Vintage Family Dollar Musings

I was looking for something else when I found this old journal entry about Family Dollar that I wrote right after I moved to West Virginia in 2005. Forgive the overly Romantical writing – I had just finished grad school was still dangerous:

I want to tell a story about being in family dollar, but I don’t want to sound pretentious. I grew up going to Family Dollar, you can get really good stickers there, as well as supercheap cleaning supplies, but watch out because the notebook paper actually costs slightly more there than at Target, even though you’d think it’d be less.

So, I’m not too good for Family Dollar, but sometimes when I’m in there I have these strange out of body moments where I see all the plastic as an outsider, and it’s such a fucking ridiculous place. Family Dollar pushes crappy goods, they buy stuff made in sweatshops and it’s made for instant gratification.  All the toys are the kind you play with once and toss aside. All the food is bad for you, the clothes have weak seams and fade in the sun.

There’s lots of people who’d rather pay a little more and get something higher quality that will last longer, but there’s no other stores within easy driving distance, so they buy lower quality stuff. And there’s lots of people who are pleased to be able to participate in the buying game, people who don’t have money to waste, but can always waste a few luxury dollars at the Dollar General on something they don’t need but want. It’s a place to fulfill your wants when you can’t afford your basic needs.

I can analyze the facts but at the same time these items are all a part of me, a part of my cultural history. The fake Barbies with the shocked faces, yellow hair, and stiff pink skirts, the toy trucks that the wheels fall off of the first time you play with them, the address books with a soft focus drawing of a kitten laying next to a rose, even the hologram picture of Jesus.  And when I look on them with horror, it’s with a feeling of ownership. And when people who don’t understand the complexities behind Family Dollar make fun of it, it makes me angry.

So, I have a story to tell about Family Dollar. It’s hard to explain. I was in there, and I saw these shoes, fake converse sneakers, spray painted silver with rhinestones on the rubber toes. and they had a bright red $5 tag on them. And right above the rhinestone sneakers I saw a pin striped fedora, and picked it up, and it fit on my head, and it was a real fedora, very nice and lined, and it had a price tag that said $5 in bright red too. There was a row of hams in cans, lined up along the shelf by the ketchup.  And I thought, does anyone buy hams in cans from Family Dollar? And if they do, what do they do with them? I used to love spam, you throw it in the skillet with an egg and fry it; it’s so sweet and salty, crispy and smooth.  So, I can’t judge people who eat canned ham.

I saw a coal miner for the first time at Family Dollar. He was in the checkout line, buying pringles and something else I couldn’t see. Maybe that’s what this story is about.  I kept staring at him, but trying not to. He was wearing the navy blue outfits they wear, with the bright orange reflector banding his arms and legs and belly. I’d seen the outfits hanging on clotheslines and porches, but I’d never seen up close a man who put these outfits on to go underground. His face black, with white smudges around his mouth and eyes, black everywhere, holding pringles right there in the Family Dollar next to the racks of candy bars and cheap flashlights and lighters and fingernail files and all the other little things you might forget you needed if you didn’t see them there hanging, adamant red $1 sticker attached.

He was just a regular person, a person who eats pringles and stops by the store on the way home from work wearing his work clothes. He was imbued with symbolic import, freedom, America, electricity, ad campaigns made by people who make more than he does to convince people that our electricity is worth his life. An underground miner, just a few weeks after a tragic string of mining accidents, . He spent all day underground breathing in coal dust, and then he stopped by the Family Dollar for pringles.

I like family dollar because it is comforting and makes sense to me. I understand the tiny old ladies who slowly push their carts full of simple convenience food, and mothers with dyed blond hair, dark roots and bangs curled up into a careful half circle above their forehead, pulled in every tired direction by their kids.

Today at Family Dollar I was looking for lightbulbs and bottled water, but they don’t have the kind of bulbs I wanted and no water at all. Instead I bought a package of strawberry flavored wafer cookies, the ingredients are: sugar, vegetable shortening, wheat flour, cornstarch, salt, leavening, artificial flavor, red #40 lake and red #3. I’ve been eating them like crazy, they remind me of my grammy and summertime.

My grammy walks to the Family Dollar just about everyday, usually she buys a pack of gum or just nothing. Just to get outside and maybe keep up with the news. It’s a community space.

I don’t know what my story about Family Dollar is.  Here is the story I hear in Family Dollar: In the next town over, the cashier tells me, someone left a suitcase on the steps of the courthouse and they thought it might be trouble, you know, a bomb or whatnot. So just for fun some police guy digs up the infrared camera, and it turns out the suitcase was over 103 degrees! Well, so, they brought in the state police and all that, and then can you guess what was in it? Money? Kittens? I wonder. Clothes, the cashier replies, it was full of clothes! I bet whoever left it there doesn’t ever want to see those clothes again after all the trouble they caused with that.

Why were the clothes so hot? I asked her. Well, honey, I guess nobody knows that, maybe because they were sitting out in the sun.  I don’t give much for the law out here, if they can pull in the circus over a pile of clothes but can’t come to a persons house when it’s being robbed or worse.  They just want to play with their fancy gadgets.

She is done with my order, she hands me my bag with efficient kindness, a caretaker, and giver of goods and information, red apron, nametag and all.  I tell her I didn’t need a bag for just one thing of cookies, and she says, “sure you do” and waves me on. A man coming in the Out door holds it open for me, it’s a gray day, swirly wind and slush in the parking lot, which extends, paved with tar, to a narrow bar of cinders and gravel, and on the other side of that railroad tracks, and on the other side of that the creek, and then the mountains, on and on and on.

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