“Daddy's thirsty,” I said, as my girlfriend and I emerged from our Brooklyn subway stop. Of late, I’ve referred to myself as daddy, though, much to my mother’s chagrin, we are not expecting children. “Daddy wants a beer.”
Understanding that a buzzed Josh is a content Josh, my girlfriend agreed to a bodega detour. We bypassed stacks of salt-and-vinegar Utz chips—their bright-red 99-cent stickers as alluring as the sirens’ song—and stopped at the coolers. Several years back, beer at Crown Heights bodegas consisted of malt liquor, 24-ounce cans of Coors and the odd sixer of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Brooklyn Lager—suds seemingly as misplaced as that coyote on the Columbia campus.
These days, the neighborhood’s new arrivals (read: recent college grads with fanciful facial hair and jeans as tight as sausage casings) have not cottoned to King Cobra. Bodegas started stocking microbrews from Harpoon, Speakeasy and Dogfish Head. I scanned the shelves, settling on a Stone IPA. It’s a bracingly bitter West Coast ale with a pleasingly high alcohol content—bang for your buck. Except this banging beer was no bargain.
“Come on, we’re hitting another bodega,” I told my girlfriend, returning the bottle to its refrigerated home.
“Uh, why?” she asked. I had to admit, it was quite a reasonable question.
“Because they raised their prices $.35 a bottle. They used to be $1.90. Now it’s $2.25,” I spat out viciously, as if I were cursing someone.
Her mouth slackened. She gave me the kind of long, cold stare to which I’ve become accustomed: Just who is this man I’ve been dating?
“Look, I can buy this same bottle for $2 at another bodega. It’s only a block away. Let’s go.”
“Let’s not. You save yourself a quarter. I’m heading home.”
I pondered protesting, but I’ve learned to pick my battles. I’ll wage a war of the words when it comes to, say, my right to patronize a strip-club steakhouse like Robert’s Restaurant at Scores or take a road trip to a topless-waitress breakfast joint in Montreal. Trudging an extra block to save two bits? I’ll happily concede defeat.
Now, I know what you’re eager to utter: “Great, another story about being a cheap Jew. Go on and bathe in your pile of tarnished pennies. What’s next? A story about your circumcision?” Actually, I do have a funny tale about my second circumcision at age 13, involving a needle, chanting rabbis and the acquisition of C & C Music Factory’s debut CD. Another anecdote, another time.
Instead of organized religion, my penny-pinching has its roots in my upbringing. I’ve been crazy about saving money ever since I helped my mom clip grocery coupons. Fifty cents off a box of Bisquick gladdened my little-boy heart as much as finding Ken Griffey Jr.’s rookie baseball card in an Upper Deck pack. (Sorry, readers younger than 25, for the dated reference.) I embraced thrift whole cloth, evolving into a frugal teen who bought T-shirts at Salvation Army, recorded mix tapes off the radio and filched half-smoked cigarettes from ashtrays. Nothing like puffing a lipstick-covered Newport to make a teenager feel badass.
Come college, I began applying my mom’s cost-conscious lessons at grocery stores, favoring dried beans instead of canned, generics over name brands. I tabulated each foodstuff’s price per ounce to the second decimal place, employing the sort of higher-order math favored by savants. I created a mental Rolodex of the stores with the lowest prices on rice, which places sold lettuce for less. I thought nothing of driving to different shops if it meant saving a buck—provided that I didn’t spend more on gas. Upon moving to New York, I sought out Chinatown’s cheapest and best open-air produce markets (Forsyth St. betw. East Broadway & Canal St.) and butchers (Deluxe Food Market, 79 Elizabeth St. betw. Grand & Hester Sts., 212-925-5766). Soon, I discovered New York’s secret, the key to a lengthy tenure in town:Though rent can be crippling, a pauper’s budget will permit you to eat like a king. Provided you don’t get ripped off by bodegas that overcharge. Which brings me back to my nice, frosty beverage.
“How’s your beer?” my girlfriend asked, watching me sip my Stone.
“It is,” I said, prepping my Borscht Belt punch line, “a little rich for my taste.”