Saturday, September 17, 2005 | Petco advertises itself as “Where the Pets Go” but, for me, Costco should use the slogan, “Where the Cheap Parents Go … for lunch.”

And I’m one of them. That’s my dirty little secret.

Whenever my wife asks me to baby-sit our 2-year-old daughter (Ooops. I keep forgetting: It’s not baby-sitting when it’s your child), I use the opportunity to take her to our nearby Costco for “snacks.”

I used to try and justify it by saying I wanted to check the prices on a new microwave, or vitamins or whatever. Now, I make no bones about going specifically for the samples. In fact, if the nice sample ladies are giving out samples of bones, I’ll eat those along with the frozen burritos, cheesecakes, breaded chicken strips or whatever else they’re handing out.

Sure, it’s cheap but I justify the frugalness by telling myself that I am opening up my daughter’s eyes and stomach to a world of flavors by letting her try Americanized versions of quesadillas, pad Thai noodles, won tons, Belgian chocolate and Dutch apple pie.

But it’s not easy. Frankly, one piece of a spinach-parmesan ravioli or teriyaki meatball just doesn’t cut it for me.

Also, I think the nice sample ladies get suspicious when I keep coming back after an hour or two and grab samples while saying, “I think my wife needs to try these.” Of course, I’d probably arouse less suspicion if I had something in my shopping cart besides a greasy-faced 2-year-old.

That’s why I now carry a disguise kit. Oh, it’s nothing elaborate. No fake mustaches, just a few hats and sunglasses and, occasionally, a jacket or long-sleeved shirt.

It doesn’t always work. I had one Russian-accented sample lady tell me after my umpteenth sample of apricot cheesecake, “If you like it so much, take it home.”

I broke down and told her frankly, “I can’t. My triglyceride count is too high.”

As much as my daughter and I love trying the samples at Costco, it tries my patience at times.

I get very frustrated when the woman handing out cilantro-cucumber sausage or the breaded chicken-spinach-turnovers runs out and tells me the dreaded words no sample ho wants to hear: “I’ll have more in a few minutes.”

Yeesh! Doesn’t she understand my time is valuable?

Another thing that sticks in my craw: The shoppers who think the price of getting a free taste of coconut calamari is to ask the sample lady questions about the item.

This is great for the sample lady because she gets to talk about how simple it is to prepare her product and allows her to say the sample lady equivalent of “To Be or Not to Be.”

“I like to keep these in the freezer just in case company comes by.” Considering how big most Costco food packages are, she must be expecting a whole company – executives, secretaries, computer tech guys.

I hate when this happens. It may allow the sample lady to engage in something close to human interaction but it just makes the line back up and get longer for me.

Meanwhile, there are guys in Chargers jerseys and punk-rock goatees who are cutting from another side and getting the sample that by all rights is mine.

There is a good rule: Kids can’t get samples unless their parents specifically ask. That allows my daughter to try one (which she gives to me halfway through) and gives me a chance to try two more – you know, the one I’m getting for my wife.

Going to Costco for snacks is usually a treat for my daughter and I (and it gives her mom a chance to have private time) but, lately, it’s become a solitary event for me as well.

I recently found out that my cholesterol is higher than Robert Downey, Jr. after a weekend with Willie Nelson so now my diet is being heavily restricted to foods that don’t taste good.

Since I am of the belief that samples don’t count in any diet, I have been sneaking down to Costco during my work day in order to pig out and I have made an important discovery: There are more samples available during the weekday because there are fewer shoppers.

Unfortunately, the sample ladies are more likely to recognize me and a few ladies now greet me personally as “Mr. Cheapo.”

“You’ll love these all-veggie chimichangas, Mr. Cheapo.”

“Mr. Cheapo, don’t miss out on these chorizo jalapeno poppers.”

“Where’s your daughter, Mr. Cheapo?”

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little guilty about my sample obsession. Ten extra pounds will do that to you. I wonder what kind of lesson I am giving my daughter about taking what isn’t yours.

On the other hand, she does say, “Please and thank you” to the sample ladies.

So while I have to admit I’m a cheapskate, I don’t think I qualify as a bad parent yet. After all, Dante wrote there were seven levels to hell and I figure I’m still better than the Moms and Dads who let their kids take those Oscar Mayer Lunchables meals to school instead of getting them a lunch box.

If you don’t agree with me, I’ll be happy to discuss it in person. Maybe we can meet for lunch at Costco.

David Moye is a La Mesa-based writer who wrote this after gorging on rice crackers smeared with salmon dip; a Louisiana-style sausage; chicken strips covered with barbecue sauce; a southwestern-style Caesar salad; a fizzy vitamin drink; and topped it off with some Minute Maid gummy candies.

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