Penkava: Born free, or close to it, yet we pay

OK, call me cheap. I like deals. I love bargains. Give me a 30 percent off Kohl’s coupon, and I am oozing Croft and Barrow. Toss me a 25 percent Sports Authority offer, and I got game. Just say “2 for 1” and I am all over it like melted cheese on top of Chipotle steak inside two foot-long slices of hearty Italian bread. And don’t forget those jalapeño peppers.

But there’s something a lot better than coupons and deals and bargains. It’s called “free.”

There are not too many things in life that are free anymore. Take water, for instance. Most of us pay around $0.003 per gallon for municipal tap water, which computes to be 3/10 of a cent per gallon. That’s about as close to free as you can get. You’d think we’d all stick with that sure thing.

But no, many of us choose to buy bottled water instead of using the almost-free kind. With a conservative price per gallon for bottled water (bought in bulk) at about $1.25, that makes it at least about 400 times more expensive than tap water.*

It makes no sense, yet those pricy bottles of water are flying out of the stores and onto our lips faster than we can say, “Lovingly harvested from pure, natural artesian springs in the northern Alps.”

And how surprised we are to find out that the real source of many of these bottled beauties is not a fresh spring tucked away in a sleepy mountainside, but a bustling municipal water processing plant surrounded by a parking lot. So we are paying dollars at the store for something we can drink at home for fractions of pennies. Geesh … talk about paying through the mouth!

Then there’s the other stuff that used to be free. It now costs us to access our own money.  There’s a charge to call Directory Assistance on the telephone. Our luggage needs to buy a ticket to fly with us. And just try to fill up a bicycle tire, and you’ll discover they’ve even found a way to charge for air.

Speaking of air, remember when TV stations broadcast their signals through the air? An antenna on the roof somehow captured these airwaves and shot them through wires to the TV set. You turned on your TV and, Poof! "Bozo’s Circus" is on the air! And guess what was in Bucket Number Six? Free TV!

Sure, you had to invest in the antenna and the wire, but after that you watched for free. Imagine … no cable bill … no HD fee … no installation or activation or termination fee … no nothing, except unlimited access to whatever channels you can grab out of the air.

Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Well, guess what?  It’s no dream … it is still possible! It’s called “OTA,” or “Over The Air.” It almost sounds illegal, but it is actually how TV viewing was designed in the first place. Just think, for the cost of about one month’s premium cable service we can equip ourselves with a rooftop antenna and some wire and hook it up to our TV set and Boom! More free HDTV than you could shake a bottle of Aquafina at.

So maybe it’s time we take back our water and simply turn on the tap. Maybe it’s time we seize our airwaves and antenna-up our televisions. And maybe living the life of fiscal cheapness IS the path to sound economic thinking. That, and maybe if they brought back Bozo, just to give us the dream of Bucket Number Six.

* At that markup gasoline would cost you about $1,500 per gallon. Milk would be about a grand. And that inexpensive second car for under $20,000? You mean under $8,000,000, don’t you?

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He is currently wearing a Croft and Barrow Classic-Fit shirt while eating a Subway Chipotle footlong and drinking a cool glass of tap water as he watches a few hours of complimentary OTA television. He can be reached at

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