A nod to my late penny-pinching friend
Which regular human activity reveals the inner truth about a person?
Some would say driving, which can uncover hostility and entitledness in surprising amounts.
Some would say the telephone, which can unmask just how friendly — or unfriendly — you really are.
But my vote goes to the grocery store, in memory of a friend who died a couple of months ago. He was in his late 80s.
This guy shopped with penny-pinching rigor that never quit. He weighed every sack of walnuts. He inspected every fuji apple as if he were a technician working a crime scene.
If he asked the fish guy for a quarter pound of salmon and the guy handed over .27 pounds, there’d be hell to pay.
But my friend’s Greatest Hits took place in the produce aisle. It drove him crazy that the fresh vegetables were automatically sprayed with water.
Don’t tell him that water kept freshness alive. To my friend, it was all a corporate scam to increase the weight of a clump of broccoli rabe or a handful of string beans.
He had grown up at the end of the Depression, so he knew that money didn’t grow on trees. Now he was an old man on a fixed income. Could anyone blame him for refusing to underwrite H2O?
My pal became a legend at his local Safeway for selecting a head of lettuce and then shaking it free of water — often for a minute or more to be extra-sure — before he loaded it into his cart.
He would do this with great showmanship. Shake, shake, shake — and then inspect to be sure not a drop of moisture remained. He didn’t care who saw him.
He knew he was acting out a cliché about older people — that they lose their behavioral brakes as the years wear on. But why let Safeway rip him off? My friend was a study in droplet-shedding determination.
More than once, a fellow shopper — always younger — would notice. But if anyone ever reported my friend to management, I’d be surprised.
At the grocery, shoppers usually don’t worry about others. They just want to get in and out as soon as they can. If some weird old guy is shaking the lettuce, well, it takes all kinds, right?
Over the last 10 years or so, my friend would go grocery-shopping with his wife. Like so many older couples, they not only finished each other’s sentences; they anticipated each other’s moves. And they bickered publicly.
When the couple would arrive at the vegetable aisle, and my friend would aim for the lettuce display, his wife would tell him to knock it off before he had administered his first shake.
They would argue. He would insist. She would give up. The shaking shook on.
How much money did my pal actually save with each shake-a-thon? I decided to conduct an experiment.
From our vegetable hopper, I exhumed a head of lettuce. I weighed it. Then I sprinkled it liberally with water. Then I weighed it again.
Net gain: About .05 pounds.
That works out to about four cents.
I smirked. Surely my friend had wasted four cents many times in his long life. Hadn’t he left the lights on in a room that he had vacated? Hadn’t he let the car engine run while he waited for his wife to emerge from a store?
Was lettuce shaking really worth it?
And yet…To hammer away at an injustice, even one so small, over decades…To strike a small blow for frugality…To stick with a belief even when it was inconvenient…
My friend deserved a nod of recognition, I decided, not a judgment that he was a cranky old cat who had gone around the bend.
So, the next time I grocery-shopped, I ambled over to the lettuce display. It was being duly sprinkled. The lettuce looked glisten-y and green.
I selected a head of romaine. I looked left, then right. I shook the head, vigorously, for about 15 seconds.
A fellow shopper saw me. “Saving a penny, huh?” she said.
“Keeping a memory alive,” I replied.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.