It was an oven-like afternoon at Coney Island, and hell had seemingly frozen over.
“I have $40 toward the first round of tortas and huraches,” my friend Matt said.
“What’d you just say?” I asked. It was my 32nd birthday party, and perhaps my advanced age had caused sudden hearing loss. Or maybe it was the copious intake of Coors Light at the beach.
“I have $40 for Mexican food,” he repeated. Color me confused. As charter members of the Cheap Bastard Club, Matt and I like to play an unofficial game we call “out-Jewing.” This penny-pinching diversion is miserly fun for everyone! How’s it work? Well, let’s say you split a couple orders of spicy noodles at X’ian Famous Foods, chased by several cumin-spiked lamb burgers. The bill is $13—$6.50 apiece. the winner would give $6, thereby saving 50 cents. Sure, it’s a small sum, but it’s a big victory for a cheap bastard.
For example, last week at Spuyten Duyvil I mistakenly ordered a round for Matt and myself. I bought Stillwater Stateside saison, made with wine-esque Nelson Sauvin hops, while Matt requested a summery ale from Greenport Harbor. His cost $6. He gave me six dollar bills, as wrinkled as dishpan hands. “what about the tip?” I wondered, as he wandered out of earshot. My cold beer was little consolation to the additional cost.
But now, Matt had a change of fiscal heart. Perhaps he’d won the lottery, or his grandparents had sent him a check for his birthday. Oh, how I loved when my grandparents sent me those $50 checks. For a moment, I’d feel wildly wealthy, like scrooge McDuck diving into his money bin.
“Thanks for the birthday food, Matt,” I said, genuinely touched.
He paused for a beat. “That’s money from last night.”
The previous eve, 19 of us dined at my favorite Caribbean restaurant, The Islands. As if the luscious, coconut-creamy calypso shrimp and lip-singeing jerk chicken are not lure enough, the Islands is also BYOB. You can dine and imbibe in the tree house–like upstairs for hours, not worrying that each beer will add $6 or $8 to a tab—the costly bane of every restaurant birthday dinner.
When the check arrived, the bill neatly broke down to $20 a person, tip included. That was a teensy sum for a three-hour bacchanal. Everyone anted up an Andrew Jackson. I gathered my bag, ready to waddle home. “Hold on,” Matt said. “We’re short $40.”
“Who didn’t pay?” I said.
“Don’t worry, baby,” my girlfriend said, soothing my inner indignant beast. “It’s your birthday. We’ll take care of it.” Five-dollar bills were passed forward, and soon the deficit was a thing of that past. Still, it left a bitter taste in my mouth—or maybe that was just acid reflux, from three too many five-alarm chicken wings.
But the beauty of the digestive system is that no matter how much you overindulge, you’ll be ravenous again. By the next afternoon, I was hungering for huge tortas from Alex Deli (1418 Mermaid Ave. betw. W. 14th & W. 15 Sts., 718-265-0675). Planted a couple blocks from the Coney beach, the teensy Mexican storefront serves skyscraping sandwiches piled with avocado, stringy Oaxacan cheese, refried beans and your favorite flesh. I like spicy carne enchilada best, but juicy al pastor is equally excellent. at $5 apiece, they’re the best boardwalk-area bargain—and my cheapskate-in-arms was going to buy me one! It was too good to be true. It was.
“I forgot that I had $40 in my pocket last night,” he admitted, his cheeks reddened by sun and slight embarrassment.
I was just tipsy enough to be incensed.
“You overcharged everybody!”
“They just paid it forward,” he said.
“Now, what do you want to eat?”
“Carne enchilada,” I said. We called Alex and, in Coors Light–accented Spanish, placed our order. Matt abandoned the beach to retrieve our food, returning with arm-straining bags of grease-stained pleasure. I bit into my torta, relishing the piquant pork, creamy avocado, zippy salsa verde. It was perfect fuel to survive another four hours basking in the celebratory sun.
“How is it?” Matt asked.
“Tastes like a million bucks,” I replied, wiping grease from my lips, “or maybe just 40.”