Holidailies 2004December 9, 2004

According to Jeanne Sahadi of CNN/Money, “If you like things black-and-white, there’s nothing more aggravating than the tradition of holiday tipping. There are no hard-and-fast rules. So much depends on your means, the quality of the service you receive, the frequency with which you use it, and other considerations.”

Holiday tipping is not so much aggravating to me as bewildering. Most holiday tipping guides seem aimed at affluent New Yorkers whose doormen, parking attendants, dog walkers, and housekeeping staff provide more personal service than I give my own family. I’m a middle-of-the-middle-class suburban resident who tries to tithe the amount she saves in her Christmas fund (half the amount to my local congregation, the other half to local hunger organizations and the Retirement Fund for Religious.) It has never occurred to me to tip the trash collectors ($15-$20 each recommended), who travel by fours and whom I have never met and who yesterday left a whole bag behind (after using the trash can lids as frisbees) so that we had to call the company and complain. I do not typically give an extra tip at Christmas to my hairdresser, but I might get her a small gift this year since she also got married about a month ago.

The CNN article suggests $15-$25 for the paper carrier if you get daily delivery. I think I used to tip when it was Greg or Gary, the boys up the street whose mother was the school secretary. Not only did we know these boys by name (and their parents), we saw them every two weeks or so when they came to collect. But for the past several years our paper carrier has been an unseen adult who comes often before 6 a.m. in a car, tosses the paper onto the driveway even though the plastic holder the newspaper company provided is still attached to our mailbox post, and moves on. The newspaper company charges our credit card automatically every month, and I pay it online along with other expenses, so that no actual money is even involved anymore.

Last week I read a short story in the Fall 2004 issue of Ploughshares, the literary magazine published by Emerson College. Jessica Treadway’s “Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back” concerns a young woman whose husband has lost his job because of a fatal accident he caused while driving drunk. To help support herself, her husband, and their son, she takes a paper route, working from four in the morning until just after eight.

One of my biggest challenges as a fiction writer is showing people at work. I was a high school teacher all my life, and while I know that routine inside and out, I don’t know much about what people do all day at what we sometimes called “real jobs,” that is, the clerical and service and managerial jobs we were preparing our students to hold.

I read the story three times in a single morning, twice for the sheer beauty of it and once with an eye to its structure. Through Treadway’s elegant writing I saw Norine’s fingers ink-stained after the process of stuffing the papers into their plastic sleeves, and felt the way her arms ached after putting the heavy advertising sections into the already oversized Sunday editions. My toes were cold from accompanying Norine as she had to get out of her car and wade into a puddle where a newspaper or two had inadvertently landed. And my knuckles went white as I gripped the wheel with her in the skid she slides into in the story’s ambiguous ending.

It’s the kind of story I thought about for days afterward, especially every morning when I went out for the paper.

On Sunday, of course, the paper was laden not just with the usual advertising junk but the additional Christmas special advertising. In just about the only “conquer clutter” guideline I practice faithfully, I dump all that stuff into a trash bag (as it happens, the one the trash collectors left behind on Wednesday) before I even carry it into the house. For some reason, last Sunday I watched the colorful tabloids fall into the can, and spied a plain white envelope slide in along with them.

It had a name and address written on the front, and inside was a greeting card from my paper carrier. Until that moment I didn’t really understand that my paper is delivered to my house by an actual individual person, a woman with a name who serves me as unfailingly as sweet Greg or Gary ever had. I held the greeting card in my hand for a moment, looking at her name. Then I turned it over. On the back was printed a 2005 calendar, the one feature my Mead Monthly Academic Planner lacks.

I’ll be tipping the newspaper carrier this year, that’s for sure.

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