Keeping Up Appearances

I grew up among Episcopalians and military types. The military is all about appearances. My mother’s father, General “Bagpipes” Magruder, wore a suit and bow tie to all civilian events. My father was also a General, a Tennessee Baptist converted by my mother to her more uptown Protestant brand. He looked snappy when he stepped out for non-military festivities wearing a Borsalino fedora, a feather peeking from the hat band. As for me, from an early age I polished my own shoes and kept a straight gig line.

Our house always looked spic and span. My mother, not a General, had to have the quarters ready in case the commanding officer’s wife stopped by. Officers’ ladies had their own calling cards, the reason for the silver salver tray on the table that attended the front door. Hands that slipped cards into the tray wore gloves. What if you didn’t have a bow tie, didn’t have a fedora, didn’t have a silver salver, lost your gloves? What would people think of you?

Fast forward to St. Pete, 2023. Couples are strolling past outdoor cafes. Females are dressed in the smallest amount of fabric that can cover strategic flesh, their private parts about to go public. The guys with them foraged in their soiled laundry, found gym shorts and a T-shirt with a suitable legend (“I Drank Key West Dry”), slipped on their shower shoes and went for the door.  We assume both male and female a) had a mirror and b) before they headed out, checked themselves in that mirror, said, “Baby, you are looking good.”

I don’t think there are Episcopalians flashing flesh on the sidewalks. Episcopalians are concerned about appearances. They invest wisely, drink in moderation, and tolerate a moderate amount of pomp and color in church, like a single cherry in their Manhattan. The passing of the shiny brass collection plate on Sunday is a telling moment. The minister, deacons and acolytes have laid on the ceremony, edified us with choice bits from the Bible, preached to us, and blessed us. Now it’s time to pay for the show. When I was a child, soldiers, herded to the Post Chapel by their platoon sergeants, sat in the front pews and flinched at the sight of the plate. They would look around ruefully to see what the other guys were giving, thrust their hands into their khaki pockets and draw out a crinkly ball of cash from which they extracted a couple of George Washingtons. Their beer money.

Folks who thumb through their wallet or forage in their purse at collection time may be looking for baksheesh to keep God quiet. If producing major cash, they may be campaigning to get a seat on the vestry, in which case they are certifiable. No one in their right mind campaigns for a seat on a church vestry or a condo board. I get a pass on the collection plate because I pledge, giving the church a monthly dive into the Craig exchequer. I turn to smile at the usher holding the plate out. I reach for it to pass it along. I know he knows I am a righteous dude and gave at the office. But wait, is that a new usher? How do I convey that everything is cool with my not forking over? When I join the recession to howdy the minister at the end of the service, will the new usher whisper to another usher, cutting his eyes toward me. “He didn’t give.”

I slurped down a vermicelli bowl for lunch several days ago, bowl bistros being as common on Central Avenue as ripped jeans. My chopsticks wouldn’t shred the lemongrass beef. The vermicelli wouldn’t hang on long enough for me to get a decent clump into my maw. I was spraying polka dots of sweet fish sauce on my shirt. I said hell with it and grabbed a fork. Chopstick savvy customers around us turned away, dismayed. At the end of the meal the waiter, a nice young guy with curly brown hair and many beaded necklaces, brought the mobile terminal to take our plastic. After delivering the bill for food into the dot com ether, he deftly turned the terminal to present the buttons for tipping. He smiled. I didn’t have my glasses on, couldn’t make out the percentage button. I took a chance and punched top left, guessing 20%. Was that enough? Or was that the “No Tip” button? Did I detect a patronizing “meh” on his face as he whisked the hardware away? When did this get like the collection plate at church?

My Life’s Editor has strong feelings about tipping. Why, she asks, because of the cost of the meal, should a waiter at a snazzy place on Beach Drive get more bucks from their 20% cut than the waiter at the bowl bistro? They both smile nicely, take drink orders, serve, and stop by to see how things are going. OK, the Beach Drive waiter has a cleaner shirt and asks, “Is everything to your liking?” instead of “How’re we doin’ here, guys?” Also, the Beach Drive waiter has a lower tat-to-skin ratio than the bowl bistro waiter.

Herself also objects to tip jars that have multiplied at checkout counters. The jar squats there with its hand-lettered note: TIPS. The subliminal message is “If you don’t pop a bill in here, you are a cheapskate.” This requires you to wait until the barista is watching you before shoving in some greens. I would prefer a more direct message: “Need cash for car payment.”

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