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Captive of heritage


“Samples!” I said out loud, to no one in particular, as I rolled my cart through the grocery store.
Getting excited and going for a free sample is something I always do, and it’s one of those times I always think of Dad.
The old man could never pass up something offered at no charge, sometimes to the point of being weird. As a kid, for example, I remember purposely parking the car on the far side of the Woodfield Mall so we would walk through Marshall Fields on our way to Sears.
Dad worked for Fields and, as an employee, got a discount but most of the Fleck business went to the famous catalog outlet nevertheless. Always on the lookout for the best bargain, Sears provided the better value, and Dad especially liked Craftsman tools because of the lifetime warranty.
As detailed numerous times in this space, Dad was a garage mechanic who could get the job done with a minimum of tools. He might not have the heavier duty 1/2 inch drive socket to remove a recalcitrant lug nut, but he did have a six foot section of pipe he could slide over a flimsier ratchet to turn it into a monster nut or tool buster. As a result, more than a few treks through Fields to Sears was made to return a tool that looked like it was run over by a tank.
But why did we go out of our way to go through Fields?
Simple. The route took us by the perfume counter of the pricier store, where a free spritz of the latest Eau de Cologne could be obtained for the asking to a bemused sales girl. We might be carrying channel locks destroyed in a meatball mechanic’s operation, but we smelled of high society and Chanel No. 5.
As a kid, I was sometimes embarrassed by this behavior. Maybe he didn’t mind smelling like a flower but life isn’t easy for a boy who smells like Sue. By my teens, the embarrassment turned to mortification. It wasn’t just the oddity of a grown man seeking out toilet water samples but my perceived cheapness of the behavior. Why couldn’t my father be like the other dads who passed on freebees and smelled of Old Spice and Right Guard?
It wasn’t just strange but cheap, or at least it seemed so at the time. But over the years, I’ve learned the nuance between cheap and thrifty. One is a discipline you impose on others, like not leaving a tip for a waiter. The other is something you impose on yourself, like going without, despite what anyone else might think.
And over the years, I’ve come to learn and appreciate the personal history I suspect makes him so thrifty. Born to a middle class family who ran a butcher shop on the North Side of Chicago, he watched as the Great Depression dried up customers. It was serious enough that, in eighth grade, he dropped out of school to help out at the store.
And helping out is something he continued to do the rest of his life.
The sample that day I was in the grocery store turned out to be for a mixture of spices added to olive oil used for bread dipping. I tried one, liked it and helped myself to several more, all the while chatting up the older lady running the station.
Talking to everybody, especially if they are working, is another habit I get from Dad.
Then I was off to finish the marketing which brought me to the beer, wine and liquor section of the store. There in the corner was a second sampling station, this one featuring Margaritas offered by an attractive younger woman.
Returning home, Sabra pointed out we already had plenty of dipping concoctions and Margarita mixes.
I just shrugged and offered, “Sometimes you cant escape your heritage.”