A Tipping Afternoon

It’s a crisp autumn afternoon and I’m in a car hunting for parking on the Upper West Side. Unfortunately, finding a spot in this neighborhood is like trying to find a virgin in a whorehouse. Luckily I’m not driving. I’m convalescing you know.

“Is that a spot?” my friend Alicia says, pointing to an empty space up the street.

“If it’s open it’s illegal,” I say cynically. “A hydrant or a driveway.”

“Can you imagine having a garage in this neighborhood?”

“You’d have to be richer than God.”

We drive up and down the streets to no avail. Riverside Drive is packed and all the side streets are jammed up. Some people are double-parked, waiting in their cars to snag a spot when one opens up.

“There!” Alicia says. “There’s a guy getting into his car!”

Gunning the engine she zips up the street and turns on her blinker. But I already know it will be fruitless. No West Sider will give up a spot on a Sunday afternoon. As we wait the white haired owner of the car takes something out of his backseat, locks the car and walks away. I swear I can see a sadistic grin on his face.

“What an asshole,” Alicia says. “He could’ve just waved us on.”

“This is New York, babe.”

We drive away and recommence our search, but I’m getting edgy. If you haven’t guessed it by now, I have a psychological disorder when it comes to parking. I hate the competition for resources game this town make you play. I knew a girl in Harlem who searched for an hour to find a space and eventually ended up parking ten blocks from her apartment. Screw that.

“Why don’t we just park in a garage?” I say.

“That’s so expensive.”

“The craft fair ends at five,” I say, looking at my watch. “At the rate we’re going we’ll miss it.”

“Just a little more time. We’ll find something.” Alicia is very frugal.

Eventually we find some empty pavement on 80th. But as we pull in I spy a sign that says no parking. I tell her so.

“Goddammit,” Alicia says. “Oh wait, someone’s pulling out behind us.” She starts backing up but the minute the space frees up an SUV pulls in before it has a chance to get cold. Alicia unleashes a stream of obscenities. Now she’s edgy. This parking thing’s going to put a damper on an otherwise glorious Sunday afternoon.

“Garage,” I say. “Now.”

Alicia surrenders and we pull into a garage. The rates are highway robbery but we agree to split the cost. “How long you gonna stay?” the attendant asks.

“About three hours,” Alicia says.

As the attendant’s writing out the ticket I see a couple waiting for their car. “It’s going to take a few minutes,” another attendant tells them. “We’ve got to move some cars around.”

I sigh. When you park in a New York lot you can end up waiting forever as the attendants Rubik Cube your car out of the basement. Knowing we’ll take longer than three hours anyway I pull a five spot out of my wallet.

“Listen, man,” I say handing the bill to the attendant. “I have no idea when we’ll be back. Just keep the car handy. Okay?”

The attendant smiles broadly. “Yes, sir.”

We leave the garage and go to the craft fair on Columbus Avenue. My friend has a thing for hats and when she starts kibitzing with a vendor selling a wide array of chapeaus I decide to get a cup of coffee. Now I’m not supposed to drink coffee post surgery, but a caffeine withdrawal headache has taken up residence behind my eyeballs. I’ve been medicating it with Mexican Coke (Not blow, just Coca-Cola made South of the Border. No corn syrup you know.) but now I want java. So I cross the street and dip into a coffee shop.

“Do you have soy milk?” I ask the barista sheepishly.

“Sure.”

“One coffee with soy milk please,” I say, hating myself. I can’t have dairy so hippie milk it must be.

After I get my coffee I drop fifty cents into the tip jar. As I stir some sugar into my cup I look around the shop and see all the seats in the place have been annexed by people with laptops. That drives me nuts. Apparently it drives the owners of some coffee shops nuts too. Some places now won’t provide Internet connections or even tables to sit at – just some stools by the counter. Just get your coffee and get the hell out. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I rarely ever hang out in Starbucks banging away on my MacBook. It makes me feel kind of foolish.

I walk out and rejoin my friend. She’s a slow shopper so I just stand to the side and people watch. Some of the people walking the streets are bundled up for winter while others are clad in tee-shirts and shorts. The temperature is around fifty-five degrees and the wind is picking up, making it feel colder. As the lightly dressed people shiver I silently chide their wardrobe choice. Some people like to think summer’s going to last forever. It won’t. It never does.

After an hour Alicia’s got a new hat and a pair of earrings. As we walk down Columbus Avenue I’m grateful I dressed for the weather – slacks, a black wool pullover and a black leather jacket. I’m not too cold and not too warm. I picked the right ensemble. I also think I look pretty nifty. Are the passing cars slowing down to admire my attire? It’d be pretty to think so.

After strolling along Central Park West and gawking the Dakota I feel a nagging tug in my intestines. Oh boy. I have to go. And post gallbladder surgery, when you have to go it’s epic. Since the Time Warner Center has the finest public toilet in all of Manhattan I go to the second floor to sit on the throne in style. After a quite a bit of time I emerge and Alicia and I go into Borders to look around. My second book’s coming out soon and I’ll be giving a talk here on November 4th at 7pm. (Mark the date.) so I look for a sign advertising that fact. There are none. Oh well.

After we leave the Time Warner Center we try and find a restaurant with a cuisine my digestive system can handle. So we decide on sushi and I order light – tuna sashimi and miso. Alicia has crab legs as an appetizer and a big bowl of seafood soup with udon noodles and shrimp tempura. Though I don’t say anything, I’m jealous. After we eat I tack a fifteen percent tip onto the bill and drop the other five percent into the sushi chef’s jar. A guy I know who sells fish to sushi joints told me that’s the way you should leave a gratuity in a sushi restaurant. He lived in Japan and is married to a Japanese woman so I figure he’s right.

“Thank you, sir!” the chef exclaims. His tip jar looks pretty empty. No wonder he’s happy.

Our West Side jaunt complete, we head back to the garage to get the car. Even though we spent five hours tooling around and the fee is usurious, our car comes out in under a minute. Five bucks well spent. I slip the attendant another dollar “Thanks man,” he says.

“How much did you pass out in tips today?’ Alicia asks as she navigates down Riverside Drive.

I do some arithmetic in my head. Six dollars at the garage, fifty cents at the coffee shop and fifteen at the sushi place. “Twenty-one dollars and fifty cents,” I say.

“That’s a lot,” she says.

“That’s why you can’t go to the city all the time,” I say. “This town sucks money out of you.”

“I spent a hundred on a hat.”

“My point exactly,” I say. “But we didn’t have to wait for our car.”

As we head back to my apartment I think about how tips make life easier – they grease the wheels of commerce and buy a little preferential treatment. But New York is the kind of city that milks tips out of you. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the Big Apple without tipping someone something. We live in recessionary times and not everyone can do that all the time. Come to think I can’t do it all the time. But as I look at the cars packed like sardines along Riverside Drive I smile to myself. If we didn’t go into that garage we’d still be looking for a spot.

And I’d have gone psychotic.


Comments

A Tipping Afternoon — 33 Comments

  1. I also think I look pretty nifty. Are the passing cars slowing down to admire my attire? It’d be pretty to think so.

    Channeling Robert B. Parker today are you? :) Made me smile!

  2. This post makes me think of colliding adages: “If you can’t afford to leave the tip, you can’t afford to go out” meets “You need to either have money or time”

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the Big Apple without tipping someone something.

    Which is why I only visit NYC when I have cash to burn, sugar! The city always gives me a good time and I like to reciprocate in kind! xox

  4. “I’ve been medicating it with Mexican Coke (Not blow, just Coca-Cola made South of the Border. No corn syrup you know.)”

    I hope you check your bottles regularly for the ingredients. The Mexican Cokes at my local store have started coming with sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup. I stopped purchasing them. It made me sad.

  5. Nice story – really true anywhere, though; tip-wise, I mean. Going out for an evening – tip the valet, the coat-check gal, the cocktail waitress, the regular waitperson – can cost you, but as long as one understands that’s part of the package, there’s no problem. Just that, unless you’re well off, it’s not something you can do as often as you’d like.

    I lived in New York City as a wee child (we moved when I was 7) – went to PS14 and then St Leo’s. Always meant to get back there as an adult to do the touristy thing. If we ever do make it there, I know enough not to rent a car there; we’ll be bussing/taxi’ing/training it instead. No parking hassles :)

    Looking very forward to your next book, Steve!

  6. At what point does tipping become bribery though? Being British I am not used to the idea of autmatically tipping for everything (different countries = different rules)but the idea of feeling that you have to pay a parking attendant before he has rendered a service to ensure that service just seems like very low-level corruption to me.

  7. Good post; hope the gall bladder heals up quickly! Not the worst operation in the world, but it does cramp your style for a while.

    Tips make bad or overstressed systems work — for those who’ve got the cash. Tips held the Soviet Union together for sixty or seventy years. That was how you got the guy who was supposed to fix the apartment house elevator or plumbing or wiring to actually show up and do it in a reasonable time.

    I tip because the people getting the tip are usually not well paid (or at all) and really need it. And they’re doing me a real service. But if we every get that just world someone promised us someday, no tipping will be required. No one will even feel the need to ask.

  8. A New York Joke.

    An old couple are walking down the street. Just ahead of them, a car pulls out of a parking space and drives off.

    Quick as a flash, the old guy lies himself down in the street, spreadeagled in the parking space.

    He looks at his wife.

    “Don’t just stand there! Go buy a car!”

  9. “A guy I know who sells fish to sushi joints told me that’s the way you should leave a gratuity in a sushi restaurant. He lived in Japan and is married to a Japanese woman so I figure he’s right. ”

    We don’t tip in Japan. If I ever saw a tip jar next to the sushi chef, I’d walk out of that joint quicker than they could say “irrashaimase”.

    Must be an American sushi joint thing.

  10. Thanks. I’ve learned that cities are the best time to pick up on the tipping habit, and that it eliminates most of the city-related anooyances.

    I really appreciate your insight on the sushi-restaurant tipping. I really didn’t know. The chef should always get something for his efforts. (Heck, every restaurant should make it easier to tip the chef separately.)

  11. Hey great stories -I’m new to this site and am enjoying it greatly. I’m in Australia and we don’t tip like that either (except at restaurants) – not such a major part of the culture. So interesting to see how it affects living – certainly adds another level to interactions between people. Thanks

  12. By the way, several “natural” cola makers have started using cane sugar again — because it’s “natural.” Which is not the same as “good for you,” but go figure.

    If you can get Hansen’s soda where you are, I’d recommend it — all cane sugar. Had one of their orange sodas recently, and it reminded me of the good old days.

  13. Thanks for the heads up regarding sushi restaurant tipping…I had no idea. And, agree with you wholeheartedly: NYC is a fabulous city, but you definitely don’t want to got there unless you’re ready to drop some cash.

  14. I’m an ex-waitress myself, now I do massage therapy. Tips have always been a big part of my income.
    I’m a blogger too! I’m one of those annoying laptop people you see at Starbucks. I blog on my breaks between clients. I’m going to see if I can make it to borders for your book signing. I live in CT, so I’m not too far away.

  15. It’s different from bribery because none of these people are Government employees.

    I’ve always wished that NYC came with a daily cover charge that would take care of transportation and soft drinks.

  16. I always tip taxi drivers, and I try to leave a good tip at restaurants. Just want to say Steve, its great to see you writing regular posts again. The post on disability parking was spot on!

  17. .

    NYC is the one place i am familiar with that when compared to other places the “grease” really does make a big difference

    i don’t know why but it does

    frankD

  18. Thanks for telling the world about my favorite bathroom. It’s bad enough that the homeless have started using it. Next time I need to use it I fear I will be waiting behind a dozen fellow Waiter Rant readers. Ugh.

  19. I agree with one of the above comments- tipping in Japan is virtually unknown and, when it does exist, is usually a cash gift once a year to one’s landlord or some such. I do, however, pay cabbies over the fare in order to get them to take a shorter route, as the labyrinth that is Tokyo sometimes encourages drawn out taxi rides.
    NYC rules are pretty much like Steve said- tip often, tip well, and your visit’ll be much easier.

  20. In my four years as a Columbia undergraduate, I drove a car in NYC just once…when I had to pick up a date on Long Island. What a giant PITA!

  21. All this makes me glad to be in Australia where we don’t have nearly so strong a tipping culture. To me, it seems like a strange and stressful system that you effectively *have* to pay extra if you want decent service. Definitely sounds like a form of bribery! Wouldn’t things be easier if the cost of whatever someone was selling included good service?

  22. How is $6 for 3 hours in a parking garage “highway robbery”? You really are cheap. I’d rather pay $6 than search block after block for parking any day.

  23. We don’t have a strong tipping culture in Australia because the waiters/waitresses make up to 3 times more in wages than those in the US and Canada. Besides, a large wage doesn’t equal good service – in Cairns, it’s definitely hit and miss at restaurants. People can just show up to work in Australia and make $15 or more an hour and not have to give good service (of course, I do know a few excellent waiters here). Hooray for tipping – where the masses can have the last word!

  24. I have worked as a bartender in an upscale sushi spot for about 5 years now and have talked to plenty of others who have worked within that niche of the restaurant industry. Common practice in American sushi bars is that the chefs behind the bar get upwards of 20% tip out from the servers with places that go as high as 60%. This percentage doesn’t include tip out to busboys, hosts, or bartenders. Knowing this I personally don’t tip the chefs separately unless I sit at the bar and they are especially helpful.

  25. I have worked in a sushi restaurant. I had to give the sushi chef 2.5% of total sales plus 1.5% to the bar and another 1% to the bussers. Sushi chefs also make 4-5 times the hourly wage of servers. Please do not spread this advice, it is incorrect.

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