On Buying Food at the 99 Cents Store
I recently started shopping for food at the 99 Cents Store in my neighborhood. It’s not as depressing as it sounds. I mean sure, the place certainly looks depressing from the outside. It’s got this garish blue and yellow paint, there are always people loitering around outside muttering to themselves, and there’s a security guard posted up at the entrance to make sure people don’t steal any more shopping carts.
Inside it’s not so bad, though. You have to walk past the security guard when you go in—a guy about 30, with wire-rim glasses and thinning hair trimmed into a buzz cut. He’s got a badge on his arm that says “Admiral,” and then underneath that, “Private Security Guard.” He always says hello, though, when you come in. So that’s nice.
Most people are friendly in the 99 Cents Store. I recently became friends with a woman there. She was wearing a skin-tight denim jumpsuit and cradling a stuffed dog that unfolded into an American flag pillow when you pulled this little Velcro belt around its middle. We met in the produce aisle. She showed me the pillow, then complimented my box of “stone ground” wheat crackers.
“Those look like the good ones!” she said. She then held up two different kinds of tomatoes and asked which ones I thought would go better with mozzarella cheese. “I guess the ones that say ‘organic?’” I said.
I live in West Oakland, which is a place that academics who live in nicer neighborhoods refer to as a “food desert.” This term basically means a place where good, nutritious food is hard to come by. It’s not like there isn’t any food, though.
Tortillas are my favorite thing to buy at the 99 Cents Store, hands down. They have really soft, really delicious tortillas, and they always have a ton of them. I’m also partial to cans of refried beans and cans of black beans, which can go inside the tortillas. I get my oats there, and green tea. Crackers. One time I bought this thing called “bling string,” which is a spool of glistening gold string you can weave into your hair and fasten with tiny clips (not included). It was next to the register—an impulse purchase.
Generally I avoid produce and dairy while shopping there. It’s hard to always be sure where that stuff comes from, but I think if it’s at the 99 Cents Store it’s safe to say it’s somewhere with a lot of chemicals and maybe not the best animal husbandry practices? It’s tough. Someone who stayed at my apartment on the couch for a week once bought a gallon of milk from the 99 Cents Store, drank a quarter of it, and then left town. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t drink the milk, even though it was there. The thought of whatever farm it came from made me gag. I poured it all down the drain.
The merchandise at the 99 Cents Store is always changing, though, so it’s unwise to have any hard and fast rules. For a week in March they had a ton of (name brand!) Cheerios. And this other time they had Dove soap, which is the kind that I use. I was pretty excited. “Yes, please!!”—I think I literally said to the cashier when I saw it, and then laughed this big brassy laugh, because I was pretty excited. I’ve occasionally lifted my dairy ban because sometimes they straight-up have Chobani Greek yogurt. Yes, sure, the cups are like a third less full than the ones you’d buy at Whole Foods (some factory error or something), but it’s the real shit. The real shit!
A lot of women with kids come into the 99 Cents Store and buy toys for their kids—there are these slightly-smaller-than-average soccer balls that look like fun. They have these thin, rinky dink hula hoops. One time I saw someone had a plastic trumpet thing. And of course stuffed dogs with velcro belts that unfold into American flag pillows because God bless America and its 99 Cents Stores.
One time I got in line behind these two women who had two kids with them, and one of the kids kept picking up each item and handing it to the cashier. He leaned further and further over the counter and tried to swipe the items himself but the cashier finally said sharply, “No. That’s my job.” As that was happening the security guard came up to the cashier holding a phallic, flesh colored tube of rock-hard dough—a frozen burrito, unwrapped. “Someone left this in the cracker aisle,” he simpered, clearly searching for the 99 Cents Store employee version of watercooler chat. The cashier wordlessly took it out of his hand and threw it in the trash underneath her register.
The women in front of me in line both had baskets full of stuff—eyeshadow in bright, bold colors, and red blush for their cheeks, and toys for their kids, and these lacy panties and camisoles from some aisle that I never go down because it’s too fucking depressing. They racked up like $30 or $40 each. The expense took them by surprise and they had to start giving items back. But instead of the makeup or the lacy underwear, they gave back their kids’ soccer balls. That was probably the most depressing thing I’ve seen there.
It’s OK, though. Just like its rotating merchandise the 99 Cents Store is always changing, which is a cool thing about it. Maybe it’s depressing one moment but then the next you’re walking out with a week’s worth of tortillas, beans and bling string for $3 and everything looks pretty good again.
Next door to the 99 Cents Store there is a small co-op grocery. It’s the only “real” place to get food in my neighborhood. They have great, fresh produce and other expensive organic shit like organic maple syrup and bags of Kettle chips for $4. The 99 Cents Store, by contrast, has knockoff Pringles in flavors like “Cinnamon Bun.” I go to the co-op for milk, cheese, yogurt (most of the time), meat and produce.
I dated a guy here for a couple months. He lived a couple BART stops away, in a nicer neighborhood. He made a good living as a software engineer and his pantry was full of things like “chia seed” and something with hemp that apparently you can eat. He cooked me delicious meals all the time and was smart, kind, and amazing in bed. We broke up after two months because I complained too much and am “too emotionally intense.”
This one time he put his arm around me and we walked to the co-op because I was making us a pizza for dinner and I needed a tomato. On the way home we passed the 99 Cents Store. He cringed. He said, “That co-op is such a savior to this neighborhood. I can’t believe some people have to shop for food at that dollar store. So sad.” I just quietly murmured in agreement. I didn’t tell him I go in there. I didn’t tell him that yeah yeah yeah I like that co-op too, but the 99 Cents Store—I mean if you think about it, sometimes people just need to eat. Anyway, we broke up.
Last week I was walking to the 99 Cents store and saw this little mangy white dog running around in front of the store. He took a shit on the sidewalk right in front of the store and then ran into traffic. “Hey!” I called after him, “Dog! Come back!”
He ran across the street to the convenience store where you can cash lottery tickets. I came up to him and he sniffed my hand. He was skinny and covered in dirt, but friendly. “Where’s your home?” I asked him. He wouldn’t say. I asked a bunch of people in the parking lot if the dog was theirs but they all said no.
Then a guy came up to me, he had smooth caramel-colored skin and gentle eyes. He said his name was Habib, and that he just moved here from Yemen a couple months ago, with his cousin. I asked him if he’d hold the dog. I went in the 99 Cents Store to buy it a can of dog food. I figured I could keep the dog in my backyard overnight, until the animal shelter opened the next day. When I came out the dog was squirming, but Habib had him. I told him I lived just around the corner and asked if he would drive me. “The dog might pee in your car,” I said. He agreed.
We pulled up in front of my house. Without thinking I said, “Thanks, Habibi,” because I’d recently read a book titled Habibi and that name was in my head. It threw him off. He said, “In my language when you add that—change Habib to Habibi—at the end, it means, ‘my love.’”
We looked at each other for a moment in silence, Habib in the driver seat and me and the mangy dog in the passenger seat. I thought about smiling and calling him Habibi again and kissing him then—because I could, because the kind, smart, amazing guy had just left my life three days before and fuck it, fuck it all, but instead I just said thanks again and maybe I’d name the dog Habibi.
I kept the dog in my backyard overnight, fed him the can of food. He ate it all. I was going to take him to the shelter when it opened the next day, but in the morning he’d run off again.
This story is part of our food month series.
Photo: Socia Woodlands