Yes, I’m acutely aware that I’ve done the whole ‘I’m a right tight-arsed northerner’ thing to death, but I couldn’t continue writing about my adventures in New York City without devoting a post to the whole tipping culture. For people like me, it adds a whole new level of pressure and anxiety to the experience. And not just because I find it difficult to work out what 15% is. I’ve always been a bit shit at math. Yes, I said math. A nod to my Stateside pals. Of which I have none. Mainly because I don’t tip them very well.
Before you wrongly believe that I am completely averse to tipping, here are a few situations where I’m happy to hand over a few extra quid in my day-to-day life:
1. At restaurants where the waiting staff have been attentive and pleasant.
2. To hairdressers who charge a reasonable price and don’t make me weep about what they’ve done to my fringe.
3. To taxi drivers who charge an acceptable fare and don’t talk too much during the journey. They’ll even get an extra pound if they don’t talk to me at all. Apart from asking me where I’m going, of course. Mind you, if they were telepathic, I’d probably stretch to an extra 50p, just through sheer wonder.
And here are examples of when I’m not so keen to part with extra money:
1. At a carvery. Especially if I’ve already got a drink. I have to collect my own bloody food, for God’s sake. The waiter/waitress has done little apart from ask if everything is ok with my meal, usually when I’ve got a gobful of Yorkshire pudding. He/she deserves nothing in my eyes, apart from a good old look at the contents of my mouth as I respond.
2. At places where they’ve already added a service charge. I, perhaps wrongly, believe that as I’m paying for a meal out, getting handed my dinner and having my plates washed should already be part of the deal. I don’t buy a new dress and then expect to get a separate charge added for fucking sewing costs.
3. To trades people. If they’re already charging me £400 to repair three fence panels, I don’t see the need to offer them a further £20 for their trouble. Plus the recent men I had here both had two sugars in their hot drinks and I’m not made of money/sugar. No. they were already making a hefty profit. I’ve seen Rogue Traders.
4. When waiting staff add a smiley face and the word ‘Thanx’ to my bill. Oh, they’ve screwed it right up if they do that. I’ll happily give them a lesson in basic spelling, but other than that, they can sod right off.
5. To bar staff. This is quite bad as I use this type of service personnel rather a lot. But I’ve never uttered the words: ‘And get one for yourself’ when paying for a couple of pints. I’ve probably only see that happen in the Queen Vic and the Rovers’ Return, so just assume it’s something they do on the telly and not in real life – a bit like washing your hands after going to the toilet.
A friend who I regularly dine out with is always happy to tip, but has to hand the money directly to the member of staff involved as she wants to see the gratitude etched on their faces. I imagine she’s secretly hoping for a bit of bowing/hand kissing from them. I don’t like this approach. I’m happy to leave my tips on the table, providing that the people sitting nearby don’t look like the sort who might nick it. So I wouldn’t do it in a Wetherspoons, for example.
The friend I mention is actually a very generous soul. Only yesterday she threw a couple of quid into a busker’s guitar case in Birmingham City Centre. I watched her look up, expectantly, as her coins landed. He didn’t bother to acknowledge her. Not even a slight nod. No eye contact whatsoever. I felt gutted for her.
“He’s lost in the music,” she said, when I questioned how she felt about the turn of events, but I could tell she was a bit hurt. “He was only playing a shitty rendition of Rihanna’s Umbrella,” I reminded her, before actively encouraging her to go and fish her money back out. She selflessly, but sadly, declined.
In New York, there are some brilliant buskers on the subway who are grateful when they’re thrown a dollar or two. I’ve seen them smile and say thank you. Not to me, of course, I just loiter in the background, enjoying the free entertainment. I’m used to hearing the bloke in Centenary Square playing The Lambada very poorly, and repeatedly, on a bleeding accordion, so the talent on display deep underground in NYC is a revelation.
An old guy, belting out soul classics can be found under 42nd St, there’s an acoustic guitar duo under Union Square, covering 90s indie tunes at 2am, a Bob Marley/Jimi Hendrix hybrid at Spring St, and break-dancing crews here, there and everywhere, happily spinning on the ceramic tiles without giving a second thought to the fact that they’re probably covered in tramps’ piss. I actually did contribute a dollar on one occasion. I was worried about their Adidas tracksuits. Tramps’ piss can burn right through polyester. I know this from experience. (I don’t).
But back to tipping for service. During my first trip to NYC in 2008, I was badly burnt. I tried to light a fag off a hot chestnut seller’s grate and lost my eyelashes, eyebrows and the skin off my left cheek. No, that didn’t happen. I wasn’t literally burnt. But I was literally chased down the street for not leaving enough of a tip at a Mexican restaurant.
“Hey,” the restaurant manager yelled. “My waitress is really upset, did she do something wrong?”
There were lots of people dining outside that day, enjoying the Cinco De Mayo celebrations – I forget what day or month it was when this happened, but what I do remember is getting bit hot under the collar at all the attention that was directed at me. She was there, right behind him, with a pathetically sad and hurt look on her face. I couldn’t bear it.
“Not at all,” I said, wishing the ground would swallow me up. “I think I just calculated it wrong. Silly old English me and my maths. I’m really sorry – it was an honest mistake.”
It wasn’t an honest mistake at all. I’d purposely left about a fiver, knowing it wasn’t the correct percentage, and thought ‘Fuck it’. There were a couple of charred kidney beans in my burrito. And the cocktails were really expensive. I thought that would do. Clearly not. I hurriedly handed over more dollars, apologising profusely.
So, during this recent visit, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t get caught out or upset anyone. The offering below helped me to understand, although not particularly agree with or like, what I had to do and when:
I was getting on reasonably well, or so I thought, on the first day. I had, of course, refused help with carrying my cases up to the hotel room. I’d just dragged them 20 blocks, so I wasn’t going to pay a bloke to pop them in a lift for me and wheel them a metre down a hallway. Fuck that. Two dollars saved. Boom.
However, it soon became apparent that there were tip jars everywhere. In almost every shop. I wasn’t expecting this. I was prepared for waiters and bar staff and had decided I wouldn’t use taxis. I didn’t know the rules for shops. Here in England, there’ll sometimes be a tin decorated in wrapping paper at Christmas at local corner shops, with a Post-It note saying:
We would like to wish all of our customer’s a very Merry Christmas
I’ve always just laughed at those, thinking: ‘Piss off – you ain’t getting nothing until you a) learn the rules of apostrophe usage, and b) reduce the price of a tin of beans from £1.20, you scrounging shits’. And nothing bad has ever happened. But in New York, things are different.
When I saw a tips jar at the counter where we’d just bought a couple of bagels on our second morning there, I froze. I was already acutely embarrassed after hearing my other half, who, overwhelmed by the selection on offer, asked the somewhat bemused bloke behind the counter to recommend a filling to him.
“Do you ask them in Gregg’s what you should have in your sandwich, you daft twat?” I asked him. He told me to piss off and walked out, muttering something about me being a bitch.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to pay more money in this scenario, but did I have to? What would happen if I didn’t? I didn’t want to cause a scene. I begrudgingly popped two dollars into the jar and caught up with my Mr Indecisive.
“I just gave a two dollar tip,” I told him. “I’m scared now. I don’t know how far this tipping business goes.” It was clear he shared my concerns.
One day, when we were in Central Park, looking tired and confused, a man walking his dog asked us where we were heading.
“Oh, we’re just trying to find the Strawberry Fields bit,” I told him. He explained where we needed to go, but I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying because I was too busy wondering if I now had to give him some money. Would he be offended if I didn’t? Would he chase me? Would he think I was weird if I held out a dollar bill? Would that be enough? What was the going rate for taking unsolicited directions?
I decided against it on that occasion and thankfully, there wasn’t a commotion. Unlike at the John Lennon shrine, where a busker was murdering Imagine, which wound up the other half something chronic.
And while, by day three, tipping became part and parcel of every drink, meal and shop visit, it annoyed me when I had to hand over tips to people who I can only describe as utter shits. But I was too scared not to.
For example, one barman slammed my $9 pint of ale so hard on the table that at least $2 of it jumped out of the glass and landed on the bar. We’d interrupted his basketball game (he was watching, not playing), and it was clear he didn’t want to serve us. Yet, as we left, I felt I had to pop a few extra dollars down, making it the most expensive pint I’ve ever had. Ridiculous.
However, most people I encountered were extremely friendly and seemed to really like the English, which pleased me greatly. I even gave a fairly generous tip (by my standards, that is) to the waiter who asked: “Is that accent real?”
“Yes, it is,” I proudly told him. “I’m from Grimsby. It’s in the north of England.”
“Is that in Yorkshire?” he enquired. Arsehole. I picked my 25 cents back and quickly left the establishment in disgust.