Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Rate of Inflation

Inflation is in the news today. Pork prices went up 8% which is good news for pig farmers. Fruit was up almost 6%. We won’t touch gasoline as that is a dog bites man story. But high food prices are certainly something to worry about. Although I have not checked my personal inflation barometer, the price of a package of Hostess cupcakes.


The inflation which had been brought on by the Vietnam war, and several ill advised large union contracts at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s caused food prices to really jump. For the first 16 years of my childhood I had never paid more than ten cents for a package of two cream filled chocolate iced, with a white squiggly line ,cupcakes. I loved them. Some people preferred the more traditional Twinkie , but I was a cupcake man.


Then about 1970 the price of cupcakes began to surge. First to fifteen cents, then to a quarter, and by the time I entered college, 35 cents. No longer a bargain, but still affordable from time to time. Then one day in my sophomore year, I was standing in a long line at the student cafeteria which was just not moving. No one could figure out what the problem was, so I walked to the front and found that my old friend Trey Fectaeu was trying to pay for a hamburger with a hundred dollar bill. “it’s the smallest I have.” He explained to me. There was not $100 change in that whole cafeteria, even if all the customers threw in their money, so the line was at an impasse.


Fectaeu was always pulling shit like that. It was critical to him that he be thought of as a big shot. I’m sure that he hoped that the presence of the $100 bill would cause people to ask him about his job and he could then brag a bit about the lucrative nature of part time house painting, which he and my roommate Gary Smith did during the summers. I don’t recall just how the standoff ended, but eventually the line began to slowly move again. It never moved at too rapid a pace anyway. No college line ever did. I had not made my selection yet because the cupcakes were kept in a bin next to the cashier. When  my turn came ,I grabbed a cupcake and reached into my pocket.” 52 cents “said the sleepy eyed cashier. “It can’t be 52” I replied. “Yeah, there’s two cents tax on fifty cents” said the slug, “says so right here. “ He held up a sheet of paper onto which someone had helpfully  handwritten for this troglodyte,  the ranges of sales tax he needed to charge. “Not the tax you dope” I helpfully explained, ” the fifty cents. Hostess cupcakes don’t cost fifty cents.” “ Well they do now” he opined and showed me a newly fastened sticker which had been placed over an old printed price. Blood rushed to my face, I am quite sure that steam came through my ears, my lips curled into the most hideous of scowls as I screamed loud enough for the whole cafeteria to hear (and maybe some outside as well). “That’s bullshit, you can’t charge fifty cents for God damned Hostess cupcakes.” I’m pretty sure that I said something about “rip off artist” too. In those days it was considered mandatory for college students to scream “what a rip off” every time they were charged for something, no matter what the price. It was an Abbie Hoffman thing.


But it was the cursing which had gotten the attention, especially of Trey Fectaeu who was sitting at a table nearby. He walked over and asked if I needed any money because he still had more than $ 98 on him. “No, I don’t want your money, I simply will never pay 50 cents for Hostess cupcakes.” I said this in not so much of a scream as a determined, tight lipped remark. Trey retreated back to his table. I took one last lingering look at the cashier, who had adopted an attitude of total neutrality  toward the subject, and raised the cupcakes over my head, slamming them back into the bin, trying to look like Wilt Chamberlain. I had hoped to walk away from the event as something of a folk hero, but alas, no one seemed to much care for the stand I had taken for the proletariat. I never bought a package of Hostess cupcakes again.


I did continue to eat chocolate cream filled cupcakes. My roommate and I found a “day old” Mrs. Baird’s bakery where you could buy their stale knockoffs for a nickel. You had to put them in the freezer for a couple of days to try to get some moisture back in, and even then, dry crumbs would run down your throat sending you into a tubercular coughing fit, but it was better than paying 50 cents to the “man”. Even if this particular “man” was just a cupcake man. Years later I still think of those cupcakes and get their pricing tied up in my mind with the war in Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Those were the things that had destroyed America. It was not enough that 50,000 kids had to die in those stinking jungles, but even those who returned found that they had to pay half a dollar for Hostess Pastries. I wonder if the Iraqi veteran thinks the same when he fills up with four dollar gas ?



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