Out There: Picking up the tab (or not)

Old habits die hard. Boy do they die hard.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Walking through the local mall the other day, The Wife and I passed a table in a coffee shop where I saw a group of senior citizens doing something I’m sure they’ve been doing since their teens: dividing the tab.
One woman, who looked well into her 80s, was reaching for a NIS 20 bill in her wallet. Another woman was going thorough her coin purse looking for change. A whitehaired man holding the check was talking with someone else standing above him, speaking with great animation – and no small amount of agitation – trying to figure out who owed what.
Who ordered the espresso? Who got the Israeli breakfast? Who ordered the coffee and croissant? Subtract 65 years, add some hair and hair color, take away some of the wrinkles, and you could see this exact same group doing the exact same thing – though perhaps with a bit more alacrity – over a bill that would probably have been much less expensive.
Few are the things we do the same when we’re 90 as when we’re 19 – divvying up the tab might be one of them.
THROUGHOUT OUR lives, we go to restaurants, coffee shops and bars with groups of friends. We place our orders, decide either formally or informally to go “Dutch treat,” then spend enormous amounts of time and mental energy at the end trying to figure who exactly ate and drank what.
We also finally get the chance to exercise some hidden math skills, by trying to figure out how much each person must add to cover the 15-percent tip.
I remember as a kid spending enormous amounts of time and energy even before these outings, preparing for them. I always made sure I had small change and single-dollar bills whenever I went with my friends to eat, because I never – but never – wanted to be the guy left holding the check at the end.
Why not? Because the guy holding the check at the end inevitably finds that all the money everyone left on the table never covers the entire bill. It’s a law of nature. Another law of nature is that the poor guy holding the bill – or paying with his credit card – is always stuck having to cover the shortfall.
So to avoid getting stuck in this situation, I learned two important life lessons early on.
First, never ask the waitress for a separate bill for each of the 11 people in the party who ordered small items – a Coke, some onion rings, a latte – because the restaurant will simply refuse to accommodate such a request.
And second, as I mentioned earlier, it is always good to come to these affairs carrying exact change.
As a teenager or college student, I would scour the house or dorm room before going out looking for dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels and even pennies so that if I ordered a $3.25 chocolate milkshake, I would have exactly $3.74: $3.25 for the shake, and 49 cents for the 15% tip.
I would always shove the money into the middle of the table early, never wanting to be the guy (sucker) holding the check at the end. I also never wanted to be in a position where I would have to put down $10 for a $6.50 order, because I knew I would never see the change.
And to this day, I still don’t want to be the guy (sucker) holding the check at the end.
Old habits die hard.
BOY, DO they die hard.
Earlier this month, I joined a group of buddies at a Jerusalem pub to celebrate the birthday of a good friend. When I told my kids where I was going that evening, they were shocked on two counts.
The first was that I was socializing without The Wife, something I rarely do. The Wife has numerous friends with whom she goes for coffee, watches movies, goes to lectures, attends concerts, does yoga. I have a couple of friends with whom I get together once in a while on Shabbat – always with The Wife – to eat herring and cholent. I’m not from the great socializers.
The second thing that shocked my kids about the excursion to the pub was that I was going to a pub, something I never do. It would be an understatement to say I’m not from the big drinkers (which may explain why I’m also not from the great socializers).
I can’t hold liquor. One beer and I’m tired; two beers and I’m on the floor; a shot of whiskey and I’m stone-cold drunk. Purim is my least favorite holiday; on Passover I drink four cups of grape juice, not wine.
So when I told my youngest son I was going to a pub to celebrate a friend’s birthday, he used his favorite expression to articulate his bewilderment and disapproval: “Ma hakesher?” (What’s the connection?).
But there I was on the way to the pub, not caring whether my son could connect those particular dots, and feeling quite the free spirit, quite the man-about-town.
Until I got there, and old habits kicked in. I arrived late. Some folks had already come and gone before I arrived, others were still ordering meals and drinks. A little concerned about how the whole payment thing would work out, and not really hungry or thirsty, I didn’t order anything. And nobody asked. I was there to honor my friend, after all, not drink something I didn’t want.
Not a bad move, as it turns out. Since the party had gone on for some time, those who had already come and gone had left what they thought would cover their part of the bill. But they thought – and calculated – wrong. And at the end of the night when the final tab came, it turned out to be about NIS 150 more than what was left sitting on the table.
Now there’s one of life’s awkward moments, figuring out who is going to pay the balance. Everyone feels bad, but not bad enough to actually want to volunteer to pay the difference.
Since I didn’t order anything at all, I felt within my rights to take myself out of the entire conversation (though I felt a bit guilty doing so). In the end, a generous colleague picked up the rest of the tab (his willingness perhaps influenced by the four beers he drank, another reason I’m glad I don’t imbibe).
“Hey party animal, how was your big night out at the pub?” my son asked sarcastically when I got home.
“Great,” I said. “Really wonderful. It reminded me of my youth.”
But not, obviously, in the ways he probably imagined.
A collection of the writer’s “Out There” columns, French Fries in Pita, is now available at www.herbkeinon.com and www.amazon.com.