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You might think I'm starting off this gift guide with Jack's 99 Cent Store because the economy is sinking, the Dow is in the toilet, we're all poor now, blah, blah, blah. But even in far palmier times, I've been known to dip into this dive. This is not only because I'm not a snob about shopping (I've learned the hard way that your favorite dress is as likely to hail from H&M as from Prada), but also because when it comes to gifts, who wants to waste a lot of money on things you're not sure anyone wants? (Plus, I hate spending money on other people, so there's that, too.)
In any case, Jack's on West 32nd Street, which is bustling even as the boutiques on Madison Avenue stand achingly empty, has the usual strange offerings—along with $2 macramé ponchos and four-foot-high boxes of Cadbury Fingers for $6.99, there is a Christmas stocking decorated with psychedelic flowers that would not be out of place at Barneys, where this season's holiday theme is the wacky 1960s. The price tag here, however, is a very un-Barneys $2.99.
Next-door at Weber's, the management appears to turn a blind eye to the amount of broken merchandise that is languishing on the shelves: Mechanical skaters no longer skate; a Mexican boy garden ornament has lost his head (maybe a blessing). Then again, where else would you find stacks of a board game from 2000 called Political Asylum, apparently released by goofy right-wingers? The cover features a caricature of a woman holding a sign that says "I'm Miserable and Proud of It" and a black guy whose placard reads "Rewrite History, Down With Western Culture." "This is a chance to see what it's like to be a true liberal!" snarks the box, but, oh, how the mighty have fallen—their smirky game, which might amuse your friends, is now $2, and come January 20, they can sit in their living rooms rolling the dice and trying to figure out what went wrong.
If the above is just too jokey and weird, go over to Jewelry Plaza, on Broadway between 29th and 30th, where the costume baubles are ridiculously inexpensive and not-half-bad-looking, especially if you're young and drunk. Plastic bangles embedded with rhinestones are $3.50; a pink leopard-print bracelet is $2.25. Strands of large graduated pearls for a faux-Chanel look are $6 (and that includes matching pearl earrings); a single crystal teardrop on a chain is $3.50. A brass peace-symbol pendant, with that crude, hammered, handmade look so popular 40 years ago, is $5.50 and, just to solidify your commitment to the cause, little peace-symbol earrings come along with it.
If someone on your list is as obsessed with recycling as disarmament, Urban Outfitters has a porcelain vessel with a silicone lid that states "I Am Not a Paper Cup," for $20. (OK, you're not, but you are kind of pricey.) This place, usually a reliable source for cheap gifts, has this year unfortunately fallen into a vat of scatalogical juvenilia—there's a Poo Log for $9.95 (it is what you think); for $2 more, you can get the "What's Your Poo Telling You?" 2009 daily calendar. Remove your head from the bowl and settle for fuzzy plaid slippers, straight out of Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, for $18, or a sock-monkey tree decoration, which I fell in love with despite the fact that, at $8, it is not particularly cheap.
Despite the downturn, there is no need for label-obsessed people to sit this year out. At the Marc Jacobs shop at 385 Bleecker—as opposed to the other 49,000 MJ stores on Bleecker—the draw is the low tariffs, and the success of this gambit can be judged by the line that snakes outside the door every weekend. Inside, there's a sign on the wall that reads "If you remove the plastic, you own the flip-flop," which sounds like a Zen koan. Ignore the flip-flops (it's 30 degrees out, and you don't know anyone who's going to the Tropics, do you?), and concentrate on the things that actually say "Marc Jacobs," as opposed to the anonymous, not deeply interesting goods the shop also offers. Skip the plastic leopard cuff for $10 (didn't I just see this thing at Jewelry Plaza for $2.25?), and head instead for the $5 heart-shaped red-leather compact, signed "Marc Jacobs"; the "Stinky Rat" keychains for $1 ("Stinky Rat" being Marc's retail version of "Sasha Fierce"); and even the condom in a package that reads "Remember, Safety First! XXOO Marc Jacobs," and is a paltry $1.50.
You'd be surprised how interesting the merchandise at Walgreens is, at least at the one on the corner of Cooper Union, where the Astor liquor store was for so many years. (And I don't just shop here because it's around the corner from the Voice! I'd come anyway, I swear.) Amid a welter of Christmas items—$1 candy-cane pens that allegedly smell like peppermint, but don't really; $6.99 musical nutcracker dolls that play "Silent Night" rather than "The Nutcracker Suite" (this disappointment led me to consider the mute nutcrackers, which are only $1.99)—is a purple plastic dreidel that lights up when it spins and plays "The Dreidel Song." (In truth, this is the only holiday item meant for people like me.) If you care to boost your cheapo presents with the addition of some chocolates, never a bad idea (the same goes for grocery-store flowers), a box of Disney Characters in Chocolate—well, maybe one of the lumps looks a little like Winnie the Pooh (I couldn't find the price, but how much could this be?)—is conveniently located right next to Walgreens' house brand of Prilosec ($10.99 for 14 capsules).
Lastly, the vendors on the outskirts of Union Square just can't seem to get over the ascent of Barack Obama. There are badges, buttons, hats, and tees emblazoned with his lovely face superimposed on a sea of tie-dye, or rendered in glitter, or inscribed variously, "Obama Mama," "The Dream Fulfilled," "Victory," "Yes We Can," and, most eloquently, the simple "President Obama." None of these items are very expensive, so indulge while the feeling lasts—by next Christmas, we might well be bitching about how much he sucks.