At the ninety-nine-cent store, I looked in vain for a bathtub stopper. “Can I help you?” asked a woman, presumably the owner. When I told her what I was looking for, she flew to a seemingly random shelf and began to scan it with a gimlet eye. She tried to give me a drain catch and then one of those flat rubber pads that covers everything, but I really wanted the sort with a chain. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I can just go to the hardware store … ”
At which moment she gave a triumphant cry and pointed to the stopper that was, indeed, hanging some six feet over our heads. Employing an impressive combination of hook, broomstick, and step stool, she managed to retrieve it as I looked on anxiously. “Hardware store, she says!” she crowed. I’d never actually heard anyone use that construction in modern life.
It’s been a long time since anything cost ninety-nine cents. I think the stopper was $1.99. But “dollar stores” they remain—unless they cut a few cents in a bid for more business—and their selection and prices remain unmatched, at least in cities. Indeed, there are certain things you can only find at these stores—at least I can only find them there. Plastic basins, say, or those woven plaid bags. I’ve stopped getting toothpaste there, though.
As I was paying, I overheard another customer ask about the availability of nutmeg.
“Nutmeg?” said a second employee. “No, we don’t have that.” (Which seemed to me a very reasonable answer, given that we were in a ninety-nine-cent store. Party hats? Yes. Drano, certainly. Spices? Probably not.)
But then came the voice of the owner from among the narrow aisles: “Nutmeg!” she shouted. “Nutmeg! We have it! Don’t you remember? You’ve only worked here for twenty years!” She dashed out and readily procured a large and dubious-looking jar of nutmeg from a shelf.
Her employee, however, was defiant. “You know I don’t know anything about school supplies!” he replied.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.