In a ‘Letter from America’, Jim Duffy describes his surprise on learning bar staff are paid as little as £1.75 an hour and rely on tips of up to 25 per cent to make a living.
Some of you will remember the writer and journalist Alistair Cooke. From 1946 to 2004, Mr Cooke provided weekly updates on America from America. His BBC Radion 4 show, aptly titled Letter from America, was great to tune into. I actually quite miss his wit and humour and the lens he used to consider what was taking place across the Atlantic. And as I sit here in Austin, Texas this morning, having spent a week in the Lone Star state, it makes me think about what I would tell you in my own notes on what is happening here in the USA. Let’s give it a try...
One could be forgiven for thinking that I had arrived in the wrong country as I landed at Austin International airport. The usual ‘Welcome to America’ posters were positioned above the customs hall. But, all along the concourse and flying outside was the Lone Star flag. This official flag of Texas symbolises much more than simply being a state flag.
It lets the rest of America know that Texas is different – very different in fact. Texas and many Texans see themselves as a separate country, detached from the main USA, and they are sometimes a little bit sniffy about it. From car bumper stickers to T-shirts to Christmas tree ornaments to flags on the front lawn, Texans make it clear that they have their own identity. A bit like the UK and its relationship with the EU. Who knows, maybe one day Texas will indeed produce its own Nigel Farage.
I asked the concierge at my apartment block where a good place to eat would be downtown. I like that America still has the concierge concept at so many places. It gives me that sense of security and local knowledge that an App sometimes does not convey.
I was told that Easy Tiger was a great place to eat with freshly baked in-house artisanal bread. “That’s where I go sir” she stated proudly. How could I not go there now? While providing me with directions, she commented “then you will go past a bunch of homeless, but don’t worry they’re harmless...”. And, as it happened, on the 600-yard walk to the diner, I did pass a bunch of homeless people. About 50 souls, a mixture of white and black Americans. None begged or harassed me, but it made me think about the land of the free.
Suffice to say that Easy Tiger on 6th Street was awesome. The smoked turkey sandwich with Austin draft India Pale Ale was tasty and wholesome. I noted two things when I was there.
The first was that the menu showed no big brewery beers – Coors, Bud etc. It was all local micro-brewery stuff. I asked the waitress, an Australian girl who settled in Texas, why this was.
She said that there was a backlash against big corporations and that Austinites preferred to buy local, eat local, and support local. They loved their startups and put their money where their mouths were when it came to food and drink.
The second thing I noticed was how tipping had progressed in the USA. Tipping is a big part of American culture. I had always through 10-12 per cent was a decent tip. Not any more. The screen I was presented with when paying my bill offered me 15, 20 or 25 per cent or no tip. My enquiries with my lovely Aussie waitress revealed that her hourly rate was a measly $2.30 (about £1.75) an hour. Her aim was too make $13.50 (about £10.30) an hour with tips.
Well done Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for bringing in the UK minimum wage, I thought.
If I gave her 15 per cent, it meant I was not happy with the service, 20 per cent she had done just fine and 25 per cent she had surpassed my expectations. It felt personal. And it was replicated everywhere I went. I had four options and as I looked at the person waiting on me, how could I not tip 20-25 per cent knowing what they earned hourly.
My Australian friend in Austin told me that there where some great election parties to attend that night in the local bars. From 5pm, Happy Hours would start and, if I had my “I voted” pin with me, I could get 20 per cent off food and drink.
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I opted for a bar across the street from my apartment. It was called Hen. Sitting at the bar, it was showing two big TV screen. One was showing CNN. The other Fox News.
I ordered another IPA, which of course was local – 512IPA, denoting the area dialling code. I would have more of this IPA as it was hugely flavoursome.
The bar tender was very excited about the elections. In a column in The Scotsman I would not be allowed to print the expletives that emanated from his voice box when I asked about Donald Trump. You get the point ... He was excited because this could be the night that Ted Cruz was upended and the progressive liberal Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke had a great chance of getting in. As it happened, a few beers later it was neck and neck. The whole bar was ecstatic.
When I awoke in the morning, the euphoria had been short lived. Cruz had retained his seat in the US Senate. I felt a little deflated, but Texas was no longer red (for the Republicans). It was now a ‘purple’ state indicating that things were changing.
I went to an east-side honky-tonk later that night where I loved the cowboys dancing in their hats to live country music. Only in America ... I’m off to California for a few days at the weekend.
And as I turned the TV on this morning, I see another mass shooting has taken place in the USA, this time in California. Some things never change.