In Oneonta, New York, on the corner of Main and Church Street, there once sat a bar called Red’s Filling Station. Now this was a great place. The outside was covered in red painted stone. The inside had walls and ceilings filled with vintage gas pumps, motorcycles, and license plates — this was long before the TGI Friday style became so common. Red’s wasn’t named for the color but for the owner, a crotchety upstater who breezed in once a week to complain about the ice usage and sign our paychecks. It was the most loud, crazy, and popular watering hole in that part of the Catskills, and was where several of my friends and I worked as bartenders one summer.
Now one night — this would have been somewhere in July or August of 1985 — my roommate Kurt and I realized that, well, not only was our rent due the next day, but collectively we were $84 short. So we came up with a plan — a quick and creative plan that had only one moving part. We would make all the money we needed that night in tips. And we would do this by simply telling the customers what we wanted them to tip us.
The doors opened, our shift began, and soon the bar was two feet deep with summer college kids and townies, all clamoring to get drinks.
I went first.
“Okay, two beers,” I sat the drinks down on the bar in front of a guy in the Sammy Hagar t-shirt. “That’ll be a buck-fifty for the beer and a dollar tip. So two-fifty total.”
And Sammy Hagar dropped the cash and made way for the next customer.
“Okay,” Kurt yelled out. “Here ya go. Two vodka cranberries and a Molson. Four-fifty and with the tip that will be six bucks.”
And it went on like this. For an hour. Until we had made the $84 we needed — then we went back to allowing the customers to decide what to tip us and the remainder of the night wasn’t as prosperous.
What’s interesting is that no one, not one single person, questioned us. No one complained. And no one tipped less or more than we told them to.
Now this is just a story told at barbecues and over lunches, but it’s important here because it frames the next story — the important one.
Fast forward about fifteen years. I was now married, we had bought our first house, and we were raising our two small sons in a town called Vestal, NY. And for ten years I made a living in industrial computer electronics — which is a fancy way to say that I befriended corporate buyers and tried to talk them into buying more from me and less from my competition. And life was good.
Then, as the electronics industry began to shift heavily offshore, the pinch was felt. And in May of 1999 I received my first of two career layoffs.
I wasn’t really concerned about this layoff because I had received job offers from competitors fairly often, so I contacted them. But the shift was being felt by all, and these very contacts were scrambling for their own jobs.
With the severance I received, along with unemployment, we could just take care of the essentials if we tightened our belts a bit. So we did. And I made the job hunt my full-time position, leaving early and coming home late.
During this time one company made me an interesting proposal. They, like everyone, had a hiring freeze. But if I could work for commission only — covering my own hotel, gas, and expenses and receiving a commission on new business — I could start right away.
It wasn’t ideal. Money would go out before it came back in and even if I sold something that first day, it would be months before a commission followed. But it kept me in front of customers, making new contacts, and in the industry, so I agreed.
A few months went by and a little money was trickling in, but not much. Then, the Vice President of Sales was retiring and had hired his replacement. They were both flying into Rochester to introduce the new VP to one of our largest customers. My job was to make the three-hour drive to pick them up at the airport, go to the meeting, and then get them back to the airport. And I could tell by the coolness of the past week that our relationship would soon end.
When the plane landed I was there to pick them up.
“Well, we should probably start with the real reason you’re here and get that out of the way first,” I said, in a friendly tone.
But they both laughed this off. I was wrong. They had no interest in making any changes like that, and in fact I was doing a great job. And the hour and a half drive from the airport to the meeting was light and friendly.
We had our meeting. It went well, as did the working lunch after. Then we began the long drive back to the airport.
When we had reached the halfway mark, with about forty minutes left to the airport, the mood changed. They started talking about how their expectations were higher than I was hitting. Was I really giving this my full attention? The new customers I had set up were not as many as they were hoping. They weren’t sure that this was working for them. So, they were canceling our agreement — which would have been fine, except they then started to get angry. The mood started to intensify and even become threatening.
As the anger built up on their end, I felt myself move into defense mode — to listen and apologize, to brainstorm, to offer to work harder, to make sacrifices and…
Then something clicked. In one of those brief moments of clarity, everything snapped into place and became absolutely clear.
I then knew the difference between what I had to do and what I didn’t have to do. Everything stopped and I knew what my options were. And without anger, without emotion, I put my turn signal on and worked the car towards the far right lane.
“What are you doing?” the VP snapped.
“I’m going home,” I said. In a calm and almost sleepy tone. “So I’ll let you guys out here.”
There was a moment of quiet, then a laugh. “Very funny,” he pointed down the road and then gave the new VP in the backseat one of those, don’t worry, I’ve got this under control, kind of looks.
But I continued to move the car to the right and then to the side of the highway. Then I stopped.
“Okay, okay,” the new VP joined in from the back. “I can understand you’re upset. So let’s talk about it. Let’s head back to the airport and sit down and…”
“I’m not upset,” I put the car in park. “I’m not upset at all. This isn’t working for either of us. But I also don’t have to take you to the airport.”
This idea confused them. What did I mean? Of course I had to take them to the airport. What kind of a lunatic was I? I did have to take them to the airport. Didn’t I see that?
“You have to…”
“No, I don’t,” and still there was not a single trace of anger in me. “I don’t have to and I don’t want to. So I’m not going to.”
Several moments of frustrated silence followed before anyone spoke.
“Well,” the current VP finally said, with a cocky smirk, “then we have an issue because we’re not getting out of the car.”
“That’s fine,” I replied. “But I’m turning around at the U-turn spot right up there. And then I’m heading the three hours home, in the opposite direction. So if you want to get to the airport, this is the closest you’ll be.”
More silence. More looks back and forth. Then I pressed the button that popped the trunk. They both sat there. Quietly. Then the old VP got out and the new one followed. I let them get their bags from the trunk and shut it. Then I pulled out, turned the car around, and headed home and I never saw or heard from either one of them again.
Now, do I feel bad for leaving a 65-year-old man and an overweight VP on the side of Highway 90 in the middle of the summer?
Nope. Not at all.
They both had cell phones, granted back then they were the size of hoagie rolls and cost about three dollars a minute, but they could have called someone. And I have no pride in the act of leaving them, only in clearly seeing what my options were. The point was that I didn’t have to drive them to the airport, and I didn’t want to. So I didn’t. I made a choice instead of followed the momentum.
And I also have no bitterness or anger towards them — I didn’t then and I don’t now. Because it’s not about anger. It’s about options.
Because there is nothing in life, and I mean absolutely nothing, that we have to do.
We don’t have to go to work. We don’t have to make our car payment. We don’t have to pay taxes and we don’t even have to get out of bed in the morning. We choose to do all those things.
Now are there repercussions if we don’t do them? Yes. Of course there are. But there is a cause and effect in all things.
There is nothing in life that we have to do. We choose to do it all. And yes we can make bad choices and we all do. Every day. But the challenge is to make sure they are our choices not just our reactions.
Choose to do it, or choose not to. These are the only options. But never respond simply because the bartender tells you to, or the guy going to the airport needs a lift —it’s not your fault those two idiot bartenders didn’t budget for their rent and neither is it that the two business men didn’t want to spring for a rental car.
You determine if you want to tip them or give them a ride.
You decide. And then you choose.