Friday, July 03, 2015

the strip mall on memory lane

There is a Big Lots! around the corner from Dash’s daycare. I’d been meaning to check it out since he started daycare last week; you’d think it was a museum or something, and in a way I approached it as such (hey, you take your thrills were you can).

I hadn’t actually been to a Big Lots! before, but I grew up going to Pic ‘N’ Save, its eighties counterpart (Wikipedia tells me that Big Lots! actually bought Pic ‘N’ Save in 2002, although by then it was called MacFrugals). Pic ‘N’ Save occupied most of a down-and-out strip mall in Hermosa Beach. This was back when there were still down-and-out parts of the beach cities. My mom always speculated that the other businesses in the strip mall—an Indian restaurant and a couple of stores that kept heavy curtains drawn at all times—were fronts for something.

The price was right.
Pic ‘N’ Save was full of cheap crap that regular stores hadn’t been able to sell, but we were a family of bargain hunters. If a brand of kids’ shoes had briefly flirted with making shoes for adults, you might find the fruits of the company’s failure in a bin at Pic ‘N’ Save. There were also aisles of make-up and slightly separated nail polish, resin figurines, off-brand cookies and weird old-lady bras.

When My Little Pony attempted re-launches a few times before the Friendship is Magic era, you could find those ponies at Pic ‘N’ Save.

What do you mean you don't remember Pinkie Pie's predecessor, sorta-off-looking Pinkie Pie?
By fifth grade, brand consciousness had hit my elementary school. I knew that cooler kids shopped at Kidsmart and the coolest kids shopped at Nordstrom. By sixth grade, I started saving for a pair of red Guess jeans with zippered ankles. But in fifth grade, I hadn’t quite caught on. I had a pair of white cotton pants with pink polka dots from Pic ‘N’ Save, which I liked to wear with a teal-and-white striped shirt that had a square of splatter paint on the front, like a Jackson Pollock framed by an awkward ten-year-old.

I was wearing this outfit one day, walking up the hill from class to the school library where my mom worked, when an older girl named Carrie called out, “Hey, where do you shop?”

I assumed she was envying my look and I said with pride, “Everywhere. From Nordstrom to Pic ‘N’ Save.” I was high-low before there was high-low. But the words were barely out of my mouth when Carrie exchanged a look with her friend and I knew, instantly, that she’d been making fun of me. She would not be running to Pic ‘N’ Save to get her own stripes-and-polka-dots ensemble.

Now I can love my ten-year-old self—whose fashion icons were (and are) Pippi Longstocking and Punky Brewster—so easily it almost feels like a scene in a bad movie. The Poor But Creative Girl Gets Made Fun Of By The Rich Popular Girl. But I can just as easily transport myself to the shame of the moment, and I brought all of it with me as I entered Big Lots! on Thursday afternoon, Dash strapped to my chest.

I was one makeover shy of being a pop culture cliche.
My primary thought was, I could have saved so much money if I’d gone here for the past ten years instead of Target or Trader Joe’s, not to mention all that kombucha from Whole Foods when I was going through cancer treatment and indulged my needy, semi-anorexic self with pricey health food. 

Cereal for $2! Shampoo for $1.50! Mattresses for $249! Was I certain I didn’t need any patio furniture right now?

Oh, snap!
The orange shelf labels advertised bargains and the fact that food stamps were accepted here. Regular grocery stores never seem to advertise this fact. Just liquor stores and places that sell things like hot wings-flavored cracker sandwiches.

Food-adjacent food.
In the toy aisle, a dad was asking his daughter to promise—really promise—she would clean her room if he bought her a Frozen doll. The little girl could barely concentrate long enough to nod vigorously.

“Look at me,” he said. “Look at me. Do you promise? Are you going to keep it clean?”

Yeah yeah sure Dad gimme that Elsa.

I bought cereal, coconut water, pasta sauce, conditioner, tissue paper and a plastic bin to put AK’s records in. The clerk at checkout said of the latter, “It’s $6—is that okay? You still want it?”

I did. The clerk said hi to Dash. I commented that Dash had been sleeping: “He just woke up and is kind of looking around now like ‘Where am I?’”

“Better than waking up at the movies,” the clerk said.

I’m making a generalization here, but I have a hunch that the Venn diagram of people who take infants to the movies and people who shop at Big Lots! may have significant overlap.

Case in point: AK and I took Dash to see Fast and Furious 7 when he was less than three months old. He was not the only baby at our local $6 theater, not by a long shot. When the school-aged kids next to us complained to their dad about the baby behind us making noise, he said amiably, “Stop whining. You guys were the same way at movies when you were that age.”

That scene where Letty had to go undercover and fight a boxer chick in a ballgown. Because Fast and Furious.
Dash’s daycare is in South Pasadena, an upper-middle-class city that borders several working class cities and neighborhoods (Alhambra, El Sereno) and a city that, at least at one point, had the nation’s highest per capita income (San Marino). After our Big Lots! adventure—one part Memory Lane trip, one part ethnographic study—we walked through San Marino. Or maybe it was the fancy part of Alhambra, I’m not sure. The streets were lined with trees and well maintained bungalows painted in cool dark colors. Rain gutters dripped into eco-friendly barrels. Or they would have if there’d been any rain. The kids playing soccer at the park had brand new equipment.

In my last post, I mentioned my economic schizophrenia. Is it me or the times? Or the place? In a city, you always butt up against the Other, meaning you are always the Other.

Fireworks are already going off, so I guess this is my Fourth of July post. I raise my $1 Mexican coconut water to you, America. 

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