The Magazine

The Numbers Game

Joseph Epstein, spendthrift.

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Every man, they say, has his price, and I believe I may now have established mine. In fact, I seem to be establishing and reestablishing my price almost daily.

A box seat ticket to a Chicago Cubs game played in midsummer has gone up to $80, and I found myself not ready to pay that sum, drawing another of those wobbly lines in imaginary sand. Last year the same ticket cost $65, which I thought sufficiently outrageous. The $15 jump means that, when I take someone to a game, after adding in parking, a couple of beers, peanuts, and hot dogs, we're talking about a $200 afternoon. For a baseball game! Something feels wrong about this. I usually buy twelve tickets, two each for six games. This year I have decided to buy just four tickets for two games.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran one of those articles--a less than hardy perennial--on the best hot dog in America. After surveying hot dogs across the country, the author concluded that the best hot dog in the country is available at a stand in a parking lot in Boston. The problem with his selection is that the cost of the hot dog sandwich he chose is $7. A hot dog shouldn't cost more than $2.50, maybe $3.50 with fries. It's not the principle of the thing; it's the price.

A month or so ago, I took my raincoat to the dry cleaner; just the coat, no detachable lining, no extra collars. When I picked it up, the charge was $18. "Eighteen dollars!" I exclaimed. I don't exclaim often--I prefer my conversation and my prose free of exclamation points--but in this case I genuinely exclaimed. The charge reminded me that, many years ago, my friend the biographer Albert Goldman, shocked at the price he was charged for having a suit cleaned in the Faubourg Saint-Germain in Paris, exclaimed (knowing Al, I'm sure he didn't merely expostulate): "What! I asked you to clean the suit, not reweave it!"

I was taken to dinner not long ago at a Park Avenue restaurant called Daniel. My hosts made a point of saying that they understood that I was opposed to expensive wines, which were served with the dinner, and very good they were, too. "Not at all," I replied. "I am only opposed to paying for expensive wines." I did not inquire about the price of the wine we were drinking, lest the number sour its subtle taste.

My nearest supermarket is a Whole Foods, into which I pop almost daily, for reasons not of health but of convenience. And almost daily I am rocked by the size of my bill. Four or five items, not much heft in the bag, and my bill comes to some silly sum like $46.20, or $38.76. Incredulous, I check the receipt. Disappointed, I find it is never wrong.

On my local classical music station, I hear a haunting piece of music, "Seven Pastorales" by Lou Harrison, but when I go to buy it, on Amazon.com, I discover it costs $59.95. At that price, I can't bring myself to add it to my shopping cart. I purchase, with chagrin, a pathetically small chunk of Parmesan cheese for $9.96. A packet of razor blades sells for $11.95. What's going on here?

I have never considered myself other than generous: a picker-up of more than my share of checks, a handsome tipper, reasonably charitable, a fellow who gives his UPS deliveryman $40 at Christmas. But now I have to consider the possibility that age has rendered me a little near, tight, not to put too fine a point on it, a cheapskate.

Like the man in the old Jewish joke, I may not be comfortable but I make a nice living. So why are all these new prices suddenly getting to me, as they obviously are? Even after factoring in inflation, the problem, I believe, is in the numbers themselves. I remember too many of the old numbers: when a good dinner, a Brooks Brothers shirt, more than a full tank of gas could each be had for less than $10. I could reel off lots of other low prices from the good/bad old days, next to which today's prices seem staggeringly high, but why bother? The point is that paying more for a small piece of cheese than one formerly did for a well-made shirt leaves a small psychological lump in the throat.

They've changed all the numbers on me. Nothing for it but to pay the $2 for the cup of coffee, the $6 for the ballpark beer, the $13 for the greasy-spoon lunch. Live with it, Pops. Of course I can and shall live with it; I only wish I could shut up about it, which I seem unable to do.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN