It happened last night, as it has before, on other Saturday nights. My wife and I had taken our seats at a nice restaurant, and the waiter asked if we’d like to order drinks. My wife asked for a glass of chardonnay–whichever was oakiest–and I ordered a malbec.
“We have two,” the waiter said, as my wife cringed. “The Leaping Aardvark and the San Clemente” or whatever.
“You’re not going to embarrass me again, are you?”
I considered my choices for a second, then asked the question that has brought my spouse so much pain over the years. “Which is cheaper?”
“The Leaping Aardvark,” the waiter said, with an ever-so-subtle air of contempt. “By a dollar a glass.”
“Then the Leaping Aardvark it is, my good man,” I said cheerfully as I handed him my menu. I didn’t dare ask if there was a volume discount.
Price strikes me as a perfectly legitimate “dimension of assessment,” to borrow a term from J.L. Austin, the twentieth century British philosopher who began one of his essays with the phrase “In vino veritas” (In wine there is truth) so there’s that connection. If the restaurant served one brand in ten ounce glasses and another in gallon buckets, wouldn’t you want to know that? Of course you would, because it affects the price of each sip you take.
John Lennon may be the egg man; he may even be the walrus. But I am the cheap man. Goo-goo-ga-joob, as John might say.
I am excused on genetic grounds, however, unlike Jack Benny, who in one famous routine was slow to respond to a robber’s question “Your money or your life!” When Benny didn’t answer, the robber repeated his demand. “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” Benny replied, irritated.
My last name is derived from the Middle English noun “chapman,” which in turn was derived from “cheapman,” a later variation of the Old English “ceapman,” all of which referred to itinerant peddlers who made the rounds in the manner of Fuller Brush men, Avon Ladies and Daffy Duck calling on behalf of the Little Giant Vacuum Cleaner Company, Walla Walla, Washington.
“Cheap” didn’t originally mean shoddy goods, or those haggled over or sold for less than the going rate. It simply referred to the stuff, the merchandise–pots and pans, simple housewares–sold by the peddlers who hauled it all over Old and Middle England. When burghers learned how to build Medieval shopping malls, chapmen came to be viewed as the tacky alternative resorted to by those unable to afford an oxen-powered minivan.
At some point, descendants of these hustlers who were embarrassed by the pejorative connotations of their surname elevated the spelling and pronunciation to “Chipman.” There was one such family in my home town, people of whom it was thought that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. The rest of us were either proud or ignorant of our humble roots or unable to afford new name tags for our summer camp clothes.
I’m not reflexively cheap, and sometimes go out of my way to overtip, generally when I’m feeling low and looking for some good karma. When that mood strikes me, look out–I may tip more than 20%! Last Saturday night, I achieved a personal best; 25% on dinner, and on after-dinner drinks at the bar. The National Earthquake Information Center detected unusual seismic activity along the eastern seaboard, but it was a false alarm; just jaws dropping along Route 20, Ye Olde Boston Post Road.
Still, these incidents are about as rare as, well, earthquakes. The bar at the Hampshire House, where the comedy series “Cheers” was set, used to have a bell the bartenders would ring whenever some big spender threw down a memorable tip. Ask not for whom that bell tolled. All I know is, it rarely tolled for me.
At least I’m not as cheap as the father of a former girlfriend of mine. An out-of-towner from Connecticut, he would judiciously exclude our state’s meals tax (5% then, a whopping 6.25% now) from the base of his tip. “The waiter didn’t serve the tax, and I didn’t eat it,” said the man when his daughter called him on it. In case you didn’t know, Connecticut is sometimes referred to as “The Nutmeg State” because in colonial times sharp merchants from that state would pass off common walnuts as nutmeg, a highly-prized spice, to gullible Massachusetts residents. I guess he was sore that the bottom had fallen out of the nutmeg market.
John Chapman, a/k/a “Johnny Appleseed”
Not all Chapmans are cheap, but when a streak of generosity manifests itself in one of my relatives, it is usually a symptom of mental decline, as if the two strains can’t be combined without discord. Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, planted apple orchards and gave them away, but he was a member of the Swedenborgian Church, which believes that spirits are flying all around us, all the time. He also wore a saucepan on his head–‘nuf said. That girlfriend from Connecticut wore a cullender on her head, which she believed acted as a sort of mini-Orgone Box, the appliance developed by Wilhelm Reich that promised to enhance one’s sexuality. She had heard from our apartment mate that wearing a silver metal bowl on her head would give her better and more frequent orgasms. I wrote a poem about it, The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head, which is included in a book of the same name. But I digress.
John Jay Chapman, an American essayist profiled by Edmund Wilson in The Triple Thinkers, burned off his own hand, perhaps to impress a girl. Makes a diamond necklace seem cheap by comparison. I never did anything that stupid, although I put a dollar bill in a Valentine’s Day card to Carolyn Stretz, my sixth grade girlfriend on the assumption that, if it made me happy when my grandmother gave it to me, it ought to work a similar magic on her. I was mistaken–nay, insane–but at least I wasn’t cheap.
I have assembled a fictional panel of Chapmans to explore the question: “Nature v. Nurture v. Madness: Is Cheapness Learned, Inherited or a Necessary Component of a Healthy Mind?” Please join me in welcoming Mark David Chapman, assassin of John Lennon; Tracy Chapman, former Harvard Square busker most famous for her semi-hit “Fast Car”; Aroldis Chapman, flame-throwing left-hander for the Chicago Cubs who currently holds the record for the fastest recorded pitch in Major League Baseball; Duane “Dog” Chapman, famous bounty hunter; and Anna Vasil’yevna Chapman, hot, red-haired Russian spy. Welcome, all of you.
ANNA VASIL’YEVNA CHAPMAN: Zdravstvuj.
MODERATOR: Tell me–have any of you experienced overwhelming feelings of . . . and this is hard for me to say . . . “cheapness” in your everyday lives?
MARK DAVID CHAPMAN: Not me.
TRACY CHAPMAN: No, you just shoot a Beatle whenever you want to impress Jodie Foster.
DUANE “DOG” CHAPMAN: Naw, you got him mixed up with John Hinckley.
Anna Vasil’yevna Chapman
AROLDIS CHAPMAN: Or Squeaky Fromme.
ANNA VASIL’YEVNA: Can I go now? I have a photo shoot at Maxim.
DUANE “DOG”: The Ultimate Guy’s Guide?
AROLDIS: If the Russian chick would loan me an “I” and a “Y” and Tracy lends me a “T” you could spell “solidarity” with my first name. Then her name would be “racy”–like in “Fast Car.”
TRACY: You people must be descendants of that guy who burned off his hand.