I was having a conversation today with a friend about people who are miserly, that is who rarely, if ever, pay their fair share at the end of meals, for shared taxi rides and so on. Perhaps every social group has one. Such people, I suppose, are a sort of archetype, the kind who Douglas Adams defined in the Meaning of Liff as those who would argue a meal bill be split evenly, then add two packets of cigarettes to it. In another word, a sponge – someone who takes advantage of others. The people my friend and I described sounded similar, as did the scenarios. They involved food, of course, the ability of which to bring people together – breaking bread etc. – is much discussed; less so its ability to divide, which generally comes down to a question of who’s paying.
I’m still faintly traumatised by a family meal at a Thai restaurant some years ago. The occasion was my youngest brother’s birthday. I had only recently broken up with my girlfriend, had temporarily moved back in with my parents and was, frankly, a mess. I arrived ahead of most of the others, and proceeded to order and down two scotch and waters in quick succession. When it came time to split the bill, my medicinal aperitifs became just one of many bones of contention – I’m fairly sure I offered to pay for them but maybe I too was sponging, broken-walleted as well as broken-hearted – as the whole thing descended into something resembling the International Criminal Court. We don’t often eat out as a family, and I’m not sure if this is due to anticipation of such episodes or if it’s that such episodes are inevitable when we do because we lack the practice.
Tightness does bother me, either because it’s calculatedly ungenerous – I know people who I suspect can only afford the houses they live in because they’re inveterate skinflints – or because a certain kind of dishonesty underlies it: if you can’t afford something I’d prefer you just said, rather than go along with something in the hope your indigence won’t be found (or pointed) out. I have a fairly good idea – as much as a middle-class white male in an affluent country can have – of what it’s like to have no money. Unlike most of my friends I never had a casual high school job. I never wanted one, but nor could I much sponge off my parents, who, having four children, didn’t have much money either. (It still vaguely smarts to remember an outing with my high school friends to some markets, where in one of those ye olde English sweet shops one of them found a particularly unpleasant-looking variety of hard gum called ‘Poor Bens’. Everybody laughed except me, and the worst part was that nobody had needed to explain what the joke was.)
Maybe, anyway, I am a sponge too. Perhaps my antipathy for tightwads contains a grain of self-recognition (not to mention self-loathing). I’m a writer, after all, and the privileges that flow from having a partner with a ‘proper’ job are not invisible to me. I suppose, if I were to propose a rule, it would be something like: be generous with what you can, and honest about what you can’t. One can be generous with time or love, or by listening, or by making space.