Keep the change. Just keep everything.

Tipping irks me.

I admit, no dollar leaves my wallet without my full-throated resentment, but my hatred of tipping goes beyond that. It’s not a question of percentage or quality of service; I’m annoyed that a decision that’s supposedly left up to me comes with strings attached. Tip well or get some saliva in your soup. Tip too well, and you’re the chump who got mugged at the Olive Garden.

And yet, I’m a decent tipper. Never under 15%, and I’ve occasionally gone up to 25%. And then there was that calculation error that caused me to leave a 33% tip, and a shocked waiter probably. Perhaps it’s the pressure of the social contract living in the USA or that I just like to keep visiting my favorite restaurants. Or, who knows, I might be fighting some imaginary Indian-lousy-tipper stereotype. I remember tipping in India to be brutal: people rounded off 49s to 50 and 99s to 100. Tipping was just a convenience to avoid additional math. And then I came to New York City, where we tip cab drivers we’ll never see again for not getting us killed. We tip baggage handlers at the airport so our checked-in bags follow our itinerary. If I were to visit as many countries as my bags have, I’d be wearing a beret-turban-sombrero.

Even if the original idea of tipping was to provide us some control over how we reward our servers and perhaps as an incentive to them to treat us well, I doubt it serves that purpose. Even if our tips rose and fell with how well we are treated at various places of business, no two customers would agree on a definition of exceptional service. So, using tips to fix service is at best a dream.

“But Bharat, waiters are paid much less than minimum wage, and the government assumes they’re getting tipped while taxing them.”

It bothers me that waiters aren’t paid a living wage only to the extent that their rent is somehow my responsibility. I hate the idea of forcing restaurants to pay their servers more. But other types of business owners are under the governmental hammer for wages, and even health insurance. Yet, for some reason, making sure this poor bastard affords his annual physical is somehow my responsibility. I don’t mean to go all Mr. Pink on you, but tipping is  neither scientific nor fair. Female waitresses get tipped more than male ones, and being large-breasted and blonde makes those dollars flow more than all the free dessert in the world. So most customers aren’t rewarding the prompt service of the nice lady at Applebees; they’re just signaling with their wallet their appreciation for narrow waists.

And the stress, oh my god the stress. How much is enough? Am I being cheap? What if I’m overtipping? What if I’m setting a new baseline and the next average tip appears small? Frankly, I prefer restaurants that levy a constant service charge and exempt me from the mental calisthenics of balancing privileged guilt against a thick wallet on a full stomach. When a meal is done and I’m working up the social decency to resist loosening my belt in public, the last thing I need is to worry about is putting my waitress’ kids through college. With the service charge, I know beforehand that everything I see on the menu is going to cost a fixed percentage more, and I can decide whether I want it or not.

When it comes to tipping, I think at least some people make rules up as they go along. There’s this one-upmanship of out-tipping the other guy so you come out looking like the big shot. Tipping bartenders five bucks for pouring beer into a glass with minimal spillage is a little silly; sure, it’s a good way to ensure you never have to wait for a drink in a crowded bar maybe, but at an academic social?

But I guess someone should make up for those sickos who leave these:

It's a good thing these people believe in hell

It’s a good thing these people believe in hell

For a few dollars more

I am famously cheap.

My friend regales crowds with the time he and I bought blank DVDs in Mumbai. Each one cost Rs. 12 (about 24 cents for the uninitiated), and I noticed that the DVDs were shiny on both sides without any drawings or logos. I had to ask, “Does this mean I can burn data on both sides?” The shopkeeper literally facepalmed and said, “Sir. How much do you expect for just Rs. 12?” He couldn’t tell what embarrassed him more—my ridiculous question or that he was more embarrassed with the exchange than I.

Coaxing dollars out of my wallet is a running dare among my friends. Every outing they propose to me begins with a ‘should you choose to pay for it’ clause. It’s not like they aren’t careful with money. They just don’t make it as obvious as I do. I have never been too embarrassed to ask, “But how much will it cost?” And that helps me negotiate with chemical vendors for lab supplies. It’s a real production. I dial up the Indian accent, play the poor immigrant card like a zither, and make them repeat every sentence until they surrender and dangle the biggest discount their supervisor can authorize. Occasionally I get busted because the guy at the other end is in a call center in Bangalore.

Now I know the stereotype in America—Indians are cheap. There is some truth to that. What distinguishes me is that my ‘Indian’ friends call me cheap. In restaurants that don’t split checks, I usually pay, and the next day my companions receive an Excel sheet in an email with what they owe me in bold. Social decorum rarely stops me from lecturing the friend who never orders anything and disposes of three plates of the free bread. Nor do I shy away from interrogating the friend who habitually leaves to answer nature’s call when the waiter approaches with the check. Why do I hang out with such douchebags?

A typical conversation should highlight my agony. I dislike going to Starbucks alone. So I call someone—

“Hey I’m going to get a coffee. Come with?”

“No man. I’m busy. But as you’re going, can you get me a Chai tea latte?”

“Certainly. I chug a 50-cent coffee refill while chauffeuring your $3 drink. Guess what? Next time I have a yen for coffee, you’re not invited.”

It’s no secret whence I acquired this character. My mom earns and spends without losing sleep. The World Bank lends India huge sums against mom’s sari collection. Dad on the other hand, as mom illustrates, enjoys money by having it. So as I gloss over my penny-pinching by waxing lyrical about abysmal stipends and the GINI coefficient, the truth is that it’s coded into my DNA to fret about the doubloons. My salary has doubled from almost nothing to nearly nothing over the last few years, but I have increased my spending just enough to let me salivate over something I can’t buy.

And what I can’t buy are usually possessions, even though studies suggest that buyer’s remorse is lower when you spend on experiences than on things—a crock if you ask me. Studies of happiness usually involve self-reporting, basically shoving a mic into someone’s face and asking them if they’re happy—a subjective concept if there ever was one. Anyway, as a guy, and a geeky one at that, I like splurging on tech stuff. Seriously, I have gadgetry that a person with twice my salary and half my debt should eschew.

It’s not like I won’t fork over for experiences. I can be weak too. I splurge on food. If you gave me ten thousand dollars and a month in NYC to spend it, I would see you in two weeks with blocked arteries and type II diabetes. And I tip well. I don’t eat in places where I can’t afford the meal plus at least 15% tip. And I’m not an asshole. I purchase my music from iTunes. Sure I grab every free iTunes card I can at the school Starbucks. But that’s essentially free money. A guy’s gotta eat.

My spending habits are paradoxical. I will order takeout instead of cooking for myself, but I’ll save the little napkins. I like eating at Chipotle, but when the ladle-wielding woman tells me that guacamole is extra—she can’t help it. It’s probably in her contract—I crumble and eat a soulless burrito bowl.

All because that little analog meter is perpetually running in my head. Like the MasterCard ad but without the corny ending.


This is my attempt to write a short story in the first person from a woman’s POV and in the present tense. I won’t be surprised if I’m bad at interpreting the feminine condition. Here goes…

 You’ll never catch me at a bar before 1 am. To do what—ripen other tomatoes by contrast? No thanks. Let the lawyers and stockbrokers make their withdrawals of the nines and tens. If I’m early, I’ll wait outside. A woman who sits too long at a bar un-approached takes a cab home, alone. I know my limitations and what they can fetch. You’ll say that I have a pretty face, but you’ll add that I’m not hot. Dolled-up, I turn a few heads with competition out of circulation. And I always wear high heels. They’re too conspicuous—they make me look short. Still, better than not being looked at. Whenever I put on makeup, I think how shallow I must be to give in to the standards of men. Do I really want the men who are all about height and tits and ass?

Who am I kidding? These are the men worth it. The others want the same stuff—they are just too cowardly to reach. Guess how many promotions and raises they get.

I make the last puff count. Living on twenty cigarettes per day is not easy—luckily it’s not true either. I pull out the Newports I save for emergencies. Newports, because if they were Marlboros I’d smoke them all before buying more. Even if I run, I won’t make it to 6th and 7th before Frankie leaves for the night. Frankie sells buttlegged cigarettes on 7th Avenue between 6th and 10th streets. He gets them from Virginia and sells them as loosies—one for seventy-five cents, two for a dollar. Because I have a pretty face, or so he says, he can let go of two packs for fifteen bucks. I know my pack-a-day habit isn’t healthy, but I don’t understand people who don’t smoke at all. The smell of a cigarette in the morning is my Starbucks. If only more people understood that, smoking wouldn’t have that stigma. People are so arbitrary about vices. Some habits are cool, others sin. But it’s not like I’m addicted. In Paris, I smoked fewer than ten in fifteen days, tired of asking Puis-je fumer ici? everywhere. Most people don’t understand that I don’t want to quit. To them, smoking is a pathology that people need to be socialized out of. Nobody thinks it’s impolite to drown someone in tales of doom as long as he’s dangling a cigarette. Try lecturing a guy on sodium as he’s about to eat a hot-dog. Speaking of which, the fat, black guy-at-the-door at Sehrgut is asking an obvious teenager what her sun sign is. Hey, if you have made up a sophisticated test for carding, at least update it now and then. He probably asked her mother the same question fifteen years ago. And it’s pointless too; the ones with the fake IDs have every detail memorized. I exhale upwards to avoid the menthol fumes—I hate smelling them and hate smelling like them.

I’m not carded when I enter Sehrgut at one fifteen. It doesn’t matter. I beat another woman in a polite race to the just-emptied empty stool at the far end of the bar. “Long time,” mouths the bartender. It’s deafening in here. He pours my Aventinus Eisbock into a glass, and immediately tilts his head and smiles when he remembers that I like pouring my own. It starts to get crazy. The bar plays Alicia Keys and Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind even though it’s so old, just so out-of-towners can go Newww Yawwrk. Only someone not from the city can enjoy that song. It irritates New Yorkers. Just like any other tribute to New York, it takes a piece of the city and hands it to outsiders to enjoy. As if they earned it. I start to pay, but the bartender waves me off, his fingers nearly knocking the credit card off my outstretched hand. “Compliments of…that guy,” I follow his finger with a smile ready, but my benefactor is already walking towards me.

“Hi. I’m Sam.”

“Meera. Thanks.”

“Sure. I’m from Chicago; here on vacation.” The stool next to mine becomes empty, and he is quick.

“Oh. I’m from here,” I say.

“That you are. The bartender clearly knows you. You’ve always lived in the city?” I can’t help but smile. He is awful at this. He is not bad-looking and seems sincere. But can he even taste his beer with gum in his mouth?

“I’m from here. But I moved back from DC a year ago.”

“Work?” he asks.

“Yup.” Not true, but no way I’m visiting that topic with a stranger in a bar. This type of situation always makes me uneasy. My pulse is making my wrist feel weird. His face rests on his fist as his elbow digs into the counter—he is trying to look casual. I’m worried that there will be a knuckle-impression on his cheek. Luckily, he switches topics and positions.

“You’re really beautiful, you know?”

“Thanks!” I say.  Amazing how he swooped for the kill. I had not figured him to be aggressive. At least he’s looking at my eyes when he is saying it. And it’s not 3 am—that’s when guys go for backhand cross-court winners.

“What do you do, Sam?” I ask, my turn to objectify him.

He said, “I teach Mathematics at the University of Illinois in Chicago,” his last words apologizing for his first. Anybody who expands the word math is probably too serious for me. Suddenly he looks closer to forty than thirty.

I persist. “Nice. I took some grad-level calculus in college.”

“As an undergrad? That’s impressive.” His eyes twinkle. Can eyes really twinkle? “Yeah. I had a crush on this math professor. I worked extra hard. He was impressed, and he asked me to take a few of his graduate courses. It was a fun couple of semesters.” I say.

“You mind if we go someplace where I don’t have to read your lips?” he asks. I haven’t even answered, but he is standing and offering me his hand like I’m stepping off a carriage not a barstool. Thanks Lancelot.

“I know a good place,” I say. There are over two hundred bars in the lower east side.

We walk a few blocks north of Houston to a half-basement. It is louder than Sehrgut in here. People jostle us as they’re walking in, walking out, finding a place to sit, and stealing chairs with jackets wrapped around them. A lady is singing in some Russian sounding language, and at least forty people clap in a place that should really hold twenty. The restroom line goes all the way to the front door.

“I’m sorry. It’s quiet on most days, and they make great vodka infusions,” I say.

“I guess everybody in Manhattan found out. No worries. I know a place.” We walk back to Houston past my favorite overpriced juice stall.

“Nice,” I say, “This can’t be your first trip to the city. How did you find this place?” I look at the dust on the shelves, the refrigerator with beers I can’t recognize, the menu written in chalk with common words deliberately misspelled, the lady behind the counter with all those tattoos, and the shelf with books so eclectic I wonder how their readers ever ate at the same place. The sign reads Leave a book, take a book.

“I found this place the last time I was in the city drunk at 4 am, which is to say the last time I was in the city. I was hungry.”

Interesting. Math geek who likes to get drunk and knows weird places to eat in the lower east side. We talk about this and that for an hour. I surprise him by describing Goldbach’s conjecture. He surprises me by saying that he has to leave early tomorrow morning for Chicago, and that he had fun. I take a cab home, alone.

Manhattan delights

A dear friend of mine once described a concept called ‘patel shots’. When I asked him to elaborate, he said that they were postcard-type photos taken by tourists near all the garden variety tourist spots around a popular city. This guy loved all the nuances of NYC that I could show him, but make no mistake, he could give the patels a run for their money (which is bucketloads, by the way!) in the quest for the unparalleled patel shots! (No offense meant to actual patels!)The other part of Manhattan, that only residents can show you, are the quaint coffee shops, the small but amazing brick oven pizza joints run by the temperamental Italian owners whose moodiness is not only tolerated, but appreciated, all due to their culinary genius.What I am gonna give a preview of right now, is a part of the Lower East Side of Manhattan…a little further off NYU campus. For a long time, the lower east side has been associated with the student and worker crowd, which brings with it fashionable pubs, bars, cafes and well slightly proletariat experience altogether. It was not out of character for the rents to be lower here than say the upper west side (endorsed by the sitcom Seinfeld, as it is based entirely in that area).

Now, however, the paradigm shift has come where the quaint coffee shops are quaint not because they cannot afford to expand, but because the yuppie mindset is tired of the chain stores and eateries and now covets the European bistro/cafe experience. Coffee now costs $4.50 at some places, and people are happy to shell out the duddu.

I am in the process of discovering places which serve great food. Now there is one place I ate just today morning. It is a small breakfast place, where there are long lines on weekday mornings just to get a table for two. If you are in a group of four or more, the reservation card handed to you may as well say “Are you kidding me!” The breakfast was awesome, I had a salmon based entree, with some fresh squeezed orange juice and my cousin had something similar. We wound up the meal with coffee, and the check came with the number $50 on it, which I duly passed on to my cousin, whose face had the calm of a person who had eaten there before, compared to my jaw which was somewhere between the table and the floor! The amazing thing is, with unemployment increasing at the rate of knots, the lines outside places like these (and there are many, mind you) have not been affected at all. You gotta love NYC. There are other reasons too.

Rents are going up as people are now wanting to live here. I, of course, am enjoying the delights of this region as I visit a cousin of mine every weekend, and mooch off him while he picks up the tab, with me realizing all the while that pretty soon, I would have to do this for someone else. Duniya gol hai!

This is the first post of mine where I have rambled on without much direction or purpose, and I really feel indulgent today. You might scoff at my desperation to have my blog read that I did not forewarn the readers of this randomly ambulatory post.

Tedious rants

People! Stop holding doors for other people! Even in crowded bustling New York City; it is insane how you manage to pump chivalry and politeness into such crammed workdays. It is one thing for you to expect me to hold the door open when you are right behind me, but if you’re far away, you’re on your own. One wonders what the limit is, beyond which the intensity of chivalry wanes. I like the 5-second rule. If you can get to the door in five seconds, I hold it open. The calculation of how soon you reach is mine only…non negotiable. Of course, if you are lagging, I suggest you buck up, although the energy wasted in the speed increase could be used to open the door…

The next person who tells me to have a nice day is getting the shraapam of his life. He is forewarned of boils in very private organs which will make small pox seem like a mosquito bite. When I reach the checkout counter of a grocery store, I will not ask you “How are ya?” Not because I’m rude, mainly because I don’t give a tiny rat’s ass. I mean that with sincerity and honesty; you know…the kind that you don’t mean when you are asking me about my day, and then telling me to have a nice one. That applies to smiles too. Let’s have fewer but more genuine smiles. And once in a while, let’s see some frowns. We could all use some bad expressions. Kinda colors the day more.

If I sneeze, and you are right in front of me, and we are having a conversation, and you are done wiping yourself dry, I will excuse the bless you. All those who scream bless you from the other end of the car of the E train at Penn Station need to get a life. We could all use a little less blessing and little more reality…maybe some paper napkins too…

People hawking politicians can stop pretending to know their stuff now that Election Day will pass soon. It is so annoying to see people wanting to vote for Obama but not being able to name any legislative action he has taken as senator.

Women who are bad drivers, you have an added responsibility on you. Don’t reinforce the stereotype that women cannot drive well! The majority of women who drive competently are continually judged because you usual suspects always come along and make people roll their eyes. Apologies to women everywhere for this rant.

Many more to come…