“How ’bout the price of gas these days”, Mr. Leary complained, “Those pricks over in sand land cut production again!” (his keyword for the middle east)
Marc’s Dad chimed in, “Yeah, and the wife wants to get a god damn truck so we can haul a god damn trailer around this summer.”
He used “god damn” at least twice in every sentence when he was lit.
Marc and I loved hanging out with his Dad’s buddies on a Friday night. We sat at the kitchen table, eager to absorb the loose banter as the “old guys” got drunk.
It was free entertainment for us, and educational too.
The screws in the backs of their tongues had loosened up, and they had just finished talking about taxes, politics, local gossip, and how fetching young Mrs. Fleming was the day before when she cut the lawn in her Daisy Duke short shorts.
It was 1979.
The more inebriated they got, the louder it got, and it was now time to complain about the price of gas.
Mr. Henry added, “It’s getting to the point where I should start taking the bus to work…can’t find a frigging place to park downtown these days anyway, and they’re cranking up the price for Christ’s sake. Hell, it’s costing me two bucks a day to park!”
They took a break from complaining just long enough to tip back their drinks, and take a couple drags from their cigarettes.
“Well my dad has always taken the bus to work”, I spoke up.
They all went quiet for moment. It was a rare occurrence for Marc or I to join their conversation.
Marc’s Dad scrunched his lips together and bobbed his head back and forth like he was fighting back his words.
“Well your Dad’s a cheap bastard son!”, Mr. Leary belted out in laughter.
I was just waiting for a knee slap to follow, when Mr. Henry joined in with his creepy and repressed cackle of a laugh.
Marc and his Dad snapped their heads toward me to see my reaction. At first I was shocked. Then ashamed, and then angry.
I was unusually tongue tied at the hurled insult, and Marc was waiting for my response.
I was stunned by the insult. So much that I couldn’t even muster up a strong come back.
“Well what do you know?”, I said pathetically as I got out of my chair and started toward the back door.
I put on my boots, grabbed my jean jacket, and stepped out into the warm summer air.
I lit up a cigarette, took a big guzzle out of my Labatt’s Blue stubby bottle, and thought of how much Mr. Leary was going to hate waking up the next morning with his tires slashed.
Pretty tough thoughts for someone who had tears running down his face.
I quickly wiped my face on the chance that Marc was on his way out to join me for a smoke.
And sure enough, I heard a voice behind me, “Don’t listen to old man Leary buddy, he’s just a jerk when he gets pissed”, Marc said as he closed the door behind him.
Trying to conceal my weak-kneed state, I asked, “You think my old man is cheap too?”
“Nah! Your old man’s just smarter than those guys buddy. Don’t let it get to ya”, he further consoled me.
I dropped my cigarette butt, stepped on it with a twist, and started walking away.
When I got to the back alley I heard Marc yell from the porch, “See ya tomorrow same time?”
“Yeah…see ya tomorrow”, I yelled back with the toughest low and manly tone of voice I could muster (almost as bad as Keane Reeves).
Walking home Mr. Leary’s words were on a steady loop in my head.
“Well he’s a cheap bastard!” *5 more steps* “He’s a cheap bastard!” *10 more steps* “Well he’s a cheap bastard son!” *20 more steps*
“I’m not your son”, I said under my breath.
When I got back to my parent’s house I entered in the “new way” – stealth mode through the back basement window.
The only way to not wake up my parents. They had recently reamed me out for waking up dad at two in the morning when I used the garage door for an entrance. He was a light sleeper and his work days were long. He worked for the utility company on the 8 floor of a downtown office.
I got safely through the window (without waking anyone up), crawled into bed with my clothes still on, and cranked up The Police in my headphones. I fell asleep to the driving beat of “So Lonely”.
“So lonely……so lonely…..so lonely……”
It was 1979.
I woke up to my mother’s voice, “Brent! I told you before, if you insist on drinking and smoking to all hours of the night, at least take off your stinky clothes and put them in the hamper before you get in bed. The whole basement smells like a drunkard’s den!”
I leapt out of bed, “Sorry Mom, won’t happen again”, I said, as I started stripping off my clothes.
I threw them in a pile by the washing machine, and grabbed some sweat pants on my way upstairs.
“Jesus Brent, put on a shirt for breakfast would ya – I lose my appetite when I have to look at your gross armpits every morning”, my brother said with a twisted smirk on his face.
“Here!”, my mom said as she tossed a clean t-shirt in my face.
We ate in silence for a about five spoon fulls of Frosted Flakes before I broke the sound of our munching, “Mom, do you think dad is cheap?”, I asked.
My brother started laughing out loud, and my mother’s face went red.
“No Brent, your Dad and I are just frugal”, she answered, as she slid two eggs and some bacon strips onto my plate.
“Hoy…they’re so cheap they squeak”, my brother laughed, approximately one second before he received a generous swat to the back of his head.
“No!”, my mother barked.
“Just because some people are careful with their money doesn’t mean they should be looked down upon. You boys don’t hurt for anything and you’re very lucky!”, she exclaimed as she left the room to get our lunches packed.
As usual, my dad wasn’t there for breakfast. He was always gone to the bus stop by the time we got out of bed.
For as long as I could remember that’s how it was, but now I was looking at our family from the outside in for the first time in my life.
My father always took the bus to work, and we never owned a fancy car, or even a new car.
Our family vehicles were wrecks growing up (which we still laugh about when mom and dad are in the mood to reminisce), and we never took vacations further than a hike up a mountain or a canoe trip to a lake.
Our clothes were never “designer”. Most of my youth we lived up north in small logging towns, and a lot of our clothing was purchased from the Sears catalogue.
The more I peered through the looking glass at my family, the more I realized the truth. We were extremely “Just Frugal”.
There was never talk of spending money on university, and to this day in my mid fifties, that is one thing I wish had been different.
I used to sneak into lectures at the University of Victoria posing as a student just to take in the warm glow of academia. I would keep my head down and stay quiet hoping no-one would notice the imposter in their midst.
But when I look back now at where all the characters from our neighborhood ended up, it’s clear to me who the winners were.
Mr. Leary got divorced in my senior year of high school and got fired from his job as a sanitary engineer (garbage man) for being drunk too many times on the job.
Marc’s Dad died a massive heart attack at the age of 51, and the neighbor gossip mongers chalked that up to his massive intake of alcohol and tobacco.
Mr. Henry is still around and in reasonable health considering his age, but they had to downsize when his wife got laid off from her teaching job.
They were never “Just Frugal”.
They had to sell off their boat, the cabin at the lake, give up their trips to Hawaii, and last I heard they still have a sizable mortgage in their seventies.
And in contrast, there’s my parents.
My dad retired at 55 from the utility company, but never stopped working. He just took on other jobs that he loved.
When my brother I both left home after graduating from high school, they moved to Vancouver, then northern B.C. again, then back to the island, then to the interior, and back to Vancouver Island again where they now live in a small “green house”. It has a heat pump and solar panels anywhere you can mount a solar panel – just in case the sun comes out (we’re talking Vancouver island here).
Their utilities are next to nothing (even at 2018 rates) and they’re cost of living is tinier than it’s ever been.
They have a good accountant and they’re experts in money management.
They’ve had to be. They have so much money coming in from their pensions, dividends, and RRIF accounts (Canadian Registered Retirement Saving Income Fund), that they’re only money struggles in retirement have been how to avoid the tax man.
Throughout my adult years I’ve learned a lot more about my father’s life. Turns out he came by his “Just Frugal” ways honestly. His father was a “masterful tightwad”, as our family jokes affectionately.
On my grandfather’s death bed his last words were a sparse and breathless, “I won”.
My grandmother had passed away from Alzheimer’s disease when she was in her early sixties, and after that my grandfather’s main passion in life was keeping as much of his money out of the tax man’s grasp as possible, within the confines of the law (he was a big believer in “the law”, being a retired R.C.M.P. officer).
His final words, “I won”, were in reference to his perceived battle with Revenue Canada.
My brother and I haven’t mastered our elders’ level of “Just Frugal” yet and we’re running out of time.
Last time I had a FaceTime call with my family back home in B.C. my brother was lamenting about the prospect of his old age, and how he thinks he’ll probably have to work until he drops dead.
Our father raised his eyebrows, pushed his chin forward, and flatly said, “Don’t think you’ll be worrying about money when you’re our age.”
It’s after that call when I had a flashback to that night in Marc’s Dad’s kitchen when Mr. Leary insulted our family.
My only regret was not telling Mr. Leary off, or at least saying something wild and outrageous like Johnny Fever would have done.
It was 1979.
Brent Truitt is the author of Heroes & Villains of a BANKRUPT BULLSH*TTER, and a personal finance blogger writing online since 2003.