Alec Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. did it. So did Zach Galifianakis and Jon Stewart. Table bussing is generally one of the lowest-paid, least glamorous restaurant gigs, but it's almost a rite of passage for those entering the service industry.
The word "busboy" (or girl) comes from a combination of "bus," derived from omnibus - meaning ‘dealing with numerous objects and items at once - and "boy," because at the time (1910 or so) most positions were filled by young men.
Duties typically include removing finished plates and glasses, resetting tables and, fairly often, cleaning up diners' spills and messes. Restaurant labor was divided this way so that servers could spend more time tending to tables. Some restaurants even go as far as to separate table setting, bussing, refilling water and food running into individual jobs.
There’s also the question of who clears the table if there’s no set busser. This is most often an issue when ordering is done at a counter and then either picked up down the line, or brought to the diner at a table. Do you leave your plates at the table when you’re done and hope that there’s someone to clean up your mess? Or do you search, sometimes in vain, for one of those big trashcans in which to dispose of your dishes?
Typically in the United States there are trash receptacles if there are no servers. But, in other parts of the world it’s up to an employee to clean up after you as they’re getting a higher hourly wage than the American table bussers who get a lower hourly wage and a percentage of each server’s tips. It certainly doesn’t pay well, but it’s also not usually a long-term career plan.
So, who do you tip? If you order at a counter, do you tip as if there were a server and hope that that money goes to the underpaid student who’s going to clear up your half eaten sandwich? Do you chance it and not tip and then, if you spot a busser, leave a tip on the table?
Bussing is sometimes a tactic used to get people out the door. Servers will sometimes remove everything from the last table of the night as a way to hint that perhaps it’s time they leave. Sometimes however this can border on hostile. I’ve sat at a table well ahead of closing time, but at the end of our server’s shift, with just a glass of water sitting in front of me. Everything had been removed: salt, pepper, sugar, decorative vase filled with fake flower, napkins. My companions and I felt like we’d overstayed our welcome, and to our server we clearly had.
So what's a conscientious diner to do? Perhaps the best rule of thumb is to be as nice as you can to the person responsible for cleaning up after you and hope that in return you’re served the same amount of courtesy.