Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Eye of a needle

The summer before I went to Japan to finish my last year of college, I worked out of Los Angeles International Airport driving an airport shuttle. This was, I suppose, a McJob of sorts (a McJob, as Douglas Coupland wrote in Generation X, is a "low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one"), but I quite enjoyed it. Partly because the pay was actually pretty good for an unskilled job -- I made between $7 and $10 an hour (in 1988), depending on tips. Partly because each day was different -- I met different people and drove to different places every day. But mostly because it was temporary. I only had to do it for six months, and I only had to make enough to pay rent to my Mom and to get a plane ticket to Japan. I did that with some money left over for fun, which was abundantly available in LA.

Now, I wasn't driving one of the shuttle buses that go round and round from terminal to terminal inside the airport. Instead, what I drove was a van that took people to and from the airport. If you've ever lived in LA, you've probably seen one of the blue vans with "Super Shuttle" in big yellow letters on the side. That's what I drove. It's a "share a ride" system, basically kind of like sharing a taxi to and from the airport. The idea is that it's more convenient than a bus because it's door to door, but less expensive than a taxi because the ride is shared. The system actually works pretty well.

One of the fun things about driving an airport shuttle was getting to know LA. I got to know the city and its geography better in my first two months driving a shuttle than I had in the year I'd been living there before I started. From Thousand Oaks to Pasadena to San Pedro, I knew where everything was, how to get there from LAX and how to get back to LAX without getting caught in the freeway traffic.

But by far the most interesting thing about driving a shuttle was the tips. Not just because making money is fun -- it is -- but because of what you learn about people from the way they tip. In many cases, they fell into patterns based on things like nationality and social class.

For example, Japanese people knew they were supposed to tip, but they had no idea how much. The result was that they tended to "over tip" (although from my point of view there was no such thing, thanks very much). If I had Japanese passengers -- and they always seemed to come in groups of two or more; I don't think I ever had one ride alone -- I could count on at least a 20-percent tip. Filipinos were generally the friendliest people I'd meet. They'd almost always be ready with a smile and a nice conversation to pass the time on the way to their destination. But they were usually lousy tippers. If I had Filipino passengers, I'd expect a $1 tip. That's right, one measly dollar. But I couldn't really hold it against them, because they were so nice. Australians, on the other hand, seemed to resent the very concept of tipping. They seemed to think it was some sort of American racket designed to steal their money. So they'd stiff me every time. Thanks a lot, "mate." Go sit on a boomerang.

Now, you might think that wealthier people would be the best tippers, but that wasn't the case. The fares were preset by geographical area, so it cost the same to go to Beverly Hills as it did to go to Hollywood, $16. If you're not from LA, you might believe that Hollywood is full of movie stars and other rich people, but it's not. It's middle class, with a lot of young working people living in apartments. The rich people live in places like the Hollywood Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and, of course, Beverly Hills (swimmin' pools, movie stars). But when I'd drive these young people without much money to and from their Hollywood apartments to LAX for the $16 fare, they'd quite often hand me a $20-bill and say "Keep the change." That was pretty much the norm.

On the other hand, people from Beverly Hills, generally older and visibly wealthier than my Hollywood passengers, would hand me a $20-bill for their $16 fare and say, "Give me two dollars back." That happened pretty much every time. And I wondered about that a lot. Four dollars couldn't matter very much to the people from Beverly, but it was more than they were willing to part with. Four dollars wasn't an insignificant amount of money to the Hollywood passengers, but they'd give it away. Why?

I think it's because to the Hollywood passengers I was a human being. They were used to doing things for themselves, so they saw people who did things for them as no different from themselves. Plus a lot of them were probably waiters, or their friends were. They knew what it was like to depend on tips, they knew what it felt like to get good ones, and it made them feel good to make me feel good. They could identify with me.

To the people from Beverly, on the other hand, I think I was just another servant. They were constantly served by maids, gardeners, delivery boys, and whatnot, and over time they'd learned to see them as unimportant, to look right through them, to not think about them. So they'd pay a reasonable tip -- that was part of the deal, and they weren’t crude or anything like that -- but the idea that their driver was a human being who'd be made happy by another $2 or $5 or whatever just wasn't something they thought about.

And I wonder if this sort of distortion isn't what Jesus had in mind when he said it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. If getting into heaven depends mainly on how we treat other people, and if wealth trains one to be indifferent to those beneath oneself, then having much money must be spiritually perilous indeed.

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