Nonfiction: The Almighty Dollar, by Howard Tharsing

The Almighty Dollar; an essay

by Howard Tharsing

Yesterday afternoon I walked a block or so to the Dollars and Cents store on Eddy Street between Leavenworth and Jones. I had passed it many times but had not gone in.  It looked small and dark, and the merchandise had been jammed onto the shelves, some of it apparently long ago.   Peering through the window, I could see boxes and cans old enough to have acquired a patina of settled dust over the sun-faded inks of the packaging.

But lately the place has changed, like everything in the T.L.  The store it looked bright and open.  The big front windows were clean and uncluttered by signs or advertisements; the new wire shelving inside finished with shining chrome; the goods new; and the packaging brightly colored. The floor was bare concrete but well-scrubbed, perhaps even polished and buffed, like the floors of some fashionable high-end shops I knew in Manhattan during the 1980s.

As I wandered through the aisles looking for toothpaste, I found a few other things that I had been needing (e.g., scouring powder, petroleum jelly) but had not felt that I could afford.  Here, however, for a mere dollar each, I could easily buy them without breaking my budget. I even found paper plates, which are tremendously useful not only for serving a meal but also for cooking in a microwave, the only appliance allowed in my SRO hotel room.  I had passed them up at Safeway many times because I could not justify spending $5.00 on them.  I had been making-do with paper towels and the like for over six months.  But now I could buy a package of 10 without worry.

The Dollar and Cents store is now a clean, well-lighted space, with merchandise arranged neatly.  The shopper can see what is available easily — and see that it is clean and new. And the soft-spoken, helpful Latino man at the register, neatly dressed all in black, his hair perfectly combed, his skin shining with good health, made me feel completely at home.

Something seated deeply within me relaxed in a way that I had not relaxed in over a year. I felt that I was seen to be sane, responsible, and connected to the world around me. I felt respected, and I moved more easily, with the solidity of our natural dignity.

All this for $6.40.

In the course of my year on the streets, I had found something similar at MacDonald’s. I imagine that most folks do not notice the Dollar Menu offered in every MacDonald’s restaurant, but those of us trying to find ways to keep body and soul together on next to nothing — sometimes as little as $10 a day for everything — understand the importance of this special group of items.

Everything on the Dollar Menu is priced at just $1. Among them are a MacDouble hamburger (with cheese), a chicken sandwich, and a truly delicious side salad. This salad consists of spring greens, cherry tomatoes, and a few other treats and comes with a choice of dressings, including my favorite, Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette. You can also get a large glass of sweet iced tea or a Parfait for dessert. All for $1 each.

I have a big appetite and usually order two MacDoubles and the side salad. Sometimes when I am heading home to a prepared dinner from Project Open Hand, I stop at MacDonald’s just to buy a side salad to have with my frozen dinner. Believe me, it is nigh on to impossible to get fresh vegetables in your diet when you are poor. A supermarket salad bar, at $3 or $4 per pound, cannot even be contemplated in the abstract. One comes to know that such things are not meant for folks like oneself.

But MacDonald’s is there for us, providing fresh bread, red and white meat, healthy beverages, fresh vegetables, and even a sweet little treat to end the meal.  A complete meal costs less than $5. There have been evenings — I think of last winter and spring — when I sat in MacDonald’s, eating my dinner, feeling my hunger satisfied and knowing that my body was getting a wide range of nutrients that were necessary to my health, and was moved to tears. This company so often derided as an example of bland, homogenous American corporate culture displacing small, individualized, local establishments and local traditions, had also found in its heart, moving through the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the company world-wide, a true understanding of the needs of poor folk and had responded by providing healthy life-sustaining food at a price we can afford.

And that fact brings me to my last point. These establishments, the Dollar Stores and MacDonald’s and others like them, provide one more necessity of life, one of the most fundamental and profound, and one that cannot be provided by any social, charitable, or government entity or even by caring and selfless individuals.

Everyone needs to feel responsible, to know that she or he can take care of himself or herself. Otherwise we come to feel less than complete, as if we were something other than fully formed, dignified, adult human beings. Only we ourselves, as individuals, can provide this latter necessity by paying for our food, clothing, and other necessities we all need to show up for life day to day. For us poor folk, it is at the Dollar Stores and the MacDonald’s of the world that we find the opportunity to do so.  It is there that we can enjoy the deep pleasure of selecting and paying for a few simple things that will help us maintain a respectable appearance, good health, and a sense of contentment with our life.

Howard Tharsing holds a Ph.D. in English from The Johns Hopkins University.  He spent the majority of his professional life in financial services.  He is currently enrolled in the Broadcast Electronic Media Arts department at CCSF, where he is focusing on audio production with the intention of producing a podcast.

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