Friday, March 30, 2012

I have to ask

A common thread in my life thus far is living in places meant for people with far more $$$ than I've got. Living in Battery Park City's cheapest studio apt. meant grocery-shopping amongst the Tribecans. My free dorm room in the center of Paris was... in the center of Paris. The area of Heidelberg my husband's work brings us to is evidently quite posh. And for reasons I'll never entirely understand, I grew up UMC in a neighborhood that's definitively UC.

And yet none of this has prepared me for life in Euphemistic NJ. It's all so very if you have to ask. Recently, my husband and I walked out of a restaurant upon learning that to eat there after a certain hour, you had to pay a $5 cover charge. Not a minimum, not a fee for a performance or something, just $5 added to your bill. At restaurants without a cover charge, if you order carefully, you can leave spending 'only' $50 for two, and even tipping properly, angering your server, who may have expected as much when seeing your bike helmets, but who was nevertheless accustomed to dinner for two costing at least twice that amount. At the local coffee shop, I do my usual thing of if I order a fancy/foamy drink, I tip the change... above and beyond the expected tip in non-restaurant settings, but evidently stingy by local standards, as a bill is not involved. Despite the fact that my favorite food is cheese, I still haven't made one purchase at the cheese shoppe in town, which we can call either a protest against their policy of not putting prices on anything, or a rational response to having gone in with a friend who did ask and thus learning what their cheeses cost.

And today was my first-ever attempt at getting stuff dry-cleaned since the move. Two shirts, one dress. I went to the place nearest to where the shuttle stops in town, and it was like the waiting room of a spa. Once it was my turn, I had to play along in a discussion of how I would want things done regularly, as though I would be coming in once a week with a big stack of a financier husband's dress shirts, and not (as was the case) dropping off stuff we'd worn to an annual formal event. I did not have any idea about my husband's "starch" preferences, and asked for whatever was cheapest. I suspect this is not done. I then got the stub, and it didn't have prices on it. I asked how much this was going to cost, and was directed to a list of not-unreasonable prices, each preceded by "from." What, I asked, might they be "to"? Much discussion ensued, and if you want a "Seinfeld" reference, think of the episode where George is interacting with a tall, blond, unspecified-European saleswoman who's telling him about an "unadvertised sale." In which I was, of course, George. Long story short, I will learn on Tuesday evening what this will amount to.

What these various issues - things being expensive, high tips being assumed, prices being unmarked - have in common is that there's a general assumption that you're someone for whom money is no object. It's not hard to figure out why this locale is worse in that regard. There are non-rich residents, but they're either college students, who have minimal interaction with life off-campus, or life-of-the-mind, A-list intellectuals, who are not losing sleep over the prices these days at J.Crew.


Britta said...

This happened to me at a campus coffee shop. Things used to have prices marked/signed somewhere, but they recently changed (i.e. increased) and now the baked goods are unpriced. I often ask, much to the annoyance of the hipster undergrads who see waiting on customers as something occasionally attended to between flirting and changing the music. (Wow, do I sound like a grumpy grad student yet?) Anyways, I got a totally ordinary cookie (sugar cookie, with a glaze, no nuts or chocolate chips or anything), expecting it to be about $1.50, only to find out it was $2.25. I bought it, but there is no way I would have paid $2.25 for it had I known in advance. (This is the place that has a PRICE TAG on an item saying it's $3.90, only to have people ring it up as $4. I've complained several times had them re-ring it up (while rolling their eyes at me), but the last time the girl was like, "oh, the price is $4." when I pointed out it was marked at $3.90, she claimed that they didn't put the prices on, and it was actually $4. Since it is only a dime it was more the principle of the thing, but still, I feel like that is worse than not having it priced (and not sure if you can totally do that. Shouldn't there be something illegal about marking something at one price and then charging a different price? I feel this happens a lot at HP restaurants too...))

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm picturing Cobb...

These are both serious Cheapness Studies concerns: unmarked prices, and places whose marked prices fail to match up with the "real" prices, which are of course just the right amount higher that you'd feel petty making a fuss. And... I'd imagine you could go to court over something like the refusal of a place to sell you something at its marked price, but that no one does, at least not for things like baked goods.

But what these things have in common is the sense - possibly unique to the U.S., these days at least - that things are always going to cost give or take the indicated price, but that it would be somehow gauche to expect to pay exactly what's marked. Taxes added to the bill, ambiguous tipping expectations, etc., make it less shocking when something ends up costing a bit more than expected.