Nothing is free anymore, not even the air. At the Gulf station on Adams Mill Road, it costs 25 cents to fill up a tire.
Citibank, in New York, is considering charging patrons extra if they use a human teller instead of a machine. As one banker explained to The Wall Street Journal, "Technology can do more cheaply what a teller does except shake you and make you feel better. That's a service, so why shouldn't you pay?"
Some VISA charge cards, formerly free, cost $15 a year--and interest is up. There is now a limit of six free calls per month to telephone information--after that it's 10 cents, 20 cents if you want to talk to an operator. Buy a suit and you'll likely pay for the alterations; buy a present and you'll probably have to pay for the gift wrapping. Go to your club, last refuge against the grasping, penny-ante world, and you have to dig for a quarter for a towel and soap. TWO TRUTHS OF MODERN TIMES
1. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're not being followed.
2. "Pricing" or "costing out" is a new reality of contemporary life.
One thing seems clear: The days of little freebies are over. RIF'd, cost-of-living'd, borrowed to the hilt, driving hundred-thousand-mile cars and reduced to day-trip vacations--why, robust America can take that in stride, confident in a better time to come.
What fries our oysters is being nickel-and-dimed, drawn and quartered, nibbled to death by ducks.
Equitable Trust Co. of Baltimore charges 50 cents extra of any customer who fails to use a computer-encoded deposit slip when putting his money in their bank. So you better carry an encoded deposit slip, and an encoded check, too. And you'd better be careful whom you write that encoded check to, because the charge for a stop-payment nowadays in $10.
"Sure, you can get fee'd to death in banking," says David Greenberg, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America. "But the hardest area to know if we're being bamboozled or not is in telephone service. I've talked to experts who say it's impossible to know if long distance has really been subsidizing local service all this time."
"Things are changing," says Sheldon Golub of the American Banking Association. "Banks are being very up front about it. Many services once were subsidized by low interest rates, and no longer are. There's a price tag on everything--it's never been a giveaway world."
Van Ness Texaco Servicenter on Connecticut Avenue still takes a half dozen credit cards for gasoline. But if you use a card, it costs 10 cents extra for every gallon.
Yet the blood boils. In vain the citizenry reexamines the Declaration of Independence, seeking out the part about being endowed with . . .
Certain inalienable rights, that among these are
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and a variety
Of small services at no extra charge.
Not there, of course. Never was there.
A man of the Federal City, engaged in a divorce proceeding, recently received a bill for $1,003.90 from his attorney. It was itemized:
* Consultations, telecons, correspondence, legal research. . . . . . $750.00
* Charges in connection with tax research, advice concerning child support, spousal support, real estate transfers. . . . . 250.00
* Costs incurred in photocopying. . . . . 3.90
Well, did he expect the photocopying to be free?
"Yes, actually, I did. Seems like it ought to be covered in there some place. The lawyer bought me a cup of coffee once, and he didn't charge extra for that."
All right, all right--but what's really the complaint here? Photocopying isn't exactly a convenience, can't be considered a luxury (Webster: "Anything conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living") and doesn't seem worth getting worked up over.
Yet a nerve is touched.
Esso used to give out free road maps, and marvels they were. The interstates were drawn in dotted lines, promising completion to come. Now the superhighways are completed--but the map costs 75 cents.
Going, going, gone: free matches, free estimates, free delivery.
Soup bones, once a giveaway, now sell by the pound. At the Bay Ridge Giant in Annapolis, fishheads--formerly an easy con by crabbers--go six for 29 cents.
Why should that burn us more than an 18 percent interest rate, a $175,000 two-bedroom house or a $90 weekly shopping bill?
"Because people see it as a quality-of-life thing," says Greenberg. "Actually, pricing isn't really bad. The Consumer Federation prefers people to be charged for the use of credit, for example, rather than have it included in the price of goods. That way you see what credit really costs. The idea is to have a choice. Maybe the price of a meal on a plane ought to be separate. Would you buy it if it was?"
There was an entrepreneur who offered plane flights without food. His name was Freddie Laker. His customers brought aromatic sausages on board, and Laker went out of business: not exactly cause and effect, but interesting. On Aug. 3, Peoples Express will begin $19 one-way flights between Washington and Newark. Not only has free food been eliminated, but also free baggage checking.
There is a word for this service: no-frills. That's what we wanted, right? Luxury was easy, it was cheap that was hard. That's what the consumer movement was all about, right? Unit pricing in supermarkets. Knowing what you're paying for. Clearing up the fine print. If something has a price, it's a reminder that you don't have to buy it.
This is commerce, of course. The finer things are slightly extra.
I'll be down to get you in a taxi, honey.
Better be ready about half past eight.
Trunks, 50 cents.
The Voice of Reason never could carry a tune.
Why are free checking accounts on the way out? "Because there are now 40 billion checks written annually," Sheldon Golub says. "Yes, 40 billion. They are processed by machines, as is your encoded deposit slip, at a cost of somewhere between 25 cents and 50 cents each. But if the MIRC line--the line of computer numbers on the bottom of the check--isn't there, or has been torn off, right away they have to be handled manually. Then the cost goes as high as a dollar.
"The Federal Reserve, which is really the ultimate check processor, began charging banks for its service last year. It takes a lot of people to process all those checks, and labor costs are up. Mail costs are up. It now costs 37 cents to mail that packet of canceled checks back to you, 12 times a year.
"To cut costs, banks are going to automatic teller machines. The cost of a teller handling one transaction is between 35 cents and a dollar. The cost of a machine is between 14 cents and 20 cents. With a machine, you don't have to stand in line during your lunch hour. Those automatic teller machines cost $35,000 to $50,000 per installation, and people love them. There's a bank in New York that charges $6.50 a month for checking-account services--that's a lot. People pay it to get the machines."
Nothing is free anymore--except free choice. The idea of paying for the air in your tires, however, is an entrepreneurial question, not a philosophical question. The way the question appears in an ad in the July issue of Venture, the magazine for entrepreneurs, is: CAN YOU SELL AIR?
The answer, from a company called AIR-serv, is: "Absolutely. Because getting something free is a thing of the past. And, as long as there are cars on the road, there will always be a demand for air. AIR-serv coin-operated tire inflators not only meet the demand, but also provide a unique opportunity for you! IT'S A SELF-SERV WORLD."
Doubtless the national temper has been heated by the climate of the times, and the recession has made us chary. But it is human nature, once niggled, to niggle back. You get what you pay for, true; and if you don't get it, and don't pay for it, a company somewhere goes out of business.
Look out AIR-serv, we are going to be buying bicycle pumps by the tens of millions just to see you in the breadlines with the rest of us.
Negative thinking, no doubt. What we should all do, probably, is go out and have a good time and forget about what it costs.
Come on, buster, 10 cents a dance.
Things aren't so bad, or so different. There never was any such thing as a free lunch, really. Come to think of it, a good newspaper still only costs a quarter, the library is free, and if you're lucky a pal will spot you to dinner.
But on your way out, there's that sign of the times: AFTER-DINNER MINTS 2 CENTS EACH