With the US Federal Government down, William Lucas Walker needs to find a happy place. Behold: the 99¢ store.
One of my favorite lines in all film history is uttered by a starfish.
It’s a tense moment in Finding Nemo. A brace-faced little sadist named Darla has just locked her eyes on the aquarium in her uncle’s dental office. Her sole aim? To terrorize Peach, that unassuming pink starfish whose only pleasure in life is suctioning herself to the inside of a fish tank and reporting back to her friends on the latest dental procedure in progress. When devil-child Darla lumbers over and begins violently tapping on the glass, trying to shake poor Peach loose, that little starfish freaks, loses her grip and tries to calm herself, responding as I’m pretty sure we all would:
The moment resonates because it’s universal.
We all need a happy place. Some private oasis where we can lose ourselves and, however briefly, grab a little joy. A place to escape the terrors of daily life, be they sadistic nieces, our own screaming offspring, government shutdowns or more pressing global anxieties like how to get Miley Cyrus to keep her tongue in her mouth.
Some find their happy place in music, others get there chemically. More enlightened souls choose a spiritual path. Some by calling on Jesus in prayer, others by blissing out on some Zen plateau or thrusting needles into a voodoo replica of their boss. A rare few, like Miley, only seem able to get there by licking things.
I don’t judge. I’ve tried more than my share. But I’m here today to tell you: forget them. After years of searching I have stumbled into true nirvana: The 99¢ Only Store.
Who cares if the government’s closed when there’s a place right down the street that’s open from the crack of dawn ’til 9 p.m. and everything’s a dollar?
I know what some of you snobby types are thinking. “After my sphincter relaxes enough for me to regain control of my hand, I am so clicking away from this page. I had no idea he’d sunk so low. I couldn’t even pull into the parking lot. Doesn’t he realize what kind of losers shop there? Has it come to this for him?”
But first let me say that I get you, for I was once like you. Before discovering my happy place, I’d only been to this type of store once, maybe twenty years ago, during a gift-wrapping crisis. It was Saturday night before Father’s Day; nothing else was open, so I ventured into something called a Dollar Barn in my parents’ hometown on an emergency mission to find wrapping paper. They had it, I bought it and was out of there.
I didn’t expect much for a buck, and I wasn’t disappointed. The paper smelled a little musty when I took off the cellophane, which I attributed to a long shelf life. And after I was done taping everything together, I could see the paper was beginning to tear at the corners. But who could be upset? It had only cost a buck and besides, what’s the ultimate goal of wrapping paper if not to be torn to shreds, crumpled up and tossed in the garbage?
It wasn’t until the next morning, as my brothers and I were were handing our gifts to Dad at breakfast, that it became clear that overnight something had gone very wrong with my wrapping paper. Given the chance to “breathe,” the musty smell had… fermented. My older brother Jim spoke for everyone when he said, “Good God, bro, what is that? Did you let a dog wipe his butt all over your present?”
It was the ultimate bum wrap. It scarred me. Which explains why it took seventeen years for me to set foot again in any place wrapping paper for a buck.
This time it was a toothpaste crisis. I needed some, and after dropping the kids at school realized I’d left my wallet at home. With only a dollar-ten in my pocket, I realized I was only blocks from a 99¢ Only Store. I managed to unpucker myself, drove over, parked, pulled up my collar to make sure no one saw me and ducked inside.
And there began my transformation. Where I expected to find some off-label toothpaste that smelled like rotting fruit, I was shocked to see actual name brands, labels I trusted on my teeth — Colgate, Crest, Aquafresh. In really big tubes. For a buck.
After that I began to look around. Once the 99-cent scales had fallen from my eyes it didn’t take long before I’d rushed home, grabbed my wallet and raced back before anybody else picked up that rare collector’s edition, People Magazine’s 2005 Year In Pictures.
An hour later, I emerged a changed man, laden with bags proudly trumpeted 99¢! in huge purple numbers. Bags that contained:
- a hand saw
- an excellent iPhone cover with no stench whatsoever
- a calendar with three good months left on it
- a pair of headphones
- a 1-lb. bag of julienned carrots
- a set of multiplication flashcards
- an assorted set of screwdrivers
- 6 corn-on-the cob spears
- a calculator
- a twin-pack of Super Glue
- a three-pack of canned pet food can covers
- a large-print version of Webster’s Dictionary
- and one severed leg from the Halloween aisle
I was beyond giddy, the morning’s stress swept away in a tsunami of endorphins. How could it not be? Among my treasures was a package containing 179 safety pins. In assorted sizes. All the safety pins I’ll need for the rest of my life. I could not believe my good fortune. I was now the owner of bags and bags of stuff like that, stuff that until the moment I’d spotted it on the shelves, I had no idea I even needed. Like a gasoline funnel.
What did all this joy run me? $29.23, a lot less than I’d have spent on the fun-free Oliver Stone blu-ray I would otherwise have blown my wad on. And never watched.
Twenty-nine dollars and twenty-three cents. I recall the items and total not because I have a photographic memory but because I’ve kept the original receipt, sealed in a Baggie, next to the children’s birth certificates, my marriage license and all the other documents that mark major turning points in my life.
Because this was nothing less than that. Stepping onto that sidewalk, dripping with bargains outside what I now refer to as the Only Store, I felt the way I imagine one might after a hot night in the sack with Bruce Springsteen. Complete, golden and beyond shame.
That’s what a 99-cent hand saw can do for you.
Again, I know what you’re thinking. Right. Exactly how long did that junk last? I’d by lying if I told you all of it was of the highest quality. After two days it’s true that the calculator started coming up only 5’s, no matter what number I pressed. But we’re talking about a calculator. That cost 99 cents! If you can’t grasp the beauty of that you’re missing the point.
The screwdrivers? I lost all five. But that’s what I do with screwdrivers, which is why I snapped them up in the first place. And have continued to do like clockwork every six months since.
The gas funnel? That beauty comes out every time I need to drain my oil after frying a batch of chicken. And that severed leg? A joy forever, still scarring trick-or-treaters and Jehovah’s Witnesses three years later.
Cheap thrills? I call them priceless. To every mewling billionaire who’s lain on his deathbed complaining his fortune never bought him happiness I say, “Maybe that’s because you overspent, dude. Perhaps if you’d gotten off your Tiffany treadmill and paid a visit to the Only Store, you too could pull out a six-pack of corncob spears, remember what you paid and relive the rush.”
The rush is real. And possibly genetic. As a child I vividly recall going with my mother to our local Belk store. As we entered the dress department, I watched her approach a dress she’d had her eye on for awhile, glance at the ticket and suddenly go limp. Soon she began to quiver, her eyes rolling back in their sockets. I tried to take the dress from her so I could lay her out on the floor, sure she was having some sort of attack. But she wouldn’t loosen her grasp. When I tried to pry her fingers from the price tag, that’s when I saw it, blaring up in red: 90% Off!
As I learned at my mama’s knee that day, you can keep your smack, you can keep your pills. There’s no high like an extreme bargain.
And bargains don’t come more extreme than they do at the Only. I’ve had many blissful days there. You can too.
But learn to be discerning. Test your calculator. Smell that wrapping paper. Sometimes extreme bargains call for extreme caution. The condoms come to mind. When you find latex birth control running twelve for a dollar, consider saving that particular impulse buy for CVS. When a store stocks the condoms next to its 99¢ pregnancy tests, they’re probably trying to tell you something.
Which is to say, enjoy the rush but don’t go overboard. Keep your wits about you. Just yesterday on the book aisle, while perusing something called A Toast To Bargain Wines, I spotted a glossy hardcover called Gorilla Beach. Looking closer, I saw that it was a novel. By Snooki. The Italian girl who became famous by being the shortest, loudest floozy on the reality show Jersey Shore. Even then I found myself reaching for it and asking, “How bad could it be?”
Previously published as part of William Lucas Walker’s monthly column, Spilled Milk, on The Huffington Post