Counting Tips

My mother came home from work,
sat down at the kitchen table
and counted her tips, nickel by nickel,
quarter by quarter, dime by dime.
I sat across from her reading Yeats.
No moonlight graced our window
and it wasn't Pre-Raphaelite pallor
that bleached my mother's cheeks.
I've never been able to forget
the moment she said--
interrupting The Lake Isle of Innisfree—
"I told him to go to hell."
A Back Bay businessman
had held back the tip, asking,
"How much do you think you're worth?"
And she'd said, "You can go to hell!"
All evening at the Winthrop Room she fed
stockbrokers, politicians, mafioso capos.
I was eighteen, a commuter student at BU,
riding the MTA to classes every day
and she was forty-one in her frilly cap,
pink uniform, and white waitress shoes.
"He just laughed but his wife was there
and she complained and the boss fired me."
Later, after a highball, she cried
and asked me not to tell my father
(at least not yet) and Ben Franklin
stared up from his quarter,
looking as if he thought she deserved it,
and Roosevelt, from his dime, reminded her
that she was twenty years shy of Social Security.
But the buffalo on the nickel, he—
he seemed to understand.

:: John Gilgun, in Still Blue: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers

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