The $20 Theory of the Universe

How much will a $20 dollar tip given to the right person in NYC get you? That’s what this author attempted to find out:

A twenty should not be a ticket so much as a solution. You have a problem, you need something from the back room, you don’t want to wait, you whip out the twenty.

I could have stood in line at the airport cabstand for fifteen minutes like every other mook in the world, freezing my balls off, but such is not the way of the twenty-dollar millionaire. I walked straight to the front of the line and offered a woman twenty bucks for her spot. She took it with a shrug. Behind her, people crackled. “Hey! Ho!” they shouted. I knew exactly what that meant. It wasn’t good. I needed to get in a cab soon. One of the guys flagging cabs pointed me to the back of the line. That’s when I grabbed him by the elbow, pulled him close, and shook his hand, passing the next twenty. I was now down forty dollars for a twenty-dollar cab ride. He tilted his head and nodded to his partner. I peeled another twenty and they let me climb in. As we pulled away, someone in the line threw a half-empty cup of coffee against my window.

That whole event had been too public, too visible. Another lesson learned: The bigger the favor–which is to say, the more visible the favor–the more discreet the pass should be. A security guy elbows his way through the crowd to get you up against the stage at a concert and you slip him the twenty quietly, at belt level. Conversely, the smaller the favor, the bigger the flourish. The bellman brings you a bottle of seltzer on a rainy afternoon, you pass that twenty as if the world were watching.

A few months later he tried the same $20 trick in other cities.

(via Kottke)


  1. The magic $20…

    It works in other cities, too. Six years ago, my son picked up a stomach virus from the ER where he was being seen for a shattered arm.

    He was sick. Sick all over the cast and the house. Fell asleep in a nearly new recliner…
    and was sick at both ends before another trip to the hospital.

    Oh God. That chair. It was beyond salvage. Saturated. The foulest of foul objects.

    It was garbage day. I waved to the man in the truck, asking him if he’d take a nasty chair from the house.

    “Lady, we ain’t allowed in people’s houses.”

    My son was sick, it was snowing, my husband was in Iraq and my living room was fragrant with the saturated recliner.

    I waved a twenty. He took the chair.

    Best damn $20 I ever spent.

    Maybe that will be the old-lady advice I’ll prattle on about from my rocking chair. “Always carry a twenty dollar bill with you, sonny…”

  2. “For a moment I felt that victorious swell that comes with deciphering the code, undoing the latch. This is the moment I like best, in which I am the beautiful mind, me with my twenty, unlocking the mystery, reaching out to a willing hand.”
    That was sublime, and hilarious.

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