There are an extravagant, hedonistic few among us who would rather die before spending anything less than a couple of grand for a party — just for the balloons. Their Caligulaesque spending habits would make even a My Super Sweet 16 debutante whine with bitter jealousy. To countless others who live in the actual real world, myself included, nothing says "party" like a 99-cent sauvignon blanc. It requires some creativity, but a rousing party can be assembled with items purchased exclusively from that pinnacle of bargain shopping, the 99¢ Only Stores.
Since dollar stores specialize in home goods, a housewarming is the ideal event. Begin with the basics. Sets of peach-colored Deluxe Imports dinner plates with matching bowls and coffee mugs — the untrained eye might mistake those for Fiesta ware — are festive place settings if paired with orange-stemmed wine glasses. If someone breaks one in a fit of drunken excitement, hey, they're only 99 cents. Depending on your soiree's degree of formality, several bundles of Aspen ultrastrength heavy-duty paper plates in plain or tacky flower print could also do the trick. Where utensils are concerned, the only way to go is a combo pack of Elegant Design's glossy black-plastic forks, spoons and knives. They are "washable and reusable," which thus increases their overall utility: Use them twice and they really only cost 49.5 cents. Thrice, they cost 33 cents. Four times, 24.75 cents, and so on.
The most genteel host or hostess will also provide an assortment of Flexi Straws or Krazy Straws, neither of which should under any circumstances be reused.
For those who find it fun to dress up for parties, a Dangerous Duds pink-and-gray polka-dot tank with matching panties paired with a lavender sequin belt and glittery mesh scarf would dress up any Little Black Dress. Girls tend to fare better at dollar stores. Guys, for the most part, are screwed. If you are a guy and you show up at my party wearing a white Du-Rag Tiger visor rag, prepare to become close personal friends with the velvet rope (although sadly, the 99¢ Only Stores do not sell velvet ropes).
Note to guests: Someone might want to bring me the slightly scuffed Pocket Guide to Istanbul, second edition — spotted at the Sunset Boulevard 99¢ Only location — as a housewarming gift. Absconding to Eurasia will probably sound good when I have to clean up after the party. Or a pack of Indian Spirit "House Blessing" cherry incense sticks. Or one of the mystery house plants in the "Assorted Foliage 4-inch" rack. Or the less subtle but ever-so-much-appreciated "Best wishes on your special day" money holders, die-cut for gift cards (sold in various denominations), suggested retail $2.99, on sale for, you guessed it, 99 cents. Or perhaps a big-button, full-function calculator to tally up my purchases — though you're probably thinking, "How hard is it to add up one dollar plus one dollar plus one dollar?"
Pretty damned hard after several bottles of 99-cent wine. There is an entire contingent of 99-cent-wine fanatics, many of whom can be found raving on Chowhound.com about delectable Australian Shirazes and Argentine malbecs that occasionally pop up at "the 99." Two Buck Chuck (which is closer to three bucks these days) has nothing on one-dollar wine, in their view. These are the same people who have been known to uncork bottles in the parking lot to taste the wine, and who point out that per liter, 99-cent wine is actually cheaper to drink than bottled water (unless you buy the water for 99 cents). One wine predator, known online only as "Bernardo," extols the virtue of a 99-cent red that goes well with beef bourguignon, beef goulash, leg of lamb or prime rib, none of which you will find at a 99 anytime soon, since the stores, which do sell frozen provisions, aren't certified to handle fresh raw meat.
Perhaps it's best to stick with water anyway. Deja Blue is going for half price at two for 99 cents. Or diet Shasta. Or juice. Hawaiian-style punch is available in Juicy Fruit Red flavor. Red is not only a color, it is a flavor. And don't forget the ice: 99 cents for a 7-pound bag.
"Oh, look," says a pretty little hazel-haired girl in a droll voice, as I rifle through the stationery goods on a mission for invitations. "Everything has a puppy on it. And now I know where to get pencils." Invites are a cinch at the 99. And so much more personal than Evites. Pick up Animal Ark cartoon-themed "You Are Invited!" cards, a dozen a pack: Write them. Label them. Stamp them and mail them. Done.
Cultivating an enticing party ambiance is also easy. I like the 12-inch imperial-red tapered candles, at two for 99 cents.
On the day of the party, I might scribble "Welcome! Party Upstairs!" on the street with some Prang-brand colored chalk. Is that ghetto? Not if I accent my chalky welcome note with a bouquet of Mylar balloons. Balloons that say "Feliz Cumpleanos" or "Over the Hill" lend a run-of-the-mill housewarming a surreal, ironic, Dadaist atmosphere (i.e., Whose birthday is it? How old do you have to be to be considered "over the hill"?). The safe bet, of course, is to go with the universal "USA Rocks!" Unless you live in the Axis of Evil. I live on the Westside, an area that many in our city regard as evil — there's too much traffic, there's not enough parking — but not as evil as, say, North Korea.
Let's talk 99-cent menu. We can start with a spinach, pear and mushroom salad with a white-wine vinaigrette, all tossed together from ingredients at the 99. For housewarmings, small portable bites are best; some hearty, some light, since voyeuristic guests will no doubt want to wander the rooms. Position little saucers of mixed nuts and marinated olives near the front door to greet the newly arrived. Garbanzo beans from a can, blended with paprika, olive oil, sea salt and lemon (sorry, no tahini at the 99¢ Only Stores currently), make a nice homemade hummus, which can be served with wedges of toasted pita bread. Chips with a mango-and-black-bean salsa, with a bit of habanero chile for bite, can also be made from 99¢ ingredients. Traditionalists can, of course, go with a simple avocado-and-fresh-tomato guacamole. There's no crab for crab cakes at the Culver City 99¢ Only Store on Washington Boulevard when I go, but there are frozen salmon fillets that can be flaked and fashioned into salmon cakes to be lightly browned with garlic. Thin slices of the 99's USDA-choice beefsteak fillets, sold frozen, can be rolled around red, green and yellow bell peppers, sliced into matchstick slivers, then skewered onto toothpicks and grilled — a close approximation of Japanese negamaki. That, by the way, is an idea from Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook. Martha, that rare hostess both extravagant and frugal, suggests serving the beef rolls with a scallion-soy dipping sauce.
With some tweaking, a can of quartered artichoke slices becomes an artichoke spread avec tomato confit (organic, diced tomatoes in a can) on crostini. Toasted French bread will have to do for the crostini. If you manage to score some of the 99¢ Deli Fresh ready-to-eat chicken-breast strips, you're in good shape for a chicken-salad canape: Mix with diced celery, green onions, thyme, rosemary and chopped almonds (you'll have to toast them yourself).
Dessert is a piece of cake. A Pillsbury Moist Supreme lemon cake, to be specific, or an apple pie baked from 99¢ red-delicious apples, frozen pie crust and cinnamon, or perhaps some spiced apple-rum cider — but where has all the rum gone? Indeed, that will have to be procured elsewhere.
For a bit of nostalgic humor, consider chocolate moon pies. Shopping at 99¢ Only Stores or any of the many variations on the theme — Dollar General, Deal$ and Fred's all aim to give the 99 a run for its money — inevitably becomes either (1) a great annoyance at not being able to find stuff or (2) a treasure hunt. For instance, ants on a log (celery sticks, peanut butter, raisins), I decided, might be a fun way to elaborate upon a nostalgic dessert theme. "Raisins, raisins, raisins ... come on, raisins," I chant, scouring the aisles, dodging renegade grocery carts and small, weeping children. "Yes!" The raisins have been lurking behind the shell pasta.
You might think this organizational system is deranged, but it isn't. The 99¢ Only Stores' merchandise is perpetually in flux. The buyers might happen upon, say, a good deal for 18-ounce glass bottles of Coca-Cola sweetened with Mexican sugar cane on closeout, as they did last week, but they could easily have opted for a good deal on a shipment of Tylenol instead. Creative shelving is inherent to the 99¢ Only mystique.
"We had a lot of peanut butter for a while, then we sold out," says Mario, one of the Culver City store clerks, looking crestfallen after a search turns up empty for the missing peanut butter — usually shelved, naturally, beside the coffee creamer and sliced carrots. He happily finds me a jar of olives, though — next to the clam juice.
The Vendange '05 California Sauvignon Blanc at this location is virtually sold out, as is the Hillstone 2001 Sauvignon. Only a few dusty bottles of both remain. The 99-cent-wine wolves have been on the prowl, I suspect. But the shelves are packed with pink cartons of Bonnie 2005 White Zinfandel. No matter where you sell it, I guess, wine in a box is tres gauche.
Shop here long enough and soon you get to feeling like paying anything over 99 cents is criminal. A roll of paper towels for $2.99? Highway robbery! Whose party do you think this is, Rockefeller's? To shop at the 99¢ Only Stores for the first time is to experience a sort of exhilaration as you awaken to the genius of that Marxist-socialist philosophy that declares a bag of Mariani dried plums to be worth the same as a three-pack of ladies' sports socks.
Speaking of criminal, have you ever noticed that the gardening section of certain 99¢ Only Stores can be rather ominous? Plastic zip ties, a hacksaw, a wrench, pliers and some duct tape ... If someone — any neighbor you'd describe as a loner who keeps to himself — invites you to a party with those items on the shopping list, run!
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In the event that your housewarming is a rager, and guests who have stayed for the after-party and lingered through the after-after-party are still around in the morning, fear not: The 99¢ Only Stores sell breakfast staples. The ultimate distinguishing mark of a good hostess is whether she maintains a stash of emergency morning-after buttermilk pancakes in her freezer (sold for 99 cents in packs of eight), as well as a hearty supply of T.J. Farms Potatoes O'Brien home-style hash browns, Farmer John old-fashioned pork links, and French-toast sticks (these can also double as party desserts in a pinch). By the same token, it's only right that those guests who intend to pull an all-nighter courteously supply their host with several new 99-cent nonstick frying pans.
On the way out, I spy not one, not two, but three Mercedeses in the parking lot. That shouldn't be surprising, because if anyone knows the value of a dollar, it is the person with the means to buy a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz. I'm told that the rich favor cheap cleaning supplies, so perhaps they've come for a 99-cent bottle of LA's Totally Awesome All-Purpose Cleaner with bleach.
Living in a new place decorated in extreme minimalist Unabomber chic, I've discovered that it never hurts to get the furniture before the housewarming. "Well, we have kids' plastic chairs," 99¢ spokesperson Henry Chu says, "and sometimes we have white lawn chairs. But those are not in stock right now. As far as sofas, I doubt we can get one for 99 cents."
If you have blank white walls to fill, however, and gobs of money — $3.35 million, approximately — you could attempt to purchase 99 Cent II, Diptych, the famous photo taken (in 1999, of course) by Andreas Gursky. Looking at it, you seem to hover, godlike, up by the fluorescent lights, to survey the tightly packed boxes of Reynolds Wrap, KitKats, dish soap and more. Last year at Sotheby's, it became the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction and is now hanging in an unidentified private collector's home somewhere. How perfect that the bidder who acquired the work, a beautiful artifact of a culture that worships shopping, and an example of what Gursky himself terms "the fetishism of our material world," should be anonymous. Is it the woman next to you kvetching about the price of tomatoes? The man sniffing the fabric softener? A guest you've unfortunately invited to the party who is hogging the nuts? Really, it could be anyone.