Tipping the Plumber

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole,

Getting a plumber to your house sometimes feels like a bloodsport here. I’ve heard rumors that if you “tip” the plumber, you will have better service. (No, I’m not talking about that type of tip, but plumbing the plumber might work too.) I’m talking about paying more than the already high prices we pay for service. I don’t know if this is true or not, but if it is, isn’t it unethical for plumbers to give priority to their tippers? I’m wondering what your take is?

Confidentially yours,
Leaky toilet

Dear Leaky,

It would be unethical for plumbers to accept tips, but they don’t do that. Which doesn’t mean they’re not offered, just that they don’t accept. How very interesting that you’ve presented the question as a potential lack of ethics in the plumbers, but not in the people bribing them. It is unfortunate that for emergencies, there isn’t some kind of Community Plumbing Triage Service. But it would not be ethical for people who can afford to tip to get emergency services — of any sort — that others can’t. I’m with you there.

But the fact that there even IS a rumor highlights the oblivious entitlement that a certain demographic of residents have here. It’s an Island, folks. The sense of privilege is infinite, but the supply of skilled tradesmen is finite. They are in extraordinary demand. Because that’s true, they are free to decide whom they give priority to. And who would that be? At great personal risk, I snuck into a meeting of the Secret Society of Vineyard Plumbers, where I learned the secret to getting good service on Martha’s Vineyard. Here, for the first time ever, I am revealing it to the public! Here it is:


That’s how you tip — with decency, pleasantness, and respect. You might not think you have to do that to get decent service, but guess what? The plumber doesn’t think he has to make you a priority if you’re not pleasant. He’s got, other clients. Do you have other plumbers? Try it his way.

OK, I’m oversimplifying a little. “Being good to work for” actually only ranks as Thing No. 3. Things No. 1 and No. 2 carry more weight, so here they are:

First, and above all, reputable plumbing companies prioritize their long-term clients. They aren’t waiting for you to offer a bribe … they’re not waiting at all because they are hustling to take care of all their regulars. These guys are busy. B.U.S.Y. I realize this is not “actionable information,” since you can’t suddenly become a long-term customer (especially if you can’t become a customer to start with), but at least it gives some context to plumbers’ mythical elusiveness. They’re loyal and reliable to the folks they have been working with for years.

Second: While they are always busy, they are especially busy RIGHT NOW, from mid-April to mid-June, as they (and everyone whose income is linked to the seasonal cycles of the Island economy) prepare for summer. If you want to maximize your chances of winning over a plumber, try this (Thanks to Billy Haynes of Haynes Plumbing — whom I have known since I was 6, so I trust him — for this advice):

Reach out to a plumber in the fall about work you want done. Let them do it over the winter, which is their slower period. The work should be done by spring.

Oh, yes, and be a nice person to work for. That element never goes away.

That’s how it works on an island, no matter what your income bracket. If you want off-Island-like options, move off-Island. If you’re the sort of person who thinks your higher income bracket entitles you to special service, then we won’t really miss you much.

That’s my take.

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” has recently been published. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.