Big Moe

Life with a frugal father.

Photo credit: Ian Sane, CC BY 2.0.

Before there was the Dollar Store and Target, before Amazon, there was one place to go for discount purchases: Job Lot. That’s where my father and I spent many of our weekends.

Weird? It never seemed so to me.

Morris Rabinowitz, aka Big Moe, grew up in the Bronx — and he grew up poor. He was a well-behaved son of immigrants who often had a T-square in his pocket and seemed oblivious to the Great Depression of his youth. He found ways to reuse and recycle before it was fashionable, and he decided these thrifty qualities were to be passed down to his children, like it or not.

For example, you always had to know what you wanted before you opened the refrigerator. Had to. If you dilly-dallied between the bologna and the fresh sliced turkey breast, my father’s large right hand would swoop down and slam the refrigerator door shut.

“You’re wasting energy, Elana.”

And there I would be, stuck with the turkey breast. I used to think that little light bulb was made out of solid gold — or some equivalent currency — because why else would I have to make my decision so quickly?

I think this rule allowed me to strengthen my photographic memory, because eventually I could grab the no-frills soda, bologna and Pepperidge Farm bread in seconds flat. The mustard, well, I could live without it.

I may not have been the traditional daddy’s girl, but in those early years my dad and I were always together. My mom worked long hours, and even though I had two older siblings it was often just Dad and me tearing up the town: walking to Baskin Robbins for rocky road ice cream and wondering why they got egged so badly every Halloween; running in and out of our tree-lined neighborhood, me following his red sneakers; visiting museums. But the best time we spent together was always at Job Lot.

We would drive from Brooklyn in our station wagon and my father always knew where to park for free. He would never waste money on parking meters. If there was a meter, he wouldn’t pay it; instead, he’d have me sit my prepubescent ass down in the burnt leather seats while he ran his errands. He’d keep the window open a crack and I’d sit there patiently until he returned. At that time meters cost a dime.

I thought this was normal behavior until I was in college. A friend gave me a ride, and when we couldn’t find a parking spot I naturally volunteered to wait in the car until he returned.

“Are you crazy, Elana?” he responded. “I’m not leaving you in here alone.”

That’s when I began to realize that some of our father-daughter rituals were more unique than others.

When we’d get to downtown Manhattan sometimes we’d go to Syms, “where an educated consumer is our best customer,” but most days we’d head directly to Job Lot to sift through endless bins of sweat socks and pillow cases until my father found a bargain. There were two levels, and they had a looped recording: Watch your step, stepping the stairs. Please hold on to the railing. I’d grab on tightly, because when I was eight years old I always did what I was told.

Even though I never purchased anything, I liked going to Job Lot with my dad. He seemed so happy and I enjoyed being with him, just the two of us.

Of course, as the years went on, I eventually began to hate going there. I much preferred the Village or the designer shops my mom would take me to, but I found myself still shopping with my father.

My father’s Great Depression upbringing seeped into me, although I fought it with every bone in my adolescent body. I wanted to buy expensive clothes, not slightly irregular ones. I wanted my garments to be new and not gently used. I kicked and screamed and was an awful teenager, but my father still loved me. He also kept trying to instill his values, including the value of money.

As a teenager I took his cheapness to mean that he didn’t love me. My best friend’s father used to hand her hundred dollar bills when we went out and mine never gave me as much as a subway token. I thought his frugality meant that I was worthless and I compensated by getting jobs, working hard, and buying myself the expensive teenager stuff he’d never buy.

And then something strange happened. My father became the most generous person I knew. When I needed a car for college, he researched Consumer Reports and found me a great one — I could barely even drive, so he followed me up to my friend’s house where she took over the new wheels and we shuffled off to Buffalo. When I graduated from college I was debt free.

In my thirties, when I wanted to move out on my own but was lacking in funds, he produced the cash for a down payment on my apartment.

“You don’t need to pay me back for this, Lon. This is my gift to you,” my father said matter-of-factly. My mouth remained opened for a good twenty minutes before I realized he was not kidding.

It was as if by scrimping and saving on all those electric and parking bills he could suddenly provide everything we needed.

It would take me years to realize just how absurdly generous these gifts were. Especially considering how little my father had growing up, and how he valued every dime. But in the end I think the greatest gift my father gave me was his time. Before the days of stay-at-home dads, not many kids could say they had a father who was so present in their lives.

As a result of our time together, I naturally picked up many of his habits ranging from bad puns, the unwillingness to pay for parking ever and an unrequited love for discount shopping outlets. Not bad for the daughter of guy from da Bronx.

But when I think of my father, I think of the looped recording at Job Lot: Watch your step, stepping the stairs. Please hold on to the railing. My father was my railing. He was there for me to hold onto, and he watched my steps.

Elana Rabinowitz is a writer and teacher of English as a second language. Born and bred New Yorker, world traveler and lover of anything Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter at @ElanaRabnowitz.