I Am the Cheap Man

February 20, 2019 Updated: February 20, 2019

It happened this past Saturday night, as it has on others before. My wife and I had taken our seats at a nice restaurant and the waiter asked if we’d like to order drinks. My wife asked for a glass of chardonnay—whichever was oakiest—and I ordered a malbec.

“We have two,” the waiter said, as my wife cringed. “The Leaping Aardvark and the San Clemente” or whatever.

I considered my choices for a second, then asked the question that has brought my spouse so much pain over the years. “Which is cheaper?”

“The Leaping Aardvark,” the waiter said, with an ever-so-subtle air of contempt. “By a dollar a glass.”

“Then the Leaping Aardvark it is, my good man,” I said cheerfully. When I heard the rolling of my wife’s eyes, I didn’t dare ask if there was a volume discount.

Price strikes me as a perfectly legitimate line of inquiry. If the restaurant served one brand in ten-ounce glasses and another in gallon-buckets, wouldn’t you want to know that? Of course you would, because it affects the price of each sip you take.

There is Superman, Spider-Man, and Everyman. I have a humbler title: I am the cheap man.

I am excused on genetic grounds, however, unlike Jack Benny, who in one famous routine was slow to respond to a robber’s question “Your money or your life!” When Benny didn’t answer right away, the robber repeated his demand. “I’m thinking!” Benny replied, irritated.

My last name is derived from the Middle English noun “chapman,” which in turn was derived from “cheapman,” a later variation of the Old English “ceapman,” all of which referred to itinerant peddlers who made the rounds in the manner of the Fuller Brush men and Avon Ladies of a bygone era.

“Cheap” didn’t originally mean shoddy goods, or those haggled over or sold for less than the going rate. It simply referred to the merchandise—pots and pans, simple housewares—sold by the peddlers who hauled it all over Old and Middle England. When burghers learned how to build medieval shopping malls, chapmen came to be viewed as the tacky alternative resorted to by those unable to afford an oxen-powered minivan. The usage migrated to America; among the wares that Ben Franklin sold in his stationer’s shop were “chapmen books.”

At some point, descendants of these hustlers who were embarrassed by the pejorative connotations of their surname elevated the spelling and pronunciation to “Chipman.” There was one such family in my hometown, people of whom it was thought that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. The rest of us were either proud of our humble roots, or unable to afford new name tags for our summer camp clothes.

I’m not reflexively cheap, and sometimes go out of my way to over-tip, generally when I’m feeling low and looking for some good karma. When that mood strikes me, look out—I may tip more than 20 percent! Last Saturday night, I achieved a personal best; 25 percent on dinner, and on after-dinner drinks at the bar. The National Earthquake Information Center detected unusual seismic activity along the eastern seaboard, but it was a false alarm; just jaws dropping along Route 20, Ye Olde Boston Post Road.

Still, these incidents are about as rare as, well, earthquakes. The bar at the Hampshire House, where the comedy series “Cheers” was set, used to have a bell the bartenders would ring whenever some big spender threw down a memorable tip. Ask not for whom that bell tolled. All I know is, it never tolled for me.

At least I’m not as cheap as the father of a former girlfriend of mine. An out-of-towner from Connecticut, he would judiciously exclude our state’s meals tax (5 percent then, a whopping 6.25 percent now) from the base of his tip. “The waiter didn’t serve the tax, and I didn’t eat it,” said the man when his daughter called him on it. In case you didn’t know, Connecticut is sometimes referred to as “The Nutmeg State” because in colonial times sharp merchants from that state would pass off common walnuts as nutmeg, a highly-prized spice, to gullible Massachusetts residents. I guess he was sore that the bottom had fallen out of the nutmeg market.

Not all Chapmans are cheap, but when a streak of generosity manifests itself in one of my relatives, it is usually a symptom of mental decline, as if the two strains can’t be combined without discord. Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, planted apple orchards and gave them away, but he was a member of the Swedenborgian Church, which believes that spirits are flying all around us, all the time. He also wore a saucepan on his head—‘nuf said.

By contrast, consider John Jay Chapman, an American essayist profiled by Edmund Wilson in “The Triple Thinkers,” who burned off his own hand to impress a girl. At that price, I’d say spring for a nice sweater or maybe some jewelry.

I sometimes wonder, when I order beer in a bar, whether I should assert my right to take home the empty bottle and cash it in for the deposit. I bought it, I paid for it—if anybody’s entitled to that nickel, it’s me—right?

I’m sure the bartender wouldn’t object. After all, that would be awfully cheap of him.

Con Chapman is a Boston writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. His biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto saxophonist, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

RECOMMENDED