I was thirty and I’d just had my first child and was working as a waiter in a restaurant in Seattle. Keith was another waiter who was hired at the same time I was but whom I didn’t talk to that often. Whenever we got to chatting, he inevitably described some new conspiracy he’d uncovered in which the weak were controlled by the strong. I had never been a fan of these theories, and I may have rolled my eyes a little too obviously.
In my defense, I saw my dismissiveness as a matter of self-preservation. Conspiracies are by nature inarguable, existing as they do deep within the shadows where only those capable of connecting the right dots will ever learn of their existence. I didn’t want to live in the world Keith described, a world where we are all puppets being made to dance on invisible strings. Yet how could I say for sure I didn’t? Impatient derision seemed like a suitable defense against unsavory ideas.
One day we were arranging our stations before a shift, and the subject of taxes came up. Keith was unhappy that the cost of the cigarettes he smoked had nearly doubled because of a recently imposed sin tax meant to fund the state’s Medicaid.
“It’s not fair,” he said. “I’m healthy. I eat well, I exercise every day. But I’m being made to pay for other people who eat like crap and never get their butts off the couch. They’re the ones clogging up the hospitals with their diabetes and heart failure.”
“Well, you can’t tax laziness, can you?”
“They could find a way. Making me pay their medical bills. Not fair.” He picked up a knife, began polishing it, and I could see him weighing whether to let the subject drop.
He put the knife down and picked up a fork. “Same with kids.”
“People with kids shouldn’t get a deduction. They should pay more taxes.”
“It’s expensive to raise kids, Keith.”
He shrugged and started polishing a spoon. “Then don’t have them. It’s not my fault you chose to have them. You get a deduction on your taxes and everyone else has to help pay for your kids’ education. Not fair.”
Counter-arguments roiled in my brain, though I could see by his expression that, unlike the new taxes on his cigarettes, he had accepted that deductions for children were here to stay. Still, the very idea that he, or anyone, thought that having children should incur higher taxes disturbed me. What bothered me most was that his reasoning made its own selfish sense, and that maybe the deduction was just a give-away by politicians to an enormous chunk of the voting population.
It made me glad I would never run for office. If I were to, I’d have been a Democrat, probably a pretty progressive one who’d want to raise taxes for things like healthcare or education or roads. Meaning, I’d need to convince people like Keith that it was in his best interest to help pay for someone else’s bypass surgery or new school bus or to build a bridge he’d never cross.
How in the world, I wondered, do you get people to care about the greater good enough that they’re actually willing to pay for it?
I looked down at my tables, at the silverware still left to polish. I found this pre-shift busy-work tedious. Would a water spot on someone’s spoon really ruin their dinner?
Keith, meanwhile, picked up another knife, wiped it with his damp cloth, held it up to the light, wiped it again, and set it back in place, adjusting it once to line it up neatly with the spoon, napkin, and forks. His fastidiousness inspired me, and I finished up my section with extra care that evening.
Afterward, I stood around with other servers waiting for the customers to begin filtering in. Keith was complaining to someone that the hostess didn’t seat fairly, that he wasn’t getting enough large parties, and that his income had ticked down recently. If things didn’t change soon, management would hear from him.
I wondered whether my income had ticked down. I realized I didn’t care. It occurred to me that I would never have waited on a single table if I weren’t paid to do so, and yet the money was my least favorite part of the job. My favorite part was the people, the ones I worked with and the ones I served.
Would I be poor my whole life? Was I poor now? I didn’t want to know the answer to either of these questions; I just wanted to live in a kind world. I had no idea how to build that world, but I did know that the only time I was certain I already lived in one was when I was being kind myself.