Coupon-Clipping in Canada
While some think of traveling as an opportunity to become familiar with different cultures, sample new cuisines, and experience exotic places, my father is concerned with only one thing when it comes to family vacations: how much it will cost him. Although my father spends plenty of time in his daily life clipping coupons and calculating whether it makes economic sense to drive to Jersey to buy cheaper gas, his miserliness is increased tenfold when a foreign currency is involved.
During the summer after sixth grade, my father announced that we would be flying into Canada to vacation in Montreal. He added that we had best pack light because, God knows, he wasn’t paying if our bags weighed too much.
We landed in Montreal around nine on the next Friday night. Upon retrieving our suitcases from baggage claim, we headed over to the rental car desk to pick up the car that would transport us through the Canadian countryside to our hotel. My father had reasoned long ago that it was far less expensive to rent a car for the entirety of a vacation than to pay for cabs all the time.
My father introduced himself to the small, balding man behind the desk, and requested, “The cheapest car you’ve got.”
The bald man glanced up from his copy of Maxim to look at my father, mother, and I, and said, sounding bored: “Sir, our cheapest car is also our smallest car. It’s about five feet long and has no backseat. Your wife and daughter won’t both fit in the car, sir. Luckily for you,” he continued, his voice considerably more animated, “we happen to be offering a special deal right now, which allows you to upgrade to a larger car for just eighteen dollars more.”
My father snorted and turned to me smirking, “Did you hear that? Lucky us.”
The source of my father’s derision was no secret to me, as he had long ago explained that rental car salesmen receive a bonus from their company for every unwanted upgrade they can successfully coerce unwitting customers into purchasing. According to my father, the salesmen invent all sorts of supposed “special deals” in order to ensure they get their bonus. This eighteen dollar “deal” was likely a scam that the greedy bald man was using to manipulate my family into spending my college savings.
Apparently, my father’s shrewd sense of spotting no-good salesmen was as sharp as it had ever been, for he turned back to the bald man and said smugly, “We’ll take the Smart Car.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” My mother yelled at my father, throwing up her hands. “He said we won’t be able to fit in that car!”
My father ignored her, staring straight at the salesman. The salesman considered my father for a moment, no doubt wondering just how hard he would have to work to get his bonus tonight. I sat down on my suitcase, retrieved my bottle of water, and took a long, slow drag. I knew it would be hours, possibly days, until my father and the rental car salesman reached some sort of agreement. The man had no idea who he was dealing with. I, however, had no illusions about the extent of my father’s frugality. This was a man who could recite, down to the cent, the amount my mother would save if she would just drink Dunkin Donuts coffee instead of getting Starbucks every morning.
I tuned back in about twenty minutes later, just as the salesman was saying, his tone pleading, “Ninety-nine cents for the upgrade! Not even an extra dollar and you’ll have a car three times as big!” The salesman must really need the extra money; ninety-nine cents would get him a commission of about a dime, tops, from the company. His desperation was as obvious as his need for a sexual partner or at the very least, better quality porn than the likes of Maxim could provide.
My father stopped shaking his head for a minute, considering the offer. Cheap though he might be, my father was certainly not an idiot.
He smiled, “I’ll take it.
I had enjoyed a brief chuckle with my mother upon glimpsing the name of the hotel, The Economy Inn, spelled out dismally in flickering lights fastened on the building, but when we pulled into the unpaved dirt lot, behind the row of Soviet labor camp style barracks in which we would be sleeping for the next three nights, the situation appeared considerably less amusing.
After we had checked into the motel and unloaded the car, we went to our room to relax. As soon as my father opened the door, we were hit with the powerful odor of stale cigarette smoke and ammonia. I immediately headed to the bathroom, because I typically judge accommodations by the quality of the soaps, shampoos, and conditioners that are provided on the ledge of the bathtub. Given what I had seen so far of The Economy Inn, I was not surprised to find only a sticky-looking clump of hair where the soap dish was supposed to be. I turned the water knob on the shower, and when absolutely nothing happened, I abandoned my investigation of the bathroom and went back to the main room. My mother was sitting on the edge of one of the beds. It creaked horribly every time she shifted slightly, flipping through channel after channel of static.
The following morning, I was awoken earlier than I would’ve liked by my father, excitedly telling my mother and me to get up immediately, so as not to miss the continental breakfast that the hotel provided from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Like dollar stores and two-for-twenty deals at Olive Garden, my father considers continental breakfasts among the Seven Wonders of the World and never misses the opportunity to chow down on free food. Although I had written off The Economy Inn based on my experience the previous evening, I awoke with a newly optimistic attitude, determined to give the grubby little hovel one last chance.
My mother and I dressed quickly and followed my father to the location where he had been told the free breakfast was being served. My father paused briefly in front of the door to a little room across from the front desk and glanced at the sign that read: Free Breakfast. The sign had been completed with a pencil and was taped lopsidedly to the door. If the sign didn’t tip us off, the large cockroach that emerged from under the door, and ran across the hotel’s lobby, should have. However, my father, ever the optimist when it came to free food, merely shrugged and reached for the rusty doorknob.
Before he turned it, he inhaled deeply through his nose and said, grinning, “I can almost smell the bacon.”
“Ahhh, that is divine,” I added, mimicking him, “I can practically taste the pancakes!”
He pushed opened the door, and our smiles fell almost quickly as the light bulb that came flying out of its socket and smashed onto the floor when my father closed the door behind us. In the now dim light, we took in the scene on the counter in front of us: a box of Cheerios lying on its side, the little o’s scattered in front of the box like a mound of gaping mouths, two brown bananas surrounded by a buzzing swarm of fruit flies, a carton of yellow milk that appeared more solid than liquid, and a lone strawberry Pop-Tart.
I reached for the Pop-Tart, but retracted my hand quickly when another roach scuttled across the surface of the counter and came to rest on top of the Pop-Tart. My father cleared his throat and said, sounding disappointed beyond belief. “I suppose we ought to tell someone about that light bulb.”
Fifteen-minutes later, we were all glad to be driving away from The Economy Inn. Even my father had momentarily lost faith in what $69 dollars a night could get you, when a woman, wearing nothing but black tights, a blue lace bra, red heels, and smeared blue eyeliner, staggered towards my father on his way to the car and asked him to light the cigarette that was hanging limply between her lips.
While my father was explaining his theory of how all Canadians are scheming swindlers who survive solely off of ignorant and spend-thrifty American tourists, I excitedly texted my friend that I had just seen our first prostitute. So engaged was I in transcribing everything from the suspiciously located hole in the woman’s tights, to the unidentifiable crusty substance splattered across her expose ribcage, that I hardly noticed that we had arrived at the boutiques where my father intended to spend the morning.
My father ordered us out of the car while he went off in search of a place to park on the busy street. He had long ago calculated that paying for parking in a lot just once a month for one year amounted to the cost of more than three weeks of groceries. Ever since, he had vowed to never park in a lot again, believing the valets to be part of a cleverly disguised communist plot to redistribute the wealth of hard-working car owners like him. Unfortunately, this practice oftentimes resulted in hours of aimless driving and chronic lateness on the part of my family.
To our surprise, however, my father returned moments later, keys in hand, grinning: “I positively raced some Canadian fellow for the last spot on the block. He wasn’t happy, either. Started shouting at me in French, as a matter of fact. Never mind. He can curse at me all he wants; he’ll still be the one paying twenty-five Canadian dollars to park!”
My father’s jubilant mood lasted until around lunchtime, when we followed the delicious smell of buttery croissants over to a small cafe. My mother and I were starving, having been sorely disappointed by the breakfast provided by The Economy Inn, and we bombarded my father with requests for one of everything on the menu. My father squinted suspiciously at the list of dishes and prices on the menu and, soon, adopted a look of self-righteous indignation. Waving off our requests, he approached the register and rapped twice on the counter until the woman behind it came hurrying over.
“How can I help you sir?”
“I’d like to order a few sandwiches, but I find your prices absolutely exorbitant. Perhaps we can agree on a price that’s more reasonable.”
The woman looked confused, but was clearly accustomed to dealing with entitled foreigners on a daily basis, and simply nodded hesitantly and waited for my father to continue.
She didn’t have to wait long.
“This ham sandwich, for instance,” my father began, “is priced at seven Canadian dollars. I think we can both agree it’s worth about four. I could make a ham sandwich myself in about five minutes.” Clearly believing himself to be haggling with a wily merchant in ancient Morocco, my father ran down the list of items we had requested and proposed “reasonable prices” along with what he deemed a convincing rationale behind the cost reduction.
“And these croissants here…You’re just about out of your mind if you think I’ll pay four dollars apiece. Were these even made in house? Because it sure as hell doesn’t look like it! You’re out of your mind if you expect me to pay four dollars for something you picked up for a buck at the grocery store and threw some powdered sugar on!”
The woman waited patiently until my father finished ranting and then said, quietly, “I’m afraid the prices listed are non-negotiable.”
Seeing my father was prepared to argue some more, I tugged on his sleeve until he turned around and said to him, “Remember how we saved so much money by staying at The Economy Inn? Maybe we can use some of that money now to buy lunch.”
My father held up a hand, fixing me with an infuriatingly patronizing look, “When you start bringing home a paycheck, you can decide how we spend our savings.” He turned back to the woman behind the counter, “If you’re unwilling to compromise, we’ll simply take our business elsewhere.”
Our remaining time in Montreal was spent storming out of over-priced clothing shops and bargaining in earnest over everything from jars of maple syrup to postcards.
Montreal was only the first in a series of miserable vacations. My family’s trip to Mexico was ruined by my father’s refusal to heed the warning about the dangers of drinking water straight from the tap. We spent the majority of our time in Cancun bedridden, vomiting every couple of hours, since he’d point-blank refused to buy bottled water. Our stay in the dingy little Parisian apartment my father had gotten a “very good deal” on was marred by our near insomnia; the apartment was located directly next to the train tracks, and the rattling of the train cars, as well as the shouts of the conductors, could be heard well into the night.
Although I grew to dread family vacations, I stopped resenting my father’s frugality so much around the age of fifteen, when I realized my father’s stinginess served as the counterbalance to one very real, very present, money-sucking entity: my mother. The strong sense of fiscal responsibility that had been endowed on my father seemed to have skipped over my mother entirely.
It wasn’t that I had been ignorant of my mother’s fondness for moleskin-covered notebooks or the occasional room-service delivery and pay-per-view movie, but in the tenth grade, my father enlisted me to help him in one of the most sacred of tasks: managing the family budget. Once a month, my father carefully reviewed our family’s spending records, an excel sheet which he updated daily, making notes and doing the pointless calculations that allowed him to tell my mother exactly how many cans of cat food could be purchased with the money that would be saved if she just switched over to the generic brand of shampoo. Now, I had the privilege of watching him do so.
Many contentious arguments took place in my home regarding the amount of money my mother spent on 411 calls. Seemingly unaware of how to program contacts into the smart phone she had purchased for a “change of pace,” my mother had taken to dialing Information every single time she made a phone call. This was a habit that, according to my father, would cost us the equivalent of one month’s electric bill after just two and a half weeks.
When my father confronted her about it, my mother feigned ignorance, but admittedly did a rather poor job of it.
“Nancie, you’ve made seventy-seven 411 calls over the past two weeks. Do you not realize that each and every one of those calls costs 99 cents apiece?”
“I didn’t make seventy-seven calls! I only made a few. Three, tops.”
“Nancie, I’m looking at your phone bill right now on my computer. See? It says right here you’ve made seventy-seven calls to 411.”
“Well, that’s just not true.”
“Why would the phone company lie?”
“I’m not saying they lied. I’m just saying that because my phone has a touch screen, it calls people of its own accord sometimes. That’s probably what happened.”
“You think your phone called 411 seventy-seven times?”
A similar conversation took place when my father discovered my mother had incurred more than a dozen driving tickets over the past two months. It began almost exactly the same way:
“Nancie, you’ve run thirteen red lights over the past four months. Do you know that each and every one of those tickets costs $100 apiece?”
“I didn’t run thirteen red lights! I’ve only run a couple. Four, tops.”
This time though, my father was prepared.
Unbeknownst to my mother, the Philadelphia Parking Authority had installed cameras in the traffic lights of all major intersections in order to catch red-light runners in the act. My father had somehow managed to get his hands on the thirteen photographs of my mother’s car speeding through an unmistakably red light.
“Nancie, let me ask you something. You drive a gray Subaru, right?”
“And your license plate is 578 ADR, correct?”
“I don’t know, Stuart. What is this?”
“You don’t know what your license plate number is?”
“No, I do. What you said was right.”
My father passed the stack of photographs to my mother.
“Now, if you’ll notice, each one of these photographs is dated. And each one shows a gray Subaru with the license plate 578 ADR going through a red light.”
My mother took the photographs and surveyed each one carefully, as if she didn’t believe of a word of it.
“They’re setting me up, Stuart. They must be.”
“You’re telling me that’s not your car?”
“No, it is my car, but I know I didn’t go through that many red lights! They set me up!”
I tiptoed over to my father’s computer, correctly assuming that, in his anger, he had forgotten to update the Excel sheet with the cost of printing the pictures at Staples.
It is a wonder that my parents got married at all, and there are some nights when I thank Jerry Seinfeld profusely before I got to sleep, believing my parents’ shared love of him to be the only thing that keeps them together. However, my parents would undoubtedly prove even more insufferable if married to anyone else but each other.
If my father were married to a woman more like himself, I can only imagine the miserable lives his children would lead. There would undoubtedly be no family vacations at all. As soon as they reached the age of sixteen, all my father’s children would find themselves hired out to a Rita’s for the summer as wage slaves and forced to pay their own room and board. Cable TV would be a thing of the past, and the cost of text messages would no longer be tolerated. I can only imagine a conversation that would sound something like this:
“I’m looking at your cell phone bill right now.”
“Is everything okay, dad?”
“Well sure. If spending four dollars a month on text messages seems reasonable to you. You realize that’s one tenth of the amount we spend every month on your mother’s medication? You spend more money in a year on useless messages to your friends than it takes to keep your mother healthy. Does that mean anything to you?”
One the other hand, if my mother had married a man who didn’t possess my father’s hyper vigilance, her children would likely be carted away by social services, as she and her husband were imprisoned for failing to pay one too many parking tickets.
For the most part, when my parents are together, they balance each other out. As much as I hate updating Excel with the amount (to the cent) that I spend on the Coca Cola machine at school, I also know that I’ll be glad to find money left in my college savings account.