My tip? Service is not included

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The Independent Online

I had a perplexing experience the other night eating at the Plaza Hotel.

I had a perplexing experience the other night eating at the Plaza Hotel. It was our waiter. He never once uttered the refrain of every American waiter - "Hello, my name is xxxx and I will be looking after you", - which is always a sure sign that they won't be doing any such thing. And when a cranky baby meant one of our party leaving the table at regular intervals, he was always there to whisk her plate back to the kitchen to keep it warm.

Something is wrong when being properly attended to throws you off balance. But the friendly diligence of whoever he was - I never did get his name - brought something into focus. In New York, contrary to what you might think, decent customer service seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

Why is it that almost everyone I do any kind of business with - whether they are New York cabbies, cashiers at almost any big shopping chain, waiters, post office workers, airline officials (don't get me started) or bank tellers - is always so ineffably grouchy? The customer, or this one anyway, is made to feel like an intruder into the tranquillity of their nine-to-five daydreams.

There are exceptions. My barber down on East 14th Street, not so recently settled here from Azerbaijan, is consistently chatty, but maybe I like him because his difficulty with English renders most of his conversation indecipherable.

What was with the lady from UPS, the parcel service, for instance, who rang yesterday to inform me that because of a few days absence from my home, a package addressed to me had summarily been returned to its sender in Texas? I mean, couldn't she have phoned before putting my parcel back on a conveyor belt to oblivion? Worse, she wasn't really telling me, she was outright scolding me. What was I thinking being away when their man was trying to deliver something to me?

You know a society has an issue with service when half the time you have to pay extra to get any. I still cannot figure out what compels me to tip taxi drivers in Manhattan. Probably, it's because I know that they would run me over the second I got out of their cabs if I didn't. At the very least they would bellow obscenities through the plexi-glass security divider. And forget about buying a drink and not leaving an extra dollar on the bar. You would never be allowed to return.

Only once have I flatly refused to pay a tip at a bar or restaurant. It was the 4th of July a couple of years ago at the Sidewalk Café in the East Village. Everything that could have been wrong with the meal was. Dinner was virtually breakfast by the time it arrived. My perfectly reasonable indignation, or so I thought, was considered a major scandal. I only escaped after attempts to explain my dissatisfaction to the manager turned into an unpleasant shouting match through the kitchen door. Now I pay tips regardless.

At Christmas, New York's tipping etiquette gets quite out of hand. No fat envelope for every attendant at your parking garage guarantees 12 months of your car being blocked in by fat Hummers every time you pick it up. That is their revenge. A not-so-wealthy friend recently arrived from England was ordered by her building to give her doormen $100 each. There are 12 of them.

My building, being far grottier, fortunately has no doorman. But there is the superintendent, Elvis. A few days before Christmas we argued after he replaced my conked-out fridge with one half the size. He rudely told me to take it or leave it and I resolved to keep his Christmas money for next year. I relented, of course, aware that the next time I forgot my key, Elvis, who has the spares, would be nowhere to be found.

My theory is simple. People expect tips here because they are not paid properly in the first place. If we could eliminate tipping, employers would be forced to pay more decent wages. And then everyone would be cheerful and bright - like my man at the Plaza. Except the UPS woman, perhaps, who, as far as I'm concerned, can jump on that same conveyor belt along with my parcel and send herself to hell.

A very modern writer's block

Every foreign correspondent has stories of catastrophe with technology two minutes before deadline time. It might be laptops that have swallowed copy or satellite phones that have died at the crucial moment.

My most recent involved a piece you may spy in our Saturday magazine this weekend. Over and over I e-mailed my urgently awaited words to my editor in London and every time he called back to say they had not arrived.

It took an assistant on his desk to divine the problem. The article is about the sex industry in America, and the e-mail had the word "porn" in the subject line. The Independent's e-mail system had evidently concluded that my carefully honed words were nothing more than X-rated spam. It had diverted my article to a folder labelled "junk".

We are all prepared for our editors to occasionally decide that what we have written is not worthy of our readers' attention. It's called getting the spike. But this is the first time my words have been spiked before even reaching the editor's desk.

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