Everyone knows that the US is the tipping capital of the world. Right? And that New York is the capital of the tipping capital. You probably know this even if you’ve never been to New York. If you have been here, maybe you’ll recall falling off your chair the first time you realised you were about to sign away another 20% on top of the not insignificant sum you’d already paid for dinner, or how tedious it was to be constantly rummaging around for dollar bills to give the guy who opened your cab door/ took charge of your suitcase/ brought that bottle of San Pelligrino up to your room.
But nothing prepares you for the tipping culture that engulfs you when you actually live here. I’ve already mentioned Jennifer and my Whole Foods delivery. Then came my encounter with the merry crew of supers who run this ship called Manhattan House from a labarynthine arrangement of offices in the basement. A nice Irish guy named Terry came upstairs to replace two ceiling bulbs and identify the source of the annoying beeping noise that we’d been hearing every ten minutes or so for the previous week. (It wasn’t the smoke alarm on the blink, after all, but the Verizon wireless router thingy needing a new battery) Being new to the building, I wasn’t sure what Terry would be expecting in terms of compensation. Was his work carried out part and parcel of the rent we were paying? Did he send invoices to the landlord? Did he expect a tip?
Keen to avoid making a mistake that might see me waiting months for a loo to be unblocked or a door handle to be screwed back on, I asked Terry the question, leaning my part Canadian, part English, part weird Transatlantic twang towards the English so that he would appreciate whence came my ignorance.
“So Terry,” I said. “Forgive me, I’m new to New York, so I don’t really know how these things work. Are you fully compensated for this sort of thing, or should I give you a tip, or would that be inappropriate?”
Terry didn’t look all that comfortable with this direct approach. He pulled a face, then another face, then looked down at his feet.
“Well it’s like this,” he said. “For something little like this job, maybe not. Or maybe you’d tip every second or third time. But for something bigger and more tricky, yeah. And then there’s Christmas.”
Got it? Me neither. I thrust the ten dollar bill into his hands, uttering profuse thanks, and sat down to consider whether I’d given him enough, and what I might have to part with for that “bigger and trickier” job that loomed over both of our futures.
The Christmas thing worried me, and worries me still. Because L1 and I had already had the discussion about whether and how often we were supposed to tip the various doormen who were always on hand to open a cab door, usher us into the building, and carry heavy bags to the lift.
“Surely we can’t be expected to give them something every time? I said. “That would be insane. Who has that many dollar bills to hand?”
“Why don’t you ask someone,” L1 suggested.
So I asked Google, and Google said, with great authority, that in most Manhattan buildings, Christmas was the time to show your enormous gratitude to the gentlemen who opened doors and greeted visitors on your behalf, and that you should show your enormous gratitude to the tune of a quite enormous number of dollars per person.
Consider something as you picture me receiving this piece of news. There are at least a dozen different people (across several shifts) manning the doors of this building, and that’s only counting the ones we’ve seen so far. Then there are all the people in the basement, Terry and Junior and their team of washing machine repairers and light bulb replacers. Do the maths and you’ll have some idea of the sick feeling that overcame us both as I reported back to L1.
I saw L1’s brain kick into gear immediately, working out how we could eliminate whole swathes of expenditure in order to save up for the Christmas tip fund. Certain luxuries would clearly have to go: red wine during the week; any clothing purchases that weren’t strictly necessary for survival; Jo Malone Grapefruit hand wash; those organic pistachios L1 loved to have with his granola every morning. Poor L1. He’d already had a shock the day before, when his new American accountant informed him that, contrary to the information provided by his old UK accountant, our daily expenses in New York would not be tax deductible. I was disappointed by that too – it was a sorry waste of the natty little filing system I’d set up and all the assiduous hoarding of receipts we’d been doing for the first ten days in the city.
How did that story go again? L1 and L2 went to New York and came back FAB – fat, alcoholic and bankrupt? Seemed like we were already well on the way to the bankrupt bit, and that was before…
… I went to the hairdresser. The SCK salon had been recommended to me by C, the dynamo realtor who found us our apartment. It’s on the West Side, yards away from Columbus Circle. Nice address. Nice building too – apparently the last remaining 18th century building on the block. A crack team called Dallas and Clint were assigned to me – Dallas on highlights and Clint wielding the scissors. They did a stupendous job, and were beyond charming. I had a blast, while also being provided with a list of five more places where L1 and I should go to as part of our continuing commitment to the FAB cause.
And then I paid the bill, which was so large that I can’t bring myself to put the number down here. In any case, the bill wasn’t the point. The point was the tips. As before, I asked the young woman at the desk what the protocol was.
“Well, usually people give 20% each to the colourist and the stylist, and then five or ten dollars to the girl who washes their hair. See those little white envelopes? You can put the cash in there if you like, and write a little note. You know. Thank you, or whatever. That’s what people do. ”
I followed the flick of her head to see that, sure enough, there was a fullsome stack of little white envelopes next to the till.
“I can add the tips to your credit card bill and give you the cash to put in the envelopes if that’s easier,” she added, helpfully.
“Great!” I said, as I grabbed four envelopes (because there had been not one but two girls involved in the washing, conditioning, and combing of my hair) and began the process of stuffing them with dollars and writing heartfelt thank yous! on the front. What an almighty palaver. Tipping is a full time job in Manhattan, I hear you thinking, and you’re not wrong.
But I’m not complaining really. When I got home, L1 deemed my cut and highlights to be top-notch. And anyway, who wouldn’t want to tip Dallas and Clint on account of their utterly fabulous names alone ? Besides, I really needed the haircut because I wanted to look presentable for the impending visit by our middle child, daughter K.
In preparation for the visit we FaceTimed her on Saturday morning. Really, we were calling to make sure she had all her ducks in a row for her flight on the Monday. Instead, she regaled us with a tale of the housewarming party she’d held at the family home the night before, how her boyfriend M had made a hundred and twenty salmon blinis all by himself! I watched L1s face cloud over as K recounted all the ways in which she and her forty friends had enjoyed themselves in our home. Then he did that thing with his eyebrows, where they form the deepest V shape you would imagine possible, less of a frown, more like a valley of death.
“What’s wrong with Dad?” K asked.
“Erm, I think maybe he’s a bit bothered by the whole having-a-party-in the house thing. You know, didn’t we agree that…”
“Oh for God’s sake. He needs to take a chill pill. Make that two.”
At this point I took the phone into the bedroom, fearful that L1 might explode, thus setting ourselves up for an awkward week with K and M, during which we would all be trying to avoid one another in an apartment with only four rooms.
“You know, she has to be allowed to have fun,” I said later. “We have left her in charge of the house. And she says she had the Dyson out almost constantly during the party. There’s video evidence, apparently.”
L1 wasn’t quick to come around. He wasn’t ready to face the fact of the sudden hostile takeover of our home.
“Housewarming my arse,” he grumbled. “We’ve lived in that house for fifteen years.”
“But she’s only been living in it on her own for ten days,” I said, to no avail. But he softened later. He wasn’t exactly happy about it, but at least his eyebrows flattened out a bit.
Luckily, we had Sunday to recover our composure before K arrived. And a very pleasant Sunday it was. It began with The Andrew Marr Show on iPlayer (Technically speaking, iPlayer isn’t available in America, but we’d discovered this fantastic, and hopefully completely legal, workaround called Uno Telly). We followed this up with Strictly Come Dancing, although it has to be said that it wasn’t the same without Aston. (Also, I fear that the judges are perhaps en route to the land of el-plotto-disparu. Craig, in particular, seems to have lost all of his dancing-judge marbles, and this new Len replacement, Shirley Ballas? Well, she needs to get herself a sense of humour, fast.)
We followed up this lazy iPlayer morning with a walk down Madison Avenue, during which we gawped at Givenchy, Chanel and the like through the windows, and stumbled across what is probably the pinkest, prettiest, most zen-like store in Manhattan, Mansur Gavriel. We headed to the ninth floor of Barneys for brunch in Freds (a recommendation from Clint, of SCF Salon fame). Freds is great – all white table cloths and starched napkins and yet somehow very relaxed, with lots of extended families at large round tables, and at least a dozen plump cheeked babies being held up in the air, having their tummies nuzzled.
But the greatest thing about our brunch in Freds, dear friends, is that we saw THE GIRLS. The original girls, not Lena Dunham’s lot.
Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. There they were, dressed to the nines, supping champagne, Samantha’s hair a tumble of golden curls down her silk clad back, Charlotte’s face occasionally collapsing into that expression of bemused concern with which we are all so familiar. Glamour fairly dripped from their shoulders as their laughter rose up like a song above the humdrum chat of the mere mortals around them.
Of course it wasn’t really them. But it might well have been, so perfectly did these gals embody the look and spirit of SATC. In a city full of Nike wearers, I’d found four women in Manolos.
This was immensely cheering ❤ ❤ ❤ So were the two Bloody Marys we had at brunch. They set us up nicely for the browse around Barneys in search of Arctic-ready winter coats (the temperature had plummeted to cheek-nipping levels in the space of just three days), and later, for the three o’clock showing of Murder on the Orient Express at our local cinema.
Of course you know what happened don’t you? L1 was asleep within five minutes. The Bloody Mary’s didn’t help, but really, I blame the cinema seats – wider, softer and more comfortable than a vispring mattress. Fully reclining too, with a footrest. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
Never mind. We needed a rest, because K and M were soon to arrive. More on that anon.
With love from Manhattan.