Ketching Up with Dad

How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea... All that is required to feel that...here and now is a simple, frugal heart.

-- Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek)

'I just had a ketchup incident. Want to hear about it?" "Of course, Dad, you know I'm always up for a good story," I said into the phone.

My father proceeded to tell me how he thought he had struck it rich with the red stuff that makes up 30 percent of his diet. "Ketchup is a food group," he's told me time and again, reciting scientific facts that prove the tomato substance can cure cancer (if the government called upon him to rework the food pyramid, ketchup would form its base). When Dad's friend, a representative for a grocery supply company, mentioned that he had ketchup he couldn't use, Dad offered to "get rid of" the burdensome stuff.

"Not because I was going to keep it all for myself, you know. I thought I could give some to Jane, some to Heather, even to you, if you wanted any," he said. Between a few of his charities -- the orphanage in TJ and St. Vincent de Paul Village -- and his desire to have a "lifetime supply," Dad wasn't worried about finding a good home for the condiment. When he revealed the brand was Hunt's and not Heinz, I said, "Thanks, but I don't want any. So what's the problem, anyway? Free ketchup sounds right up your alley, no matter what brand it is."

Dad continued his tale. "When we moved the ketchup to my trunk last night, it was dark outside, and the box was heavy."

"Yeah?" I prodded, in a wary tone.

"Well, I just opened the box. No wonder it was so freakin' heavy! In the box were six seven-pound cans. What am I going to do with huge cans of ketchup?"

"Buy plastic containers," I suggested.

As if he hadn't heard my suggestion, Dad went on, defeated. "No, no, it won't work. You can't keep a can once it's been opened. Nobody can use this, not even the orphanage. I think I'm going to give it to Maryanne at Little Chef's. She just renovated the place; maybe she can use it." (Little Chef's is the restaurant in O.B. at which my father has lunched almost daily for 20 years, always ordering the Chinese special of the day. The day it went up a dollar, ears in the restaurant burned with the sound of his outrage.) By the end of Dad's story, the bubble of laughter that had been rising within me became uncontainable -- I burst out in hysterical giggles.

"What's so funny?" He really didn't know.

"You, Dad. You are." My father has never passed up a good deal, and the way this one went sour was reminiscent of that Seinfeld episode in which Kramer gets a deal on tons of chili and ends up feeding it to a horse. Comedy.

Though my father can see the humor in his story, he didn't intend for it to be funny. Scoring a great deal is serious business, and Dad is the king of thrift. Once, he called me to share some great news. When asked what it was, Dad pulled out a receipt from his latest trip to the commissary, read each item and the price he paid for it, and followed that up with a detailed report of the cost of the item at every other grocery store in town. Late in life, some people like to compile a collection of their letters. Should my father ever get the urge to publish, it is more likely to be a book of his greatest receipts. The man is proud of his savings.

I must have gotten my urge to splurge from Mom. As frugal as my father is, I am frivolous. For every quarter he saves, I spend a dollar. I thought my father's being parsimonious was a bad thing -- that he was cheating himself out of living the high life. Rather than purchasing a ticket for the best seat in the house, he volunteers to usher for shows in order to see them free (with the exception of opera; he'd happily pay $100 to savor one aria while seated comfortably). I recently had an epiphany as to why Dad's cheapness is okay, and it happened the other night while we were dining at my favorite Italian restaurant, Antico Toscano on University Avenue.

The owner of the restaurant, Luca, is straight from Italy, as is his vast wine list. Where I most likely would have ordered something in the higher price range (because that's supposed to mean it's the best, right?), Dad went for the house Chianti. He sipped the wine and praised the liquid's body and taste, but I could tell that as important as those were, if he thought he had paid too much, the sweet fullness of the red would have turned to vinegar on his tongue. "A wine expert at Costco told me that many of those higher-priced bottles are 'ego wines,'" he said. "You can get a great bottle of wine for six bucks." He took another sip and smiled with satisfaction.

The same pleasure I get from treating myself with a ring from Tiffany or a last-minute trip to New York, Dad gets from finding a good deal. For most of his life, thrift was necessary for survival. "You know," he said, "Grandpa's father died of the flu in 1918, and Grandpa and his brother were put in a home, like fuckin' Oliver. There was no extravagance in any way." Dad's father worked on Wall Street, lived through the Depression, and raised four kids (including Dad) in a small Brooklyn apartment. The year my father turned 30 he had four daughters and a wife to feed and clothe.

I can see 30 on my horizon, and so far, I am my only responsibility. As a headhunter, I earned a huge commission that, within a week, I blew on furniture imported from Italy and a few epic parties. I still buy on impulse. In December, I saw a picture of an ostrich-feather boa in a magazine. I called the store from our hotel, learned they had the red-and-black beauty on hand, and without a second thought, dragged David to Rodeo Drive and snatched it up. Later, when for a brief moment I doubted my rash decision, I merely thought of how fabulous it looked and felt and how much fun I would have wearing it, and my worries evaporated.

"If you want that much ketchup, why don't you go to Costco?" I asked my father on the phone.

"You're missing the point," he said. Now that his daughters are mostly self-sufficient and he lives alone, he can afford bits of luxury. Dad's taste for discounts goes beyond a pressing need to save; he's gotten so good at getting deals it's become a rewarding hobby for him. He enjoys the perpetual challenge of getting more out of everything in life for less. For doing something he loves as much as volunteering at the airport (once a week he helps people find their way to wherever they're going in San Diego), he gets free tickets to SeaWorld and free parking right by the escalator.

Dad enters every contest he can to win free tickets (whether or not he's heard of the movie, show, or concert). This offers him the double joy of getting something for nothing and trying new things he might not have otherwise known about. I used to think Dad was cheating himself. But searching every corner of the globe for good deals -- from silk ties for a dollar in Korea, to shell necklaces in Hawaii for his daughters -- it turns out he's been living a rich and rewarding life...at a discount.

"Hey, Dad," I said, before letting him get off the phone, "is there any way we can get a deal like that for Heinz ketchup?"

"I'll look into it," he said. I'm sure he will.

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