Once upon a dime
YOUR MONEY’S NO GOOD
Frugal? Wasn’t that some kind of dance?
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
Every time some economist makes one of those incomprehensible statements about cost-pull dollars overstimulating apathetic fiscal reserves, I wonder if he realizes that the real money in our pants and purses is in danger of becoming as obsolete as wampum. Already it has lost a lot of its historic function as a precise gauge of value and a commodity that’s hard to come by. Denominations are growing dim. Anything up to a buck is tossed around like something in a crap game.
“How much are these?” I asked a girl clerk the other day, holding up a package of a dozen pencils. She took them and called to a youth leaning on the counter. “How much are these?” “Twentyfive cents each,” the kid said. “Twenty-five cents?” I yelped. The girl, who was just about to ring up the sale, said “I’ll check it for you,” went away, came back and said “They’re 15 cents each.” I saved $1.20 by just waiting for her to walk to the rear of the store and back. On the way home, I heard a blond youngster on the subway ask a friend of about eight how much money he had saved up. I listened for the little tyke’s answer, picturing piggy banks and wondering how much he’d say. A dollar thirteen? Eighty-nine cents? “Seventy-nine dollars,” the boy said. “Is that all?” the other said tossing a new baseball in the air, unimpressed by an amount of money that my Pop paid for a season’s supply of anthracite that reached to the cellar beams and deadened the sound of clinking pickle jars. But at least these kids had retained the idea of counting money. Often, now, people don’t bother. A while ago a garage service adviser, noticing that I looked as if he’d stabbed me when he told me a tune-up would cost about $85, took a moment to explain it. “Well, look at it this way: plugs and points cost two dollars each; there’s $32,” he said, and walked away forgetting the other $53 as if he’d dropped it out of a hole in his pocket. Prices are raised without explanation, apology or apparent guilt feelings. Every time the price goes up half a buck at my neighborhood theatre, the cashier just points to the card in her window and motions for me not to block the line-up over such a detail, beckoning to some cheerful laughing young guy behind me who is apparently ready to pay anything.
In supermarkets dimes and quarters get no more attention than loose grapes. I heard a woman in Loblaws, who, a moment before, had been staring at some peaches from the Niagara Peninsula, 40 miles away, which were selling at the height of the Canadian growing season for 394% more than bananas from the Yucatan Peninsula, 2,500 miles away, ask a check-out girl how many kippers were in a 79-cent package. “Oh, just one,” the girl said, ringing up the right price for four but, as far as she knew, charging the woman 79 cents for one kipper and telling her to have a nice day. Even the right prices are just as whimsical. Alberto VO 5 Hair
Spray sold in one store for $2.98, but it was on sale according to a sign, if you had a coupon, for $1.59, and marked at $1.88, and when a confused looking woman pointed it out, the salesgirl said “That’s the red-label price,” as if she had explained something, but sounding to me like the kids when they used to say, “You forgot to say ‘May I?’ ” One pleasant girl in a department store summed it up nicely when a little woman, whom I felt I’d last seen driving an electric car, said that the exact same curling iron that they were selling for $16.95, sold at another store for $12.95, adding, with gentle reproof “I thought you wouldn’t be undersold.” The girl thought a moment then said, “That was a long time ago,” clearly meaning that comparing prices was something people did back in the days when department stores had a harness department.
You can’t blame the girl. A whole new generation has grown up thinking money is a kind of vague stuff that flows automatically across a space between something they want and their desire to have it, and they feel that making a fuss over the price is almost as bad as being hung up on sex. The other day, when a plump girl of about 10 asked her mother to buy two Sweet Marie bars and her mother said “I’ve just spent $40 on groceries,” the kid made a little twirling motion of her finger above her head. Her mother took a swing at her, missing by a foot, and caught me looking at her.
I asked her what the kid meant. “She meant,
‘Whoopee!’ or ‘Big deal!’ ” the woman said. “I slap her every time she does it.” Another time I heard a baffled looking father say he’d been trying to teach his kids neatness and that every time he found a toy lying on the living-room floor, he took it away. The kids were down to one toy, a game called Leggo, and hadn’t even mentioned it. They just sat there looking through Simpsons-Sears catalogue.
I'm not talking about a dollar today being worth only 35 cents, which, in general, doesn’t mean very much if we all have three dollars for every one we used to have. I’m talking about neither a dollar nor 35 cents having the same meaning they used to have. No one below middle age has any way of knowing what a fundamental change has taken place within the past 25 years in attitudes about money. It used to be something vital, real, and closely related to life, like blood.
There was no such thing as an insignificant amount. To say,
“It’s only a little bit of money” would have been like a surgeon saying, “It’s only a little bit of your arm.” Money was money. Nickels, dimes and even pennies were hoarded in various devices that were cleverly designed in shapes like battleships and iron stoves to foil you if you changed your mind. You couldn't pry them open with a cold chisel.
One shiny nickel-plated bank, about the size of a package of Rolaids, had little holes down the side so you could see how much you were worth at any given time, and it was rigged so you couldn’t get into it until the dimes reached the top, when you got a screw driver and screwed down a knob and forced the bottom out of the cylinder, and two dollars’ worth of dimes spilled out on the cellar bench like porridge bright, slippery and warm from the heat of your hand — nearly half the amount you had decided to save for a New Year’s Eve dance, when you planned to hang one on. You walked home from work to save seven-cent carfare, and the combination of oxygen and virtue affected you like an hour’s meditation and you’d arrive home taking steps about six feet long inhaling the fragrance of tripe and onions.
Some months you kept a notebook in which you marked every cent you spent, literally, to find out where your $11 a week pay was going, and you devised schemes, like saving 10 cents on everything you bought, knowing if you did this for a year it would / continued on page 41
ONCE UPON A DIME from page 21
be the same as getting a 10% raise. Say you usually got the lamb chops for lunch for 40 cents. You did a little calculating on the edge of your newspaper, deducting 10% or roughly a nickel, and got the chicken croquettes for 35 cents. Or if the prices were too high you got up and went to a Rexall Drugstore and got the blue plate special for 25 cents, with little partitions on the plate so you could tell what part of the meal you were eating.
Your pay came in a tightly sealed little flat brown envelope about the size of a poker hand that sometimes had a white slip in it saying you were fired, or, in affluent times, that you’d been given a raise of one dollar, which you didn’t mention to anybody. When you got home you set out next week’s budget in little piles on the kitchen table — two dollars for six businessmen’s lunches; 75 cents for five return trips downtown; a dollar toward a new suit you were going to buy; 75 cents for unexpected ex-
penses; five dollars for board, which your mother secretly saved for you, hiding it away some place where you couldn’t find it, as if storing nuts. We had expressions like “Making ends meet,” and “He’s very loose about money,” by which people didn’t mean a compliment but that he had a screw loose, and was apt to end up on a billboard, which showed an old gent on a park bench waiting for someone to drop a butt. “He’s neat and thrifty,” parents said of a prospective son-in-law, meaning they could do worse. We looked thrifty. I caught a glimpse of one of us the other day in an old Eaton’s catalogue, stepping briskly out of the page in a thrifty looking suit, holding an extra pair of pants, and wearing thrifty short hair, parted in the middle, looking as if he were jiggling the change in his pockets, a sound of affluence that has disappeared with the train whistle. He had a careful, deadpan little smile on his
face, as if he’d just got 50 cents supper money for working overtime and wasn’t letting on that he knew it was a rip-off because he knew where he could get supper for 25 cents.
I don’t know where this guy has gone, or whether he’ll ever come back. I thought I caught a glimpse of him the other day, disguised in plaid flares and long hair, when a young fellow went up to the cash booth of a movie with his girl, saw the price and stopped dead with his hand on his wallet, and for a moment there I got the feeling he hadn’t got his dollar raise and was going to suggest to his girl that they just go for a walk or maybe rent a canoe for 50 cents, or have a soda. But that kind of reaction to higher prices — in fact, prices of any kind — is rare. I talked to a waitress about this, a German woman who told me that she and her teen-age daughter can’t even communicate about it. The woman said she’d explaih why the kid
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ONCE UPON A DIME continued
can’t have a pair of boots. “They’re $35,” she’ll explain. The girl will look at her as if really trying to understand but finding it impossible. “But I like them,” her daughter will say. “She thinks if you like it, you should buy it.” When the woman said this a girl behind the cash desk who had been listening to us, fascinated, as if we were two people from outer space, said “That’s the way I buy things.”
The odd thing is it’s beginning to look as if this is the right idea. Remarks such as “Young people don’t know the value of money” or “Life isn’t made up of getting everything you want” are pointless. My daughters left for a four-month tour of Europe while I was telling them that they were mismanaging their money and no good would come of it, and were back again before I thought up a good way to explain the meaning of frugality, which I never got around to, because I suddenly realized that at their age I hadn’t got past Niagara Falls.
Nobody knows whether this state of things will last. Maybe we’ll just stop using money and work out some system involving centralized computers and an annual accounting. There are signs of this already happening. Last July I got an informal little note from the income tax department saying that I had made a mistake in arithmetic and to send them another month’s salary, as casually as if Ed forgotten to enclose a box top. Yet there are some things about the old economy that I miss. It showed up life’s values in sharp relief, for instance. One friend of mine who went to New York
and rose rapidly in the advertising business told me a while ago that his mother, now more than 80, who still lives in the Danforth district of Toronto where I came from, and whom he visits once or twice a year, has never got over her conviction that success in life is having all your coal in by October, and a cemetery plot picked out and paid for. He’ll tell her of some really outstanding advertising campaign he created, and when he’s through she’ll pat his arm and break the good news: “I have a nice little plot picked out for you, Harold,” a reminder of where all advertising campaigns end. I sometimes think of it when I hear that commercial where the guy comes home and shouts at his wife, “My boss coming to supper tonight and you’ve changed deodorants!” There was a certain satisfaction in not being able to have something for a long time then getting it; when you finally had enough to buy a new suit, for instance, and a salesman came toward you bouncing on the balls of his feet and wringing his hands with sheer delight at seeing you. You really got service in stores in those days. Salesmen hustled for customers like hockey players for goals, to the point of actually involving body checking. Sometimes you’d hear a kind of discreet scuffling and shoving and cursing beyond a partition before the salesman came toward you smiling, with a tape measure around his neck.
You knew when you were broke, too. The score wasn’t kept with credit cards and computers, but with real money, which was as precise a gauge of whether
you were winning or losing as those little wooden balls you move along the rack in a pool room. Being broke meant being out of it. You held your pants pockets turned inside out, looking baffled, as if waiting to catch a breeze that would blow you in the direction of some money, and tried to borrow a buck till payday, which you paid back as soon as you tore open your pay envelope because the guy who loaned it to you, although trying to look unconcerned, was sitting there as alert as a squirrel.
I’ve never got used to the new expansive society. I never liked big-time spenders. I don’t mind people who were born since the last war throwing money around, because they do it naturally and unconsciously and don’t realize that people ever did anything else. But when someone of my generation takes me to lunch and spends $15 or $20 when all I wanted was a toasted cheese sandwich and a chance to sit down and talk something over, then leaves a careless little pile of loose bills and coins for a waiter who has done nothing efficiently but avoid catching your eye, he impresses me with nothing but his carelessness. I like frugal people. They’re usually the ones you can count on to help you if you’re broke, and sometimes when I’m sitting in some dark, expensive cave trying to read a menu by candlelight I wish I were with a man I go to lunch with about once a year. He’s a Lands and Forests man who takes me to lunch in an old brick building near the university grounds. He’s a bouncing, cheerful, energetic man and we meet amid a merry clatter of cutlery in a nice bright steamy atmosphere of knowledge and logarithms and sit there talking of things like the last coyote seen east of Thunder Bay or the incidence of pregnancy of moose in Newfoundland. I always liked this man. If you get mixed up in your order and the woman behind the counter hands you the 35-cent size soup instead of the 25-cent one, he gets excited and says, “No, no, no. He ordered the 25cent one.” He wants everything neat, tidy and above board and you know where you’re at with him. You know nothing is being done to make an impression, but that everything he does for you he really means and that he’s spending 65 cents on you out of his own pocket because he likes your company. You appreciate it all the more when he steers you around railings and helps you with your tray, showing you where the rolls and knives are and fusses around, a perfect host. He never lets you change your mind once it’s been established how much he’s going to spend on you. It has nothing to do with putting a limited value on friendship. It just means he hasn’t lost a clear idea of the value of soup, which was the original idea of money.