Cheap Thrills

We may scrimp to live here, but it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our rich lifestyles. From free concerts in the park to meal deals to wine buys to thrift shop clothing specials, Leslie Dinaberg can help you live well, beyond your means. FREE!

Cheap Thrills By Leslie Dinaberg, South Coast Beacon 

(Click on link above to read story as it originally appeared in print)

I knew it was going to be a good day when the woman in front of me in line at the new Starbucks in the Fairview Center Vons (175 N. Fairview Ave) said she had a 2-for-1 coupon and wanted to treat me to coffee. It’s good karma to start your day with a random act of kindness from a stranger, particularly when your assignment is to drive from Gaviota to Carpinteria to see what you can get for free.

Free latte in hand, off I went on Highway 101 toward Gaviota. I gave some serious thought to picking up a hitchhiker I saw just past Winchester Canyon. After all, giving someone a free ride would certainly fit in well with my story. But screaming visions of headlines like “Journalist Gives Life in Quest for Story” got the best of me. Sorry, dude.

It’s a long drive. People who commute from the North County must really love their houses! I’ll take my “five minutes away from everything, cozy little rental” any day.

Finally, I pull into the Gaviota rest area. It’s too cold and windy to enjoy my favorite free newspaper (ahem … The South Coast Beacon) outside, so I check out the rest stop. Did you know that Gaviota is Spanish for seagull? Apparently in 1769, soldiers killed a gull here. I wonder if a similar thing happened in Mammoth?

I ask the janitor for some free advice about what there is to do around Gaviota. I think he gave me directions to Gaviota State Park, but it was really hard to understand his English.

I check out the rest stop restroom. It’s clean, with plenty of toilet paper and soap. I approve. Clean restrooms on the road are something I would willingly pay for if only I could guarantee them. I’ve often thought about writing a book about recommended restrooms along Route 66.

I fantasize telling Oprah about the inspiration behind my bestselling Restful Restrooms as I drive south to Gaviota State Park. It’s beautiful here, but parking is $8. The 12-year-old ranger tells me there’s free dirt parking above the campground and hands me a free trail map. “Trespass Trail” sounds tempting, until I look down at my shoes. Maybe another day.

Next stop Refugio State Beach, also $8 parking. “Is it legal to park on the road?” I ask another 12-year-old ranger. “As far as I know, they don’t give tickets,” he offers. The beach is beautiful. I could stay here all day if I didn’t have so much ground to cover.

On to El Capitan State Beach, where I spent many fun high school weekends. The 15-year-old ranger gives me a 15-minute courtesy pass; otherwise parking is $8. I check out the store. Just the camping basics: firewood, pork rinds and wine coolers. I pick up a free copy of “the RV travel magazine of the West,” and go check out the beach. It’s smaller than I remember, but still pretty, with much more of a rugged Northern California look than the Santa Barbara coast.

Eager to begin work on Restful Restrooms, I check out the loo. It’s gross. This is exactly what I hate about camping. The floors are wet, the mirrors are made of scratched-up tin and it’s super cold. I wouldn’t think of setting foot, let alone derrière, inside.

Next stop is Haskell’s Beach, right next to Bacara Resort & Spa (1801 Hollister Ranch Road). Despite all the complaints about access from Goletans, this was the easiest beach to get to, had plentiful free parking and by far the best bathrooms this side of Gaviota.

For old times sake, I stopped by the Plaza Shopping Center (7127 Hollister Ave.), where The Beacon used to be headquartered. At the Ellwood Post Office, my son usually gets free rubber stamps on his hands but all they had for me was a free moving guide and some priority mail envelopes. Near Mojo Coffee I picked up some free magazines, Vision: Catalyst for Conscious and Living, The New Spirit. Wow, has Goleta gone New Age since The Beacon moved downtown? On to Albertsons, where I got free samples of Lubriderm Lotion (with premium oat extract no less), Neosporin and a free wedding advice booklet from the deli.

I also noticed that the Laundry Basket offered a free dry with two washes. I thanked goodness — once again — that I have a washing machine. Most of the big fights in my marriage have involved the laundromat.

With my stomach starting to grumble, it’s on to Costco (7095 Marketplace Drive) for what my dad likes to call “the cheapskate special.” You have to be a member to get in. Just for kicks, I pulled out my Blockbuster card. The attendant didn’t even blink as she waved me through.

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch? A 10-minute walk through the food section netted me free samples of Jennie-O-Turkey with tequila-lime marinade, chicken penne pasta Mexicana, a Tyson breaded chicken patty with Tony Roma barbecue sauce, frozen waffles, spinach and mozzarella tortellini, Chai tea, both green and regular, and crackers with jam.

If you bring a date you can hang out in front of the big screen TVs for dinner and a movie. Just don’t expect to ever need that Albertsons wedding advice booklet.

Still feeling thirsty I walked across the parking lot to Mika (7020 Marketplace Drive) for a free sample of the tea of the day. For the same price (zero), the Jasmine Exquisite Flower was a vast improvement over the Costco Chai.

Feeling kind of Zen-like after all that tea, I toyed with getting a free initial consultation from Restoration (7398 Calle Real), which bills itself as “natural alternative health care” and specializes in colonics, body detoxification, system and organ cleansing, weight loss and total health restoration by Dr. Gerry Thompson, N.D. Not knowing what “N.D.” stands for (Not a real Doctor?), I decided to pass.

I swung by the Goleta Public Library (500 N. Fairview Ave.) to see if it had Sue Grafton’s new book, R is for Ricochet. It was there all right, but with 285 names ahead of me on the “hold” list, she’ll be up to Z is for Zealot by the time they get to me. Instead I picked up a few Walter Mosley mysteries (Black Betty, Blue Light) and wondered if if he’d run out of colors before Sue ran out of letters.

Knowing I still had a long journey ahead, I inflated my tires with free air from Fairview Shell Auto Center (55 N. Fairview Ave.) then had my glasses adjusted for free at Goleta Valley Optical (5124 Hollister Ave.).

I had more ground to cover at La Cumbre Plaza. Seven minutes later I sampled lipsticks at the Lancôme counter at Robinsons-May (3805 State St.) and contemplated a free makeover. Weighing my afternoon options, I decided to pass on the makeup and instead stopped by See’s Candy (a girl’s got to set priorities) for a free sample of a milk chocolate Bordeaux. Then I was on to McDonald’s (3940 State St.) for a free pixie-sized kid ice cream cone. Ooof, any more free food and I’ll have to go back to “Not a real Doctor” for colonic consult.

Back on the 101 South. Why is it that almost any time of day, there’s still a slowdown where the traffic lights used to be, even though Caltrans removed them in 1991 — making it a free freeway. By the time I got to Summerland I was ready to stop at The Nugget (2318 Lillie Ave.) for Restful Restrooms research purposes, and of course, the free popcorn.

Next it’s on to Carpinteria State Park. The 100-year-old ranger counsels me to avoid the $8 parking fee by going to nearby two-hour free street parking on Linden Avenue. I stroll along the beach for a while. It’s afternoon by now, and decidedly more crowded than my earlier excursions north of Goleta.

More free advice: a woman says there’s a Farmer’s Market “downtown” that afternoon, so I go on over to get delicious, free samples of strawberries, peaches, avocados and that small town Carp flavor.

There’ also the Coffee Grinder (910 Linden Ave.) where they had free wireless Internet access. Since I was laptopless that day, I passed.

Next stop was the Carpinteria Valley Museum of History (956 Maple Ave.) a terrific free museum where kids of all ages can actually get up close to, or even touch, most of the exhibits, including playing a player piano.

On the way back to the office I stopped by Metro Comics (6 W. Anapamu St.), where it wasn’t free comic book day anymore, but there still were leftover Archie’s to give away. Later that night I astounded my son with my knowledge of the ins and outs of Riverdale High, while enjoying the background jazz of the Lao Tizer Band, courtesy of the Santa Barbara Parks & Recreation Department’s free concerts at Chase Palm Park. Of course, I used my annual waterfront parking permit (a bargain for any regular beachgoer at $60 a year) and saved the $3 parking fee.

Tired from my long day of penny-pinching, I handed the reporter’s notebook and pen I stole from my office to an energetic intern, Micah Barber, who planned to explore the South Coast’s free nightlife.

If I could actually do this free thing every day, maybe I could save up enough money for a down payment on a one-bedroom shack in Goleta — by 2050.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon

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