Strangers will often surprise you. That’s one of their worst qualities. I enjoy predictable strangers, who will stand quietly as we ride an elevator together, sit quietly next to me on a plane, or in general, never acknowledge my existence in any way. That would be ideal. I try to be this type of stranger to others. A glaring violator of my preferences is the man who ate at the table near mine during lunchtime yesterday at my favorite Chili’s.

I was there with a co-worker who admittedly is irrelevant to this story, but important to the image I am portraying because I don’t want to be seen as a man who eats alone. We had just received our meals when a man approached our table while his lady-companion took a seat at the table next to ours. I will call the man Jeff because that is what I heard his annoyed companion call him a short time afterward (A saint of a woman if you ask me).

“How much did that cost?” Jeff asked me, gesturing at my bacon cheeseburger and fries in a plastic basket. The fact that he spoke to me at all nearly ruined my meal, but his tone made it worse. He asked the question like he had just walked up to the hotel clerk and asked the wi-fi password. I don’t work here (in case I haven’t made that clear).

I looked up at him and collapsed my eyebrows down further on my face, and then glanced back at my meal as if considering how much it had cost. I knew how much it cost. The prices were right there on the menu, $12.95. “Nine bucks,” I said. You may wonder why I chose to lie, but I don’t see it as a lie. If you ask me a question that you have no right to ask me, it’s not a lie if I tell you the wrong answer. Misleading you is an appropriate response to your rude behavior. You don’t deserve a correct answer.

Now, due to this forced interaction, I can’t help but to keep tabs on Jeff through various sideways glances in his direction. He’s got shaggy hair, in badly need of a cut, but has decided to wear a tattered baseball hat instead. He must be married to the unfortunate woman across the table, because no self-respecting single woman would be seen with a man who puts so little effort into his appearance. My critique is broken by the vibrating phone in my pocket —my brother Josh is calling.

I ignore it, but not just because I’m at dinner. I wouldn’t have answered anyway, even if I wasn’t busy. I don’t have a strained relationship with my brother, but he is the one who wants to talk to me. I’m not going to make myself available just because someone has something to say. Your phone call is just a request to talk. I will respond to your request at a convenient time for me since I’m doing you the favor by making time for whatever crap you want to talk about. Ignoring phone calls isn’t rude at all if you actually think about it. Who are you to dictate 1) that I have to talk to you, and 2) that I have to do it right this instant? You think you can decide those things just because you happen to have my phone number? Get over yourself, a lot of people have my number.

But anyway, making great points about phone etiquette is not the point of this story. The point is, Jeff opened himself up to being judged and I will continue to judge him. I now notice that he has on a Turkey Trot 5K T-shirt (it’s June by the way). But for the sake of expediency, I will ignore the season discrepancy of his attire. A 5K shirt? really? Does everyone you interact with need to know that seven months ago you walked 5K? Is that part of your identity? Between the stupid T-shirt and aforementioned head aesthetics, I determine he’s a shlub. Or maybe, he’s just cheap. I mean, it is a free T-shirt, and he did have the audacity to ask the price of my meal.

As the afternoon rolled on, I picked up more evidence that Jeff is, in fact, one cheap bastard. He suggests some bottom-tier menu options to his wife and then allowed her to order first. A gentleman? Far from it. After she orders, he then quickly slaps his menu shut and says to the waiter, “We’ll be splitting that.” The woman shot him a look that made it clear to me, and anyone else that was as absorbed with that table as I was, that they had not discussed this decision beforehand.

But alright, maybe they are just not very wealthy. Fair point, me. I decided that I would do further research. I look across that table at a clearly annoyed co-worker, so I decide to let him into the investigation, “What do you think?” I say to him, “Is that guy cheap or poor?”

“What guy?” he says, oblivious as a child.

“What guy?” I repeat, incredulous that I work with such a dullard, “the guy that asked me how much this food costs.”

“Oh,” he says dumbly, “That was like… 10 minutes ago. Have you been thinking about him this whole time?”

I shrug and go back to silently eating my food and subtly watching Jeff be insufferable. With most of his food gone, he calls the waiter over to show him something, a hair in his food. Jeff got angry and really animated after the waiter politely suggested that it could be his (Jeff’s) hair in the food. Upon further examination that is a quite reasonable suggestion since its length, waviness, and color all exactly match the hair of the person eating the meal. After some back and forth and one-sided politeness on behalf of the waiter, I see this poor servile man apologize and excuse himself.

Jeff quickly became in good spirits and gave his wife a nod and smile as if to say, “See? It worked.” I know Jeff so well at this point that he hardly feels like a stranger; he now feels more like an awful acquaintance. I finish my meal and see my eating companion is distracted by his phone. That feels rude, but I choose to ignore it since the waiter was heading back to Jeff’s table with the check. Jeff seemed confused that the meal wasn’t free, and then started to pat the pockets of his jeans and the imaginary pockets on his tacky 5K t-shirt before giving his wife an unconvincing look of shock. This show is clearly for the benefit of the waiter who needs to believe that Jeff accidentally forgot his wallet in the car. Jeff left for his car and never came back.

For fifteen minutes I watched his unfortunate wife(?) become more flushed and embarrassed, constantly checking her watch for the time. Finally, I see her look around and then covered her face with one hand as she took hurried steps out of the restaurant and into the parking lot. Jeff then pulled up in a newer model sports car and apologized to his wife until she finally got in. I knew it, a damn cheapskate.

Moments later the bill arrived for my and my co-worker’s meal. “You got this?” I say as I turned to leave. I was already late getting back to work.

2 thoughts on “Cheapskate”

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