On Sunday night my air conditioner emitted a stifled scream, thunked heavily several times, then died. My A/C’s demise wasn’t a surprise, mind you. I figured it was going terminal when the compressor started groaning several weeks ago. I should consider myself lucky. I bought the unit second hand off a waiter six years ago and I’m amazed it lasted as long as it did. What can you expect for a hundred bucks? And since I can’t stand the heat, not having air-conditioning classifies as an emergency. I was hoping my old unit would rattle on for one more summer, but now I have to bite the bullet and buy a new one. Buying new appliances wasn’t in my budget for the month, but I can’t stand sweating.
So on Monday morning I drive to the appliance store in the center of town. When I tell the saleslady my bedroom’s dimensions she suggests a 8000 BTU unit. My old A/C was 5000 BTUs so anything I buy now is a step up. I decide on a smart looking Energy Star rated number with a remote control and hand the saleslady my credit card. As she’s ringing up my purchase I realize that I’m forty-one years old and never bought a new air-conditioner. I’ve always skated by with second hand units or my previous apartments came with A/C already supplied. Luckily for me I know the saleslady’s family. She gives me a nice discount and offers to have her husband deliver the unit to my house and install it for free. In a country filled with impersonal big box stores it’s nice to get some small town local merchant service.
Al. the saleslady’s husband, and his helper arrive with my new A/C two hours later. Since the unit’s heavier than the old one, however, it’ll bend to the vinyl window frame unless it’s supported by a 2×4 cut to exactly twenty-eight inches.
“You got any wood?” Al asks. I blink at the him uncomprehendingly.
“No,” I reply.
“Got any screws?”
Al sizes me up in a second and sighs. He can tell I’m retarded when it comes to anything mechanical. I must’ve been asleep when God passed out the do-it-yourself genes. I’m so bad I need help replacing a light bulb. Tools? I think I own one screwdriver.
Luckily I know Al. His daughter’s married to my landlord’s son. We’ve broken bread and swilled homemade wine at Italian Christmas and Easter bonanzas together. After grousing for a few moments Al announces he’s heading back to the store.
“Back in a minute,” he says. “Let me get the right tools to do the job.”
“Thanks,” I reply, feeling like an incompetent boob.
Al returns half an hour later with wood, a tool box, and a saw. Turns out putting the unit in my window’s a bitch. I never could have done it. After a few minutes of measuring, sawing and lifting, my new A/C’s purring in the window, blowing out sweet, wonderful, cool air. My contribution to the effort? I put the batteries into the remote.
“There ya go Steve,” Al says. “Enjoy it.”
“Thanks Al,” I say, handing him a twenty dollar bill.
“Whoa,” Al says, holding up his hand. “You don’t need to tip me.”
“It’s not for you,” I reply diplomatically. “Go buy your assistant some beers after work.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I’m writing a book on tipping,” I reply. “Remember? So I’m screwed.”
Al laughs and takes the money from my outstretched hand. “Thanks Steve.”
“You know what?” Al says. “I overtip.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“When I go out to eat I give the girls 25%. Always. I make more money than them so I figure, why not? They need it more than I do.”
Smiling inwardly, I remember that classic conversation about tipping from the movie Reservoir Dogs. Al bears a passing resemblance to one of the gangsters that opined tipping was a good idea. God, I hope he doesn’t read this.
“Then your reward in heaven will be great,” I reply.
I see Al out, say goodbye, and head back upstairs to sweep the sawdust and Styrofoam flakes off my bedroom floor. As I’m pushing my broom I think about how tipping often acts as a lubricant, making everything in life run a little smoother. I didn’t have to give Al a tip nor was he expecting one. But when you’re mechanically disinclined like me, shelling out a few bucks to get a job done right is a small price to pay. Tipping often makes up for our inability to do things and salves our conscience when people perform tasks for us that we’d rather not do ourselves – whether that that something’s installing an air conditioner, hauling a couch up two flights of stairs, or expressing a dog’s anal sac. Tipping says thank you, but you get something else for your money too – less headaches.
When I finish sweeping I lay out on my bed and luxuriate in the cool air that’s rapidly turing my bedroom into a meat locker. Buster jumps onto the bed, circles several times, and plops down next to my head. Withing seconds he’s snoring. I guess Buster likes air conditioning too. As I listen to my new A/C sing it’s soft mechanical lullaby, I hear another set of snores rise and fall alongside Buster’s. When I realize I’m the one sawing wood I dreamily pull a blanket over myself and fall into a deep sleep.
Twenty bucks was never better spent.