“OK, I’ll Have The Special”

“OK, I’ll Have The Special”: A Friday Chat

NICOLE: Hello! Happy Friday! Happy first week at Medium!

ESTER: Yes! It’s been fun. I love highlighting things. In fact I was reading something else recently, the terrifically acerbic Rebecca Solnit piece about Lolita, and I wanted to highlight it too. Or rather, I did! Just, nothing happened.

NICOLE: It’s interesting because I hate it when I check out a Kindle book from the library and someone else has highlighted all the good paragraphs, because I feel like I didn’t get to discover those good parts on my own. But I love highlighting and reading highlights on Medium, because it’s like hearing someone say “I liked this part too!”

ESTER: I have the same reaction. It works for me online in a way it doesn’t work for me in fiction, or at least not as much. People tend to highlight really sappy stuff in e-books. Online it’s almost the opposite: people highlight the sentence where the author really sticks the knife in.

NICOLE: I don’t know what e-books you’ve been reading lately, Ester. Mine have nearly all been about the end of the world, for some reason that I can’t figure out but probably has a psychological underpinning. Like, the last four things I read all involved asteroids or plagues.

ESTER: No zombies?

NICOLE: No, not really. Less “how do we survive,” a la Walking Dead, but “why should we survive,” a la Station Eleven. WHICH I LOVED.

ESTER: Ooh yes, Station Eleven was great. I also read it as part of an apocalyptic / post-apocalyptic cluster, including California and The Blondes.

NICOLE: I haven’t read either of those, so clearly I have to add them to my reading list! I’m on the hugest library hold list for The Argonauts right now, after all of those amazing essays about it.

ESTER: Great! Some fiction to chew on while you wait. So, I have a question! I was in DC this week briefly On Business and I found myself in a situation, at lunchtime, where I could have made one of two choices: get a cheap, quick lunch at a fast food-ish place, or go to a local joint that would be more expensive but that came highly recommended. When I was recently in Philly and faced with this choice, I did the easy thing and grabbed a sandwich, which was unmemorable to the extreme. So this time I went into an actual restaurant, sat at an actual table, ordered an actual crab cake, and ate it all by myself. I had a local experience. And I really enjoyed it! But it cost twice, maybe two and a half times as much as the other place would have.

Traveling is expensive just in and of itself, and it’s so hard to know when to splurge vs when to cut corners. I mean, the crab cake was great. The owner of the place was super nice to me — he even comped me a Diet Coke and a refill. But still: $22 for lunch (that includes a generous tip) when I could have spent under $10.

What do you think? When you’re traveling, do you do this at least once, get the local special or whatever, or is it not worth it?

NICOLE: It really depends on the trip and who’s paying (I’m guessing you were not getting per diem on this one?) but when I’m on my own I do the “one real meal per day” rule. Otherwise it’s coffee shop sandwiches or purse snacks. I like to go to a grocery store and buy a bunch of granola bars and string cheese to take back to the hotel with me.

ESTER: Yeah, that makes sense. Because I was on the go all day, I had to buy dinner out too, and I grabbed something cheap before getting on the train and supplemented with snacks I had brought from home. I wonder how “rich” I have to be or feel before I stop marinating in guilt about spending $20 on lunch once in awhile. I even did work during lunch, so I can write it off as an expense! And still. I thought about it way too much. Though not so much that I didn’t enjoy the crab cake.

NICOLE: I think there’s this huge pressure to buy the cheapest food possible. The Latte Factor and so on. Because our food budget is one of the few things that seems variable, even though we’re probably going to spend within a certain range regardless. Just think what would have happened if you had invested that $20! Which, of course, you’re not going to do, because money doesn’t really work that way.

ESTER: Exactly! I realized just recently that I ended up doing nothing, basically, with the money I received from my uncle’s will. It just evaporated into my savings account. It didn’t make me feel rich, or richer; I didn’t use it for anything special, except as an excuse to get a (cheap-ish) new phone I needed anyway. Or maybe I should say I haven’t, not I didn’t, since there’s still time. But it was a good reminder that even saving money doesn’t make me feel great.

NICOLE: … I like to look at my savings account. Just, you know, look at the number and smile. But I rarely think of “the $20 I didn’t spend on crab cakes” as “$20 that could make my savings account number bigger.” That $20 usually ends up getting spent on a different restaurant meal later in the month. Or on clothes, I guess. Or on a donation to something. Who knows where those $20s go?

ESTER: So true. That $20 wouldn’t make much of a difference to my savings account, my ability to buy an apartment or to send Babygirl to college someday, but it did make a positive difference in my day. I mean, I can’t believe the guy comped my Diet Coke and gave me a refill. That was just so nice! I felt good about humanity after that. That’s worth $20, right? Especially since I was in DC, which is not, by reputation, a city full of kind and generous people.

NICOLE: This is where our DC Medium readers will highlight that sentence and respond “we’re kind and generous!” But yeah, totally worth $20. The fast food place probably would have been stingy with the amount of meat or beans or whatever it put on your food, and the local place is happy to give you a treat.

ESTER: Yeah. Anyway, I grew up in DC. I know how we’re perceived. COME AT ME, ARRIVISTES.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.