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When Senior Discounts and Vanity Clash

November 19, 1987|JOSEPH N. BELL

I gave my car its semiannual professional wash the other day and paid for it with a credit card. As the cashier finished writing up the sale, I saw a handwritten sign posted on the counter that said: "$1 off for customers over 60."

I pointed to the sign and said, "I didn't notice this."

The cashier looked startled.

"I would have asked," she said, "but it never occurred to me that you could be over 60."

I paid the extra buck and signed the ticket.

But I'm going to have to be more alert. The places that offer senior citizen discounts are multiplying, and there's a point beyond which vanity becomes economically counterproductive. These decisions aren't arrived at easily, however. Each incident is a kind of adventure, to be dealt with individually.

When I take my wife--who is much younger--and my stepson to a movie, for example, I find it extremely difficult to tell the ticket-seller, as I must: "One child, one adult and one senior."

The implication here is very strong that a senior is no longer regarded as an adult but rather in the bargain sub-stratum with children. I'm aware that this sort of thinking is irrational, but it wasn't until I started adding up the savings--we go to a lot of movies--over a period of time that I found myself able to say it. I gulp a little, but I do it. And so far, no one has asked to see my driver's license, which is a little disappointing.

I'm sure I probably lose hundreds of dollars a year by not taking advantage of senior discounts--but it isn't all a matter of vanity. We live in a youth culture that equates age with obsolescence. The best protection against this sort of thing is to punch holes in it by being both mentally and physically active. And from that place, it's harder to remember that you are eligible for the senior discount.

There's also that niggling hope that you won't be believed and will be required to offer proof. When that doesn't happen, you can rationalize that the person on the other end of the transaction was simply too polite to question your honesty. But beneath that modest deception is the knowledge that the reason you weren't questioned is because you look your age. You learn early on if you can't deal with that, you shouldn't ask for senior discounts.

Sometimes the discount is proffered to you, and that's even worse--especially if the offer is made by a young woman you think has been sizing you up for virility rather than your age. I've turned down the discount several times, rather grandly, under those circumstances, which has probably cost me a bundle.

Last week, an old friend who just turned 60 and works about 12 hours a day phoned to describe a familiar dilemma. He'd gone to a restaurant with a friend he met periodically for lunch; their custom was to pay their own checks.

"We had identical meals," he said, "but mine cost less than half as much with a senior citizen's discount. It was the first time for me, and it was hard as hell, but I did it. Saved $4.75. And now that it's over, I look back and feel like I beat the game. It's a good feeling, and I'll do it a lot easier the next time."

Sometimes the restaurants negate that good feeling by watering down the meals. One chain that I frequent because they do exotic things with hash-browned potatoes offers a senior citizen's breakfast with cottage cheese and tomatoes, for God's sake, instead of the hash browns. If restaurants are going to offer these discounts, they've got to understand that appetites don't disintegrate with one's ability to vault fire hydrants or time a volley at the net. And if the rationale is to offer healthy food to the old-timers, the young need it more than we do. The atrocious eating habits we've developed have probably already accomplished whatever harm they're going to.

It appears now that the senior discount is a trend that will continue to grow. We make up an enormous market, and they're after us (everywhere but the movies; they offer a discount, all right, but most of today's movies are made for 12-year-old mentalities). It's now possible to get a senior discount on airlines and Orange County Transit District buses, at motels and restaurants, at amusement parks and theaters. You even get a $1,000 perk from the Internal Revenue Service for achieving the hallowed age of 65.

I don't have any problem with that one, at all. But I suspect that--for a while, at least--I'll continue to deal with the other discounts on an individual basis. I'm even hoping to find some alternative to saying: "One child, one adult, and one senior" at the movie box office.

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