By Bobby Calise
My cheapness manifests in many forms. I once paid $350 for a tattoo, but complained about the five dollar tube of healing lotion I had to buy along with it. When I eat at a fast food joint that has a self-service soda fountain, I fill my cup to the top, slurp two or three giant sips, and top-up again before I leave. I am willing to travel miles and inconvenience friends and family just to avoid an ATM fee. But never is my frugality more evident than when it comes to my daily coffee.
For years I tried any alternative I could think of to avoid paying someone else to make my coffee. When I first started at my current job, I would drink the office’s low-grade brew. Later, I brewed my own with a single cup machine, but couldn’t get it to taste right. Then there was my failed experiment with a cheap Target French press. Last year, in an effort get my coworkers caught up in my neuroses, I cofounded an office coffee club. We would all share the responsibilities of buying the coffee, brewing it, and cleaning the machine each day. But we never seemed to establish any sort of rhythm, and after a few months we all gave up.
Meanwhile, a new coffee shop called Gregorys Coffee (no apostrophe) had opened up in the previously vacant storefront downstairs from my office building at 40th Street and 7th Ave. Disillusioned by the disintegration of coffee club, a few of my coworkers went down to check it out and came back with rave reviews. But I held my ground. Still uninterested in overpaying for coffee, I tried my hand at Lipton tea (there’s an unlimited supply in my office), attempting to convince myself that it was just as good.
Then one day a coworker came back upstairs after a trip to Gregorys and notified me that he had become a “Gregular.” Gregular status, earned simply by asking for a Gregorys Coffee membership card, means that for every $50 you spend, you will receive a free $5 to spend at Gregorys. Once you get your $5, you start over accumulating another $50. The prospect of spending a little over $2 per cup for coffee twice a day still made me hesitant to try the new place, but the idea of becoming a Gregular—and joining a 10% cash back program—was too good to pass up.
My first few trips to Gregorys were uneventful. The coffee was reasonably priced and tasty, pretty much what I had expected. But after a few more visits I started to notice that their commitment to customer service was, well…noticeable. A couple times I even spotted Gregory himself working the espresso machines, tidying up, and offering explanations on his various brews if a customer asked. (I recognized him from his likeness from my Gregular card, above.) To me it seemed that Gregorys should have been drowning in a neighborhood dominated by Starbucks and other better known, longer established coffee shops. Instead, it was full every morning and still busy by afternoon. On nice days the outdoor seating was occupied by office workers and tourists spilled over from Times Square.
I had to know more. I found their modest company website and sent an email to email@example.com, hoping to get in touch with someone—preferably Gregory—who might meet with me for an interview. A half hour later, I got a response from firstname.lastname@example.org, asking when I had some time to talk. Later, we sat down for coffee at the store below my office building. He poured me a cup of my usual “medium-medium” (medium sized medium roast, which he explained had more caffeine than the dark roast) on the house; he had an espresso.
Gregory, a.k.a. Greg Zamfotis, is 29. He went to Boston University for business with aspirations of being an investment banker, but changed his mind. He went on to Brooklyn Law School to be a bankruptcy lawyer, but changed his mind again. He didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day; he wanted something that he could put his name on. Greg’s dad spent his entire career in the food and beverage industry in Manhattan, mostly with delis, but it never interested Greg enough to go into the family business. It was only during a conversation with his father a few years ago—at a Starbucks of all places—that he decided to combine his foodie pedigree with his entrepreneurial spirit and open a coffee shop in New York City. His first location, at 24th and Park Ave, debuted in December 2006.
It’s obvious the guy is passionate about coffee—and equally passionate about running a successful business. He splits his time among all three of his locations, often working behind the counter in a fitted white shirt (rolled up sleeves) and a dark skinny tie. He designed the company website himself. He answers his own emails. He has plans to move into a midtown office space in the near future, and has a fourth store set to open in August 2011. And on top of that, he’s literally the face of the company.
When I hear Greg talk about the finer points of coffee, I can’t help but think of a wine connoisseur describing the subtle differences between two vintages of a cabernet, or what someone like Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales might tell me about his 60 Minute IPA versus the 90 Minute IPA.
Greg describes the coffee evolution in America as happening in three waves. The first wave, from coffee’s inception up until about 20 years ago, was when coffee was just Joe—it had caffeine, people drank it, and then went on with their lives. The second wave, in the 1990s, was Starbucks. More choices for serious coffee drinkers, from myriad roast profiles to a slew of espresso-based specialty drinks, and if you were willing to pay a little more, you could get a better cup of coffee than you could make at home or order at a deli. The third wave is where Gregorys comes into play. After our initial meeting, Greg articulated via email what exactly that third wave entailed:
“The third wave is basically taking the second wave to new heights. It is using single origin coffee and brewing them one cup at a time to highlight the specific flavors and aromas you might find. It is focusing on direct trade, buying straight from the farmers, establishing relationships with them. It is pouring latte art into espresso based beverages instead of just using an automatic machine like Starbucks. It is basically about picking and choosing specific qualities of specific beans and deciding which method of brewing will highlight that bean to its fullest.”
For Greg, it seems to be less about putting Starbucks out of business and more about putting something new out into the marketplace. “I wanted to bring the third wave to midtown,” he says. But if the majority of his customers are “first wave” coffee drinkers (like me) who order medium-mediums twice a day, doesn’t that run contrary to the whole third wave paradigm? He says no. He estimates 85 to 90% of his Gregulars order mostly just basic coffee. And if customers like those are trying to find the absolute cheapest coffee on the block, it won’t be his. (Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s are both within walking distance of his 40th and 7th location, not to mention a fleet of breakfast carts stationed at every corner.) So instead, he says, the plan is to compete by offering great customer service.
You might be thinking, Customer service? What a concept! It should come standard with every cup of coffee. But it doesn’t. The archetype of a modern coffee shop employee, as Greg describes him, is the guy wearing a wool cap in the middle of the summer, ignoring the customer so he can brag to the other employees about the latest indie flick he’s seen or the new obscure band he’s into. Of course that’s not always the attitude you’ll encounter, but Greg makes sure you don’t see it in his stores.
Even before I met with Greg, I could tell that the Gregorys staff had been trained to handle customers a certain way. On one visit, I reached the front of the line only to find the cashier fumbling with a stubborn roll of quarters. Her manager noticed the line starting to grow and in a polite but firm tone, she instructed the cashier: “Don’t worry about the quarters when there’s a line. Take care of the customer first.” Another time, I accidentally dropped my change into a dish of their complimentary mini biscotti. The cashier immediately snatched up the tainted plate and replaced it with clean cookies. On still another occasion when I was running late for work, I accidentally left a large personal check on the Gregorys counter and didn’t realize it until about an hour later. When I went back to see if anyone had found it, the check was waiting for me behind the counter along with a $10 bill I didn’t even notice I had left with the check.
The young staff is positive and enthusiastic and polite for now, but how, I asked Greg, does he keep them that way once that newness wears off? After all, even the most disgruntled employee in the world was probably happy at his job for at least the first month or two. At 29, Greg is around the same age as many of his employees. He appreciates that they have other interests outside of coffee and presumably that understanding has molded his managerial style. Though his is still a relatively small operation, he stresses the import of the distinct company culture at Gregorys. The staff regularly does book clubs and movie nights together. Once a year, Greg closes his stores and takes everyone to Medieval Times in New Jersey. And later this year, he’s headed to Brazil to visit some coffee farms and he has saved an open seat for one of his employees to join him, all expenses paid. To decide who gets to go with him, Greg is holding a contest. Employees can submit a piece of original art—a song, a personal essay, a photograph—with the best entry getting the ticket to Brazil.
After speaking to him, it’s hard not to like Greg; I’m rooting for him to succeed. But most of his customers will never have a conversation with him or follow him on Twitter or even notice him behind the counter. Still, it says a lot about Greg that he’s managed to overcome some long odds, against both his competitors and my cheapness. For the record, I still buy all my clothes at outlets. And I still hate leaving even a few minutes unused on a parking meter. But I’ll happily pay $4.46 a day ($2.23 in the morning, $2.23 in the afternoon) for my medium-mediums, and I’m proud to call myself a Gregular.
By Bobby Calise
The following story references a man named “Kingston.” The small business that Kingston runs is not exactly legal, so for the purposes of this post, please use your imagination as I’ve taken some liberties with the word “beverage.” Thanks.
I’ve written previously about my Tuesday softball team, but after our first game this past Tuesday night, I realized that I’ve neglected to mention our unofficial MVP: the beverage guy.
Our beverage supplier, known to us only as “Kingston,” has been working the softball fields at Central Park since I started playing on the team in 2005, and some of the older guys say he was there even before that. He’d walk around to all the fields selling water and Gatorade out of a cooler on hot summer days. Back then, though, we didn’t really need his services; the Petry offices were much closer to the fields than they are now, so we had the rookies lug a case of cold drinks along with the equipment bag. But when headquarters moved 25 blocks away from Central Park, we had to come up with a solution for our beverage needs. Enter Kingston.
Our team’s catcher, Charlie, recalls his first prolonged encounter with Kingston that led to the long-standing contract we have now: “One day in 2008 or 2009 … he comes around with his usual ‘I have water and Gatorade.’ I yell out ‘You got anything else?’ He pulls me to the side, gives me the inventory. A few weeks go by and one day he says ‘I could bring a cooler if you want.’ We go over to the end of the bleachers, hammer out the details, and voila, the partnership is born.”
I have a million questions for Kingston about his vocation as an unofficial Central Park vendor. Where does he get his supply of beverages? How many other clients does he have besides our team? How has he managed to operate under the radar for so long? But I assume that in his line of work, doesn’t do too many interviews with bloggers. Still, we’ve been using Kingston’s services for a couple of seasons now and it never once occurred to me that he’s a true entrepreneur and someone who, despite the mystery surrounding him—or maybe because of the mystery surrounding him—I’ve come to appreciate as a businessman. In fact, it was only after a recent bad experience with a major airline that I realized how bad customer service can be, and by contrast, how good Kingston’s is.
Last week I flew Continental Airlines to and from Puerto Rico. Due to a lack of diligence on my part when I booked the flight, my girlfriend and I had separate seats on the plane. After having no luck trading seats with other passengers on the way to Puerto Rico, I called the airlines before our return trip to Newark to see if they could help me straighten out our seating arrangements and get two together. I was assured that although the only open seats were designated as “Extra Legroom,” which cost $40 to upgrade to, we would be able to switch for free if I spoke to someone when we got to the boarding gate. But when we reached the gate, they explained that I had been misinformed, and that this was not Continental’s policy—if Extra Legroom seats go unsold, they remain empty for the flight—because it would be unfair to those who had paid the upgrade fee. I called Continental again from the airport and after 25 minutes on hold, they confirmed what I was told at the gate. My girlfriend and I sat 11 rows apart. (The worst part? The in-flight movie was Gulliver’s Travels. After seven excruciating minutes, I ripped my headphones out of the jack in frustration.) As a passenger, I know that the airline’s top priority is to get me to and from my destination safely. If the pilot can do that, I tend to forget that the flight attendants were snippy and the animal crackers were stale. But as a customer, I was underwhelmed yet again.
I think the Verizons and TimeWarners and Continentals of the world could stand to learn a few things from Kingston. He provides a high demand service at a reasonable price. If we have an issue, we can get a real person on the phone quickly (Kingston himself). This past week, a guy from Kingston’s “staff” came by to make sure we had everything we needed and even refreshed the ice in our cooler. And when he came back to collect the cooler at the end of the night, he asked us if we wanted to include anything else in next week’s order.
Most of my questions about Kingston and his business remain unanswered. I still have no idea where he came from (best guess so far: Jamaica), or where he goes when he disappears into the forest at night. I don’t know whether to believe the rumors that he works at a bazaar over the winter, or that he’s a former extra off the set of Oz. But what I do know is that like any good salesman, he persisted for a long time and eventually won our business. And from what I can tell, he’s determined to keep it.
By Bobby Calise
I wrote this post in April 2009 on my friend Ross’s New Yankee Stadium Insider blog, my first foray into the blogosphere. Enjoy!
In four years of journalism classes, I learned that one of the worst things you can do as a reporter is to decide what the story is about before you write it. Sure, you’re trying to make a deadline and odds are there won’t be too many twists and turns in a local PTA meeting or a high school baseball game. But sometimes the story writes itself. And the best thing you can do as a writer is just to stay out of its way.
As I write this, I’m looking at a Yankee ticket stub from April 11, 1996. During Easter break from school, my mom took my brother, my friend Beth, and me to see the Yankees. This was the day after Opening Day, when some guy named Andy Pettitte pitched through the snow on the way to a 7-3 victory. And as any New Yorker can tell you, the weather here is fickle: the day after the Yankees opened in the snow, it was so warm at Old Yankee Stadium that we watched the game in t-shirts.
Now I’m looking at a Yankee ticket stub from June 11, 2003. Relatives from Texas were in town for a few days over the summer and wanted to catch a Yankee game. On this particular night—and I know this because I wrote it on the back of the stub—the Houston Astros no-hit the Yankees with six pitchers, and I stuck around until the end to say that I saw such an unconventional no-hitter, even though it was against my own team.
Another ’96 stub, this one from October 20: Game 1 of the World Series. After miraculously scoring a $95 Row Y ticket, I couldn’t have been more excited. The game was scheduled for Saturday night but was moved to Sunday night after a rainout. To dry off the field, they flew in helicopters to hover above the Stadium to dry off the grass. After letting my excitement marinate for another 24 hours, I showed up just in time to watch the Atlanta Braves and 19-year-old-rookie Andruw Jones break my heart by taking the first game 12-1, behind two HRs by Jones and a foul pole dinger from Fred McGriff. I can tell you first-hand how much it sucked to be there that night, but as most Yankee fans will remember, it turned out pretty OK for us after that.
Digging through my old tickets was a fun exercise, but it wasn’t what I thought I’d be writing about when I started this post. I had planned to go on a Lewis Black-like rant about how, thanks to StubHub, I’ll no longer have the stiff, glossy tickets with the Modell’s 15% off coupon on the back when I go to Yankee games; I’ll only have a paper print-out with a barcode at the top and the StubHub URL at the bottom. But when I started to look through my box of old ticket stubs, I realized that it doesn’t really matter that what material the ticket is printed on. What matters is what you think of when you look at that ticket.
For example, I have ticket stubs from…
The Departed, 2006 – I was supposed to wait to see it with my girlfriend. I didn’t. We broke up shortly after.
No Doubt, 2000 – Lit opened for No Doubt at Jones Beach; a pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas opened for Lit. Not. Too. Good.
The Sixth Sense, 1999 – Turns out Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. Crazy!
Fenway Park, 1995 – My mom took us when we were kids. This past Thanksgiving she showed me a picture from that vacation. In the picture, I was wearing a Red Sox souvenir t-shirt. I threw up a little in my mouth.
You get the point. Whether it’s the shiny ticket or the crappy paper print-out, save your ticket stubs from concerts, movies, ballgames, plays, museums, whatever. Save plastic hotel keys from family vacations. Save matchbooks from skeevy dive bars. Keep them tucked away in a box like a time capsule, and look through them from time to time. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to be happy you did.
By Bobby Calise
About six years ago, a young and ambitious salesman at Petry Media Corp was preparing for a job interview with CBS, which at the time would have been a big step in his nascent sales career. To help himself stand out among the other candidates, he asked his colleague and veteran salesman Marty Rosenberg to put in a good word with the hiring manager at CBS, whom Marty knew personally. Marty had played with the hiring manager 12 years earlier on the Petry Pilots company softball team and was happy to help. But instead of just a “good word,” Marty dug through 30 years of old softball scorebooks and tracked down the box score from the CBS hiring manager’s best game as a Pilot, made a copy of the page, and gave it to the young salesman. An unorthodox but clever tactic, the young salesman paper clipped the box score to his resume and brought it on his interview. He got the job.
I met Marty in 2005 when I was hired by Petry, my first real job out of college. With a meager starting salary and a two-hour commute each way, the position really only came with one perk: the company softball team. I had a brief tryout, after which Marty put me in the starting line-up and I never relinquished my spot, mostly for fear of being “Pipp’d.” (When someone misses a game, Marty admonishes us repeatedly with the tale of Wally Pipp, the Yankee first baseman who sat out a game in 1925 and was replaced by the “Iron Man,” Lou Gehrig, who went on to play 2,130 consecutive games as Pipp’s replacement.)
The Petry Pilots 2011 softball season begins on May 3. It’ll be my seventh season, and my fifth since leaving the company in 2006. About half the guys on the team no longer work for Petry, which has seen several rounds of layoffs over the last few years. But we continue to show up to play for Pilots every Tuesday at 6 pm. We drink cheap beer, tell and retell stories from back in the day, and occasionally make a game winning (or losing) play. Our team is unique in that there’s no actual league, no season standings, and no first place trophy to hoist above our heads. Marty simply sends our permit application off to the parks department every January requesting 16 spring and summer dates at Heckscher field 6 in lower Central Park, and we figure out our opponents later.
The roster looks a little different than it used to. Last summer, our star shortstop Joe got a job on Long Island and had to stop playing with us midway through the season. I campaigned for a chance to fill in and Marty, preferring that I stayed in the outfield, begrudgingly agreed. I had a banner day at the plate, cracking four homers and driving in 11 runs—but I also made six errors at short and cost the team several unearned runs and a lot of patience. I knew Marty wanted to scream at me and yank me off the field around error #4, but he didn’t. He felt that we’d have a better chance of winning if he just left me alone to mishandle every routine ground ball and sidearm all my throws up the first base line, as long as I continued to hit well. We won the game handily, 20-13, and in his recap email the next day (he always sends one) he praised our team’s effort, not even mentioning my nightmarish play in the field. But even in victory I felt like I had let the team down. I responded to his email: “How magnanimous of you to leave out my defensive struggles!” He replied: “Truly one of the greatest offensive performances I’ve ever seen. Your offensive surge far overshadowed your play at short.”
This season will be Marty’s 34th as a Pilot. He’ll turn 67 years old in July but still pitches every other game for us in addition to managing the team. He still fields his position like a Gold Glover, still changes speeds and mixes in a knuckleball, and still gets pissed off when he gives up a big hit.
Our schedule has softened a bit over the years. Some of our formerly bitter rivals have evolved into just-for-fun coed squads that were built more for an extremely casual ZogSports league than to play against a taking-it-way-too-seriously team like ours. (In my seven seasons we’ve only had one female player.) A couple of times a season we’ll face a team full of veteran ballplayers who want to snatch the off-season bragging rights away from Marty. If we jump out to an early lead, Marty tells us we still need more runs; if we fall behind, he questions our effort. In my first season I was 24 and out to prove myself to my new teammates and to Marty. Back then if Marty yelled at me about a mental error I had made, I’d defensively yell back. Now, he yells a little less and I make a better effort not to get so riled up.
I know, I know, it’s only softball. Every year I tell myself I won’t take it as seriously as I used to. There’s no need to leg out a double in the first inning, or to try to nail a runner at the plate when we’re already up 15 runs. But once I step onto the field for the first time each spring, I can’t help myself. I don’t want to let my teammates down. I don’t want to let Marty down. And most importantly, I don’t want to ever get Pipp’d.
By Bobby Calise
The Office’s Dwight Schrute once pontificated: “Why tip someone for a job I’m capable of doing myself? I can deliver food. I can drive a taxi. I can—and do—cut my own hair. I did however, tip my urologist, because I am unable to pulverize my own kidney stones.”
Like Dwight, I’ve always found the rules on tipping to be rather arbitrary. Why is it sacrosanct that we tip a waitress 15 to 20% for average service, but many of us are much stingier when a cab driver adequately gets us to our destination on time and unharmed? Why do many people leave their barber a generous tip for a job well done, but never more than pocket change and lint to our Subway sandwich maker?
Using myself as a case study of a frequent bar hopper, my standard rule is to tip $1 per beer. Whether I’m drinking $10 Stellas on the roof at 230 Fifth or chugging $1 Natty Light out of red Solo cups at a college bar, the bartender is still getting a dollar a drink. Think about that: my dollar is a 10% tip at one place and a 100% tip at another. The act of pouring beer is exactly the same in both places, so the tip should be the same, right? Well, the evil eye I’d probably get from the rooftop bartender would suggest otherwise.
I know a guy who runs a part-time dog grooming business. He charges a flat rate for house calls and often clients tip him on top of that, sometimes as much as 50%. The tips tend to be better when the dog needs more grooming…or when it tries to bite him. Let me repeat that: he stands to make the most money if a dog mistakes his hand for a chew toy.
Assuming you’ve worked out your own system for tipping the various service professionals here in America, traveling abroad comes with its own set of tipping etiquette quagmires. I recommend giving yourself a head start and reading a travel guide for that country in advance. When I studied abroad in England, I had previously read that the English don’t tip bartenders. Still, I usually tried to leave an extra “quid” on the bar when I had it. As a result the bartenders always seemed to find my face in the crowd of people waiting for a fresh pint. On another occasion during a weekend trip to Dublin, our group found a busy cafe to grab a cheap breakfast. Not realizing that our waitress was not working on tips, someone asked, “Can I have a free refill on my coffee?” The waitress replied, “Free refills? What do you think this is, America?”
My oddest tipping experience came during a two-week stay in China last May. My girlfriend and I had read in several books that tipping doesn’t exist in mainland China. We adhered to that policy pretty strictly, though we were willing to bend the rules for masseuses who could sooth our barking dogs—the kind that don’t bite—after long days of sight seeing on foot. But when you’re staying in a touristy area, such as The Forbidden City district in Beijing, the service workers know that they can probably convince you to tip them if you’re from a country that regularly pays a gratuity. One particularly aggressive taxi driver—whose taxi, for the record, was a two-seat cart pulled by an electric motorbike—unabashedly cajoled us for a little extra on top of his fare. Using perhaps the only English he spoke, he said, ”tippa tippa tippa.” (Imagine how you’d say ”tickle tickle tickle” to a baby.) Confused, I gave him a 10% tip, one yuan, or the equivalent of about 7 U.S. cents. He looked at me, laughed, and said again, “tippa tippa tippa.” I handed him one more yuan. He laughed again, shook his head, and zoomed away. It seems that when it comes to tipping, China is the worst of both worlds. The service professionals don’t work on gratuity so they’re not inclined to provide better service, but they still ask for a tip. Next time, I’ll keep my 14 cents.
At this writing I’m no closer to answering the questions I asked above. In the end, I guess, a waitress may not be able to control the frugality of her customers, but at least the food service industry has some degree of self-policing built into it. The concept of serving defiled food has been well-documented in cinema (see: Fight Club, Road Trip, or Waiting), so much so that it’s even created an irrational fear for some of us. I once was out to dinner at Applebee’s with a college friend and her younger brother who was visiting from home. The meal was good and the service was fine. When we got the check, there was some discrepancy and we asked the waiter to please take a second look. When he left the table to review it, my friend’s younger brother said, “Oh great. Now he’s gonna spit in the bill.”
By Bobby Calise
Beggars, apparently, can be choosers.
That’s the lesson I learned this past Saturday on the 4 train headed towards Brooklyn. When I boarded the packed subway car, a homeless man was working the crowd of passengers, asking for monetary donations to help propel himself away from his current circumstances and toward greener pastures. By the time I had gotten on, he had come to the end of his spiel and was in the process of collecting donations. He seemed to linger a little too long for one passenger, though, a young blonde woman who had given him 50 cents a few seconds earlier. She muttered something to the effect of, “OK enough already,” apparently hoping the homeless man would take the hint and move on.
The homeless man instead took exception to the woman’s comment and launched into a ten-minute diatribe, first towards the young blonde woman and then towards society in general (to his credit, he kept his language clean). He talked about his status as a veteran of three different wars and his efforts to defend the freedoms that people, like the young blonde woman, took for granted. At one point another rider even chimed in to support him: “Some people don’t know what it’s like to be homeless!”
By this time I had begun to tune him out and keep my head down for fear of being engaged in the debate. But then the homeless man did something that got my attention, something I had never seen before: he turned to the young blonde woman, reached over to her, and gave the 50 cents back to her. Huh?!?! This particular homeless man was poor enough to ride the subway asking passengers for donations, but not so poor that he’d accept money from a patron whose attitude he didn’t like. I was stunned.
Continuing his monologue as my fellow passengers and I counted the stops until we could escape the awkwardness, the homeless man (who is black) told a story of his encounter with another man who also works the trains (who is white). The other man claimed to have made $88 on a one-way trip on the Lexington Line, just by telling his own story and collecting donations. So the homeless man, making use of the other man’s tip, did the same in the hopes of a similar fortune. He rode the Lex Line one way, telling his story and collecting donations. According to his tally, he earned just $6. He not so subtly attributed these figures to an element of racial bias among the subway riders of New York City. And with that, I reached my destination and got off the train.
Homelessness in New York City, or anywhere for that matter, isn’t funny. It’s heart-breaking. But to me the saddest part of this particular man’s story wasn’t that he was a victim of racism or rudeness or any number of bad breaks that led to poverty. It was that he was a bad businessman and didn’t realize it. He turned a customer (the blonde woman) into his biggest detractor and actually lost money on the transaction. And through his argument with her, he poisoned the pool of other potential customers (a subway car full of passengers who just wanted him to go away). Finally, he managed to waste his own valuable time deriding an individual dissatisfied customer rather embracing a “The Customer is Always Right” attitude, ignoring her rude comment, and moving on to the next car to work his way towards his $88 goal.
I can’t possibly fathom what it’s like to be in the homeless man’s position, and for that I feel very blessed. If his rant was simply a momentary setback on an otherwise successful attempt at reaching his goal of getting off the streets then I applaud him for his hustle. But what I do know is that Chase won’t turn away a customer’s money even if that customer is rude to one of its tellers. Starbucks will still make your caramel macchiato for you, even if you’re a jerk. And JetBlue doesn’t ask you a series of questions about how nice you are as a person before they let you buy a ticket. The customer is always right, and $88 is always more than $6.
By Bobby Calise
At the end of senior year, my high school held an awards ceremony to recognize its students for various school-related accomplishments. And when I say “awards ceremony,” I mean something less like the glitzy red carpet Oscar night and more like the ones they give out the week before for the technical stuff that no one cares about. I was slated to receive an award for perfect attendance—not just for high school, but from grades 1 to 12. That’s right: for 2,160 straight school days, I raised my hand and said “Here!”
No one really cared much about my streak aside from my family. In fact, most of my fellow students were appalled when I told them I’d been to school so often. (Much like you’re probably thinking right now.) But nevertheless I was finally getting some credit. When they called me up to the stage, I couldn’t help but be a little proud of myself. I went up and collected my cheap fake wood plaque and studied it carefully. After all, it would be hanging from the wall of my corner office someday, right? And there it was, in writing: “Perfect Attendance Award, Robert Calise.”
As most of my friends know, my legal name is Bobby, not Robert. I am regularly mistaken for a Robert and I’ve accepted it. It happens, the same way Ryans are often called Brian, and Saras with no “H” hate when people add one. (Note: I have very much NOT come to terms with someone spelling it “Bobbi.”) The Robert thing was an honest mistake, but not a mistake I wanted to see on what was then a lifetime achievement award. It was then that I started to realize that no one was taking my perfect attendance as seriously as I was…and I couldn’t remember why I was.
Ultimately my perfect attendance started out of necessity. For my mom, as for many parents of New York City school children, the school system is a free babysitting service. This is why it’s news when the City schools close for snow days. If my brother or I stayed home, that meant she stayed home. And that meant using up a precious sick day. Sick days mean nothing children, of course. As a kid I had no concept of time off because I had so much of it myself. It was only when I started working that I realized that not everyone gets 200 days a year off, including the entire summer. (My mom would eventually become a teacher, so she actually would have off when we had off.)
Anyone who works in an office setting can tell you that most sick day policies are flawed at best. At my job, I get five sick days that I can use any time from January to December; if I don’t use all five of them, I lose the remainder and start back at five in January. This incentivizes me to miss work five times during the course of the year. Some companies pay their employees for unused sick days. This incentivizes people to come in when they are sick, because calling out means literally giving up free money. I’ve heard of companies that don’t count sick days at all—you simply take what you need and show up when you’re feeling better. Regardless of the system, every employee’s goal is to make the most out of his sick days, sick or not.
So how many sick days did I take last year? None.
One reason for my reluctance is that I’ve been conditioned to think that all sick days are fake. And so when I finally do take one, I feel like the other people in my office are assuming that I’m running all over town chiding a snooty maitre d’ for his rudeness, or joyriding in a borrowed sports car that is so choice. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve failed to recognize that a mental health day is as important if not more important as a physical one. At one point, I actually thought I’d be recognized for this mini-version of my original attendance accomplishment. Robert, I’ve noticed that you haven’t taken one sick day all year. Great job, keep it up!
In the end, sick days will always be about my own discretion and what I’m comfortable with, and I’d suggest everyone makes good use of theirs the way I plan to with my own. These days, the only fear I have when it comes to sick days is that if I take one, I may never go back.
By Bobby Calise
Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day takes place on the first Saturday in March. Hoboken throws its party in early March rather than losing its would-be green-beer swilling customers to its rival Manhattan bars on the observed holiday, March 17.
From the ages of 24 to 26, Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day was my Christmas Morning. I had moved away from home and was living with a roommate in a crappy basement apartment just two blocks away from Hoboken’s main strip of stores, bars and restaurants, Washington Street. The apartment itself was best known for its stale Doritos smell, flooding up to thigh level, and a series of uninvited rodent pals who spent a lot of time hanging out in our cabinets but never chipped in for groceries. But we tolerated the situation for longer than we should have because we knew that a crappy apartment is at least good for one thing: throwing a kickass party and not worrying about making a mess.
Preparation the night before was minimal but crucial. A keg of the cheapest light beer we could find. Check. A few sleeves of red Solo cups and a couple of bags of Tostitos. Check. Unhinging the closet door and propping it up onto an ironing board to build a makeshift beer pong table. Check.
And the parties were always a great time. Once, the cops stopped by to explain that technically, playing beer pong in our driveway was considered having an open container on the street, which is illegal in Hoboken. Another year a girl slipped and fell on the ice in our backyard. And there was one party where seemingly every other guest said they’d been invited by someone named Evan. (For the record, we narrowly avoided a ticket, the girl who fell was fine, just embarrassed, and I never did meet Evan.)
I still come in for Hoboken St. Patty’s Day every year even though I’ve moved into the city. Of course, the day doesn’t stir up the same ebullience in me that it once did. At 29, that Christmas Morning feeling comes at different times now. Now it’s when I’m on the verge of beating a particularly challenging level of Angry Birds…or when I’m about to put on a comfy new pair of fleece pants. Still, I remind myself that Hoboken St. Patty’s Day used to be my favorite day of the year, and that I will have a great time.
After trudging through the crowds of drinkers in various degrees of drunkenness—from buzzed to hammered to vomiting in bushes—I make my way to my intended party. I walk in and find my former roommate and co-host Mike sitting on the couch hunched over a coffee table about to claim his second straight presidency in a big game of Asshole. I tell him about all the drunken foolishness I’ve encountered on my walk over and ask him, “Hey man, do you think we were that loud and drunk and obnoxious back when we were having our parties?” Without hesitation, he looks at me with a straight face and says, “Oh, absolutely.” We can’t help but laugh.
For a moment I lament the days of loud and drunk and obnoxious on St. Patty’s Day, but then I realize: I’ll get another chance in about a week and a half.
By Bobby Calise
Around this time last year, I spent a Saturday afternoon walking through Chinatown with my mom. She was preparing to throw a Chinese New Year-themed party and needed all the accoutrements to decorate her place; items like chopsticks, wooden fans, an Oriental tea set. Anyone who’s been to New York City’s Chinatown knows that most every item’s price is negotiable, and that the vendors are pretty crafty negotiators themselves.
So there we were, nearly finished shopping, carrying our purchases around in little red plastic bags, looking to get in and out before the claustrophobia started to set in. The only remaining item on the list was one of those Chinese umbrellas, and my mom was looking to get a good price. The saleswoman opened the negotiations at $7; my mom expertly low-balled her at $5; they settled on a very reasonable $6. Score! Now my mother is not a wealthy woman, but certainly she could have afforded to pay full price on the umbrella. But that wasn’t the point. She just wanted to feel like she wasn’t being ripped off. She wanted to feel like she won.
It was also around this time last year that I got my first tattoo. My first instinct was simply to use the cheapest shop I could find. But on my girlfriend’s advice, I researched and found a clean and reputable establishment. My artist, Simone, explained that my particular tattoo would take less than two hours to complete the shop’s rate was $180 per hour (I would get a 10% discount, of course, if I could pay cash).
While I was at the shop for my initial consultation appointment, I overheard another customer haggling with Simone over price. He showed Simone the design he wanted and was quoted at $360 for two hours of work, the same amount of time and money as my own design. This other customer said, “Come on man, this is an easy one.” Simone ponder for a moment, after which he agreed to a reduced rate of $250. My first thought was, What? You’re allowed to negotiate the price of a tattoo? You’re arguing price with a guy who is sticking you with needles thousands of times and permanently marking up your skin? But this dude seemed to know what he was doing. He was a born haggler.
After I overheard that conversation with the other customer, I told my girlfriend that I thought I could maybe do better than $360 for my own tattoo. Having a couple of tattoos herself, my girlfriend (again the voice of reason) advised against it. And eventually I understood where she was coming from. There are certain service professionals that people don’t always feel comfortable haggling with. Some people are afraid to ask a waiter for fries instead of mashed potatoes for fear of having their food spit in. Others hate negotiating price with an auto mechanic because they’re worried their car will end up with a more expensive problem than the one they came in with.
In the end, everyone has their own haggling comfort level. But if I’ve learned anything from my own failed haggling experiences, it’s this: it never hurts to ask, and a simple “Come on, man” can go a lot further than you’d think.