When a retired New York woman left her $424,000 cashier’s check at a local pizzeria, she said she felt her “world just collapsed.” That is, until an unlikely hero came to save the day: the very waiter she burned with no tip and a sassy note.
After looking at a condo she hoped to buy, Karen Vinacour, her daughter and a real estate broker went to the historic Patsy’s Pizzeria in Manhattan to grab a slice of their signature brick-oven pizza — the same pizza enjoyed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino and even Justin Bieber. Tucked in a white envelope was a cashier’s check with the money she received from selling her last apartment. Vinacour, 79, planned to use the funds to put a down payment on what she hoped would be her brand new home.
That day, Armando Markaj, a pre-med student working his way through school, was assigned to their table. As the group enjoyed their lunch on the busy Saturday afternoon, the mother-daughter pair pointed out to Markaj that, out of all the framed photos of the owners with affluent customers on the wall, there seemed to be very few women.
“Maybe women don’t eat a lot of pizza?” Vinacour recalled Markaj replying.
Vinacour and her daughter were not amused, or pleased, with Markaj’s response.
“Well, my daughter’s kind of feisty and she didn’t like that,” Vinacour told the New York Daily News. Instead of leaving behind a decent tip, the pair left a note that read, “I guess women don’t tip either.”
Unbeknownst to Vinacour, something else was left at the table as well: her half-million-dollar Citibank check.
“We’d pulled out my papers to go through all the financials again,” Vinacour told the New York Daily News. “I had no idea we left it behind.”
Markaj was cleaning up the table when he noticed a folded white envelope. “I just pulled up the flap and I saw ‘Citibank’ and thought it was important, so I ran out to the street to look for her, but she was gone,” Markaj said.
When he finally took a look at what was inside, it took him by surprise. Not knowing what to do, he called the store’s owner, Adem Brija. “He called me immediately and hands me this check and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I didn’t want to put it in my pocket it was so much money,” Brija tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
While the check had Vinacour’s name on it, Brija and his father Frank, who owns the entire Patsy’s chain, had difficulty tracking her down. “A few names and numbers came up online, but I didn’t want to risk calling the wrong person with this kind of money,” the 30-year-old store owners says.
“We decided we would hold on to the check for a couple days to see if she would drop by or if we could find her ourselves,” says Brija, adding that they planned to drop it off at a local police precinct if they hadn’t heard anything by May 10.
Meanwhile, Vinacour and her daughter became distressed when they discovered that Citibank could not begin the process of cancelling the check until three months later. That was when Vinacour said, “My world just collapsed.”
The former social worker has spent most of her retirement volunteering with charities to help underprivileged women and children. After selling her apartment, she was staying with friends and bouncing around from place to place while trying to get the financing to purchase a home. Even with a large down payment, pension and solid credit history, she was struggling to secure bank financing because of a student loan she took out for her daughter years ago.
Distraught, Vinacour furiously began retracing her steps. She had her daughter search through the household trash, went to a cafe across the street from Patsy’s where they had stopped to grab a coffee and even called the real estate broker that had dined with them at the restaurant.
When Vinacour rang up Patsy’s to check if she had left it at the restaurant, she didn’t know she had called the chain pizzeria’s wrong location and was devastated when they told her they had found nothing.
“She said she had called Patsy’s and nobody knew anything about a check,” Vinacour’s real estate broker told the Daily News. “I didn’t stop to think that maybe she called the wrong one.”
When Vinacour didn’t show up a few days later, Brija decided to enlist the help of the Daily News — and the reporters tracked down Vinacour almost immediately.
“Right here in the restaurant with us, they sat there, made some phone calls and she was in an Uber and here within 20 to 25 minutes,” Brija recalls.
When she arrived, both Brija and Markaj, the waiter she spurned, were waiting at the door. “She was so happy and she was in tears,” says Brija. “But, the second she saw Armando, you could see she got a little shy.”
Vinacour apologized for not tipping Markaj during her meal and offered to tip him this time around. But the 27-year-old declined the money. “I’m happy for her, really,” Markaj told the Daily News. “Saturdays are pretty busy and I was very close to taking everything left on the table and throwing it out when I saw an envelope.”
Markaj and Vinacour made up over more slices of Patsy’s pizza. Brija even took her around the restaurant to point out all the women on the wall she had missed the weekend before, including TV host Barbara Walters, First Lady Chirlane McCray and former City Council Speakers Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“We joked with her and said we’d add her picture up on the wall,” Brija tells Yahoo Lifestyle. He says he has a laminated copy of the front page of the paper with a picture of himself, his father and Vinacour. He plans to hang it on the wall of the restaurant. “Karen will hopefully be on our wall by Monday — and in our window,” Brija says, laughing.
Although Brija admits he was hoping the check belonged to a billionaire that would reward him for his good deed, he’s glad that he was able to help someone in need.
“When you can help someone, that’s more important. Just to see the relief on her face when she got her check back. It was a heartwarming moment,” the Patsy’s store owner tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We’re just really happy we could help.”