Tips for Jesus: a modern day Santa Claus Smith?

A bill bearing the Tips for Jesus stamp. Is this god-fearing character reminiscent of Joseph’s Mitchell’s more sinister serial tipper, Santa Claus Smith?

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, December 19 2013

In America, an anonymous individual has been leaving vast tips for servers in restaurants and bars, whilst documenting their trail of generosity online using the Instagram handle @tipsforjesus. The account contains photos of the receipts, often being held by the smiling servers. It has more than 69,000 followers. The story went viral in America, and is now being reported in the English media, with the Independent and Sky News running it.

Reading about this generous tipper, I was reminded of the essay ‘Santa Claus Smith’, which was written by the American journalist, Joseph Mitchell, and published in the New Yorker, in 1940. Mitchell was famous for his New Yorker profiles of unusual characters, and, in this piece, he recounted the story of a Latvian ‘ragged, white-bearded old man’, who went by the name of John S. Smith.  In early 1934, Smith ‘began hitchhiking aimlessly on the highways of the United States’, and on his travels, he would repay the generosity of individuals with gargantuan bogus cheques.

On the night of October 23, 1936, for example, he strayed into a lunchroom on a highway near Columbus, Texas, told the waitress he had no money, and asked for a cup of coffee. She took him into the kitchen and gave him a bowl of stew, a jelly roll, and coffee. When he finished eating he took a grimy slip of brown paper out of his pack and scribbled on it with an indelible pencil. He slid the paper under his plate and hurried out into the night. When the waitress picked it up she found that it was an improvised check for $27,000, written on the Irving National Bank of New York and signed ‘John S. Smith of Riga, Latvia, Europe’. On the back of the check was a note, ‘Fill in your name, send to bank’.

The Irving National Bank of New York went out of existence on January 6 1923, eleven years before Smith began writing cheques. When the bank’s successor Irving National Bank started receiving letters from servers who had received Smith’s cheques, they found that there was ‘no trace of a Latvian Smith. There had been John S. Smith among the depositors… [But] it did not take long to ascertain that none of them could be this one’. Most weeks, for the course of many years, the bank received letters enquiring about Smith from people all over America who received cheques. Mitchell records that the workers at the bank believed him to be a ‘simple-minded goodhearted old man who feels that he should reward those treating him with kindness… [They] call him Santa Claus Smith and wish that he had millions of dollars on deposit’.

In stark contrast to Smith, the tips being left by the mysterious Tips for Jesus individual are real, and are charged to American Express. This, however, despite being a significant difference, is the only real distinction between the two. Indeed, just like the hitch-hiking Smith, the Tips for Jesus bills have appeared in restaurants all across the States, from coast to coast, and as far as Mexico. Like Smith, the amounts left as a tip varies significantly. Furthermore, like Smith, the Tips for Jesus bills have a personalisation mark in the form of being stamped with @tipsforjesus, and, in many instances, placed next to the illegible signature are scrawled the words ‘God bless’. Mitchell records how Smith would ‘decorate many of his checks with a symbol… a crude face with a smile on it… two pencil dots for eyes, a dot for a nose, and a line turned up at both ends for a mouth’.

These similarities may not be particularly significant at first glance, but if one considers what the mind-set of the two individuals when tipping, parallels can be drawn. The desire to be liked, appreciated, and to make a lasting impression is identical in both cases. The faux-anonymity, moreover, of the Jesus tipper shows that they, like Smith,  are vain. Yet the Tips for Jesus individual is vainer, since they are masquerading and making a spectacle of their generosity on the internet. The only difference between the two individuals’ modesty is that, the Latvian hitch-hiker who called himself John S. Smith did not evoke religion with his pseudonym, and nor did he evoke religion on his bills like the Tips for Jesus individual does. One may be a down-and-out hobo, and the other a wealthy and brilliant self-publicist, but they share much in common.

Mitchell concludes his New Yorker profile, ‘I began to be troubled…and to feel that about John S. Smith of Riga, Latvia, Europe, there is something a little sinister’.  Looking at the top of the Tips for Jesus Instagram account, with the heading ‘Doing the Lord’s work, one tip at a time’, and the picture of a cartoon Jesus with his thumbs up, it is difficult not to come to a similar conclusion regarding this individual: they might not be sinister, but there really is something rather uncomfortably odd about them.

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