Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Cheapest Man in the World

By Monte Lazarus

Many years ago I had the privilege of sharing an office with the Cheapest Man in the World. I confess that I did not know all the men in the world, but it matters not; it was impossible for anyone, of either gender, to be cheaper than him. Let’s call him “J” to protect his identity, and because I don’t want the federal government swooping down on me for revealing the name of an employee from the 1960’s.

J was very smart even though he was a graduate of the Harvard Law School. He apparently majored in “Thrift” as an undergraduate although I don’t recall any college or university offering that major. Here, for the first time, is the true story of a man who beat the system by mastering Cheap.

J did not own a car. J did not have a home telephone. J did not have a checking account. J did not own any decorative items for his apartment. J never bought or brought lunch.

J always lived within walking distance of the office in Washington, D.C. He did not need to rely on an automobile or public transportation. When the Agency moved, J moved along with it to the least expensive apartment in the area. His last apartment I remember was in an “undesirable” part of the city. It was on the first floor and had bars on the windows.

He shopped for food at the market on Fourth or Fifth Street (age dims my memory). The market featured out-of-date stuff that was very, very “inexpensive” – particularly the outdated cereal that was J’s main subsistence.

At lunch J would frequent the government cafeteria. He always had a tea bag, often several weeks old. He took a tray, a bowl, a cup, a large spoon, a small spoon and a napkin. He carefully filled the bowl and the cup with hot water. Then, the tea bag went into the cup; the bowl received a dose of (free) ketchup and voila! Tomato soup and tea. Every day, for years. Of course, J dried the tea bag in the napkin for use another day (or week).

J had a succession of girl friends, none of which, were ever seen in daylight. For a date J would invite a girl to his chateau provided she furnished her own transportation. He made her a sumptuous dinner of recently outdated cereal. The reader may be incredulous at this point, but it is all true. He also relied on the ladies to write checks for him since he had no bank account. He gave them cash.

Since he did not have a telephone he made all his calls from the office. He knew a doctor and called him early one morning to arrange a physical. He told the doctor that he would come in before office hours so that the doctor would not have to charge him a normal fee. Apparently the doctor declined J’s generous offer because J was in a foul mood for the rest of the day.

He obviously shunned department stores, and did his heavy shopping at the Army-Navy Store. J once decided he needed a watchband for his hand-me-down watch. He examined the watchbands of everyone in the office, including one belonging to an independently wealthy agent of ours. J took one look at the agent’s watch and turned pale. He said, “That band must have cost over twenty dollars!” It was solid gold. Two days later J was triumphant. He announced that he had a new band for his watch. “I not only have one, but I bought ten!” he announced. He explained, “I went down to the Army-Navy Store, and there they were. World War II surplus cotton bands for a nickel apiece.” We congratulated him. At about the same time he was once late for a meeting. Reason: he was shopping at his favorite surplus store. We innocently asked if he made any good buys. “You bet! I got a dozen tee-shirts for fifty cents.” We were impressed. “Anything wrong with them, J?” “No,” he said. “But they’re not exactly white.” “What color are they (in chorus)?” “PURPLE,” he advised.

J admired fine clothing. I owned a suit that had a long history. Suits were unknown to us as we grew up, but I did get one as a high school senior. It lasted through that year, through college, and through law school where I had it converted for $10 into a rather awful looking single-breasted model. After returning from the Army I found old ugly still waiting for me. Without much money to buy new clothes I had to rely on it, particularly in bad weather and Washington’s occasional snow. J loved that suit especially when I told him how old it was. That led to a Master Plan. A group of us let J in on our “secret.” We had a source, or so we said, in the D.C. morgue. He had all our measurements. When an unclaimed body arrived wearing a good suit our guy would check all our measurements, we confided. For a nominal tip our guy would let any of us who fit, take the suit. J was thrilled. He called the number we provided and was enraged by the morgue’s response.

Each year we received scenic calendars for the offices. In a week or so the calendar always disappeared from our office. J used them for home decorations.

In those days government employees received eight dollars per diem to cover expenses when in the field. J had a case in Ft. Lauderdale, and the judge had arranged a terrific deal for everyone to stay at a plush place on the beach, including three meals, in exchange for the per diem. Even then the hotel or club was charging well over $100 a day. I arrived at the office early and J was on the phone. He was talking to the general manager of the place in Ft. Lauderdale. “How much will you charge me if I only have two meals?” asked Jim.

The Cheapest Man in the World.

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