I Just Went To Olive Garden For The First Time Ever, And I Actually Felt Like Family Again
“But I have a coupon for it!” — my father, every time our family ever spent any money on anything but my mother and me tried to argue otherwise knowing whatever it was, it would suck.
I grew up as an only child, with only a handful of cousins, two sets of emotionally-distant grandparents, and parents who barely spoke to each other during commercials of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. The time-honored tradition of “family” was absent from our indifferent clan. Alas, the only thing that brought us together (and often tore us apart), were coupons and discounts.
We literally ate, slept, and breathed such penny-pinching. I mean literally. Some gems from my father include:
“If it’s not buy-one, get-one free, it gets zero…of our shopping cart!”
“Sure it’s a 2-hour drive each way, but it’ll be my last breath taken if we don’t take advantage of this buy 1, get 3 free coupon on air humidifiers!”
(to Motel 6 Front Desk Clerk at 1am) “Oh come on, the expiration date on this coupon is just a suggestion — we either sleep here or the woods, have some mercy on us!”
Since this was 1990’s suburbia, eating out was still a special occasion back then. And by special occasion, I don’t mean authentic (insert any culture other than ‘Merica here) cuisine. I mean my father exclaiming “I found this booklet of Applebee’s coupons in the neighbor’s trash. Free appetizers for everyone, on them!” Yet for all the caloric yet soulless discounted meals at Chili’s, TGI Fridays, and Denny’s, there was always one chain that we never got coupons for. One premier chain destination that our family did not reach before my parents’ bitter divorce and the explosion of our family.
I’ll admit that I never thought about them much growing up. Maybe it was my antipathy towards anything familial that drove my indifference. Or it was my terribly low expectations for pasta in general. Buy 7 Get 1 Free Ragu sauce and 4 for $1.00 16 oz. store-brand spaghetti was the median Italian meal in the CB Household after all.
But as I persist into my mid-30’s, everyone on not only my Facebook feed, but my 90-person department is buying a house, getting married, or having a baby on a daily basis. Me? Oh, I’m keeping busy with getting ghosted on Bumble and my MAGA mother firing off walls of texts with insanely out-of-context Bible verses before presenting the dissolving of our relationship as a sacrifice to her almighty ex-President but forever-Orange Lord. Sure, he’s a family man, but I bet he’s never used a coupon in his life. On top of all that, we’re butt-deep in a global pandemic where any and all human contact is a deadly risk. I finally got good at being alone and by myself in the past few years, but it’s not as fun when you have to be alone. For the first time ever(at least consciously): I’d like to feel like family.
And then life dangles me a discount.
Oddly enough, although it was massive charge card debt that helped tear my family apart in the first place (as my mother managed to run up a six-figure bill on a QVC card with no cap), it’s Amex bringing 2/3 of the dysfunctional CB nucleus together. Since each Amex point is worth ~2 cents a piece (if transferred to an airline partner at a 1:1 ratio), we’re talking effectively 10% back here (potentially more if booked at the right time). Having said that, if you had this offer on your Amex and easily spend the full $1000 to get the max 5000 points, comment below because I really want to hear what your experience was like.
With impeccable timing, my father calls me and asks if we can get together before the probable winter lockdown coming. I vigourously reply “Dad, leave your Entertainment Coupon Book in the glove compartment, because where I’m taking you to lunch, we’ll feel like family. I mean, we’re definitely family genetically, but I’m talking Dominc Teretto FAMILY.”
“Just meet me in South Bay Plaza at 12.”
Dad and I meet in the parking lot on a chilly, grey-skied October Friday. Aren’t Fridays in the middle of a New England autumn supposed to be enchanting? This wretched excuse for a Friday clearly woke up hungover in a pool of it’s own vomit and marker all over it’s face. We roll up to Olive Garden only to see that there’s no outdoor seating options. “That’s fine, we can get the takeout and just sit in the picnic area over by that luxury apartment building that’s thankfully miserably failing at unwanted gentrification!” I remark. As we approach the entrance to Olive Garden, the manager, a portly fellow with eyes colder than Italian Ice swings open the door.
“How many in your party?”
“We just want to order takeout, and we’re ready to order.”
“We don’t take live orders, you have to call or use UberEats.”
I see a hostess standing behind a desk in back of him, on the phone and writing down an order.
“…Can’t we just wait until she’s done and give her our order?”
He points to a phone number on the door and slinks back into his pasta palace. I begrudgingly call the number, climbing up, down, and all around the phone tree until I finally get a hold of the hostess. Before I even get a breath out, she dryly puts me on hold. Seconds turn to minutes, and patience turns to hanger. We peer through the window to see the hostess at the bar, yukking it up with the bartender, and leaving what was supposed to be “family” out in the literal cold. I’m beginning to think their entire marketing ploy is nothing but a fugazi front.
The sky beats us to the patience-losing punch and opens up a can of downpouring whoop-ass. Do we choose to abandon all hope and drive around in heavy Boston traffic looking for decent takeout, or step inside this potential COVID cavern in the name of discount destiny and to fully feel like family?
We cautiously settle in, though it’s of a small comfort that there actually aren’t any other groups within at least 100 feet of our table. Our waiter sauntered up to the table and laid before us a big bowl of salad (sorry Olive Garden, Sweetgreen has ruined me, even for complimentary salad, forever) and their legendary basket of breadsticks. Nothing felt more CB Family than breaking (complimentary) breadsticks together. But on to the main course event.
I assure Dad that the meal is on me and my future points-turned-one way ticket to actual Italy post-pandemic, so get whatever you like. However, since he’s the guy who packed a baloney sandwich with a teaspoon of mustard on white bread, a pickle, and occasionally a snack-sized bag of chips for lunch every day for 31 years (average cost of said lunch — $0.39), so naturally he chose the most “cost-effective” item on the lunch menu, the $7.99 plain spaghetti. This being a way bigger than it should have been in my mind, I decided to splurge and take a Tour of Italy — Chicken Parmigiana, Fettucine Alfredo, and Lasagna Classico.
If we’re going by calorie-to-dollar ratio, I certainly got my money’s (and cholesterol’s) worth. We catch up on each other’s lives: him about all the crazy bonuses he’s picking up for making late-night UberEats deliveries (“They paid me an extra 30 bucks to pick up and deliver a 5 dollar hamburger in Connecticut at 2am this morning!”), and me about the 6 hours I spent the previous night making an Excel spreadsheet of every restaurant within a 5-mile radius where I either got bonus Amex points or cashback, 10%+ back on the Seated app, TrueBlue Dining points, or ideally, all of the above.
Upon wrapping up the Tour, I felt sense of stomach-based dread. The last time I had such a powerful ache was the time my mother told me she was having an affair and divorcing my father on the way to our weekend bowling alley job on a frigid October 2001 night.
“Your father was always a cold fish in bed, after all” she casually remarked.
“And you’re a hotter mess than a pile of charred microwaved fishsticks, MOM”… is what I replied in my head.
My actual reply was putting on my headphones, sticking my head out the window, and trying to tune out the rest of the 30-minute drive with the assistance of Papa Roach.
“And such a damn cheapskate with his coupons, too!”
Nevertheless, Dad and I say our goodbyes and depart, full of heart, stomach, and most importantly, wallet. I felt queasy enough to know that would be my first and last Tour of Italy (at least in the form of a chain-restaurant entree). But with the help of our Lord and Saver, for at least one mediocre meal, it felt like the good ole’ days of the CB’s thrifting together again. It felt like we saved, and were saved.
It felt like family.