Christmas Tip Tango*

Every holiday season I steel myself for the annual challenge–-the inevitable series of one-on-one face-offs I can never seem to win.  By now I am convinced that, in the Christmas tip scuffle between doorman and woman (this woman, at least), there can be only one outcome.

The thing is, no matter what I do, I get kissed.

I’ve tried to follow the seemingly-simple instructions of many of my friends: Hold out the envelope with the left hand while extending the right hand for a firm but friendly handshake.  (Of course, this maneuver requires two free hands, which is not always possible.)  But time and time again, I am irresistibly and unwillingly pulled into a cheek kiss and/or bear hug.  Once in a while I experiment with a new strategy: Last year, hoping to catch the weekend doorman at a disadvantage, I made my move while he was in the process of actually holding the door open.  Unfortunately, it backfired--I got the embrace and a door hitting me in the backside.

Believe me, I have nothing against kissing in general.  I like kissing my friends and my family.  I even have been known to kiss my cat.  I simply don’t feel that I should have to kiss or hug the dozen or so employees in my building.  One has to draw the line somewhere, and I think that line is right downstairs in my lobby by the front door.  After all, where will all this familiarity end?  Are we going to have to start kissing our doctors, our postmen, our grocers and bus drivers?  (“Here’s my bus fare--kiss, kiss--can I get a transfer?”)

Granted, rules and social barriers are more relaxed at Christmastime.  People are, in general, more affectionate to each other; in addition to the traditional good-will-toward-men feeling in the air (not to mention the increase in consumption of alcohol), there exists a kind of mass bonding over the stressful chaos that infuses most people’s holidays.  I myself feel a greater need for human connection at this time of year.  So why does this particular breakdown of convention, which could be seen as a harmless gesture of affection, bother me so much?  I’ll tell you why.  Because the doorman knows all my secrets.

The doorman-tenant relationship is a unique one, and oddly enough, has many of the earmarks of intimacy.  Your doorman sees you regularly, if not daily.  He knows who your friends are; he probably knows who you are sleeping with.  He knows when you go out and when you come home.  He’s seen you in all states of dress--from your schleppiest laundry-doing outfit to your flashiest formal attire.  He’s seen you having an argument with a friend on the way to the elevator, or with tears streaming down your face after a break-up.  Part of way you cope with this inescapable invasion of your privacy is to try to pretend that the doorman doesn’t know your whole life the way he obviously does.  And while your doorman may be quite fond of you, and you of him, it’s precisely because he is privy to more of your life than most people are (and, inequitably, that you know virtually nothing about him!) that you need a certain amount of distance.  In other words, hugs and kisses from the doorman jar you out of the all-important state of denial you need to survive life in a doorman building.
I’m not sure exactly when this practice of kissing tenants started among New York City doormen, though reportedly it happens more on the West Side of Manhattan than on the East Side.  Maybe I should only tip doormen when I have a large male friend by my side.  In any case, you can call me fastidious, classist or just plain prudish, but I refuse to accept the idea that I have to have intimate contact with the building staff.  Isn’t it enough that I show my appreciation with a monetary gift?  Must I throw my body into it as well?   

This year I am going to try the following line: “You can either give me a big hug, or you can have what’s in this envelope.”

At least then I might save a little money.

(*Originally published in The West Side Spirit, 12/09/10)