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An Elderly Woman Refused To Tip Her Waiter, But Left Him Something Else Instead

By: Calla Conway | Last updated: Apr 29, 2022

Being a waiter is no easy job. Not only are waiters expected to be on their feet for hours on end, but they also have to deal with rude or demanding customers regularly. They’re also underpaid – in many cases, waiters make more money from tips than they do from what their employers pay them per hour.

This was certainly the case for Armando Markaj, a 27-year-old waiter and medical student from New York City. When he unintentionally offended two customers one day, he received no tip. Instead, what he got was a passive-aggressive note and a strange white envelope, both of which would forever change his life.

Where It All Begins

This story begins at Patsy’s Pizzeria in New York City. Founded in 1933 by Pasquale “Patsy” Lanceri, this restaurant began as a modest shop in East Harlem before eventually growing to become one of the city’s most iconic pizzerias.

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27-year-old Armando Markaj had been working at Patsy’s for nearly a decade. Armando, who was working his way through medical school, took great pride in his work ethic. However, this would be put to the test by one incident in May of 2019.

Two Customers On a Busy Saturday

May 4th, 2019 was a Saturday, which is typically the busiest day of the week for pizzerias. Armando, like his co-workers, had been busy attending to customers when two women – a mother and daughter – walked in. Armando greeted the women, led them to their table, and gave them menus.

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It didn’t take long for the women to notice what was on the restaurant’s walls. The walls were lined with portraits of famous figures – past and present – who had visited the restaurant. While it’s not unusual for customers to ask questions about the portraits, what one of the women asked Armando took him by surprise.

A Strange Question

After taking the women’s orders, Armando and the women talked for a bit. Eventually, the mother asked Armando a strange question: why weren’t there more portraits of women on the walls?

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Armando was stunned by this question. Some of these portraits had been on the walls for nearly a century, and it wasn’t like he had hung the portraits on the walls himself. He responded by saying that there were portraits of women on the walls, just not where they were seated.

A Bad Joke

The two women didn’t seem satisfied with Armando’s reply. The mother scanned through the portraits again, looked at Armando, and told him that there were “not as much as there should be.” Again, Armando was at a loss for words.

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Feeling a bit agitated, Armando decided to lighten the mood by cracking a joke. He told the women that summer was coming, and perhaps women didn’t like eating pizza as much. Almost immediately, Armando realized that he had made a huge mistake.

Taking Offense

The two women didn’t seem pleased with Armando’s joke. Right after saying it, Armando knew that he was going to have a difficult time dealing with them. However, he didn’t think much of it. The restaurant was quite busy that day, and he had many other customers to attend to.

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After receiving their orders, the two women immediately asked for the bill. Armando had worked as a waiter at Patsy’s for over nine years, and by that point, he already knew how to deal with all kinds of customers. However, nothing could prepare him for what was about to happen next.

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A Humiliating Note

When Armando returned to their table, the two women were gone. Before clearing the table, Armando looked at the check and realized that they didn’t leave a tip. Instead, they left him a note that was written on a small piece of paper.

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In the note, one of the women made a snarky remark that women do eat pizza, before telling Armando, “By the way, have you heard that women don’t leave tips?” Armando felt awful, as a large part of his income came from tips. However, Armando put his feelings aside and proceeded to clear the table.

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The Women Left Something Else Behind

While Armando was clearing the table, something else caught his attention: a white envelope. He figured that it must have belonged to the two women. He was about to throw it away when he decided to take a look at it to see what was inside.

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When he opened the envelope, the first thing he saw was a “Citibank” logo. He quickly realized that the envelope contained a check. The women must have accidentally left it behind when they left the pizzeria in a hurry.

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Armando’s Dilemma

Despite how busy the pizzeria was that day, Armando paused for a moment and thought about what had just happened. He wondered how those women could carry this check around and not even spare a tip for their waiter.

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Armando was now faced with a dilemma: should he return the check to the ungrateful customers, or should he just keep it for himself as an overdue tip? Many people probably would have kept the money without hesitation. However, Armando wasn’t selfish.

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Returning the Check

Considering how rude the women were towards him, Armando could have kept the check for himself. However, he chose not to. He quickly ran out of the restaurant to look for the two women and return the check.

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By the time Armando made it onto the street, the two women were nowhere to be found. He did not know their names and had no way to get in touch with them. As he had few other options, he made his way back to the pizzeria. 

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The Check’s Amount

While this may be seen as an invasion of privacy, Armando decided to open the envelope and take a look at the check. Checks usually include the owner’s name, and this could potentially help him in his quest to return the check to its rightful owner.

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When Armando looked at the check, he was completely taken aback. The check’s amount was a whopping $424,000! He couldn’t believe it – what person would walk into a restaurant with this much money?

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What To Do?

Armando immediately went over to his boss, Patsy’s owner Frank Brija, and told him about the check. Upon seeing it, his first reaction was, “Oh my.” The two men spent the next several minutes debating about what they should do next.

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Armando later shared in an interview that Patsy’s employees would usually just put stuff left behind in the lost-and-found box. However, Armando wasn’t going to do that with nearly half a million dollars. While he still didn’t know what to do with the check, one thing’s for sure: he wasn’t keeping it.

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Was The Check’s Owner A Billionaire?

The name written on the check was “Karen Vinacour.” Armando and Frank agreed that the best thing to do would be to look this person up online. Both men were under the impression that she was a billionaire – after all, who else would be walking around with a $424,000 check?

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Frank enlisted the help of his 30-year-old son, Adem, to Google some information about Karen Vinacour. If Karen was a billionaire, then it shouldn’t be that difficult to find some information online.

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Googling Didn't Pay Off

Unfortunately, looking Karen Vinacour up online turned out to be a lot harder than they thought it would be. Nothing useful came up when they Googled the name. They found many Karen Vinacours online, but none of them looked like the women who entered the restaurant that day.

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Armando and Frank had also hoped that the women would return to the restaurant. Frank later said in an interview that he thought that it wouldn’t be long before they returned, as even billionaires would notice that they were missing $424,000.

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Karen Vinacour Was Not a Billionaire

As it turns out, Karen Vinacour was not a billionaire. In reality, the 79-year-old woman was a retired social worker who devoted much of her time in the last several years volunteering at various charities, particularly those that support underprivileged women and children. 

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Before going to Patsy’s, Karen had spent the day looking for a new place to live. She had just sold her old house and was planning to use the $424,000 check for the downpayment of her new home and other expenses.

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Karen Would Be Homeless Without The Check

Aside from her retirement funds, Karen only had that $424,000 check. It was all the money she had left. Since she had just sold her house, she needed that check to pay for a new home.

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Without that check, Karen would become homeless. She had been living with her daughter and other relatives at the time. However, she couldn’t stay with them very long. She was under a lot of stress, which could explain her behavior at Patsy’s that day.

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It Was A Stressful Day

While Karen’s behavior may seem irrational to some people, from her point of view, her not-so-pleasant experience at Patsy’s was the final straw. Karen had spent the last several days couch-surfing with family and friends while looking for a new home, and she was exhausted.

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Despite having a spotless credit history, Karen could not secure a loan. As she had spent the last several decades paying her daughter’s student loans, the bank refused to lend her enough money so she could afford a new home. Karen later admitted that it was “a very stressful day” for her.

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An Unfortunate Decision

Karen and her daughter had spent the entire day looking at houses, budgeting, and speaking with her real estate broker. By the time they arrived at Patsy’s, they were exhausted. Thus, when their waiter answered their question about the portraits in a joking manner, they were offended.

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Karen later explained that her daughter was “kind of feisty,” and she didn’t appreciate the way Armando answered their question. Hence, they both agreed not to tip him. Little did they know that their decision would come back to haunt them later on.

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Why Not Simply Cancel The Check?

Karen did not realize that the check had been missing until the following day. She only noticed that it was gone when she checked her purse’s inner compartment. Even then, Karen remained calm. She simply closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and thought of a solution.

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Karen figured that all she needed to do was to go to the bank and ask them to cancel the check. Early the next day, she headed over to the Citibank branch at Union Square. Unfortunately, the bank’s employees had some bad news for her.

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The Bad News

The Citibank employee who Karen spoke to told her that the check couldn’t be canceled as it was a cashier’s check. They would have to wait at least three months to discontinue the check, but only if somebody else didn’t cash it.

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Karen couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She had made most of that money by selling her house. She couldn’t possibly stay with her family and friends forever. If she can’t get that check back, she’d be homeless.

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Losing Hope

Feeling restless, Karen ran over to the coffee shop that she and her daughter visited two days earlier. However, the check was nowhere to be found. She then tried calling her real estate broker, but he wouldn’t answer her call.

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Karen then called her daughter and asked her to see if she had the check. Her daughter looked in her purse, searched the entire house, and dug through her trash, but she couldn’t find it. By that point, Karen was beginning to lose hope.

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The Wrong Patsy’s

Karen then decided to check Patsy’s, but instead of visiting the pizzeria herself, she gave them a call. However, Karen called the wrong Patsy’s. When the staff at the incorrect Patsy’s told Karen that they didn’t have the check, Karen was devastated.

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Karen’s real estate broker eventually returned her call and he was just as confused as she was. In an interview, he recalled how Karen told him that she had called Patsy’s. However, it never occurred to him that she may have contacted the wrong one.

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Armando’s Plan

Over at the other Patsy’s, meanwhile, Armando and Frank were still figuring out how to return the check to Karen. Since they had no way to get in touch with her, they decided to ask the New York Daily News for help.

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Journalists know how to look through archives to find specific individuals, so Armando and Frank figured that they needed their help. After learning about the missing check, the staff at the New York Daily News immediately set to work.

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Finding Karen Vinacour

The newspaper staff managed to track Karen down in a matter of minutes. They called her from Patsy’s and asked whether she had lost something valuable recently. Karen was so shocked by what she had just heard that she could barely speak.

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An ecstatic Karen thanked the newspaper staff and told them how relieved she was. She then proceeded to tell them that she would be heading over to Patsy’s right away. As soon as she ended the call, she hopped in a cab and made her way to Patsy’s.

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Karen Reunites With Armando

When Karen walked through the door at Patsy’s, she immediately saw Armando with her check. Armando smiled, handed the check over to Karen, and told her how happy he was that she finally got it back.

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Armando later told ABC 7 in an interview that Karen broke into tears as soon as he handed her the check. Though other people might have kept the check for themselves, Armando chose to do the right thing and returned it to its rightful owner.

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An Amazing Young Man

Karen was grateful that Armando chose to return the check, calling him an “amazing young man.” Karen told NBC 4 that Armando could have chosen to throw it in the garbage, especially since she and her daughter weren’t very kind to him.

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Karen never imagined that she would come face-to-face with the waiter at Patsy’s again. While their last encounter was a rather unpleasant one, it’s safe to say that this incident certainly changed Karen’s opinions about him for the better.

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Frank Gives Karen a Tour

Frank then toured Karen around the pizzeria and offered her a pizza. While they were eating, Frank showed her the portraits of the famous women on Patsy’s walls and explained why they were selected to be there.

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Some of the famous women on Patsy’s wall include writer, editor, activist, and former New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, journalist Barbara Walters, and former New York City Council Speakers Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito. Karen and her daughter didn’t notice these women’s portraits on their previous visit.

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Karen Receives Another Surprise

Aside from returning Karen’s missing check and giving her a complimentary pizza, Frank had another surprise in store for her: he wanted to hang Karen’s portrait on Patsy’s wall! Karen thought he was kidding at first, but as it turned out, he was dead serious!

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Frank told Karen that he wanted to take a photo with her so he could put that on the wall too. Karen was honored that Frank wanted her portrait on the wall along with generations of Patsy’s most loyal and famous customers.

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Karen Apologizes

Karen also apologized to Frank for not tipping Armando. She explained that the passive-aggressive note that she left at the table a few days earlier “wasn’t her best moment.” She then tried to give Armando his overdue tip.

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To Karen’s surprise, Armando rejected her offer. He explained that giving her her life savings back was enough of a gift not just for him, but for everyone who worked at Patsy’s. Karen was touched by the young man’s kindness and generosity.

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A Token of Appreciation

Though Armando did not accept the tip, Karen still planned on giving him a gift certificate so he could buy school supplies. She was well aware of high education costs were, and she wanted to help Armando in any way she can.

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Karen told ABC 7 that she was grateful that her passive-aggressive note did not prevent Armando from doing the right thing. Had he not gone the extra mile to return the check, she would have been homeless by now.

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Was It Karma?

Interestingly enough, the events in this story took place just a few days before Mother’s Day. Now that Karen got her missing check back, she could enjoy the special occasion without worry. For Armando, this was both heartwarming and ironic.

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Armando told the Los Angeles Times that he believed that this whole incident was karma for Karen and her daughter. In response, Karen laughed and said that she believed in karma too, telling Armando that she thinks that it was karma that helped her get back to him.

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