When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s karma.
A Manhattan woman who almost bankrupted herself when she left a $424,000 cashier’s check at Patsy’s Pizzeria over the weekend was saved from ruin by an unlikely source — the waiter she’d stiffed at lunch.
Instead of 20% of the bill, a folded up envelope was the only thing left on a table at the East Harlem institution on Saturday when waiter Armando Markaj went to clean it off.
Yet the tipless waiter, a medical student working his way through school, had nothing but kind words and smiles for a flustered and grateful Karen Vinacour when the Daily News reunited the two at the famous pizzeria on 117th St. so she could pick up her check.
“I’m happy for her, really. 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, 27, told The News. “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 got the shock of his life when he fully opened the envelope and pulled out the fat bank check.
“Normally we just put things left behind in the lost and found box in the back,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to do that with almost half a million dollars.”
He got owner Frank Brija, 63, and put the cashier’s check in the proprietor’s hands.
“We thought for sure it was a billionaire or something who came in here, because who walks around with a check like that?” said Brija.
As it turns out, Vinacour, 79, is anything but financially flush.
The retired social worker stopped by Patsy’s on Saturday for lunch with her daughter after looking at a condo she hoped to buy, and the cashier’s check – mostly proceeds from the apartment she recently sold – was her down payment for the new home.
“We’d pulled out my papers to go through the all the financials again,” Vinacour told The News. “I had no idea we left it behind.”
It wasn’t until Sunday night that Vinacour went to the zippered inner compartment of her purse and discovered it empty. But still, she didn’t panic.
“I figured it’s a cashier’s check, I’ll just go to the bank and ask them to stop it,” she said.
Bright and early Monday, she showed up at her Citibank branch in Chelsea.
“They said they couldn’t immediately cancel it because it was a cashier’s check. I would have to wait at least three months before they could even start the process,” she said.
“My world just collapsed.”
Vinacour, who has dedicated most of her retirement to volunteering with charities in Laos to help underprivileged women and children, called her daughter, who immediately began searching through the household trash. She also called the real estate broker she’d been with on Saturday.
Then she ran up to East Harlem to visit a café down the street from Patsy’s, where the women had first stopped for a coffee.
“They said they didn’t have it,” she said. She was on her way to Patsy’s when her real estate broker called her back.
“She said she had called Patsy’s and nobody knew anything about a check,” she said. “I didn’t stop to think that maybe she called the wrong one.”
Dejected and heartsick, Vinacour went home.
Back at the East Harlem Patsy’s, Markaj and Brija kept waiting for the moment when someone would walk in the door and ask for the check back.
“I thought for sure it won’t be long. Even a billionaire would miss that much money,” Brija said. He also had is son Adem Brija, 30, search online for Vinacour, whose name was printed on the check.
When they had no luck, Brija called New York’s Hometown Newspaper for help – and within a matter of minutes, Vinacour had her money back.
“I can’t believe it, I’m so relieved. You have no idea,” a breathless Vinacour said Wednesday morning when The News called her from Patsy’s to ask if she had recently lost something of great value. “I’m jumping in a cab, I’ll be there right away.”
When she walked in the door, the first thing she told Brija was that she felt awful for not tipping Markaj on Saturday.
Vinacour said she and her daughter didn’t like Markaj’s reponse on Saturday when they told him there weren’t enough photos of womenon the walls.
“Maybe women don’t eat a lot of pizza?” Vinacour recalled the waiter saying with a shrug.
“Well, my daughter’s kind of feisty and she didn’t like that,” Vinacour said at the reunion. “So we didn’t tip him.”
On Wednesday, a slightly overwhelmed Vinacour admitted it wasn’t her best moment.
“It was a very stressful day,” she said, as she explained she’s couch-surfing with family and friends while trying to get financing to buy a condo. Even with her hefty down payment and a pension – plus a spotless credit history – she hasn’t been able to get the bank financing she needs to close on a new home because of a student loan she took out decades ago for her daughter and is still paying off.
Brija comforted her by pointing out all the photos of women on the wall that she didn’t see during her first visit, including former TV host Barbara Walters, First Lady Chirlane McCray and former City Council Speakers Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“And we’re going to take a picture here today with you, and I’m going to put that on the wall, too. So there will be one more,” the pizza entrepreneur told her.
As for Markaj, he graciously accepted Vinacour’s apology and her gratitude – but declined a belated tip.
He did admit that he did spare a moment on Saturday to wonder who would have nearly half a million dollars and decline to leave a few bucks for the waiter.
“I guess I figured that it was just karma for them,” he said.
Vinacour, who can now celebrate Mother’s Day on Sunday in peace, chuckled at that.
“I believe in karma too,” she said. “I guess that’s what helped get me back to you.”