True New Yorkers know their etiquette.
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman (Composer-Lyricist)
Initially I was going to sign off this three-part New York living series with a love letter to the city, a thanks-for-being-my-home-lo-these-past-eight-years-here’s-all-the-things-I-love-about-you kind of thing. But an “article” (I use that term loosely) surfaced this past week by a man named Kyle Smith on the website of a New York “newspaper” (I use that term even more loosely) which bought up a more pressing issue.
I am not providing a link to the article out of principal. If you wish to read it, simply Google the author’s name, or better yet: “horrible man insults the entire hard working wait staff of New York City” and I’m sure you’ll find it, but you can do that on your own time. I don’t want to provide a link for two reasons: one, I respect you too much as a reader of Crazytown to insult both your intelligence and sense of decency with said article, and two, it is my hypothesis that the aforementioned writer is nothing more than a troll who posted this drivel in an obvious attempt to shock and offend the reader and illicit angry responses like this one already circulating the internet, all the while driving up web traffic for himself. He will not be receiving any such pageviews redirected from a post by me. I can’t in good conscience play into such obvious games. What I would like to do, however, is use this opportunity to talk more broadly about manners and etiquette here in New York.
Some 8.2 million people live in New York City. On any given day millions more travelers, tourists, commuters and the like flood into the streets of the five boroughs, swelling the number of humans per square foot (I couldn’t find a good estimate of the average daytime population of all of New York from a source that I trusted – if you have a good one, please send it my way). The New York City metropolitan area is the most populous in the United States as well as one of the most populous in the world. From a historical standpoint, this became true because the very geography of New York harbor made it ideal for shipping. Centuries later, here we are in a booming metropolis, where with so many people living in such close quarters you can’t walk five feet out of your front door without bumping into some asshole who’s so consumed by the conversation he’s having on his cell phone he can’t pay attention to what’s happening around him, so he knocks you over then yells at you as if it was your fault.
This person may be a New Yorker, sure, but this person certainly hasn’t learned how to coexist with the millions of other residents of the city – something that I’ve found to have been brilliantly described in this scene from Company:
“It’s in a person’s ass.” 2006 Broadway revival of Company. Raul Esparza as Bobby, Angel Desai as Marta.
There is a stereotype out there that all New Yorkers are all rude, resentful people. While we have our moments, nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of New Yorkers are actually kind, caring people – provided that you don’t get in our way. We give you directions. We recommend bars. We return cell phones we find in taxis. We open our doors and wallets, as well as volunteer our time when our neighbors are devastated by a natural disaster. To live properly in New York is to know that we are all in this together. It’s to have some manners and common courtesy toward your fellow human beings, no matter who you are, from Mayor Bloomberg on down.
- Don’t stand in doorways of bodegas after you’ve made your purchase or at the top or bottom of stairs or escalators in subway entrances. You are inevitably going to block people behind you. That cell phone call can wait, or you can simply move two feet to the left or right and avoid blocking the flow of foot traffic.
- If you are young, able-bodied, and aren’t carrying anything heavy, don’t take the elevator up or down less than three floors unless no one else is waiting for it. A flight of stairs is both good exercise, and won’t slow down those of us heading up 20 stories.
- Be aware of your general surroundings and know who has the right-of-way at all times. And I’m talking a full 360-degrees of awareness, especially when walking down crowded sidewalks. I know it’s tempting to stare at your phone (believe me, I know), but everyone walks at their own pace – often when in midtown that pace is known as the “torpid tourist trot” – so save yourself the embarrassment of bumping into people. Instead be alert, and master the art of weaving through a crowd.
- Most importantly: NO, YOU CAN NOT WALK DOWN THE SIDEWALK WITH FOUR PEOPLE IN A ROW LIKE ON SEX AND THE CITY. That doesn’t happen. Ever. And if you attempt it, well then no New Yorker can be blamed for ignoring the previous rule and mowing you the fuck down. You asked for it.
But the golden rule of living in New York (other than the Golden Rule itself) is simply the following:
NEW YORK IS A CITY OF TIPPERS.
It’s a fact. If you don’t want to tip those who provide extra service for you – and in New York, everything is extra service – then pack up your shit and move back to flyover country.
Now here’s where the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post comes into play. The writer called servers at restaurants “servants.” He said he didn’t want to know his waiter’s name because: “you’re a servant. So serve.” But life is not Downton Abbey. Waiters may serve you your food, but they’re not your employees. They are working very hard to ensure you have a pleasant dining experience, all the while dealing with managers, coworkers, and other patrons who may or may not be making their shift more difficult. They are on their feet of hours on end, cleaning up after you, making sure everything is to your liking, all for a fraction of minimum wage.
I wanted to include "Ooh, My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella here but couldn't find a video that wasn't from someone's senior recital. Instead, here's "It's An Art" from Working, which is nothing like what waiting tables is really like. I mean, I've never met a server who 'feels like Carmen' when someone just 'tosses them a coin,' have you? That would be like me singing about how much I didn't care that we weren't allowed to have a tip jar when I worked as a Starbucks barista in a Barnes & Noble café (true story - our manager wouldn't let us have one because he said it looked "tacky"). All that said; you go, Rita Moreno.
And this doesn’t just go for the Olive Garden in Times Square. My parents are big foodies and as such I have been very lucky enough to have eaten in the top restaurants of New York City many times over: Eleven Madison Park, Marea, Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, Per Se, and so on. In each of these world-renowned establishments the waiter introduces themselves, smiles, checks in to make certain your meal is to your liking, all those things that trained wait staff are supposed to do. It’s not some plot to interrupt your meal. It’s not some ploy to get you to tip more. It’s not some probe to see whether or not you’re nice in return, thereby justifying how much they can fuck with your food back in the kitchen. Stop being so paranoid. Not everyone is out to get you. It’s how the dining experience works in this country. Unless the service is truly and inexcusably horrible, you’d better tip the appropriate amount. And docking tip because you thought your waiter smiled too much means you either have no soul, or are looking for a way to justify being cheap.
Monty Python's Mr. Creosote. Don't watch this clip while eating.
To pick at one other specific point made in the article (the writer bemoans the fact that American waiters aren’t silent and stiff like French ones because – his hypothesis – Americans work for tips, whereas in France the service charge (which, by the way, is not the same as a tip for excellent service) is usually included), when I was 12 or 13 years old – right before my Bar Mitzvah, my mother made me take etiquette lessons at a local country club. Thanks to those lessons I can still tell you the difference between a European and an American dinner fork, or how you are supposed to cut your meat, rest and hold your silverwear, and place your hands when dining in both Continental and American dining styles. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but I would like to point out that there are vast differences in how meals are enjoyed in Europe and America that date back far beyond the aforementioned Downton Abbey, and as such there are different styles of service as well. In modern times the lines are heavily blurred, but the foundation remains. In other words: if you prefer how they serve you in Europe, then by all means go eat there and shut up about it.
There was a fun segment on the guy who tipped $10 on $1500 worth of pizza last night on Chelsea Lately, but the clip isn't online, so I guess we'll go with Ed Schultz making my point on the Applebees preacher.
There has been no shortage of stories in the media about poor tipping recently. While I get that times are hard and money is tight for many people across the country, what I do not understand is how someone who cannot afford to tip justifies going out to eat in a restaurant. The simple fact remains: YOU CHOSE TO GO OUT.
You did! YOU made the CHOICE to go into the restaurant where said servers are employed instead of cooking yourself a meal at home. And it’s more than just restaurants. You CHOSE to take a taxi. You CHOSE to use coat-check. You CHOSE to order delivery. You CHOSE to get your hair done at the salon. No one held a gun to your head. These are all fellow human beings trying to make a living. They provided a service especially for you, and you, in turn, must compensate them.
Good New Yorkers know how to tip. Personally, I feel wrong tipping anything less than 20% at a restaurant (and usually my baseline is 25%). At Christmas, New Yorkers know it’s time to give checks to their superintendent, doormen, mail carrier, housekeeper, nanny/babysitter, personal trainer, personal assistant, dog walker, hair stylist, and so on if they have them. It’s just the proper thing to do, and in some cases it helps make your life a little smoother. Example: every year I give the staff of my building a generous Christmas bonus, and every year they look the other way when I have my big-ass New Year’s Eve party, and immediately clean the hall afterwards if anything got tracked out there by my guests.
I’d like to close out with a little anecdote. Earlier I mentioned the Golden Rule – something that it’s clear the man who wrote the article has never studied. Here’s an example of it in action:
About a year ago I arrived at Penn Station early for an Acela Express train to Washington D.C. for the wedding of a friend. I saw on the board that there was an earlier Acela leaving in a few minutes, so naturally I decided to wait in the line at the Amtrak counter to see if I could transfer my ticket to the earlier train, which would save me an hour of waiting around in the ghastly concourse that is Penn Station.
Directly ahead of me in line was a couple in their 50’s who were clearly unhappy about something. I couldn’t tell what it was but I heard them grumbling to each other. A voice over the loudspeaker announced that the train I was trying to catch had begun boarding. I asked the couple if I could possibly jump ahead of them because that was the train I was trying to get on.
“NO!” fired back the man. “We’re ALL trying to get on that
train! You can FUCKING WAIT!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” I replied, stunned at his anger.
“Yeah, well, fucking wait your turn.”
“Wow... Rude.” I said under my breath. But he heard me:
“You’re DAMN RIGHT I’M RUDE!” he thundered as the woman who I assume was his wife shot me a stare that in a Grecian myth would’ve turned a mere mortal into stone.
They continued to grumble until the customer at the window in front of them walked away, leaving it open. They rushed to the window and began yelling at the agent sitting behind it.
The problem is there’s a system in place at the Penn Station Amtrak counter. A window isn’t available until the agent working said window hits a button that illuminates the number above it, indicating the window is the next one, and in this case the agent had not yet done that. She was still busy finishing up from the last client, filing away paperwork and such. Suddenly, she was faced with this angry couple yelling at her that they “need to get on this train OR ELSE!”
Here’s the thing: when someone else has the power to give or not give you the thing that you want, yelling at them and making a scene usually doesn’t get them on your side. The agent wasn’t having it. She signaled that she was not yet ready and asked them to step back into the line. The couple refused, but that was no matter to the agent. “What the fuck kind of customer service is this?!?” bellowed the man as the agent continued to ignore them.
“DING!” another window opened up down the line. I began to make my way towards it, figuring the angry couple had forfeited their place in line and had already selected their window, whether or not it was ready for them.
“NO! THAT’S OURS!!!” The man screamed, pushing past me. I walked back to the line. The agent, now free of the couple from hell, shook her head and hit the button indicating her window was available.
I walked up with a big smile on my face. “Hi. How are you? I
was wondering if I could possibly switch this ticket to the earlier Acela?”
“That train is boarding.”
“I know, but I’m sure if the two of us work together we can make it.”
“Well, at least you’re nice about it” she said, and began to change my ticket.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. You have a wonderful day.” I said, still smiling. I took the new ticket, turned around, and made a b-line for the gate. As I rushed to the escalator, I looked over my shoulder to see the angry couple, screaming at another poor ticket agent who at this point was throwing his hands into the air. I entered the train and the doors shut behind me less than a minute later. “You catch more flies with honey,” I thought to myself. There was no way that the angry couple had made the train.
I stowed my suitcase, took a seat, and a crewmember handed me some mixed nuts, a menu, and asked for my drink order. It was a smooth ride all the way to D.C., and upon our arrival I thanked the crewmember who had been serving me and handed her a tip for her service as I exited the train. Because that’s what a good New Yorker does.
A little number from On The Twentieth Century to play us out. Why can't train travel be like this in real life?
GREGORY JACOBS-ROSEMAN is a composer/lyricist and theatrical sound designer currently developing Save The Date: A New Musical Comedy. www.gregjr.com
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