On this theme Jasmine began remembering what it was like for us growing up and how aware we were of the fact that our parents struggled to make ends meet. They didn't moan about it but we knew there were times when money was tight. She recalled going to the movies with her Mom, a treat in itself, and how they would buy a ten cent candy bar each, but they paid separately because making a 20 cent purchase would incur a one cent sales tax as opposed to separate ten cent purchases. Let that sink in for a minute...a purchase strategy calculated to avoid paying one penny more! In the 1950s, pennies still had value. Today they have become so worthless as to be on the endangered coin list.
I recall when our local theater, the Colonial on Broadway in Brooklyn, raised the price of counter candy from five to six cents. Foolishly, they also provided a vending machine that still charged five cents for candy: savings, one cent. Of course the candy in the machine was changed only with every Presidential election, but that didn't matter; we had an extra penny in our pockets for a piece of licorice or those red wax lips behind the sliding glass counter in Louie's Candy Store. We really believed in the old adage: "A penny saved is a penny earned." (Incidentally, a small bag of movie popcorn then was fifteen cents; last week I paid six dollars!
Then there were the five cent soda machines that were marvels of automated vending. You put in your nickel and pushed a button for the desired flavor...cola, orange, grape, lemon-lime or root beer. At this point, theoretically anyhow, the machine would dispense an empty paper cup and fill it with a mixture of flavored syrup and plain seltzer. I say theoretically because one rarely got all three in the correct sequence. Sometimes the cup would fail to drop and you watched horrified as your syrup and seltzer flowed down the drain. At other times the cup would drop but the syrup dispenser malfunctioned and you got a cup of plain seltzer for your nickel. Getting all three elements to work together was like hitting a slots jackpot at Atlantic City.
There were penny gum and Spanish peanut machines, drugstore scales where you got your weight and fortune for a penny, penny candies by the dozen, newspapers and cherry Cokes were three cents, and there were penny parking meters and penny arcades where a bankroll of fifty cents provided a couple of hours entertainment. Back in the day no self-respecting kid would fail to stoop to pick up a penny in the street. By habit, people would check the coin return slots of pay phones for that five cent windfall. We didn't have to recycle bottles; kids roamed the streets looking for empty bottles to joyfully redeem them for the two or five cent deposit.
I don't think I saw a twenty-dollar bill until by first job. People gave kids two dollars in an envelope for Communion or Confirmation and you were overawed to see that much money in one place. People actually carried change around in their purses or pockets and used it to make purchases. My Dad carried three pounds worth of loose change in his suit jacket pocket. In tough times I would sneak a dime to supplement my allowance. Luxuries were rare for us but not unknown. Jasmine remembers getting a new bike for Christmas, and one year when my baseball career still showed promise, my parents bought me a Rawlings baseball glove that cost $60 at the sporting goods store on Pitkin Avenue. I was thrilled of course, but looking back, I now realize it probably represented a week's pay for my Dad.
Thrift has become a scarce virtue in the modern era. Few people bother to save up for a significant purchase; they just whip out a credit card that isn't yet maxed out and, like Scarlett O'Hara, worry about the consequences tomorrow. So my dear Ava, your practical and sensible approach to spending money gives Grandpa hope that your generation will somehow avoid bankrupting the country before my Social Security runs out. Thank you sweetheart.
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