Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 2)

We pulled out of our Brookline driveway in my wife Nell’s Honda Pilot, bound for the Hilton in Bath, Maine, at 10:15 am. Within an hour-and-a-half, we had left our golden retriever safely in the care of Nell’s mother and were driving north on I-95.

Unwittingly, though, we had joined the molasses-slow line of cars taking advantage of the first truly nice Boston-area Saturday of the summer. It thus took us nearly two hours to reach the trusty Maine Diner in Wells, roughly 33% longer than it would “normally” take.

My Discover Card slip (I save them until my bill arrives) tells me we left there soon after 2:34 pm. Our meal cost $76.68, not terrible for four people, especially given that two meals contained lobster “At Market Price.” Our eldest daughter and I both adore Maine’s signature food; our youngest daughter may have a severe allergy to crustaceans (evidence is mixed, though she is convinced after one particularly traumatic experience), while Nell can take it or leave it.

No tip appears on the slip because I left a twenty-dollar bill for our amiable server.

**********

In Part 1, I observed my zeal for tipping stems from three sources:

  1. My father’s example, especially the year he spent driving a taxicab in Philadelphia
  2. My own experience delivering food
  3. Observing how hard folks in the service industry work for a low base salary

I also presented photographic evidence of the appeal of Bath and described an epic six-hour drive (in which I tipped multiple able servers) one recent Sunday night/Monday morning.

Our family trip to Maine began six days later.

**********

When we turned right out of the Maine Diner parking, we had no desire to rejoin the snail’s-pace traffic on I-95, so we meandered north on Route 1 instead, allowing a quick stop at Rite Aid.

Not that long ago, I could rattle off every town Route 1 passes through in Maine, from the New Hampshire state line (the euphonious Piscataqua River) to Waldoboro, starting with Kittery, York, Ogunquit and Wells, followed by Kennebunk, Arundel, Biddeford, Saco, Scarborough, South Portland and Portland. There is a Howard Johnson hotel on Route 1 in South Portland where my long-term 1990s girlfriend AC and I often stayed; two minutes north on Route 1 is Rudy’s Diner. As Nell, the girls and I drove past Rudy’s, I recounted how I had once inadvertently caused their toilet to overflow; they were properly aghast and unsurprised I had never returned.

A few minutes later, we merged onto I-295 north, driving through Falmouth, Yarmouth and Freeport. Just past Freeport is Brunswick, where we took “Coastal Route” Exit 28 back onto Route 1; Brunswick, West Bath, Bath.

More than six hours after leaving Brookline, we checked into the Bath Hilton. One reason we love this hotel (and this suburban Philadelphia Marriott) is a cheerful willingness to accommodate our request for adjacent rooms with connecting door: one with two queen beds for the girls, one with one king bed for Nell and me. A quick swim and a prudent call about reservations later, we resumed our northward journey on scenic Route 1 over the Kennebec River into Woowich, Wiscasset…

Welcome to Wiscasset

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…I will someday wax eloquent about Wiscasset (photographs taken July 2015), which does not exaggerate calling itself “The Prettiest Village in Maine,” Instead, we continue north through Edgecomb, where one takes Route 27 south 10 miles to Boothbay Harbor (where I celebrated my 30th birthday with the 2nd best meal I have ever had, at a restaurant I believe was called Scottish House[1]), into Damariscotta, where Nell had made a 6:30 pm reservation at the excellent King Eider’s Pub.

I took these photographs there in July 2015.

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Unfortunately, our youngest daughter’s panicked aversion to lobster kicked in there, requiring Nell needed to take her for a long walk in the fresh evening ai, while our eldest daughter and I enjoyed our meals. The meal, which ended at 7:32 pm, cost $110.15; I left a $20 cash tip (maybe a few dollars more) for our patient and exemplar waitress. Nell and our younger daughter ate their meals later that night in the hotel; despite being cold, Nell’s medium rare burger with bleu cheese and caramelized onions was delicious[2].

While they ate, our eldest daughter and I drove off in search of dessert (Nell particularly requested a whoopie pie, a Maine staple). We drove down the Bath Road (Route 248) through Cooks Corner, a retail and restaurant hub, looking for a drive-in ice cream place I recalled from previous trips. Not finding it, we ended up on Maine Street in downtown Brunswick, just off the lush Bowdoin College campus. And we happened upon, of all things, a nationally-renowned gelato emporium.

We strolled Maine Street eating our gelato (I forget what our eldest daughter ordered; I had Pure Lemon and Blood Orange) on cinnamon-sugar waffle cones; each was too rich to finish. Driving back to the hotel, we found a Shaws open until 11 pm, where we bought a pre-packaged whoopie pie and a cherry danish for the younger daughter, among other items.

Once Nell and the girls had gone to sleep, I took a 90-minute walk through the darkened town (by 11:30 pm on a Saturday night, only Riverside Bar and Grille was still open; I passed). It was a lazy, meandering stroll (akin to my exploratory night drives) in a battered old pair of Docksiders (no socks) that mixed close inspection of shop windows (where I serendipitously found this book), examination by iPhone flashlight of historic markers and a driving curiosity to follow every path—but in the quiet of the night, when fewer, less-intense stimuli clamor for your attention. Like a classic film noir photographed by John Alton, only certain things are bright and visible, all else is shrouded in mystery.

Or I am just naturally a night-owl, full stop, he added dryly.

Feeling particularly bold (and/or foolhardy) at the end of this excursion, I walked across Route 1 on the western edge of the bridge spanning the Kennebec River. It was all-but deserted after midnight on a Sunday morning, and moments later I was back on Front Street. For the record, you can literally be at Front and Centre (Streets) in Bath.

Bath Maine Route 1 bridge--tighter

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The following day was a whirlwind of…

  • exploration of Route 127 south to Reid State Park, passing signs that simply read FOOD and WRONG;
  • a meal, ending at 4:34 pm, at Moody’s Diner (see more here; Damariscotta, Nobleboro, Waldoboro[3]), where our youngest daughter was blithely unconcerned by the lobster stew I ate sitting across from her, and where I left another $20 cash tip on $103.33 (though that includes three deserts, including their cosmically-delicious four-berry pie, and a new “When I Get Hungry, I Get Moody” t-shirt for yours truly); and
  • a stunning drive south on Route 32 to Route 130 to my favorite place on Earth (so far): Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park.

I could wax even more eloquent about Pemaquid Point (on whose rocks I sat at midnight on my 40th birthday; you may spot a theme), but for now I will simply say our daughters met author Mo Willems there in July 2016 and share this video from our most recent visit:

After clambering over nearly every inch of the extensive outcropping of rock, we tried to visit nearby Fort William Henry, but it was locked. Returning to the Hilton, the girls and I swam then ordered food from nearby Kennebec Tavern; I walked over to pick it up somewhere around 8:30 (I already recycled my debit card slips). Our order cost $36.42, and I left something like $5 despite getting the food myself.

Our youngest daughter had expected to walk with me (I thought she had already gotten into bed for the night); she was heartbroken after I left. So as soon as I returned with the food, she and I took an uproarious walk in the park around Patten Free Library.

By 11 pm, the girls had gone to sleep in their room, and Nell was ready to go to sleep in our room.

And I began the adventure that inspired this series of posts.

*********

In 1996, a close friend (let us call him “FF”) was writing a doctoral thesis in American history. His research involved a man who lived in Harpswell, just south of Brunswick, in the mid-1700s. FF was able to obtain a room at Bowdoin while conducting his research; AC and I drove there one weekend to visit him. We stayed at what was then a Holiday Inn in Bath; one night, the hotel fire alarm went off around 3 am, sending a mass of sleepy guests into the parking lot in varying states of undress.

Knowing my penchant for 24-hour eateries, FF was eager to point something out to me once we arrived: a new Denny’s in Cooks Corner. We ate there late at night that trip, and again multiple times through our final trip to Maine together in September 2000 for my 34th birthday; our relationship ended a few months later. And within a few years that Denny’s had vanished as well.

Had that Denny’s still been there in July 2015, I would not have driven an hour north to the one in Rockport, where I had a bizarre encounter [#82] with state police. Had that Denny’s still been there in July 2016, I would probably have driven 10 minutes there from the Bath Hilton both nights of our stay. And had that Denny’s been there a few weeks ago, I would probably not have taken my long walk the first night of our stay.

A little research prior to our trip, however, informed me that a Denny’s in Augusta, the state capital, was less than an hour’s drive north over what looked like scenic roads[4]. So, at a little after 11 pm on our second night in Bath, I drove north over the Kennebec River Bridge. Moments later, I turned north onto Route 127, which quickly took me to Route 128 north; I followed Route 128 north about 20 minutes, the Kennebec River glistening to my left amid scattered houses and large fields, to Route 27 north. This latter road, faster and better-lit, took me into Gardiner, where it merged with Route 201 for the final two miles into Augusta.

There is something about driving through the night into a town center from its rural outskirts that is both eerie and uplifting. This time was even better as I passed the glimmering state capitol building on my left while I could still see the Kennebec River to my right. Maybe five minutes later (an hour after I had left), once again in rural outskirts, I turned right (and up) into the Denny’s parking lot.

When I entered, the counter—with five low-backed stools—was to my left, as were five or six booths hugging the front wall; two were occupied. To my right was a larger seating area, where two customers sat in a booth. Sitting at one of the stools, setting down my reading glasses, iPhone and book (written by my friend Imogen, no less), I noticed a dark-haired woman (early 40s?) with a name-tag reading “Angela” standing on the other side of the counter; I had seen her through the front windows as I parked. Clearly a manager, she was chatting with a young-ish waitress with dirty blond hair also standing behind the counter.

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Her name, I would learn from my bill, is Beth.

And here I acknowledge not naming the Zaftigs waitresses from Part 1, while I name Kim (Boulevard Diner), Angela and Beth. Here is the difference: the name of a counter server at Zaftigs never appears on a bill, so I know their names through “private” conversation. Kim’s name, by contrast, was said publicly—as was the Zaftigs conversation I overheard, while Angela’s name is on her nametag, and Beth’s name is on every bill she hands to a customer. Yes, some of what I reveal about Beth also came from “private” conversation…but not all of it. 

Perhaps this is merely a distinction without a difference, and I am either being overly sensitive to privacy—or not sensitive enough. I am curious what you think.

As I settled myself at the counter, Angela addressed both of us, discussing her hearing loss (ironic, since I was still trying to get pool water out of my right ear); as she talked, I noticed she was missing all but one tooth in her upper front palate. Do not get me started on how unaffordable, even with dental insurance, dental care is in the United States.

When she was five years old, her eight-year-old brother wanted to shoot a rifle, but had nowhere to rest the gun barrel. So, lacking adult supervision, he used his sister’s shoulder (I forget which)—with the resulting bang permanently damaging her ear.

Most remarkable, though, was that she spoke without bitterness or recrimination: this was simply a fact of her life. And with that, she noted that it was past midnight, her shift had ended, and she left for the night, leaving her interlocutor in charge…

…who then turned to me to take my order. Patiently waiting while I flip through the pages of the various menus, Beth helpfully pointed out the $2/$4/$6/$8 menu. I countered by noting that I was just over two year away from qualifying for the Senior Menu (55 years of age and older); she smiled and said she would only charge me those prices. No thank you, I replied with a return smile, I will pay whatever I order actually costs (or words to that effect).

Ultimately, because I was not especially hungry, I ordered ice water, decaf and a sundae: strawberry ice cream, strawberry topping and nuts (it was scrumptious). After taking my order, Beth said she would make a fresh pot of decaf. When I smiled and said thank you, she seemed slightly taken aback; when I left later that morning, she thanked me—and when I asked why she was thanking me, she said something to the effect of customers on the overnight shift are not always nice. Along those lines, she also said “sorry” a lot; it struck me as more self-defense than self-deprecation.

Sitting at the counter, I could see directly into the kitchen, where a dark-haired, weather-beaten man of indeterminate age prepared various dishes. As with the Boulevard Diner waitresses, I was transfixed watching him navigate overlapping orders with the grace of a ballet dancer.

As I waited, Beth walked out from behind the counter to attend to customers sitting in booths—and I saw she was pregnant. In fact, as she kibitzed with two male customers, I heard her say she was due on Halloween (a girl), putting her about halfway through her pregnancy. She also mentioned having a 2½-year-old son; as she and I chatted later, she told me her best friend spends the night with her son while he sleeps, but just as she returns home in the morning (around 6:30 am), he often wakes and wants Mommy to feed him. She would get so tired at times, she added, she would literally fall asleep while eating.

I do not remember how it came up (either she almost spilled something on a customer, or she was concerned about spilling something on me), but she told me an accident had left her with no fingertips on (I believe) her left hand. You could not actually tell unless you looked closely, or had it pointed it out to you. That served as prelude to a tale of once spilling the same milkshake twice on the same woman because she (Beth) was squeezing the flimsy to-go cup too hard (lack of sensitivity in the hand. I surmise).

But, again, there was no upset in the storytelling—it was simply a funny anecdote to share. In fact, her amiable positivity reminded me of my late mother: life threw tragedy (and joy, to be fair) at her, yet she kept moving forward with determined optimism (and, starting at the age of 32, as she often reminded me, more than a few joints).

Beth told me she had not yet settled upon a name for her Halloween-due daughter because she was wary of saddling any child with a name—a label, essentially—that could mar their lives. I would learn the following night (spoiler alert) when she reiterated her wariness—without explanation—that she did not decide on her now-seven-year-old daughter’s name until she was riding in the ambulance to the hospital. This was her second daughter, her eldest being nine. The lack of paternal input in these stories jumped out at me, as it may have to you. However, despite wearing a ring on her left-hand ring finger I never did ascertain her marital status, or whether her children had multiple fathers (she once vaguely referred to “his father”).

All the while, of course, Beth was attending to customers, processing take-out orders, wiping down counters and table tops and—when time permitted—quietly checking her cell phone at the far end of the counter near the entrance to the kitchen; I do not recall her ever sitting.

As I was finishing my sundae and working on my third cup of decaf, two men—most likely adult father and son—entered the restaurant and sat at a booth near me; they appeared to be regulars. The younger man, maybe in his early 30s, soon asked for a job application, adding he had completed (if memory serves) 18 applications and had 22 interviews in the past two years. The point being, he had been struggling to find work since something involving receiving Supplemental Security Income (I recognized the acronym “SSI” immediately, being legal guardian of an institutionalized older sister). This prompted Beth to relate her own story and complain abstractedly about some court or other; I now wonder if she was referring to her injured hand.

Soon after that, I paid my check (in cash; with substantial tip it was well over $15) and drove back to the Hilton. I took Route 201 south the entire time, though I meandered down the inviting riverside streets (and a funky rear alley/driveway/loading dock) of Augusta first, then again in Gardiner—I regret not photographing how cool it looked at night driving over the Cobbosseecontee Stream, past the A1 Diner, over Water Street (where I turned left to explore the main drag), up and around to the right then left, past the Gardiner Common. This gives you a sense, during the day at least; lit up at night, quiet and empty, it was gorgeous.

Taking Route 201 was the correct choice: it was a faster, more aesthetically-pleasing drive, especially once I reached Brunswick and crossed over the Androscoggin River.

I took these photographs just downriver in July 2015.

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And I would be remiss, amid tales of diners and hard-working waitresses, if I did not mention the delectable BLT on whole wheat toast I ate here in July 2015:

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**********

The next morning, after Nell watched the girls take their morning swim and took full advantage of the free breakfast, we ate a leisurely brunch at Mae’s Café ($54.27 at 12:53 pm; I think the cash tip was $13 for affable young Ethan, who taught us how to pronounce Sagadahoc) then spent the rest of the day in Freeport.

By which I mean we spent most of the day here, the only clothing and accessories store I know open 24 hours a day (photograph taken July 2016):

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My wardrobe, such as it, is a mishmash of L.L. Bean, Brooks Brothers and a wide variety of lettered T-shirts (many from diners or NOIR CITY), so I took full advantage of the opportunity to replenish said wardrobe. I was not the only one, and by the time we had finished (and returned the next day), we had spent more than $1,300 at L.L. Bean and Old Navy (where our eldest daughter, actually, was the one trying on all of the clothes—not the daughter who once pointedly noted “she could not help being fancy”).

We followed this with a terrific meal at The Great Impasta in Brunswick (where our youngest daughter had another alarming reaction to the food—though we now began to suspect the grenadine in her Shirley Temples); kudos to Karen, who billed us $109.33 at 7:43 pm—to which I added $20.67. Then, of course, we strolled the short distance to Gelato Fiasco. I forget what Nell and our eldest daughter had (our youngest daughter was still in some upheaval, so she refrained), as I was fixated upon my Mascarpone Pistachio Caramel. As I had on our prior visit, I threw a few dollar bills into the tip jar.

Tipping. You remember tipping. This is a post about tipping.

Another night swim with our daughters and a shower later, I was back on Route 201 north, headed for Augusta.

There was a different waitress behind the counter when I sat at my stool, but once I ordered ice water and decaf, Beth walked over and again offered to make a fresh pot. Hungrier this night, I ordered a plate of scrambled eggs and what amounted to two orders of dry wheat toast. While I waited, I noticed that rather than leave (it was past nearly midnight), Angela she sat down at the booth nearest the door, clutching a third-full two-liter plastic bottle of Mountain Dew, talking with a man I took to be a regular. I heard little of their conversation beyond that Angela was an “Army brat” who moved a great deal as a child. She also said at one point, “I never did get married. I’m smart.”

No idea what she meant by that.

Meanwhile, my food arrived.

Just bear with me while I relate an earlier experience with wheat toast in Maine.

A few days after Christmas 1996, AC and I spent a few days in Maine, staying at the South Portland Howard Johnson hotel. One morning (fine, early afternoon; we slept way in that day) we breakfasted at a nearby IHOP. As part of my meal, I ordered a plate of dry wheat toast—meaning “unbuttered.” When the toast arrived, however it was dripping with butter. And yet our waitress actually asked me, “Do you need any more butter?”

I love Maine.

Sure enough, when my toast arrived, it was buttered; I suspect it is muscle memory for some chefs. Still, covered in the strawberry “preserves” and grape “jelly” from those little plastic pouches, it was like ambrosia. The eggs were good, too.

It was a quieter night, so Beth and I chatted a bit more, albeit desultorily; her manager was sitting right there, after all. Nonetheless, I learned the names of her children (and deciding her second daughter’s name in the ambulance). I learned her age and birthday; suffice it to say she was in early-to-mid 20s when her first daughter was born.

I learned she packs a full work week into four consecutive overnights to have more time with her son; it was never clear where her two older daughters lived. At one point, I overheard her say she makes only $5.50 an hour in base salary (I think that is what I heard), but so far that night had only earned $23 in tips. If she works a nine-hour shift and leaves at 6 a.m., that would start her shift at 9 pm. It was then a bit past midnight. Thus, for roughly three hours, she had effectively been earning just under $13.50 an hour.

At 36 hours a week for 52 weeks, that works out to just over $25,000 a year.

Meanwhile, at one point she said she was going outside for a bit. Expecting a negative response to what was clearly a smoking break, she said, “I know, I know, it’s bad. I am down to only one a day,” or words to that effect. Both of my parents smoked heavily, and that likely contributed to deaths from a heart attack (father, at 46) and ovarian cancer (mother, 66).  But all I said was, I do not judge you. In fact, you are judging yourself far more than I ever could.

Later, we discussed being bored at our workplaces yet being discouraged from doing more than our job description entailed. I related how when I worked as a pizza/sub delivery boy, I had a lot of down time–so I would pick up a broom and start sweeping. But my—eccentric—boss would get annoyed at me. That was somebody else’s job, he believed (it was not, actually, but never mind). Maybe he was afraid I would ask for more money; I would not have, though, as the tips I received were decent, and I simply wanted to help.

Finally, while standing at the cash register, I heard what had happened to her fingertips. It was a fascinating story mixed with more personal revelations (I just bore with her) that boils down to fireworks unexpectedly exploding in her hand. I am amazed she was not far more severely injured than she was.

It was not until I was mostly out the door that Beth saw what I had left on the counter. My bill could not have been more than $12 or so, but I left a 20-dollar bill. On top of it was one of my business cards, on the back of which I had written, “For she-who-has-yet-to-be-born. Good luck!  -Matt” along with a smiley face.

She had said “Thank you” as I was leaving, then I heard a louder “Thank you!” as the outer door closed behind me. I waved without stopping and got into Nell’s car.

The drive back to Bath was uneventful.

**********

The next morning, I actually breakfasted in the hotel before we checked out. Before that I had left $70 in cash in Nell’s and my room plus a note saying “Thank you!” (with another smiley face, yes). My rule of thumb for hotel rooms is to tip between $10 and $15 per room per night; it is a brutal job.

As I said, we stopped in Freeport for more shopping, after which we ate here. And while our food was fine, the 45-minute wait was absurd given how few patrons there were; they cannot all be winners. That was not our waitress’ fault, however, so I still tipped well; I paid in cash so I cannot tell you the exact amount or time of day.

This time, it was our eldest daughter’s turn to get panicky about food (though she still enjoyed her hot dog). As someone who spent most of the last six months of 2016 convinced I was going to vomit every time I felt “trapped” somewhere (why I finally started seeing a psychotherapist and be treated for depression), I cannot say anything.

Driving home, we exited in Kittery, so I could peruse the outlet stores that line Route 1, looking for a New Balance store. Not finding one, we continued over the Piscataqua River into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where we snaked along Route 1B until we arrived here (photograph taken June 2015).

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Nell and I honeymooned here for three nights in October 2007. And since we are discussing family gastrointestinal upheaval, I will simply note that Nell was already pregnant with our eldest daughter then.

After exploring the hotel, we meandered down gorgeous Route 1A in New Hampshire, the Atlantic Ocean on our left, stunning mansions on our right. This took us into the prosaic resort strips of North Hampton and Hampton Beach, and, finally, into Massachusetts, where we made our way to I-95 south and home—arriving, happy but exhausted, just before 7 pm.

To be continued…

[1] I had no luck interrogating my memory using GoogleMaps, Newspapers.com or any other online tool. As for the best meal I ever had: here in July 1997.

[2] The bottle of red wine Nell bought at a Bath CVS helped as well.

[3] For the record, I refreshed my memory of the Route 1 town progression using GoogleMaps.

[4] An alternate route would have been I-295 north to I-95 north, with Denny’s just off Exit 112A, but where is the fun in that?

2 thoughts on “Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 2)

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