Spreading the Wealth: Holiday Tipping in New York

It's the holiday season in Manhattan and it's time to tip your doorman and your dogwalker... and the hairdresser, mailman, building janitor, teacher and anyone else who helps you get through the day. Nowhere else are so many people dependent on so many others.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's no secret that living in New York City is expensive, but it's not just the pricey real estate and fancy restaurants that can put a dent in your checking account. It's the hidden costs, things like holiday tipping, as NPR's Luke Burbank found out.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Sloane Crosley is what you might call your typical New Yorker. She works in publishing. She says she makes OK money but not really enough to live lavishly. She rents a studio apartment in Manhattan. So it might surprise you to learn why she's pulling 50 bucks out of the ATM.

Ms. SLOANE CROSLEY (New Yorker): I am getting this money to tip a woman who has exercised a lot of labor in straightening my hair over the past year or so. It's called the Japanese hair straightening process.

BURBANK: Even if you knew such a procedure existed, you might not have known that Japanese hair straighteners get tipped for the holidays. But this is New York City where holiday tipping, or `taking care of people,' as it's referred to, is as much a part of the season as Christmas trees and menorahs. It's not uncommon for folks to tip their doorman, postman, paperboy, personal trainer, regular waiter, hairstylist, housekeeper, building superintendent, trash collector, nanny, parking person, UPS, FedEx and, oh yeah, dog walker.

Mr. PAUL COLUMBIA (Owner, NYC Dog Walkers): You know, our walkers appreciate a tip. The tips can be anywhere from $40 to $200.

BURBANK: Paul Columbia owns NYC Dog Walkers. He's on Manhattan's Upper West Side walking a French bulldog named Simon. He says almost all his clients tend to tip around the holidays because they appreciate the little touches like the personal notes.

Mr. COLUMBIA: Simon went both number one and number two. He is all set. Have a great evening. Paul.

Mr. DENNIS LEE (Software Engineer): Oh, man, I have to tip out the receptionist at my place where I work, the person who cuts my hair a little extra, my chiropractor and his office.

BURBANK: Dennis Lee is a software engineer who lives in The Atlas, an upscale building in Midtown Manhattan. He's actually come down to the lobby to tip the building's doorman, Jay Arroyo(ph).

Mr. JAY ARROYO (Doorman): Thank you, Dennis. I appreciate that.

Mr. LEE: Yeah.

BURBANK: Arroyo places the envelope on a stack of about five others he's gotten just this night. He decides to open one of the cards.

Mr. ARROYO: I mean, it's a hundred bucks right there. So, you know, you get 10 of these and you'll be all right. You know what I mean?

BURBANK: Try 350 of them. Arroyo says that's how many of the building's 400 residents tipped him last year. If that seems like a lot, it is. But because this is New York, Arroyo also has a long list of people he has to take care of.

Mr. ARROYO: I usually have a teller that I go to all the time. He's a really nice guy and I take care of him for Christmas. I take care of my mailman 'cause he delivers my mail.

BURBANK: Sitting in The Atlas' impossibly hip lobby were three women who looked a little out of place. Janet Lewis, Karen Campbell and Terry Marganski(ph) were visiting from Danville, Illinois. Lewis' tipping list for the year was a little shorter than your average New Yorker's.

Ms. JANET LEWIS (Danville, Illinois): Well, I do buy for my lady that does my hair.

BURBANK: How about your Pilates instructor?

Ms. LEWIS: Pilates instructor? (Laughs)

Unidentified Woman #1: We're working people.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah, we're working people.

Unidentified Woman #1: We don't have time for Pilates.

BURBANK: The women did think it was a nice idea to tip more during the holidays and said they'd be thinking about it when they got back to Danville. But, they said, they were still a little unsold on the whole Pilates thing. Luke Burbank, NPR News, New York.

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