Finding the Gift That Keeps on Giving

With an early case of holiday fever, I found myself wondering if there is no art to gift giving or receiving. Or perhaps it is such a complex psychological and diplomatic matter that, as with much of life, the most effective strategy is to push ahead with eyes closed, repressing and denying at every turn.

For example, last Christmas I decided to give a gift to the man who deals with the towels and the soap in the men’s locker room at my “health club”–the Vanderbilt Y.M.C.A. Here is a man who with good humor steadily does a not-unpleasant but little-regarded and useful task. If he were working at a fancier health club–if he were physically handing towels to members and providing them with shaving and hair cream–he could and would expect at Christmas to receive at least $20 from each of the regulars.

During my two previous holiday seasons at the Y, I had neither observed nor heard of anyone giving anything to “Lenny.” And yet, a year ago November, when I was thinking who I was going to give holiday gifts or send cards or thank-you letters to, I thought of Lenny, and felt I should give him a gift. In general, he deserved it, and, in specific, one day that year I had forgotten my swimsuit and he had found me a suitable pair of shorts among his collection of abandoned items, saving me the $25 I would have paid to buy an ill-fitting new suit at the gift shop upstairs.

I felt proud of myself, thinking how I was going to give Lenny this gift. I thought how, out of the hundreds of men who benefited from Lenny’s efforts, I was going to be one of the few–if not the only one–to thank him this way. Lurking in my subconscious was the additional thought that I would in some small way be helping the handicapped, since Lenny’s legs are not quite the same length and thus he hobbles a bit when he walks. “Proud to be a humble Quaker,” the Quakers say self-critically, and this well captures the touch of elation I felt as I anticipated carrying out what I told myself was simply what any gentleman should and would do during the holiday season.

St. Vincent de Paul once said something to the effect that we should thank the poor for allowing us to help them, and this applies here too. I can now see, as I did not at the time, that no matter what gift I ended up giving Lenny, I owed him a great deal more for receiving it than he owed me for thanking him for “taking such good care of all of us” (as I wrote on the card).

As is my wont, I thought carefully about what I was going to give. Money seemed inappropriate since apparently there was no tradition of Christmas-bonus giving. (A more extroverted person would have sought the advice of a few of the regulars, but at the time this did not even occur to me. I have since asked and been confirmed in my hunch that they don’t give anything, nor do they think any gift is necessary.)

Meanwhile, I had already decided to give Lenny a bottle of wine, buying an inexpensive one, again because I thought it would be unsettling to greatly exceed the norm or to pretend that this man’s work was more valuable to me than he knew it was.

I was aware that–the perfection of a gift notwithstanding–the giving inevitably inspires awkward feelings in the gift-giver, feelings such as, was my gift truly appreciated? Was it indeed the right gift? Since we are taught that such feelings are dishonorable, we try to deny or suppress them. And yet we always expect more than thanks, a sign of recognition, a sense in the days following that the other person is a little more aware of our existence and is a little happier to see us.

I decided to wait until just before Christmas to give Lenny his bottle of wine, because I was leaving Christmas morning for a lengthy vacation. I assumed it would be sufficiently long to allow my anxieties about my gift choice and my desires for recognition to seep away. However, the last few days before Christmas, Lenny didn’t come to work; he had taken a few days off himself. I was a bit annoyed with myself–my silly waiting meant my present would be too late.

In mid-January, the first afternoon I returned to the Y, “Joy,” the woman who checks members’ passes, buzzed me through, and there was Lenny, chatting with Joy while he stacked fresh towels on the counter just inside the door. “Where were you?” I said. “I’ve got something for you, a Christmas present.” I urged him to wait there while I went to my locker to get the gift.

When I handed him the package, his face lit up, he thanked me warmly, he seemed truly touched that someone had thought to give him something, and not just cash but an actual present, gift-wrapped. Not wishing to force him to say more than was appropriate–and eager to avoid any complications that might be caused by his opening my gift in front of me–I quickly withdrew, going to relax in the sauna, as I like to do before swimming.

As I was lying on one of the benches, I suddenly realized with distress–Joy also provided a service. Joy was also consistently good humored and little regarded. If I hadn’t thought to buy her a gift, at the very least I might have curbed my impatience to give Lenny my carefully chosen cheap bottle of wine. I should have waited until he was back in the locker room, where my lack of consideration for Joy would have been hidden.

In the ensuing weeks, the few times Lenny and I crossed paths, I tried to act as if nothing had changed between us, as if the gift had never been given, and I noticed (though I assume this was largely my projection) that he seemed no longer to even know who I was. Since he said nothing about the gift, it occurred to me that perhaps he didn’t like it, he doesn’t drink, he sensed the price of the bottle and felt I was buying his assistance and gratitude rather cheap.

In the interest of exploring the subject of gift-giving and receiving, I have gone into such detail that someone may conclude that I am some kind of maniac and that I obsessed for weeks about this particular exchange. I did not. Most of the thoughts and feelings above swirled but briefly through my subconscious. However, this is not to claim that a person is unaffected by his subconscious or that those around him are not as well. And thus we might well conclude that this lone bottle of wine I had handed to Lenny was much too weighty and heavily spiced.

He would have been well advised to thank me politely and hand back the package, saying that he made it a policy not to accept gifts. Among other reasons, he should have done this because he had not been hired to carry my psychic baggage (nor was he being paid anywhere near enough for such work). But the gift caught Lenny off guard, and he’s not an on-guard type of person. And I have no reason to believe that this bottle of Beaujolais was much different from millions of similar gifts that–perhaps with less self-consciousness but with no less vanity or expectations–are exchanged every holiday season.