NEEDHAM, Mass. Last Saturday night the Surf ‘n Turf restaurant here was open for business, but there were storm clouds on the horizon: according to a story in the local newspaper a developer had bought the building and would be tearing it down to replace it with apartments close to the town’s public transit. “I guess that’s progress, but it’s sad,” says Ethel Leighton. “We’ve had so many wonderful bland dinners there.”
“Arithmetic is easy–I was doing it in the first grade!”
And so the former secretary and her husband Al, a retired customs broker, decided to do what they could for the staff who had brought them so much pleasure over the years and dined out, even though it wasn’t in their budget as the month came to an end. He ordered baked fish–“It’s the only time I get scrod anymore,” he says with a laugh–and she had her usual stuffed pork chops.
The elderly couple was served by Suzie Frechette, who has waited on the Leightons for years, and they expressed their sympathy for her situation as she dropped off the check.
“Aren’t you supposed to carry a one or something?”
“You should do something nice for her for a change,” Ethel said to her husband as he scanned the check. “Like maybe–I don’t know–tip more than 18% for once?”
“Fine, but we’re living on a fixed income now,” Al grumbled as he took pen in hand and started calculations in his head, while his wife went off on a tangent about their eldest son, who had recently moved to Kankakee, Illinois, and an all-weather carpet she was thinking of buying for their screened-in porch, and the troubles of a neighbor who had twisted her ankle and was unable to walk her pet Jack Russell terrier as a result.
The incoming barrage of female conversation caused Al to lose track of figures, forcing him to re-start his math, but not before Ethel said that she’d heard the weather for the coming weekend was going to be nice and maybe they should try to get down to their cottage on Cape Cod, and had he seen that the people who lived across the street from them had purchased a new car, a Chevrolet Equinox?
“No, I didn’t,” Al said as he signed the check and handed it to Frechette, who gave him a polite “Thank you,” then added “I’m going to miss you guys!”
The Leightons gave her their best wishes, stood up, put on their coats and headed for the exit, but before they could open the door Frechette rushed up to them, gave Al a big hug and said “Thank you so much, you don’t know what this means to me,” and a close observer would have noticed tears in her eyes that caused little rivulets of mascara to overflow her lower eyelids.
“Well, hey, no problem,” Al said with a smile, then when the couple was outside, cracked “If I’d known I’d get that kind of response, I would have been tipping 20% years ago.”
It wasn’t until yesterday, when a news crew from local Channel 15 gathered on their lawn, that the Leightons realized they’d become viral celebrities, all because Al’s cognitive abilities were sidetracked by Ethel’s blather.
“Are you Al Leighton?” Lifestyle Reporter Alison Trumbull asked when he answered the door, a camera crew behind her.
“I was wondering if we could interview you.”
“That very generous tip you left for a poor waitress who’s going to be out of a job soon.”
“Oh, well, it was nothing, really,” Al said with false modesty.
“He should have been tipping that way all along,” Ethel said over her husband’s shoulder. “He throw nickels around like they’re man-hole covers.”
The reporter laughed at the shopworn local expression, but then turned the conversation back to the news value of the gratuity. “Ms. Frechette posted a tribute to you on the internet, and it’s gone viral,” she said.
“I’ve heard that corona thing’s going around,” Ethel replied.
“A couple of Michelob’s and their math skills drop to zero.”
“No, I mean it’s become a sensation, everyone thinks it’s so wonderful that you left a 200% tip on a $90 dinner tab.”
The elderly man is silent for a moment, then asks in a stunned voice “I did?”
“Yep, here, I took a screen shot of it on my phone,” the reporter says, and Ethel adjusts her “readers” to take a look.
“Al,” she says with a note of concern in her voice, “you left a $180 tip.”
He looks over his own glasses and sees that she is right; a $91.00 bill for two entrees, a fried calamari appetizer, a house salad and two rounds of drinks, but a total credit card payment of $271.
“Well, if you hadn’t de-railed my train of thought with your constant chatter, I would have got it right.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault, is it.”
“It’s always my fault when you do something stupid.”
“If you could just keep quiet for five minutes for once in your life.”
As the argument escalates the television crew withdraws to a discreet distance, where the “liveshot” is wrapped by a serious commentary on the family feud.
“Another family torn apart by politics . . . or something. This is Alison Trumbull, your Channel 15 Action Reporter.”