I just bought a bottle of Waterman’s ink for $11.34, tax included. The bottle contains 50ml, or less than two ounces, of black ink. This makes ink far more expensive than wine, even quite superior wine. I would have complained—or at least exclaimed—about the price, but the man who sold it to me was so pleasant and so knowledgeable about fountain pens that he quite took the whine out of my sails.
I can remember when a bottle of ink cost 15 cents. Memories of much lower prices of an earlier day are a standard complaint of—shall we call them?—the no-longer young. I remember when this hit my father, a remarkably generous man but a man who, in old age, would be shocked at the price of a restaurant check, an item of clothing, downtown parking. One comes into one’s maturity with a certain set of numbers prevailing, and when the numbers change, inevitably upwards, the phenomenon known in the car business as “sticker shock” hits hard.
I remember in my twenties buying excellent Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth, button-down shirts for $7.50. Those same shirts now sell for $92. One has to grimace and bear it—or, in the case of these shirts, go topless. I remember when candy bars were 5 cents and so were Cokes. Cigarettes, now something like $10 a pack in Chicago, were 25 cents when I began smoking at the age of 16. That I don’t buy candy bars or drink Cokes and long ago quit smoking is beside the point. Gasoline when I began driving was around 30 cents a gallon. In 1970, I bought a new Volvo for $3,000. Today cars I wouldn’t care to own are priced in the 20-grand range. It’s not the principle, you understand, it’s the money.
Everyone has his price, beyond which he cannot go. I remember having dinner with a friend in the Oak Room at the Plaza. We ordered a bottle of wine, salad, and Chateaubriand for our main course. When the waiter asked if I cared for a vegetable, I thought about peas, but glimpsing the menu, I noted that they were $8. I couldn’t do it; I could go $4 for peas but not $8. I went without a vegetable.
I wrote a short story in which my main character, a well-to-do physician, is taken by his lady friend and her circle to a restaurant in Los Angeles where his share of the check comes to $680, tip included. Afterwards he tells her: “I’m not a $680 dinner guy. It’s not that I can’t afford a dinner like that from time to time. It’s just that I feel there’s something intrinsically wrong about it. People lie and cheat and even kill for money. This being so, I’ve always felt that the least I can do is respect it. Spending that kind of money for a meal isn’t, in my opinion, respecting it.”
I steer clear of immensely expensive restaurants. My taste buds aren’t worthy of them. A few years ago, though, I was taken to Daniel, then the restaurant of the moment in New York. My host remarked, “Didn’t I read somewhere that you were opposed to expensive wine?” I corrected him: “Not at all. I am only opposed to paying for it. I’ll have a bit more of the red, if you please.” More recently I was taken to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, a restaurant where the fixed-price dinner was $175. With a bottle of wine, tax, and tip, that makes for a $500 dinner for two. The next morning the man who took me sent me, via email, one of the most charming compliments I have ever received. He told me that he was angry with me because he enjoyed our conversation so much that he forgot what he ate.
Some people are of course much freer with money than others. These others, like the character in my story, like me, feel they mustn’t blow it frivolously. Are we merely cheap, unsporting, or instead careful, responsible? In his poem “Money,” Philip Larkin writes: And however you bank your screw, the money you save / Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave. By that shave Larkin means the undertaker’s shave of one’s corpse. Which is a darker way of saying that you can’t take it with you, the first and truest maxim about money.
Still, while alive, one doesn’t want to leave it just anywhere. In money matters, lines must be drawn, proportion maintained, measure observed. “Only the gauche, the illiterate, the frightened and the pastless destroy money,” says a character in The Mansion, the final novel in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I agree, and wonder if my new $11.34 bottle of Waterman’s ink will see me out, so that, at these prices, I won’t have to buy another.