Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Two Bucks' Worth of Cunning

I'm always amazed when writers, notoriously flaky people, can conjure up past work within minimal (seen, at least,) sweat. As I promised in the last post, I asked Ian to delve deep into his computer's memory and haul out "Two Bucks" if he could. And he could. And he did. Within 24 hours. That's turnaround, people.

So learn, enjoy, and click that link to visit his new blog about life in New York. It's equal parts entertaining, informative, honest, witty, and sarcastic. And if you're like me and like something new to read on your news feed nearly every day, he doesn't disappoint.


When I’m dead broke and hungry, I do what any logical person should do in Burlington: I go to City Market and take them for all they’re worth.

I start in the produce section, leech my way to the deli on the opposite side of the store, creep along the hot-buffet, pass through the check-out line, and plop down into a chair in the newly renovated eat-in area to sit, read, people watch through the large windows, and mow down on my hearty meal that was not only 40 percent free, but also under $2. It’s good, really: a turkey-salad sandwich in cucumber-mayonnaise dressing with lettuce, spinach, mozzarella cheese, and carrots, squeezed between two pieces of hearty wheat, white, or sourdough bread; a banana; and a tall glass of ice-cold water, or milk, if I’m feeling the craving for that homogenized goodness, and, of course, if I have an extra dollar kicking around—sometimes breaking the $3 threshold is a little too much.

I remember one leeching incident vividly.

It was early in the morning—which is very important when doing these types of missions, but that comes later—and was sometime in January, or early February, and even the permeating chill of the produce section felt warm on my hands and cheeks juxtaposed against the bitter Vermont mid-winter mornings. I scooted past the apples and oranges, peaches and pears, and over to the bananas. (Now, you can choose any fruit you want, but never go organic. Remember: You’re broke, not trying to save the world or set a good example. A traditional banana tastes just as good as an organic one, and anyone that tells you different is lying to themselves. A medium sized banana ripened to a bright yellow, and is soft, not mushy, to the touch is the best option, and is usually around 35 cents, give or take a couple copper Lincolns.) I found a medium-sized, more curved than normal banana, and moved on.

Next was the meat.

There is a secret, almost hidden box of meat and cheese trimmings at the island between the hot-buffet counter and the beer cooler, stuffed between pre-made Asian foods and a basket of single-serving, raw eggs, on the shelf above the samosas. Any bag of trimmings is half-off of the original price at the deli counter, and the selection is broad, as well: smoked turkey, honey-cured ham, and, if you’re lucky, peppered roast beef. The best selection, though, comes early in the morning, before ten o’clock; there is never a standard amount of trimmings per day—five, on average—and most of the good ones get snatched up by noon or one o’clock. The good thing about this bin, however, is that all of the servings of meat are very small; most are less than a quarter of a pound, and under 50 cents. If you’re a wimp, the bad thing is that the trimmings are the ends of the slabs of meat they use at the deli counter—the butt, or nub of the meat, as some call it. (But hey, you’re broke, remember? Plus, you’re going to be chopping it up for your sandwich, anyway.) As I rummaged through the bin, I found a juicy nub of roasted turkey for 28 cents and stuffed it, along with my banana, between my forearm and ribcage.

I turned around and faced the hot-buffet counter, and walked left, to the build-your-own-salad section. This part of the journey takes a bit getting used to: the buffet foods are $7.49 per pound, and some experience is essential to not taking too much, and end up having it be more than $1.25—my usual limit. (City Market is smart; there is no scale to weigh any of the buffet foods. Most inexperienced buffeters end up paying way more than they expected when buying from the buffet.) I grabbed a small, brown to-go container in my left hand, put my banana and meat nub on the counter, and snatched the black, plastic tongs in my right hand. A pinch of spinach. A tong-full of lettuce. A dash of carrots. A sprinkle of mozzarella. After using my memory and precise guessing tactics to weigh the heap of veggies, I closed up the box and grabbed a small, black serving cup for my dressing. (Again, I usually get the cucumber-mayo dressing, but you can get whichever you like. I think they have some sort of honey mustard dressing. But always remember: Never put the dressing on the salad before you pay! City Market benefits from stupid people like that. But when you’re broke and hungry, you can’t afford to be stupid. I always put it in a serving cup and hold it in my hand while going through the checkout; the cashier will never make you pay for it, or even question it.)

I got to the register and paid $1.93.

“Do you need a bag?” the cashier asked me, reaching her left arm toward a stack of brown, paper bags of various sizes.

“Sure, a medium-sized one, please,” I responded. It is key, in this situation, to get a bag that is a great deal bigger than what you actually need because of the free bread bucket located at end of the buffet station—I need plenty of room for all the free bread I’m about to take. (I never use the word steal here, because, frankly, it’s free bread, and there’s not limit if it’s free, right? At least none that I can see.) After she stuffed the bottom of my bag, and once her attention was taken over by the person in line behind me, I nonchalantly shuffled over to the free bread, and jammed at least four pieces into my bag—I sometimes come back for seconds after I’m done eating. (It is essential to be as cool and calm, as well as quick, about this as possible. Any employee could give you guff about nabbing half the free bread in the bucket, so I try to get in and out as quickly as possible.)

After tossing my jacket over the back of one of the chairs at a two-seater table next to a window, and putting my bag of food down, I walked over to the free ice-water jug and poured myself a glass. I drank half of it there, smacked my lips with a sigh, and turned to the condiments station to my left. The station made my belly shake with excitement: Free napkins, plastic silverware, mayonnaise, ketchup, spicy mustard, and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. (Frank’s Red Hot Sauce is God. If I have time, I usually ditch the turkey-salad idea and snag three, four, six, or ten packets of Frank’s, go home, chop up my nub of meat, heat it up in a pan with Frank’s, add a heaping glob of ranch dressing, wedge it between two pieces of free bread, and toast the sucker to perfection. Sure it’s a tad more work, but the outcome is incredible.)

After grabbing some napkins, a fork, and a knife, I sat down and began the assembly process. As I chopped up my turkey into half-inch cubes, and threw them into the box of greens from the buffet station, I overheard a couple to my right whispering: “What is he doing? Is that lunchmeat?” I snickered to myself, and took another sip of my water. I dumped my dressing into the box, and scraped the container for every last drop. (Sometimes, if I really need it, I’ll just go right back up and get a second container of dressing. I’ve gone this far, right?) After shaking my concoction like an eight-year-old inspecting a Christmas present, I carefully dumped the contents onto a piece of bread, and a squeezed the top piece on, careful not to spill any of the delicious innards. I got up to refill my water and the couple to my right stopped chewing their sandwiches and glared at me as I walked past. I glanced down at the wrappers of their sandwiches and caught the price of one of them: $4.95. I smiled to myself and filled up the cup.

I sat back down and slowly ate away at my homemade sandwich—an adventurous option to dining out or making an arduous meal on the stovetop; an inherent way of life for a college student scraping by; finding the flaws in the system; being innovative; making a new, cheaper path to something simple, but essential: a full stomach—the nature of the beast.


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