Gut Instinct: “Cheap, Cheap”

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The Birdie Chirps, “Cheap, Cheap”
Sometimes contemplating the bill can take all pleasure out of the eating experience

If I were elected president—highly unlikely, given my checkered past of pilfering my mother’s purse change and guzzling strangers’ abandoned beers—I would make my birthday a national holiday. Let’s call it Josh Day.
On Josh Day I’d urge, no, demand my citizenry to follow me to my preferred celebration spot, Coney Island. We’d unfurl blankets, sunscreen ourselves snow-white, devour Zapp’s Jalapeño potato chips and drink icy cans of Coors Light until I drunkenly, hilariously nuke some negligible nation like Luxembourg.

Sadly, I can’t derail the Obama Express (is America less likely to vote for a drunkard Jew than a black man?), so Josh Day will never receive national acclaim.

“But every day’s a Josh Day,” a friend points out. “You always pick the bars and restaurants we go to.”
That’s because I’m always right. Except when I suggest imbibing the viscous liquor Zwack. Or eating embryonic ducks. Or sampling the Navy Yard Cocktail Lounge’s $3 cocktails and similarly affordable friction dances. Still, my smartest move—besides removing my navel piercing at 19—is celebrating my summertime birthday at Coney Island. After 29 years of birthday fetes, from Chuck E. Cheese’s animatronic high jinks to college keggers, my beach formula has proven the swellest—and cheapest. All I require are endless 99-cent Coors Light silos to unleash my battle cry, “It’s my birthday, bitches!” as the Cyclone zooms me to heights that dizzy me like a night’s ninth beer.

My party’s low-cost component is emblematic of my cheap-bastardness, which dictates I obtain pleasure from the absolute bottom. Take a recent weekend in geriatric wonderland—Sarasota, Florida—where a friend was getting hitched. Did the duo’s love make my heart swell like a Ballpark frank? Certainly. However, my happiest moment was dining at Tasty Home Cookin’, a greasy spoon with a countdown timer to Christmas 2008. The strip-mall outpost served three griddle-cooked burgers for $1.86. They were as wonderful as post-coital bliss, and far tastier, which makes me wonder what I’ve been doing wrong.

Conversely, inciting my drunken-stepfather ire is simple: Invite me to your birthday dinner. If the event’s BYOB, like at Prospect Heights’ jerk-shrimp paradise The Islands, then I’m placated. Otherwise, I avoid birthday get-togethers like I did my high school neighbor Heather. This stocky, apelike lady—her hair scraggly as a heavy metal headbanger’s—Peeping Tommed me every morning. Then she’d inform me of my underwear’s color while we waited for the bus.

“Blue,” she’d say, the words slithering from her pink, fur-lined lips, “with stars. Lots. And lots. Stars.”
I shiver equally when I recall that moment, as well as a recent birthday fete at Korean long-timer Woo Chon. It’s on a Midtown block so desolate that one can urinate on the sidewalk like a flea-bitten mutt. The block’s homeless élan didn’t impact menu prices: “Twenty-five bucks for barbecue!” I cried, flipping through the disintegrating menu. “Five bucks for watery Hite beer!”

“Hahahahahahaha!” my dozen dinner companions laughed, which translates to, “We’re ordering enough food to sate a battalion of bulimic cheerleaders.”

I white-knuckled my wallet as eight bottles of bracing soju were ordered, followed by a dozen beers. Seafood pancakes, mushroom dumplings and tubular spicy noodles came next, followed by raw steak and sea creatures for barbecuing.

“I think we need another order of shrimp,” said a bald eater, smoke wafting around him. “Who wants shrimp?”
I shook my head as emphatically as Roger Clemens denying any steroid wrongdoing.

“More shrimp it is!”

Mentally tabulating the bill removed the pleasure from my charred, lettuce-wrapped bulgogi. For the first time in a great long while, alcohol provided zero solace. Upon the night’s gluttonous, plate-licking end—sweet strips of raw beef served as dessert—the bill thudded onto the table like a cartoon anvil.

It sat dead-fish still until a diner cloaked in an ill-fitting suit grabbed it and performed mental math: “Fifty-six dollars each,” he proclaimed.

My heart wept as I envisioned all the dollar dumplings I’d never eat. Diners whipped out billfolds. “Happy Birthday” was sung with gusto. I tossed in my sad-sack Mastercard. When the receipt arrived, begging my John Hancock, I noticed an aberration: I was charged $57, not $56.

“Surely there’s been a mistake,” I said, masking my fury with a grin.

“No mistake.”

“Huh?”

“We charged you an extra buck to round out the tip.”

“Huh,” I replied, making a mental note to steal the suited man’s drink when he least expected it.

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