The big smile the waitress gives you
May be a true expression of her opinion
Or may be her way to atone for glowering
A moment ago at a customer who slurped his coffee
Just the way her cynical second husband slurped his.
Think of the meager tip you left the taxi driver
After the trip from the airport, how it didn't express
Your judgment about his service but about the snow
That left you feeling the earth a tundra
Only the frugal few could hope to cross.
Maybe it's best to look for fairness
Not in any particular unbiased judgment
But in a history of mistakes that balance out,
To find an equivalent for the pooling of tips
Practiced by the staff of the coffee shop,
Adding them up and dividing, the same to each.
As for the chilly fish eye the busboy gave you
When told to clear the window table you wanted,
It may have been less a comment on you
Than on his parents, their dismissing the many favors
He does for them as skimpy installments
On a debt too massive to be paid off.
And what about favors you haven't earned?
The blonde who's passing the window now
Without so much as a glance in your direction
Might be trying to focus her mind on her performance
So you, or someone like you, will be pleased to watch
As she crosses the square in her leather snow boots
And tunic of red velvet, fur-trimmed.
What have you done for her that she should turn
The stones of the public buildings
Into a backdrop, a crosswalk into a stage floor,
A table in a no-frills coffee shop
Into a private box near the orchestra?
Yesterday she may have murmured against the fate
That keeps her stuck in the provinces.
But today she atones with her wish to please
As she dispenses with footlights and spotlights,
With a curtain call at the end, with encores.
No way to thank her but with attention
Now as she nears the steps of the courthouse
And begins her unhurried exit into the crowd.
-from New and Selected Poems 1974-2004. © Penguin Books, 2004.
[First posted March 5, 2009]