Many experts believe a rise in the minimum wage, which voters just approved with Question 4, will “stimulate demand” and goose the economy. But to speak of “insufficient demand” is a convenient way for elites to blame the rest of us for sluggish returns on investments. Everyone knows that truth is quite the opposite. We will never succeed by making demands on the billionaires and their ilk. We can only survive by serving them. The solution, then, is to rethink, not demand but service and its meaning in a “service economy.” Thus the deeper significance of Question 4 lies in its subsection regarding tipped service workers, whose minimum wage would gradually rise from $3.75 to more than $12 an hour (on par with other workers) in coming years.
Where to eat while pondering the implications of this vote? I chose two restaurants that reflect opposing reactions: Petite Jacqueline, whose owner publicly opposed the measure, and Bao Bao, whose owner plans to reframe the issue by “abolishing” tipping and paying $15 an hour. Despite these radically different institutional interpretations of the meaning and value of service, it was hard to detect the difference in practice. In both establishments, young people pleasantly delivered the food and drinks I requested, with the occasional minor delay. Hmm. I looked closer.
Sartre made waiters and their “bad faith” central to Being and Nothingness, but we saw little of the over-exactness and artifice he excoriated as an abandonment of freedom. It helps that at Petite Jacqueline’s new location in the Old Port the servers no longer have to wear the blue and white shirts that mimicked old-Paris. At Bao Bao there is a uniform — black T-shirts and pants — but you hardly notice it. Avoiding notice is largely the point of service in the contemporary restaurant — eschewing performance so people can pay attention to the food. Sure, in a consumer economy we treat objects and people like mere consumables to be used and thrown away. But as a trade-off we imagine the consumption of fine food to be a potentially transformative human experience.
Attention to the food at Petite Jacqueline reveals a hint of Sartrean bad faith. The menu, with its confits, frites, and plats du jour, performs Frenchness a bit too preciously. But even the most Frenchy dishes, the dark and rich onion soup for example, are made with a care that transcends the artifice. Bao bao’s dumpling house theme also flirts with kitsch, especially compared with the unpredictably shifting pan-Asianism of its sister restaurant Tao Yuan in Brunswick. But those dumplings, like glistening soft envelopes, deliver an impressive variety and complexity of flavors — from the mild squish of the hake and burdock dumpling to the chewy and rich lamb in black bean sauce.
Of course, it’s not your server but your companions who threaten your enjoyment of your meal –their artifice and persona, their needs and opinions, their bad faith. It’s them we should tip if they don’t ruin our dinner. So sure, let’s pay servers a wage that doesn’t rely on them being tipped. And then let’s tip them anyway.
We are all headed toward some sort of service job. Economists warn that a “global glut of cash” is again sloshing around looking for a place to go. The ultra-rich can spend on exotic investment products like credit default swaps. But psychologists are advising them that they will be happier if they invest time and money in “experiences” (like “being President”?) rather than products. It’s our only hope. The rest of us will get by through facilitating and curating those experiences — with more soothing yoga voices, more enriching activities for their children, more intensive couples therapy, more epic Youtube fails for their pity and amusement, craftier beer and a quicker Uber. And, like today’s restaurant servers, who curate the experience of a nice meal, we should do so in good faith, without artifice. As Sartre said, “half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else.”
Eventually, it will pay off — at least pay enough to live on.
Petite Jacqueline | 46 Market St. | (207) 553-7044
Bao Bao Dumpling House | 133 Spring St. | (207) 725-9002