Being Broke (and Old) in Columbia

By Frank Thompson

Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!

Kids! But they still do just what they want to do!

Why can’t they be like we were?

Perfect in every way?

What’s the matter with kids today?

–   From the musical Bye Bye Birdie

As a mid-40s Broke Columbian, I find myself creeping ever-so-slowly into grumpy old bastard-dom. We haven’t quite yet hit the “you kids get out of my yard” years, but this spring did mark my first time at planting things in the ground and expecting them to grow. (No, I’m not selling dope. That would disqualify me as broke, and completely ruin the verite of my writing here).

To be fair, the whole gardening thing was engineered by The Girl, and had more of a Rob and Laura Petrie vibe than Dennis The Menace’s Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. We’re still youngish and cute enough, and nobody needed a walker or a truss after the planting was done, but it was there for all to see…we were doing yard work on Saturday afternoon. I have since found myself outside each evening, garden hose in hand, watering the flowers. Can Sansabelt britches, a floppy sun hat that once knew life as a flower pot holder, and that old man hitching-up-the-pants-from-the-back  thing be far behind? Will the beautiful and vibrant woman at my side become a mumu-wearing, glasses-round-the-neck, garden-tools-in-the-utility-belt Dear Old Thing? Yes, but not today, and when that time comes, we’ll do our best to live up to the archetypes.

While I find the whole concept of my youth slowly eroding more than a bit unsettling, I have decided to take the optimist’s route and observe how much easier it is to be a Broke Columbian “of a certain age”.  Now get yourself a lemonade, Sunshine, and settle down with your feet up while I explain. I promise you’ll be done reading in time for Golden Girls and the Early Bird at Lizard’s Thicket. Bernice always gets there early, anyway, and she’ll hold your chair. You know Claude always runs late coming from the colon doctor, anyway…


Yes, it’s true. I used to enjoy over-consuming, as did many of my fellow moderate drinkers. We all like to posture a bit as we nurse and swirl the ice in our beverage, musing on youthful indiscretions and the wisdom of age, but let’s be honest. What led most of us kicking and screaming toward a life of sober moderation was a little thing called The Pain Index. In short, the pain of tying one on became much larger than the fun of getting tanked.  Gone are the days of making “the morning after” all better with a hot shower followed by a greasy hamburger and a large sweet tea. After about 35, the hangovers become oppressive tools of physical and psychological destruction. Your soul hurts and your head throbs, and the thought of anything stronger than flat Sprite and crackers makes you gag. This has a way of slowing one down.

Back in the day, a couple of beers constituted a warm-up, what one would have in the shower or on a friend’s couch before heading out for the night.  A couple of beers or a good strong cocktail now is the night, in terms of drinking. The good news is that you can imbibe like a grown-up. Nice, imported beer and top-shelf liquor are options when your sole ambition is no longer to get hammered as quickly as possible. A warm, fuzzy buzz is suddenly preferable to a swirly-headed “woo hoo” experience involving eighty-dollar bar tabs, broken promises, Waffle House and the local constabulary. Of course, most of your stories now begin with “we had a lovely time the other night with So-And-So” instead of “Dude, last night we did eight shots of Jager and then So-And-So shat in a phone booth.”  This is not a bad thing, nor is the fact that your “drinking math” no longer involves a Byzantine alcohol-to-dollar  formula that you must consult before deciding between the case of Natty Lite and the generic  plastic bottle simply marked VODKA and bearing a likeness of Stalin doing a keg stand on the label.


And no, I’m not talking about the Senior Special at Morrison’s, although that is something to look forward to. With age comes a certain freeing-up of one’s time and interests. When I was 22, it was all about getting out for the evening to whatever bar everyone else was hitting.  Food was usually an afterthought, generally consisting of fast food or whatever bar snacks were on offer (translation: slightly more expensive fast food served on a real plate).  Multiply that age by two, and you will find me where I now reside, usually in the grocery store, looking for some tasty ideas for dinner.  I usually cook with the radio tuned to NPR, which is not only free, but provides the sort of programming we of decrepitude find entertaining.

The economics of cooking and eating in are quite favorable to the not-quite-brand-new-anymore. After initially purchasing some basic staples (spices, rice, potatoes, some cookware that wasn’t purchased for $12 along with a coffee pot and toaster), one can enjoy restaurant-quality food (and we’re not talking restaurants involving a clown, meals that come with a Ninja Turtle figurine, or a ping-pong-ball viral cesspool of fun) for about the same as the cost of a number-whatever combo. Consider the following breakdown:

Publix Greenwise sirloin filets (2): $11.00

Head of broccoli: (1) $3.00

Potatoes (2): $1.00

With the above, we have spent $15.00, and likely have enough to save for lunch tomorrow or a midnight snack. Pop for another quarter’s worth of butter to finish the steaks, and you’ve got something pretty spectacular. Compare that with the same $15.00 spent on a couple of Styrofoam boxes of reconstituted yoga mats and soy bean patties, two large fries and two soft drinks.

Yes, it takes a little longer to prepare, and you won’t get out the door as quickly, but guess what? You’re middle-aged now, and a crowded bar (full of hipsters listening to music that isn’t ANYWHERE as good as the Oingo Boingo, R.E.M. and Sex Pistols tunes that defined our generation) isn’t likely to be your destination. And if it is, you’re probably that creeper in his 40s or 50s who still thinks 22-year-old girls want to sleep with him, so you have more problems than just eating cheaply. Think how silly Michael Douglas looks. Do you really need that in your life?

Another option is the cannot-be-screwed-up-no-matter-how-hard-you-try roasted chicken dinner. WARNING: it will make the house smell like Thanksgiving, which can sometimes bring about teary-eyed sentimentalism from even the most jaded amongst us. (Should this happen, just remember that Thanksgiving when your sister was being such a bitch, Grandma sat on her colostomy bag, and the neighbors’ deep-fried turkey fiasco involved the fire department, skin grafts, and a warning from the EPA. We’ve all had at least one of those, right?)

Roasting chicken (1): $8.00

Potatoes (2): $1.00

Frozen peas: $3.00

For twelve bucks, you can’t even get two combo meals (unless nobody supersizes and one of you is a three-year-old), yet the above makes at least two meals…three if you add a bag of salad and a little bread. Yes, it takes more time, and you have to be at home while cooking it, but that leads to my third point…


Yes, kids, it’s true. I remember a very wise man once commenting to me that at some point in my life, not going to a party would be much more fun than going to one. At the time I dismissed this as the babbling incomprehensibility of the aged, but now that I’m at about the same age myself, I see the point all too well.

Hopefully by 40 or so, one has had time to develop a sense of style beyond the beer can pyramid accented with the sunbathing bikini girl poster and/or M.C. Escher print thumbtacked to the wall. Such novelties and niceties as comfy furniture, a well-stocked bookshelf and non-pirated cable tv have generally found their way into one’s life, and the kitchen is usually stocked with more than a bottle of vodka in the freezer and an antique jar of mustard sharing refrigerator space with a half-empty box of Chinese takeout. Home is now more than the place you sleep and shower…it’s a pretty nice place to be.

You may also find yourself enjoying the idea of having friends over for more than “pre-gaming” now that you have reached the “college kids call me sir/ma’am” stage. This may cost a little more than throwing an early-20s party, as you will be providing your guests with more than a keg and a place to gather, but overall, the benefits outweigh the costs. Chances are none of your guests will break and/or throw up on anything, they will all probably bring a food item or bottle of wine to share, and there’s very little chance that bail money will be involved.

Relationships and love affairs tend to survive old people parties at a higher rate, so there’s much less psychological and emotional cost associated with this stage of life. Plus, you’re almost certain to get an invitation in return, so there’s a free meal coming your way as opposed to a “thanks, man, and sorry about your grandma’s couch.”

The moral of all this? Next time your knees hurt, things make noise when you get out of bed, you can’t remember why you walked into the room, and that little s#it from next door WON’T stay out of your  Bougainvillea, don’t sweat it.  Just rest easy in the knowledge that you’re eating, drinking, and living better than people half your age for the same amount of money. Plus, you appreciate Matlock and Murder, She Wrote in a way they can never understand, so hoist that Metamucil with pride!


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