Monday, March 28, 2011

Waste Not, Want Not

I like my coffee in a cardboard container instead of a cup. I guess it was all those years of going to the coffee cart at work and drinking coffee out of a container that created this odd habit. When I go to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks for a coffee to take home, I like to rinse out the container and re-use it once or twice before throwing it away. This not only allows me to drink coffee I brew at home out of a cardboard container, but also gives me a chance to re-use something that is still perfectly usable before throwing it away. My youngest son was recently startled to find that I did this. He wonders why I just don't buy a package of cardboard containers and use a new one when I have coffee at home.

Where am I going with this? Well, I want you (and him) to understand where this habit of thrift developed. I don't think of myself as cheap. The smoke coming off my American Express card should be proof of that. Also, thanks to my wife's love affair with Costco, I have a closet full of cardboard containers, and can well afford to use a new one every time I want a cup of coffee. Its just that my upbringing won't let me. I remember as a kid, nothing in our house was wasted. That wasn't just a quirky habit, that arose from need. My parents could not afford even small extravagances, and never owned a credit card, so the money my father brought home each week had to pay all our expenses. As a result, my mother found ingenious ways to stretch a dollar.

We ate a lot of dinners made with some kind of pasta cooked with other simple ingredients like beans, lentils, peas, escarole and potatoes. (By the way, please don't feel sorry for us...I still enjoy these delicious and nutritious 'paisano' dishes today.) Our dinner glasses were provided courtesy of Welch's Jelly, and our dinnerware was supplemented with china handed out at the local movie house to boost attendance. We couldn't afford soda, so Mom bought little cans of flavored syrup made by Snowcrop. One can of this sugary stuff made two quarts of imitation soda, and started lots of cavities in our unsuspecting teeth. Tupperware was out of our reach, but every empty ricotta container found its way into the cupboard to be reused for storing leftovers. Balls of bakery string, used rubber bands, and pieces of used aluminum foil were in the "junk" drawer for when they were needed.

A lot of our clothes came from Cousins Hand-Me Downs, Inc. That's not a store, but a way for poor families to recycle clothes as the older kids outgrew them. I'd go to a birthday party and see my cousin Sal wearing a favorite old shirt of mine. When crew neck sweaters came into style, I just took my v-neck vest and wore it backwards under my jacket. School lunches came from home...there were no school cafeterias with healthy menus served by ladies in hair nets. Our brown bags dripped oil and reeked of Italian tuna fish, peppers and eggs, potatoes and eggs, onions and eggs, or on a good day, a veal cutlet hero. Spending money came from picking up empty soda bottles and taking them to the candy store, where we always had to argue with the proprietor to convince him we had bought the bottles there before he would cash them in.

I remember my Dad straightening out nails that had bent when he tried to pound them in. He put the straightened nails into his "toolbox", really an old shoebox, to be used again. Mom collected Green Stamps which were given out by certain participating merchants and pasted into books. Books of stamps could be redeemed for nifty items like toasters and beach chairs. The Green Stamp redemption center was on Pitkin Avenue, and I remember how excited Mom would get when we walked down there to get some simple household item she could otherwise not afford. Televisions had vacuum tubes, and when a TV set went "on the fritz" we would go to Louie's candy store where a TV tube testing machine was set up. You pulled the tube out of your television that you thought was burned out and plugged it into the tube tester. If the needle on the machine went into the red zone, it meant the tube had to be replaced. Louie sold replacement tubes and for a couple of bucks, you were back watching Howdy Doody again.

As much as this sounds like a chapter out of Charles Dickens, this is how we were raised. Appliances were fixed, socks were darned, shoes were resoled, and nothing went into the garbage until all the useful life had been squeezed out of it. And so my son, there you have it, the reason your old man re-uses his coffee cups. Mom would have been so proud.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I don't know, after reading this latest blog of yours, were we brothers???

I feel like I never left my childhood, what wonderful memories!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Don't worry Joe, we will be back in our childhood soon enough.