!"
"I like to think of it more as freshmen communication," I said, "not just grammar. We talk about commas and semicolons. But we talk more about thinking critically, how to communicate effectively."
"You can communicate effectively without commas and semicolons?" Danny asked rhetorically.
"I'd rather students leave my class knowing how to think instead of just following rules," I said. "But, sure, we learn how to write an effective email, and I do a lesson on how to organize a one-page resume."
"I write a damn good email," Danny said.
"That's so great," the young woman said. "Must be so rewarding."
"Not much money in it, huh?" Danny said.
"I made some money once in my life," I said, "and never was a very good person when I was making it."
"So now you're a good person," Danny said.
"Love what you do," the young woman said, attempting to break up the pissing match between two boys from East Tennessee.
"What do you do?" I asked, taking the young woman's cue.
"I'm in residential interior design," she said. "Moved to Atlanta from Florida three years ago. I'm lovin it."
"How's business?" I asked.
"It's my dream job, most of the time," she said.
"What about the rest of the time?"
"Let's just say some of my clients, they're not used to getting told what to do."
"That's why you make all that money," I said, "so you don't have to listen to anybody."
"You're so right," she said. "I have to tell them, 'Look, you're paying me A LOT just to give me directions.' Like I'm their maid or something."
Danny was quiet. Whatever he'd had to drink at the steakhouse seemed to be settling in like the haze of humidity enveloping the city. The sun was inching below the horizon, thankfully, and a breeze would come through soon, the kind of Saturday night perfect for patio-sitting and cocktail-drinking, if you're lucky enough to have a patio and a bottle of bourbon. I'd maneuvered the three-lane, one-way streets of Midtown until the road narrowed into sidewalk-and-tree-lined Inman Park, a neighborhood that brings to mind words like "hip" and "brunch" and "artisan" and "charcuterie." Maybe a decade ago the phrase "up and coming" would've been more appropriate, but this section of Atlanta has arrived, the first wave of hipsters already replaced by the hipsters who can afford a mortgage and a note on a Prius and an orchestra seat for Hamilton.
The dark underbelly of capitalism sure is pretty, though: the red-vested valet boys and flowing sun dresses and high-waisted jumpers and pastel shorts with leather loafers smacking the paved sidewalks. I've often joked with passengers that "revitalization" rarely equates to "rehabilitation." No one bothers to examine why the people pushed farther to the city's margins couldn't afford their pristine new neighborhoods, nor do the people moving in bother to examine why they all seem to look the same. I guess that's not a joke, but I say it in an upbeat tone at least, careful not to accuse anyone, including myself, for America's current tidal wave of urban revival crashing down over the underprivileged—as if a nebulous, colorless, apolitical cabal is responsible for all the cranes across the Atlanta skyline.
I shouldn't blame anyone for partaking in the fruits of their labor, or perhaps their parents' labor. That isn't fair of me, not very democratic, or maybe I mean capitalistic. Anyway, I'd unfairly pegged Danny on sight, the half-size-too-small polo—that and the steakhouse in Midtown and the petite blonde he'd opened the door for. I'm no different than Danny, really. I'm a well-educated, able-bodied white guy who could park his Honda Civic tomorrow and find a career that would pay a decent enough salary to spend my Sunday Fundays on all-you-can-drink Bloody Marys. I did it before, said things like "Barthelona" and "Let's do tapas" and "I'll have the Tempranillo." I still wear Polo and J. Crew. Truth is, the world sees in me the same privilege I see in Danny.
"What do you do Danny?" I said. "I never bothered to ask why you fly to Hartford."
"IT," he said. "Personal consulting for large firms. That's where the money's at. I was never any good at math in high school. So I thought I'd do something that actually challenged me."
"Funny thing," I said. "I was always good at math until they took away the formulas, started talking theory and application. Lost me when I couldn't just memorize it."
"Writing's just a formula," Danny said. "That's all grammar is."
"Tell me about it," I said. "Just took a course called Practical Grammar. Diagrammed sentences, identified every part of speech. Who knew it's supposed to be 'I wish I were rich' instead of 'I wish I was'? Still hate semicolons, though. Just start a new damn sentence."
"I use lots of commas," the young woman said, giggling. "I write these long sentences and put commas where I breathe, and then I use those conjugation things."
"Conjunctions, I think you mean," I said.
"Conjugations," Danny mocked. "What'd they teach you in Florida? Tailgating 101?"
"You can conjugate a verb," I said. "Same subject."
"See?" the young woman said. "Besides, I'm personable. I know how to communicate."
"Yeah," Danny said, "you talk real good."
"I do," she said.
"That was a joke," he said. "It's well."
I glanced up in the rearview. She put the tip of her index finger against the tip of Danny's nose. "So smart, this one," she said as they kissed.
"It's good to know the rules," I said. "But I never liked them. I guess I decided to come back so I could teach people how to break them."
"I love rules," Danny said. "Keeps everything even, so people don't think they can do whatever they want. If we all sat around trying to figure out how to break rules, we wouldn't get a damn thing done."
"But who's writing the rules?" I said.
"I would've fit well in Nazi Germany," Danny said.
"Danny, stop it," the young woman said. I heard a smack against Danny's thigh. Playful.
"I'm allowed to say this," Danny half-whispered. He returned to addressing me: "I just mean that structure creates productivity. Efficiency. That's what I appreciate."
I didn't ask what Danny meant by "I'm allowed to say this." He didn't feel the need to explain his comment to me, beyond the implied assertion that people ought to know their spot in the pecking order. But he'd evoked Nazism for shock value, that was clear, although I couldn't determine to what end. Maybe he'd grown exhausted with what he considered my liberalism, not adhering to rules that I deem oppressive and unequal, rules established to uphold the power structure. Maybe Danny had outsmarted me, either by reminding me that those rules I find purposefully stacked against the underprivileged and minorities are the same rules that support my privilege. Or maybe he was just or reminding me that I was driving him, not the other way around.
"We blindly follow rules," I said, "until we don't even realize that we're killing people for the sake of tradition. If the rules dictate genocide, then shouldn't we stop and reconsider?"
"You know what I mean," Danny said. "Humans benefit from order. I even have to remind this one who's boss every once in a while."
Danny nudged the young woman, and they kissed again. "I'm getting fucked up tonight," Danny said to the blonde, not to me.
"There will be no violence," the young woman said. "You boys."
"You'd probably be better off without us," I said.
"Where the fuck are we going?" Danny asked, as if he'd just now registered our location.
"Danny, calm down," the young woman said. "There's more than one Barcelona. He's a good driver."
I found an opening in the line of parallel parked cars and put on my hazard lights, easing two tires across the line. Danny was out of the car before I could even shift to park. He skipped around the back and into the middle of the road, not opening the door for the young woman this time, not even turning around.
"Here you go," the woman said.
When I saw her hand and half of Andrew Jackson's face, I assumed it was either an apology on behalf of Danny's comment or a gesture to defend him. Maybe the young woman genuinely admired my change in career path, thought the five twenties would be a thank you. She hurried out of the car and slammed the door behind her, shuffling on her high heels to catch up to Danny, straightening out her dress to mid thigh, wrapping her arm around his waist and nestling her head against his shoulder.
I didn't unfold the twenties to count them right away, but I could sense the thickness. I tossed the money inside the console and went to my next pickup location, a bar not even a half mile away. I wanted to confide in the next group of passengers about the tip, ask their opinions about whether the money was symbolic of the chasm in this country, or if I was overreacting, as I often do, overcomplicating a kind gesture.
But when three white twenty-somethings got in my car and began arguing over who'd been drinking longer and who'd catch a second wind for later, I decided they weren't my target audience.
I drove, silently listening to them recite lines from movies I wasn't familiar with and lines from The Office. I drove them twelve minutes, crossing railroad tracks, to an up-and-coming area of Atlanta, a neighborhood of two-story houses that appeared to have been built simultaneously, as if one morning they simply appeared, like they'd always existed, same design, same security systems.
My next trip sent me to a bordering neighborhood where most people don't look like me, and I figured mentioning that I had a hundred dollars in cash in my console wasn't the best idea, not in a neighborhood that has yet to come up.
I held on to those five twenties for nearly two weeks, wondering what would be most appropriate. I thought a lot about a story that a friend had told me recently, a friend who has worked in the judicial system for nearly a decade. He had a client once, a client who I think was falling behind on child support payments, or he owed the court money. The man told my friend that he could barely buy his daily Mountain Dew and pack of cigarettes. My friend rightfully advised him to never say that in front of a judge or a jury.
How beautifully capitalistic, I told my friend. No one can tell you how to spend your money, until you don't have any to spend, and then you become a charity case, and those of us with the twenties can dictate exactly how you spend our money, while we buy all the Mountain Dews and packs of cigarettes our twenties can afford.
I considered how, technically, I would need to claim these five twenties as income, that the government was owed its share. So, like my grandmother taught me, I didn't spend them all in one place:
I handed out each twenty separately, redistributed one to a person panhandling off an interstate exit ramp. I donated a twenty to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and another to Atlanta Habitat for Humanity and another to the Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence in Atlanta. I donated twenty dollars to the Facebook campaign to reunite immigrant children with their families. I probably should've donated all five twenties to charitable organizations, that way I'd "know where my money's going," as I've heard people say. You just don't know if "those people" are going to "blow it all on dope," I've heard it said.
Maybe I did hand out one twenty that would be a last drink or a last shot in the arm. I fear that the African-American woman who was holding a cardboard sign with "God Bless" might be arrested, racially profiled for entering an establishment with twenty dollars that surely can't be hers. I fear she'll be taken to jail for counterfeit that isn't counterfeit, like that homeless man in Boston who'd scrounged up enough for breakfast at Burger King, only to spend three months in jail.
Maybe I should've gone and spent the money for her, bought what I think she needs. I probably should've done a lot of different things with those five twenties. But for Danny and me and that young blond woman, there are always more where those came from.