Planning holiday tips for building staff in New York City would be a lot less fraught with anxiety if you had a pile of money on hand. Of course, most New Yorkers don’t have stockpiles of cash waiting to be spent—myself included, except for one brief, confused moment back in the dark December days of 2008 when I made a big, expensive mistake.
That was the year I planned to haul my three teenagers across the Hudson for Christmas week. This presented a golden opportunity to repaint our kitchen, my bedroom, and a bathroom, all long overdue. Painting while we were home would have been like laundering our jeans while we were still in them.
I seized the opportunity and contacted my guy Greg who had previously brought in a crew that did a great (enough) job. He was fast and reasonably priced, and even advised on color options, not my strong suit.
A schedule was proposed, fees agreed upon, and colors discussed. Greg informed me that he was going to be away, but that his #1 painter Koji was familiar with my apartment and up to supervising the team. Greg trusted him entirely. Before he left for wherever he was going, he made two trips to my place with paint samples and to pick up a deposit check. The co-op paperwork was submitted and approved.
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In negotiating the schedule, I allowed myself the necessary luxury of dropping the kids, the cat, the turtle, and Gnashville the hamster in New Jersey, then doubled back the next day to clear a path in each of the rooms to be painted. My apartment is 1,350 square feet (closets included)—and my then 14, 15, and 16 year old and their detritus took up a lot of space.
There were other tasks to attend to that day: present wrapping and a visit to the bank for crisp bills for staff tips. Our apartment is north of East 96th Street and even further north of white glove territory; we have contracted “security officers” (versus doormen or concierges) who buzz people in, accept deliveries, and keep an eye on things, and a live-in super who manages a modest staff.
(If you’re not sure what the difference is between a doorman and a security attendant, I refer you to Kenneth Lonergan’s play “Lobby Hero.” I was riveted—and not just because Sarah Jessica and Matthew, friends of the playwright, were sitting two rows ahead of me.)
My tip formula
Every year, management sends out a holiday gratuities memo listing the names of everyone on staff, their hire dates and nothing else, leaving residents to their own devices to decide whether to tip, and how much. In a display of uncharacteristic organizational foresight on my part, I not only used these lists to track what I planned to give, I saved them in a red folder, stapling the most recent notice on top. That year’s list made an even dozen.
Even more remarkably, I knew exactly where the folder was stashed.
I am a retrospective, rather than prospective tipper, a hot topic at December dinner party discussions among my friends back when we had dinner parties. It’s just the way I roll: I feel more secure expressing my gratitude for work done in the past than to wager that it will continue similarly in the future—or that the staff member will even stick around the whole next year.
My tip formula is a complex algorithm that starts with what I gave the previous year and then is adjusted up or down to reflect tenure and an X-factor of helpfulness and tolerance for my children’s antics.
My purported tip allocations for 2008 were as follows. The super, $40. The handyman $15. The porters, $10 each. Front desk security, $15 each. All in, $155. OK, now it seems kind of scroogy, but based on comments circulating on our resident email list I knew I wasn’t the stingiest shareholder in the co-op. And based on Brick Underground’s Tipping Guide, not among the worst in the city, either.
The mysterious cash
I returned home and tidied up (i.e., shoved everything strewn about into closets). I even took time to collect a bunch of DVDs (remember those?), match them up with their plastic clamshell covers and slide them into the living room bookcase.
I was putting the last one away when I noticed there was something stuck between two DVDs. It was a blank envelope with six $100 bills in it.
This was puzzling. I had no recollection of stashing mad money between “Iron Man” and “Friends, The Complete Seventh Season.” My mind didn’t exactly reel with explanations. I could only conjure up two possibilities: I’d loaned the apartment over the summer to a sketchy individual (long story), did he leave the money behind? Had I in fact put the cash there in case a terrorist cyberattack disabled the ATMs? If so, why $600? I was stumped.
Then, I had what I can only describe as an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment. Who knew where this money came from, but why not share it? I rejiggered the tip list, bumping the super to $100, the handyman to $50, and the porters to $40 each. I allocated $100 to the morning and the afternoon desk attendants and $40 to the other two. As for the rest —I gave myself a tip.
I dipped out to break the hundreds, returned, and slipped the money into gratuity envelopes addressed to each recipient. Then I ran around the building tracking down whoever was around and turned over the rest to a neighbor to distribute. And returned to New Jersey.
Painting was scheduled to start the day after Christmas. I’d left keys for Koji, who planned to drop off paint and supplies.
Late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I get a call from Greg. He heard from Koji; everything was set.
“I’ve got another question” he says. “I left an envelope with cash to pay the team hidden up on a shelf and Koji says he can’t find it.”
I processed what Greg told me. Then I doubled over laughing. Regrettably, I did not have the presence of mind to say, “What envelope?” I explained I had found it and, well, spent the money.
The day after Christmas I drove back into the city, pulled the money out of my bank account and brought it to Koji.
As for my extravagance, I never rolled the tips back. They’ve even crept up (a bit) since then. This was my “Gift of the Magi.” The building staff got a tip bump and I got this story to tell. Just call me Lady Bountiful.
Mary Lowengard is a writer and editor who has been in a New York State of mind since 1971. This is her first article for Brick Underground.
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