Keeping a tab on when people get forgetful

On my way to work the other day, I stopped at the local coffee shop. I used my credit card to make my purchase. I went in, I paid, and I left with my coffee. One thing that I didn’t do was ask to, “put it on my tab.” Tabs are essentially a type of unsecured loans, usually amongst established business acquaintances.

In Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet, Shakespeare puts these words in the mouth of Polonius: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend,

and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines husbandry as “the control or judicious use of resources” listing the quote, “In accordance with his practice of good husbandry, he never buys anything on credit” as an example of usage.

Sage counsel indeed, but in today’s bars things are a bit different. 

She approached the bar boldly, as one accustomed to such things often does. She ordered her drink in a way that suggested that she had ordered one or two before. And even though no seat was forthcoming she stood in a manner that suggested that she bore no discomfort from her present predicament.

Things could not have gone better, until…

“That’ll be $10.75,” I said.

“I am going to run a tab,” she said.

“Sure,” I said. “I just need to hold onto a credit card.”

Suddenly things went from better to substantially less than better.

“Don’t you trust me?” she said without a hint of comedic influence.

In situations like this trust has nothing to do with it. With hundreds of transactions and dozens of people around it is simply a matter of good accounting. Furthermore in my nearly three decades of public service I have found it to be more often the case that the least trustworthy of people usually say things like: “Don’t you trust me?”

“It’s company policy, ma’am,” I said.

Restaurants learned long ago that if left up to their own devices many customers will often “forget” to mention that they had drinks at the bar when they sit down. Nothing reminds them better than their lack of a credit card. And anyone who has had to look through a crowd of several hundred people for that one person that they had a twenty second encounter with over an hour ago, knows the difficulties of identifying a individual under those circumstances, especially once they have sat down and removed their coats.

“Do I look like the type of person who walks out on their tab?” she said haughtily.

As if those types of people have a certain “look”. If they did, law enforcement would probably be far easier than it is.

“Besides,” she added. “How do I know I can trust you with my credit card?”

It was then that I was reminded of Shakespeare. “Neither a borrower, nor lender be,” can also mean that if you expect trust on the part of the lender, than you better be prepared to extend it as the borrower.

Clearly she wasn’t familiar with the classics. But she did finally surrender her credit card, which she immediately closed out, leaving the “tip” part blank. I can’t count the amount of times someone punishes an employee for company policies. Essentially taking to task the person least able to foment any kind of change. People can certainly be wonderful.

About forty minutes later she ordered another drink. Wary of the previous encounter I sidestepped company policy and ran a tab without holding her credit card.

Thirty minutes later…

“Ma’am,” I said following her into the parking lot.

“You forgot to pay your tab,” I said slightly out of breath.

She looked at me briefly before digging through her purse for her wallet.

“I…” she started before probably recalling our previous encounter.

I didn’t say anything and she didn’t finish her thought, but this time the gratuity was far more substantial. Perhaps next time she will add running a tab with her credit card to her arsenal of proper bar behavior. Then again maybe she won’t. But in the latter case if the bartender manages to catch her in the parking lot, the rewards will be worth it, both financially and karmically.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The maxim of buying nothing without the money in our pocket to pay for it, would make our country one of the happiest on earth,” and by most accounts he never walked out on a tab in his life.


This story originally appeared in the Marin Independent Journal and online at the San Jose Mercury News