Tips and Tales


By Wendy Hodge

By day, I work for a doctor in Opelika. I love my job and the people I work with. But for a few months this year, I needed extra income so I signed on as a food delivery driver for Tiger Town To Go. My plan was to work several evenings a week and at least one shift each weekend.
It felt like a challenge, a way to stretch myself, while making extra money. And maybe, I hoped, a story or two would present itself to me.
The day I was hired, I met at the TTTG office in Auburn. It’s a small operation, but it runs like clockwork. An app was installed on my phone which allowed me to be alerted when a pickup was ready. It gave me all the information I needed, including the name of the restaurant, the address of the delivery point, and (most importantly) what my tip would be for each particular job. After a 10-minute briefing on how to use the app, I was given a hot bag for keeping the food warm and a couple of Tiger Town To Go t-shirts. I was ready.
My first night on the job, I was a bit nervous… about driving in Auburn traffic, about getting lost and ending up in exotic spots like Loachapoka or Notasulga… But mostly, I was worried about serial killers. Auburn is a big city, and the likelihood that at least one serial killer lives there is statistically too high for my peace of mind. I just knew that I would be the next day’s headline:
“Woman delivers sushi to Auburn’s Jack the Ripper!”
Because my best friend is a thoughtful man, he suggested that we use Facebook messenger when possible to stay connected. That way he could see and hear where I was and who I was interacting with. I felt much safer that way. So when my first evening of driving rolled around, I was excited and ready to go. How hard could this be? Right?
My first stop was, in fact, a sushi delivery to a very elite neighborhood on the outskirts of Auburn. The homes were sprawling mini-mansions with manicured lawns, and the driveways were circular and dotted with white lights and bubbling fountains. With my best friend smiling at me on messenger, I pulled up to the curb and walked to the door, bags of sushi in hand. The total for this delivery was well over a hundred dollars, but my tip was only three bucks.
The blond who answered the doorbell was wearing yoga pants and talking on her cell phone.
She had a fake tan. The blond hair was also fake. So was her considerable chest. She barely acknowledged me when she reached out for her dinner, but I smiled politely and said, “Thank you so much. Enjoy your meal.”
My best friend had heard the whole thing and was smiling at me when I got back in the car.
“You’d think that, of all people, someone who lives in that house would tip fairly,” I complained.
“Chin up,” he said. “The night will get better.”
And it did. I made a dozen deliveries that night, with a total in tips of about $69. My shift ended and I headed back to the office to cash out. My best friend was dozing on messenger when I parked and went inside.
“Hey, Wendy,” the boss said. “I have you at $89 in tips tonight.”
“Wow! That’s more than I thought,” I answered.
“Well, the strangest thing happened,” he replied. “You know that stop with the three dollar tip on the big order of sushi?”
I nodded.
“Well, this has never happened before, but apparently the neighbors were having dinner with them, and when they saw the bill with that lousy tip on it, they felt bad and called the office. They added twenty bucks to your tip.”
“You’re kidding!” I grinned.
“Here’s your money. See you tomorrow,” he waved as I walked out.
“Tips good tonight?” my best friend asked as I got back in the car.
“You won’t believe what happened.” I explained about the neighbor who called in the tip for me.
“You see? This job is going to be a good thing,” he said with a yawn.
And it was a good thing. For months, I drove all over Auburn and sometimes into Opelika. With music playing and my arm hanging out the window, I had time to think and to “write” in my head. I admit, too, that seeing the tip amounts climbing on my phone was exciting. It was a bit like gambling… how much will I make on this next spin around Auburn? My car had a lingering smell of Mexican food that took forever to get rid of and kept me hungry for nachos. Most of all, I knew I had stumbled on a goldmine of stories. Every door I knocked on had a lifetime of tales behind it.
There was the guy who answered my knock dressed in a purple silk robe with moons and stars on it. His hair was long and braided, and he had rings on every finger.
New headline:
“Dumbledore is alive in Auburn and likes Taco Bell!”
There was the older gentleman who pointed to the security camera above his front door and said, “I just installed video surveillance. Smile, you’re on candid camera!”
There was the lady with a house full of barking dogs who ordered two dozen tacos and a gallon of queso dip just for herself.
There was the young girl who lived in a concrete shack in Opelika who cried while she dug through her purse to find enough change to tip me what she thought was fair. I didn’t have the heart to take a single dime from her, and she cried even harder when I told her to keep it.
There were the frat boys who were over-served and there were stressed out grad students who looked as if they hadn’t seen the sun in ages. There were frazzled moms in big houses and frazzled moms in little houses. There were couples who came to the door holding hands, and there were teenagers babysitting who were hoping the pizza I brought them would pacify screaming children.
But, with only a handful of exceptions, the people who answered the door were friendly and warm. I guess it’s hard to be anything but nice to the person who’s bringing you hot food and sweet tea.
That job ended for me, mainly because the air conditioner in my car isn’t working, and summers in Alabama are brutal without it. But I learned two very important things driving for Tiger Town To Go.
First, I learned that what I’ve heard people who work for tips say my entire life is very true: The bigger the house, the smaller the tip. Friendly or not, it was the people who had the least to give who gave the most.
Second, I learned that if you put yourself in a position to encounter glimpses of other people’s lives, even if only briefly, you are reminded how beautiful every single person is. Strange and funny and beautiful…. and worthy of a story of their own, each of them.
Last weekend, my best friend and I were driving in Auburn, and we passed the street where I made that first delivery with the three dollar tip. I pointed it out to him and asked if he remembered that.
“Yes, I do,” he said and smiled a strange smile.
“I still think it’s so cool that the neighbor called in that extra twenty bucks,” I said.
“Uh huh,” was all he answered, and he looked away.
“Wait a minute,” I whispered. “That was you, wasn’t it?”
He just smiled at me.
“You did that? You called in and pretended to be the neighbor and tipped me twenty dollars?”
“I wasn’t ever going to tell you, but I’m not good at hiding things. Yes, that was me. I just wanted you to have a good first night on the job. Every single tip after that you earned on your own…. Now don’t cry.”
But it was too late. I looked at him through my tears and realized, again, how lucky I am.
“That’s just about the sweetest thing anybody’s ever done for me.” He squeezed my hand as I wiped the happy tears off my face.
“Let’s go to the house and order sushi,” my best friend said, grinning. And we drove through Auburn without making a single stop, laughing the whole way.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.


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