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When the economizing instinct is cultivated with fierce discipline, it does not wilt but is strengthened and drives powerfully forward, through, upward. Damn those who would standathwart.

You have no need of bright lights or glowing tongs: I admit I’m a clipper of coupons, a sniffer-out of sales, a demon for deals. I don’t want to pay the standard fare; what is paid must be earned, and life is too short.

For years the dear people of Safeway have manipulated me like a pigeon in a Skinner box. This robust virtue of frugality, my bulwark against the sapping of purpose and the dissipation of ideals, has by these charming geniuses been seduced into a maze of infinite triviality. The saver in me has been alchemized into a conspicuous waster.

When those bastards finally go under, the drinks will be on me.

How long have I let myself go this way? Not more than 12 years, for that’s how long I’ve lived in Washington. But just when the debauch began I cannot determine. (In those days, such being the nature of vice, it was a mere rill to the bog I’m in today.) What does it matter now? I am not a lawyer, thank God! I have better things to do with my time than chronicle the steps down which I’ve tumbled.

Living hell is not the best revenge.

I remember, even without notes, that Safeway long ago had several concurrent types of sales. Before I ever scissored out a coupon I was scoping their aisles for the various degrees of discount, signaled by attractive little cards affixed to the shelves. My memory is faint, but I remember “Bonus Buys” as one of the categories, and I think that may have been the most annoying, the one on which they had the mad audacity to bray about their generous deduction of 7 or 9 cents from a can of Progresso soup.

In those days, youth having more strength than age, I still had not been so degraded that I couldn’t muster a fuck-your-eyeballs at such abuse. Then I’d have walked next door and paid twice the price just to spite them. Seven cents! Nine cents! I’d have sooner knelt to kiss the cleft in their hooves.

But, as the novelist put it once, something happened. Somewhere, somehow, I bent, I bowed, I yielded. I have searched my memory for the moment of choice, the fork in the road, the day of decision; I have asked myself over and over when did I see the Fates over my shoulder, knitting their straitjackets or whatever it is they do. No gong ever sounded, no hell-warmed statue ever warned me, “This is the crossroads—choose well!”

However it happened (grant me at least a second’s respite in that impersonal third person) I was eventually watching for their weekly ads in the Washington Post. Every week they printed eight coupons, which, when presented along with a manufacturer’s coupon, doubled (with limitations that I can’t recall) the value of the manufacturer’s coupon. Is that all clear? (You not only need a lawyer to read a parking sign in this town, but also to shop for mayonnaise.) Maybe you remember those coupons. It really wasn’t so long ago. It seems like only yesterday.

“There is some shit I will not eat,” said Olaf Glad and Big, and it’s a good thing to tell yourself. But I did cut out those eight coupons every week. I did try to use them all. I certainly went that far.

Then the sons of bitches changed the deal a bit. Just one coupon every week—use it with as many manufacturer’s coupons as you like. Sly. One coupon instead of eight—sounds simpler, no? The catch was that you surrendered the coupon when you used it. So you couldn’t come back the next day as you could when you had eight coupons. It’s all on one throw. It was a nasty little twist, and as those piss-garglers usually arrange things, they could claim that the change was done just to help you even more.

(But what else but crap could you expect from a company that only recently was bragging about its fish: “Nobody catches it fresher”? See, when they hook a stale one, they throw it back.)

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Then they said, “We’re going to make life easier for you. Forget the coupons. No more hassle. We’ll simply lower the price on almost everything.” I don’t remember exactly, but something like that. A real break for the consumer.

My chronology may be off a bit here. As I said, I wasn’t writing memos to file every time they jerked my chain.

Then, for a while, they were saying that if you ever waited in line behind three or four others (just how many I forget) you’d get your groceries free. Did you ever get yours free? I didn’t; I didn’t even bother trying because I read the small print and puked.

Those were grim days. I knew by then that I hated Safeway. But I was hooked. They started offering double coupons, without your having to clip a coupon of theirs. I bought it; double coupons was something I could understand. It was Safewayism with a human face.

My hatred wavered. Maybe this time we could make it work, Safeway and I. They’re just people, right? I told myself. They’re just trying to get through the day so they can get home and put their feet up and read with a beer at hand too, right? They just charge a dollar-ninety for tofu because they have to, right? I’d do the same thing in their shoes, right?

I had a brief moment of love for Safeway. It really is nice, I thought, the way they discount their Belair frozen vegetables every now and then. It really is endearing, it seemed to me then, the way they leave those little 89-cent astrology books by the checkout aisle so you can sneak a look at the future while your life ticks away in line. “Isn’t it sporting,” I heard myself think, “that they give you the item free if the scanner price isn’t the price on the shelf?”

You see how low I had gone. Not merely submission, not mere abject self-abasement, but the whole fucking Stockholm syndrome. How could things possibly get worse?

This is how: They uncorked Pestilence under the name of The Safeway Savings Club.

What a demonic ingenuity conceived The Safeway Savings Club! A hellish but worthy fiend! The company that only shortly earlier had trumpeted its elimination of red tape was vaunting itself as the shopper’s best friend with its most cumbersome and debasing invention ever. An entrepreneurial imagination less perverse would have rejected such a plan (if it could ever have conceived it)—it would have rejected it and said that only the brainless devotees of QVC shopping network would be so low in self-esteem that they would voluntarily register their names and addresses, along with all sorts of other personal information, and carry around a special card JUST SO THEY COULD GET A FEW MORE CENTS OFF ON BANANAS OR RAMEN NOODLES OR TOP JOB! But they’d have been wrong! Now, when something’s on sale, to buy it at the sale price you have to humiliate yourself in front of all the other downtrodden in line and reach into your wallet and show them your card, show them that you too have forsaken all dignity for a mess of porridge. You know they’re recording all your purchases and sorting them with fancy data-crunching computers for their selfish marketing ends. They’re analyzing you from top to bottom. And they send you these little coupons at home, like “$1.00 Off Candy,” for instance, or “Free Bonkers Cat Treats.” Last month they sent me one that said I could get a dollar off dressing or cranberry sauce if I spent $50 (or was it $500?) on other Thanksgiving stuff—I don’t remember exactly, because for once I threw the damn thing immediately into the trash.

That was the first spark of grace, the turning point in my life. I don’t know why I love searching the paper for coupons, saving them, looking for ways to use them during sales for maximum effect. Most are for worthless stuff I’d never buy. Most of the ones that aren’t for dog food are for breakfast cereals that cost so much that even with a couple dollars off they’re about twice what I’d consider a reasonable price. (Why does anyone buy boxed cereal anyway, when fresh oatmeal, millet, and wheat berries are available, at about a fifth of the cost, at any health food store?) It makes no sense to love coupons.

But I do. It’s not my fault. I’m addicted to them. It’s not something I do that’s wrong, it’s something that’s wrong with me. It’s a DISEASE. They just haven’t found the cause yet. There’s a gene I’ve inherited that predisposes me to salivate at the prospect of two Pop-Tarts for the price of one. Some chemical imbalance in me fails to shut down the coupon receptors in my brain.

The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. OK, I’ve done that. Now you all know my shame. I’m a sick man. True, society and heredity made me sick, but even so. I can’t afford to wait to see if this will be covered by President Clinton’s health care proposal. The time to act is now.

I swear, today, that I am throwing out all my coupons. I am just saying no. Get thee behind me, coupons!

I can live without the comfort of a 35-cents-off Grey Poupon in my pocket. I can live without the happy prospect of feasting on the Sunday ad supplements. I can live without the vision of “15 cents off when you buy two” dancing in my head.

I can do it! The wind is at my back! Up your bleeding ass, Safeway! I’m gonna burn that fucking card!