The gift grab game

Five fanciful tales on how (and how not) to buy last-minute gifts

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

It happens every year. Somebody throws a surprise party and thus chucks a big wrench into your holiday plans, not to mention your budget. At that point, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve prepared, or how early you started your holiday shopping—you either bite the bullet and buy some presents or end up with eggnog on your face.

With that in mind, we at the CN&R decided to put ourselves in the shoes of harried last-minute shoppers everywhere. We came up with an exercise— a challenge, if you will—that would strain even the most organized holiday consumer: buying last-minute gifts for three people within one hour, spending no more than $50.

Five writers were each given a sealed envelope containing a unique scenario that detailed the people on the gift list and the address of the holiday gathering. They were ordered to go out and find the gifts, wrap them and drive to the destination—in 60 minutes or less. Then they were to write a description of what happened in a fictional tale involving the imaginary characters. Generously, we allowed them to use noms de plume.

The results, as you’ll see below, are comforting. It can be done. And only one of our participants resorted to charging gifts on a gas card.

Appeasing the in-laws
Something for everyone—even weirdos

My wife calls me up at work, frantic, because her father’s second wife, Keiko, has commanded our presence at a surprise holiday gift-exchange and dinner date. Since in our family the Christmas surprise is usually who will pass out in the mashed potatoes first, I’m a bit wary. But I promise I’ll not only show up, but grab presents along the way. There are to be three in our hapless party: my father-in-law, a retired Air Force colonel and rabid conspiracy theorist; his lovely wife Keiko; and his drinking buddy, Bo “Pinky” Lau, who’s just returned from a world cruise to find his condo had been turned into student housing and thus was staying with the couple for the time being.

I have 50 bucks in my pocket—my winnings from last night’s cock fight behind the Bear. That should be more than enough to do our seasonal duty by this motley crew.

I get off at 5 p.m. Keiko’s instructions were to pick them up at 2555 Dominic Drive in time to hit the Hometown Buffet by 6. My wife will be meeting us, fortified by a shot of cinnamon schnapps.

All I really know about Pinky is that he once stabbed a man over a crooked dice game. I opt for Chico Sportsman’s Den, which is right on the way as I race my hemi up Pine Street toward East 20th. After passing up several knives (they’re pricey, plus there’s the stabbing factor), I hit upon a set of two decks of playing cards and five dice, encased in a snazzy felt-lined wood box, hinged, with a fish carved on the top. For $21.99, it’s one down and two to go.

Swinging around to Fair Street, I remember Bear Mountain Gifts, the shop run by the Work Training Center. Sweet! Keiko loves pottery, and here I find several specimens to choose from, all hand-crafted by developmentally disabled adults. I select a $10 saucer-and-pitcher set with pretty orange swirls.

With only my father-in-law left to please, I drive to ABC Books by Raley’s on the Skyway. Advised of the colonel’s anti-government leanings, the friendly owner recommends a variety of used tomes, including Sellout: The Inside Story of President Clinton’s Impeachment ($4) and an armful of wartime paperbacks: Baa, Baa Black Sheep by Pappy Boyington, Time Heals No Wounds by Jack Leninger and Alpha Strike Vietnam: The Navy’s Air War 1964-1973 by Jeffrey L. Levinson. They’re only a couple of bucks apiece, so I decide to throw in two Rush Limbaugh hardbacks ($4 each) and call it good.

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

With time and money running short, I walk across the parking lot to the Dollar Tree, which is overflowing with rolls of wrapping paper, gift bags, ribbon—even tape. It takes me only about five minutes to complete my sloppy wrap job.

When I pull into the Safer Arms shooting range, just blocks away, the trio is waiting, along with my grateful wife. I’m not sure we’ll make it all the way to the soft-serve ice cream dessert bar without fighting, but I know they’ll like their gifts.
—Nipsy McGregor

Wine for me
Think of yourself this year

So at the last minute the old lady calls to tell me that I’ve got to go to her best friend Dr. Gary Danglehern’s holiday cocktail party. She says be a “good darling” and purchase gifts for the host and two of his guests. Gary, she explains, is a gay, 40-something chiropractor “who enjoys musicals, cycling and nature photography.”

The guests are Henri Bourride, an overweight food critic and recent transplant to Chico from the East Coast, and Patty Jimnaut, Dr. Gary’s receptionist. Patty, I’m told, likes fine wine, playing cards and dogs.

She tells me I have an hour to buy the gifts, wrap them and get to the party. Or, she says, I can contact a divorce attorney. I think she’s kidding. I have $50 in my wallet, so I agree to buy the gifts.

The party is on Longfellow Avenue, so my first stop is at Rite-Aid on Mangrove Avenue for wrapping paper. I’m in luck—rolls of red, gold and patterned paper that normally sell for $1.49 are only 99 cents! And 30 self-stick gift tags are only another 99 cents.

Before I leave the Park Plaza shopping center parking lot, I spot the recently relocated Sports LTD store and remember that Gary the bone-cracker likes cycling. I tell the first worker I see, a fellow named John, that I need a last-second gift for a gay chiropractor. He smiles and leads me to some little computers that mount on your bike (or you) and measure, depending on which model you get, your current speed, average speed, altitude, heart rate and calorie-burn rate. They run from $20 to $150. I go for the low end because I don’t really know the good doctor, and so what if he’s the ball-and-chain’s best friend?

From there I head north to the Mangrove Bottle Shop—can’t go wrong with a bottle of wine, and Patty, I remember, is a wino, er, connoisseur. I explain my plight to Samuel, the man behind the counter. He says it’s a safe bet to get a bottle of red. He points me to a couple of bottles, including a locally bottled California Syrah from Odyssey vintners, $15.99. I settle for the 2001 Cigarzin Zinfandel from Yountville, $15.99.

I’ve now spent, with tax, almost $40, leaving me $10 for Henri. With 20 minutes before the party, I head to the address, which turns out to be the Chico Beauty College. I’m confused. I decide to check out Greenfeet Nature Homestore next door. What would a food critic from back east want here? I check the Pan’s Earthly Delights natural products for men, including the hemp facial and the facial moisturizer ($17.50) with neroli and sandalwood scents.

Valerie directs me to the Starpocket constellation finder ($31.50), and I consider the Sonoma Lavender spa booties ($21) that you can warm up in the microwave, but I realize any one of these gifts will exceed the $50 in my wallet.

Then I see it—a green-glass cheese platter ($16.20) made from recycled bottles. Perfect. It’s food oriented and represents our West Coast sensitivity to the environment. (I put it on my credit card.)

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

I leave the store a happy holiday customer and head toward the beauty college. Then I spot Gary the “gay” chiropractor “adjusting” my wife in the back seat of his Cadillac Escalade. Forget the cocktail party—I’ m going home to drink some wine, slice some cheese, check my heart rate and call that attorney.
—Rod Flannagan

The accountant’s revenge
What to buy for a dysfunctional office

I was working feverishly—literally. My cold was going into its fourth day, and I had been chugging Theraflu since 6 o’clock in the morning. I was going over the third-quarter sales again, trying desperately to figure out how the previous accountant had managed to misplace more than $4 million from a company that had made only $970,000 last year. My attention was diverted by a lustrous female voice over the intercom.

“Paul, can you come see me, please?”

Debbie’s voice sent shivers through my scrofulous frame. She was a blond vision in a white miniskirt, and I had lusted after her every day of my short employment at Fildem sweatpants factory. I had been hired to clean up the books by the company’s owner, Fran Portstenton, a mustachioed walrus of a man who had a penchant for hard back-slapping and crude jokes. His breath always smelled of Scotch.

I approached Debbie’s desk with as much confidence as I could muster, thinking maybe she had re-thought my earlier proposition to take her out to dinner.

“Paul, are you hard at work in there?”

Her eyes narrowed when she smiled, and she crinkled up her nose when I croaked out a monosyllable and a sneeze in answer.

“You’re a funny boy.” She teased. “Mr. Portstenton wants you to pick up his dry cleaning.”

I started to protest, telling her that maybe she ought to do it since the quarterly report was due the next morning, but she shushed me and handed me the cleaning slip.

“I can’t go, silly. I have to get ready for the office Christmas party. Didn’t you get the e-mail?”

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

“Besides,” she laughed, holding up her hands to show off her 3-inch-long finger nails, “I just put on a coat of clear.”

I grabbed the slip and on the way out to my car was almost bowled over by Tino, the factory floor manager, who was in even more of hurry than usual trying to fill the holiday orders.

“I’m sorry, amigo,” he said, brushing his spilled coffee off my tie. “I’ll see you at the party.”

Great. Now I had to pick up Portstenton’s cleaning and buy three gifts in an hour. I hadn’t yet gotten my first paycheck and had only $50 to my name. Not knowing the town very well, I pulled out of the driveway onto The Esplanade, fighting traffic as the rain came down in buckets.

It took a while to get Mr. Portstenton’s suits, and I cursed him as I hung his clothes on my seat rest. This guy had a lot of nerve making me do his errands. Pulling out of the cleaner’s, I realized I had taken a wrong turn and was lost, having no idea where I was, much less where to get gifts for my coworkers. I stopped to ask for directions at a little store on Mangrove Avenue called Discount Cigarette Cigar Market.

Mike, the clerk, was gruff but still pretty nice, and when I told him I needed some fast gifts, he reached into the humidifier and brought out two cigars—an Excalibur and an Arturo Fuente Bully. He said they would be about $10 for the pair, and knowing Portstenton was a bit of lech, I threw in a $5 butane torch lighter that had blinking led lights and a girl whose top disappeared when you hit the flame button.

“Maybe he’ll burn himself and get throat cancer,” I thought as I headed back toward work. Passing a neglected strip mall, I saw a consignment shop called The Dress Code and almost caused an accident making a screeching, illegal U-turn into the parking lot.

Shaking and coughing, I told the store owner, Cheri, all about Debbie and how much I liked her and how she wouldn’t go out with me. She rolled her eyes and pulled a tennis bracelet from a display case.

“Is it real gold?” I asked, explaining that I didn’t have much money.

Cheri set me straight. “Honey, you don’t want to spend too much on this girl. It’s gold-plated. Five bucks.”

I gladly paid Cheri and took off again. I couldn’t stop thinking about Tino, and so when I stopped at the Silver Dollar on East Avenue to buy wrapping paper and tape, I went to the Walgreen’s next store and got him the most expensive pair of insoles they had: Dr. Scholl’s Advantage Work, $13 for the pair. I wrapped everything on the floor of my van and arrived back at work dirty, wet and 10 minutes late for the party.

I handed out my presents and grabbed a cup of punch, spilling a little every time I sneezed. Tino looked at me like I was from Mars when he saw the insoles, but he quickly recovered, saying, “Thank you, amigo. That was very … um, nice of you.”

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Portstenton laughed like a pirate when he opened his package. He lighted the greenish flame again and again to expose the breasts of the blinking vixen. “I must be paying you too much,” he guffawed, and slapped me on the back.

Just then, Debbie opened Portstenton’s present. It was a white gold ring with a huge diamond perched on top. Her eyes teared up and she ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him on the cheek. He in turn copped a generous feel.

I stood there shuffling my feet while she thanked him profusely. When she was done, she saw my present, still wrapped, sitting on her keyboard. She wiped her eyes and sat down, then daintily tore at the dollar store wrapping paper.

When she opened the box, she looked a little bit stunned. Then, without taking out the bracelet, she closed the box and dropped it into her desk drawer.

“Oh Paul,” she said, spinning away in her chair so she could face her computer screen. “You’re funny.”
—Paul Dudley

Maxximum shopping
With an hour to buy three presents a one-stop store is a must

As the computer shut down, I looked up at the clock. Uh-oh, 6:30. I’d worked too long again. My 12-step yogatherapy group started in just an hour, and I could see it now: Me, standing there in my purple leotards, offering confession:

“Hi, my name is Pepe, and I’m a workaholic. I did it again today, dammit. I knew we were having a Christmas party tonight, but I got so lost in my work that I forgot to buy presents for you guys.”

It’s a small group, only Kalli, Merv, Ollie and I, so we’re close. Merv especially has been a pal. Last month he personally escorted me out of the office when he found me there on Thanksgiving night. “Come on, big fella, you’ve had enough,” he said gently. “Time to go home. Do some yoga. Relax.”

Wait a minute, I thought. I’ve still go an hour before the meeting. I checked the wallet: 50 bucks. That should be enough.

But where to go? What I needed, I realized, was help, expert help. I called my wife.

She had one name for me: T.J. Maxx. “They’ve got a whole section of yoga stuff, mats, clothes, gift items, you name it. Cheap, too. Plus it’s close to the freeway.”

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

What a brilliant woman. I usually shop at locally owned stores, but this wasn’t your usual situation. I needed what T.J. Maxx had to offer.

I was there by 6:40. First thing I noticed was the display of wrapping paper near the cash registers. Excellent! Then, in just 30 minutes, I found everything I needed.

For Kalli, who’s from Austria and is learning yoga to get over her addiction to weight lifting, I bought a lovely salmon-colored terrycloth hoodie by Jockey, size large, for $24.99. For Merv, who likes classical music and cats, I bought a “purring cat clock,” on sale for $9.99, that sounds each hour with a different cat’s meow—Abysinnian at 7, Tonkinese at 8, and so on. He sells insurance, so he can put it on his office wall, add some fun to the place.

Ollie is a Gulf War veteran who’s retired on military disability and collects Pepsi memorabilia, the one thing T.J. Maxx didn’t seem to carry. He’s overweight and has been complaining lately of back pains while driving, so I bought him a lumbar pillow ($14.99 by Blue Ridge) that came with a cool commuter mug.

Total: just under $50. Fortunately, between my coin purse and my parking meter stash in the car, I had enough jingle jangle to buy wrapping paper and tape and cover sales tax. It was now 7:10. I jumped on the freeway and headed north, exiting at Cohasset and stopping at the new Starbucks, where I bolted a cup of joe while wrapping the gifts. Precisely at 7:30 I pulled into the airport, where our group meets, happily anticipating the looks on my friends’ faces when they saw my gifts.
—Pepe Chismoso

My big fat shopping story
Or, how Big Lots! cured my holiday blues

It’s bad enough that I had to ask to get off work an hour early for Grandma’s freaky holiday party, but just as I headed home for a quick shower before moving on to her overheated townhouse near the Chico Mall, my cell phone rang.

“Lila! I need you to stop and pick up some gifts on your way, Sweetie!”

Perfection. Now I’d be able to add my workday’s sweat to the 80-plus thermostat and cigar smoke of Grandma’s 62-year-old, Raiders-obsessed boyfriend, Bud. And, all the money I had in the world was the 50 bucks Grandma gave me yesterday for programming her VCR.

“Use that money I gave you, Sweetie. I need something for Bud, something for Bud Jr. and something for Ethel Flitch from next door. Oh, and get some boxes with Christmas print—all I have is birthday wrapping.”

So there I was: one hour and 50 bucks for getting presents for “Grandpa” Bud; his half-wit, mullet-rocking son Brody (Bud Jr.), who is obsessed with NASCAR and staring at my chest; and Grandma’s 89-year-old neighbor, who will pinch my cheeks as sure as she’ll announce that Thomas Kinkade is the “greatest painter ever” at least once during dinner. I thought about the mall for about one second before making the choice that would turn my night around: Big Lots!

The first thing I saw coming through the automatic door was a cluster of discount kiosks. Everything 33 percent off its marked price! For Miss Thomas Kinkade, I found a lovely trumpet-wielding ceramic angel with warm pink cheeks: sale price, a demonic $6.66.

With Bud and Bud Jr. on my mind, I made a beeline for the auto/sportsgear/toy corner of the store. Voila! Many, many choices, and so cheap!

I picked up the plastic beef jerky container filled with a variety of 24 assorted bungee cords for only $7.99 before noticing the “professional” pool cues for $9.99. I noticed that each cue was emblazoned with a different logo—Homer Simpson, Bud Lite and Bud Junior’s favorite domestic brew, MGD, Miller Genuine Draft. That was that.

Cruising along under 20 bucks, I began to feel my load lighten. Turning the corner into the car gadget aisle, I had a vision of a lighter load for Grandma’s big Bud as well. There on the bottom shelf, for a mere $4.99, was the Ergo Seat beaded seat cover.

I rushed back to the front of the store with a money-saving song in my heart. I hadn’t skipped 10 skips before being stopped in my tracks. Between aisles 13 and 14 were the Rock Band Electric Guitar and Standing Microphone, for $9.99, and the Table Top Electronic Drum Beat (with drumsticks!), also $9.99. There was going to be a party for sure!

Adding the red, velour wine gift bag (99 cents), medium-size gift bag (99 cents), jumbo gift bag ($1.99) and pack of 20 sheets of soft gift tissue (99 cents), my total after tax came to $49.96.

With a squeal of glee I was out the door with 15 minutes and 4 cents to spare. I swung by Shell, picked up a 12-pack with my gas card, and went on to rock out all night with Granny and crew and our rock star gear. I somehow ended up passed out on the trundle, with Bud Jr. passed out next to me. You know, he’s actually pretty sweet once you get to know him.
—Lila Poogy