October 10, 2010

In These Tough Economic Times


Due to what’s so often referred to as “a series of unforeseeable circumstances” these past weeks, I’ve quite suddenly found myself in the same kind of “tough economic situation” faced by so many other unfortunate slobs these days. Yes, I’m sorry to report that contrary to the popular myth, writing little stories is not always a fast and easy track to megawealth. Nobody’s foreclosed on my mortgage and a Wall Street investment firm hasn’t squandered my life savings (good luck on that one, boy), but still. I stubbornly chose to pursue one of the most tenuous, unstable professions there is within an industry that’s been in freefall for a decade, so maybe I shouldn’t be all that surprised to abruptly find myself back in the same position I was in when I was, say, twenty-five and making seventy-five dollars a week.

            On the bright side, I think I have a number of advantages over most of those other losers in the same position. I don’t have the typical added expenses of kids, car payments, a towering mortgage, insurance premiums, or property taxes to worry about. I have the rent, utilities, vices and groceries, and that’s about it. It could be far, far worse I suppose.

            The real advantage I have is that, never having had much of anything, I’ve learned to live with very little. Finding myself in the pit of financial ruin again, the surroundings were familiar. I was just going to have to pull out some of my old frugal tricks.

This is where things got a bit trickier than expected. As was the case twenty years ago, my primary weekly expenses are beer and cigarettes. But it’s become a very different world in that time. When I had nothing before, smokes weren’t eleven dollars a pack. Things have gotten so bad that even the place that used to sell me cheap Chinese knock-off smokes on the sly had to knuckle under and go legit. And with NY state cracking down on reservation smokes it’s not like you can really find cheapies anywhere without making a road trip. Even switching to a cheaper brand isn’t an option, given that there’s no longer any such thing as a “cheaper brand” hidden beneath the taxes.

            That was going to be a pickle given that I had no interest in something all namby-pamby like “quitting,” so I decided to set the cigarette issue off to the side for a bit.

            The beer, I figured, would be a bit easier. Sure, I enjoy a good beer. Several even. But if it was gonna be taking such a massive bite out of the budget, I was gonna have to do something. This at least was easier to figure out than the tobacco dilemma, because thank god there still was such a thing as cheap beer. All I had to do was change brands for awhile. Just until things blew over and those publishing industry megabucks started rolling in again. Not that I was drinking some ultra fancy crap, but I could nevertheless find something a little cheaper. In the end it’s really just a matter of keeping my blood alcohol level in balance, after all. Once it dips below a certain level, things get ugly. It’s better for everyone that I not allow that to happen.

            So fine. I’d switch to Blatz, or Black Label, or my old stand-bys Milwaukee’s Best (it’s not, by the way) and Genesee Cream Ale. Back in the day those last two ran about twenty cents a can, if I’m remembering correctly.

            Okay then. Making the decision was the hard part. Now it was simply a matter of changing my buying habits and putting up with the inevitable jibes from the cashiers who’ve been selling me beer for so many years.

            That’s what I thought, anyway. But what do you do when the stores won’t allow you to change your buying habits?

There’s a grocery store in my neighborhood. There are two, actually, but I’ve been avoiding that other one because the bum who hangs out in front was getting a little too chummy. Nothing wrong with the guy, but there was no getting past him without stopping to chat, and no way of chatting without handing him a smoke and a couple of bucks when it was over. I just couldn’t afford him anymore. And if I intend to take over his spot some day soon, I figure it’s best to simply avoid the store completely for the time being.

            So anyway, there’s this grocery store in my neighborhood. It’s a big place but nothing stupid—it’s not like a Whole Foods or anything (those places terrify and confound me anyway). It’s just a damn grocery store and I know how things are laid out. Plus, given that it’s right on the border between a schmantzy neighborhood and a much less affluent one, the prices tend to be reasonable. So I went in there on a Tuesday morning shortly after they opened, thinking I’d grab myself a case of Schlitz for, I dunno, three bucks (last time I was in Wisconsin a cashier charged me three bucks for a case of Pabst, and I thought she’d made a terrible mistake). I went over to the beer section, and there I stood for a very long time.

            There was no Schlitz, no Blatz, no Milwaukee’s Best. They had Bud and Coors, but I’m not that desperate yet. Everything else was either a high end microbrew or imported from some foreign land. Beyond that, everything was what a former editor of mine called “raisin bran beer”—wheat beer, stout, IPA, double bock, porter.

            In short, my only available choices were things you’d hear those twenty-three year-old clusterfucks next to you at the bar ordering. Even the forties on the top shelf were fancy brands. Nothing against the beers themselves, but the second you slap a style on the label, you’ve immediately doubled the price.

            I headed over to the other (non-refrigerated) beer section where they had different brands, but it was the same story. So where in the hell was the cheap beer? They waste shelf space on non-alcoholic bullshit, Christ, so why not cheap, crappy brands?

            Even the bodegas around here (the two that still sell beer anyway) had nothing but high-end nonsense stashed away in the coolers. Are you telling me the panhandlers are saving up their dimes and ducking in there to break up the sixers of Stella Artois and Woodpecker Cider? What kind of topsy-turvy insane world are we living in? What’s a drunk on a budget supposed to do?

            There is a bar nearby where I drink for free. The catch there is that even if the beer is free, I’m expected to tip well, so that was out. I suppose I could just go to another, poorer neighborhood, but I’m not that ambitious or energetic.

            Then I remembered another option. In my apartment there’s a shelf loaded with whiskey, given to me by friends and assorted well-wishers back when I used to drink whiskey. Good stuff, too, but I had to stop because things were getting far too nasty. Fortunately, when I stopped I was left with a double armload of unopened bottles which have remained untouched for over a decade. Hell, those were better than cheap—they were free!

I get the idea that returning to the whiskey would lead to far more trouble for everyone than merely allowing my blood alcohol level to slip into the red. But in these tough economic times, we all need to do what we can to get by.


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