Nickels and Dimes

YESTERDAY, MY father reminded me of a 1978 Pop Shoppe advertisement featuring the singular Eddie Shack. If you’re old enough to have seen it, you’ll recall this former Toronto Maple Leafs player’s catch-phrase, found in a number of Shack advertisements of the ’70s and ’80s: “Maybe I didn’t go far in school, but there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mom and dad: look after the nickels and dimes, and the dollars will look after themselves.”

When this was first aired, there was a Pop Shoppe in Fort Erie, the town where I grew up. I leaped over the watching of my nickels and dimes, proceeding instead to the squandering of hard-earned quarters after each minimum-wage shift. Soda and Galaga (an early ’80s video game) were my indulgences of choice. My parents, like Eddie’s, taught me valuable lessons. I didn’t always follow them to the letter, but I did at least go far in school, unlike Mr. Shack. A good thing too, because life is much harder today than it was a generation ago for those who didn’t, and don’t. When I look back at my youth, and then look forward to the prospects of today’s young people, I feel fortunate. How odd that Eddie Shack brings it all into focus.

Last week my dad was in the bank having a disagreement with a teller over some sort of arbitrary fee or penalty. He’s been the customer of the same bank, and the same branch, for over thirty years. His father too was a lifelong loyal customer of local businesses. You’d think that would mean something, and there was indeed a time when it did, but in our day customer loyalty too often counts for too little. Everyone knows what it’s like to be a number in a queue. I suspect you’ve been nickeled and dimed yourself, and you know what I mean. My father would have none of it, and so he quoted Eddie Shack to the clueless employee to make his point.

The topic of banks was already on my mind, because I opened the first account of my son. I’m encouraging him to save — and who on earth does that anymore? — but of course no one who saves his money does so in a bank account any more. Bank accounts are today overrun with service charges and fees. Money is made in the stock market, or in bonds, or by means of some other arcane “financial instrument.” Gone are the days of the humble savings account. I have no particular objection to this; I merely note it as a fact. Yesterday my family rolled pennies for my son’s account, something this week’s federal budget has rendered an endangered activity. (I definitely won’t miss pennies.) How far off is the day when there will be no nickels nor dimes to watch?

The Fort Erie Pop Shoppe has gone the way of the savings account and the penny, and few under thirty years of age know who Eddie Shack is. They have no personal experience of the Leafs of old, only the lackluster Leafs of recent decades. According to statistics, most households in Canada are not on top of their nickels and dimes, either: they are chin-deep in debt. Same goes for their governments. (Of course, this is a false distinction: government debt is household debt, which is why government debt is bad.) And whether you finish school or do not, it’s a very harsh world out there for the young. Today was my last day at a job I’ve held since 1999. The last time I looked for work, the Internet had its new car smell and people applied for positions by mail. Some days later came a personal response — by mail. Today the job hunter sends email into a black hole. Robots call your house at all hours, and if you phone a company you get a message saying, “We value your call,” followed by an endless series of menu items and much wasting of your time. In other words, you’re not valued at all. It’s a brave new world, all right. How far we’ve come from the days I was a boy watching Hockey Night in Canada with my father. I look across the landscape of my life, and I see an enormous amount of change. And I don’t mean nickels and dimes.

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