Remember when, in NYC, a dollar bought you a small cup of coffee, a slice of pizza, or a street-cart donut? I do, because it was last year.
Now, thanks to all those fiscal principles you never understood in Econ 101, those days are over. Even the prices at the neighborhood dollar stores start at $1.25. Last week, a CAFÉ ANNE reader had an interesting query: “What can we buy for a dollar now?”
Good question! The next morning, I set out with a pocket full of Washingtons to find out.
I started on my block. I don’t drive, and figured you could probably get a metered parking space on Remsen Street for a buck. Sorry! Parking in Brooklyn Heights starts at $2 an hour.
According to the NYC Department of Transportation, metered parking rates around town start at $1.25 an hour in neighborhoods like Ridgewood, Queens and go as high as $4.50 an hour in Midtown and the Financial District.
Next stop: the fruit stand at the corner of Court Street and Joralemon, across from Borough Hall. Ten years ago, I wrote a story about NYC’s street cart banana scene. At 4 for $1, bananas were the best food deal in town. And guess what? The price remains the same.
“Many things you can buy—banana, blueberry, orange—for one dollar. No problem!” said Alli, the cart operator.
I asked why bananas are an inflation hedge. “I don’t know, but the price is always like this,” he said. “Four for one dollar, dear.”
You’d think there’d be plenty of dollar items at the corner newsstand, and you’d be so, so wrong.
All over Brooklyn, candy bars and chips cost $1.25 while gum costs $1.50. The Wall Street Journal costs $5, the New York Post costs $2.
“Good lord!” I said. I turned to the customer next to me. “Can you believe it costs $3 for the Daily News? It’s so crazy!”
“Crazy!” he agreed.
What $1 will buy at the newsstand: a can of soda, a one-ounce packet of Cheetos or the New York Amsterdam News.
Speaking of sticker shock, a small coffee costs $2.49 and a donut goes for $1.95 at the Dunkin’ down the block. The sidewalk breakfast cart across the street, however, still sells a small cup of joe for $1. Hurrah!
Fathi, the operator, said he’d raised prices on some items just last week—he’s now charging $1.25 for a donut. Rates are negotiable, however. If someone is hungry and only has fifty cents, that’s fine, he said. “Whatever you have, I’ll take.”
I ordered a small coffee with half-n-half. And I was pleased to find that it was actually small, in the eight-ounce way most small drinks were small before everything got super-sized.
I was sipping my OK-tasting coffee and strolling down Court Street when I hit the jackpot. A man occupying a small, upholstered chair on the sidewalk directed my attention to his makeshift stand, which offered an assortment of used goods. “Store’s open! Everything one dollar!” he called.
I zoomed over to learn more.
“The gym bag, one dollar. All books, one dollar. Dishes and everything, one dollar. Everything is one dollar,” said the proprietor, Harold Lawrence. “You get five items for five dollars. Ten items for ten dollars. Twenty items for twenty dollars.”
I was starting to catch on. “How much for everything?” I asked.
“You have 86 things?”
“Right in front of me.”
Mr. Lawrence told me he’s been selling used items on the street since 1981; most of his merchandise is donated by nearby residents. He lives in a Bed-Stuy brownstone he bought with his wife, a retired mail carrier: “She looks good for 71—she looks likes she’s 50!”
His grandkids help him transport his wares from home to the sidewalks of Downtown Brooklyn every morning, and the cops don’t give him any trouble, he said—they call him “Grandpa.” His customers include judges and lawyers from the nearby courthouse who buy his books. His sales record? 96 items in one day: “Not bad for old man!” he said.
I asked if he’d ever charge more than $1.
“Never did, never do,” he said defiantly. “My customers stay with me. They know who I am.”
My faith in the dollar renewed, I stopped into the nearby McDonald’s to see what remains of the chain’s dollar menu. I was delighted to find the $1 options include soda, iced tea or the four-piece chicken McNuggets. At 25 cents per nugget, that’s a 60% discount on the per-nugget price for a 10-piece box. You could erect your own stand alongside Mr. Lawrence’s and make big bucks on fast-food arbitrage.
Speaking of shady dealings, what about the loosie? When I quit smoking back in 2015, most bodegas would slip you a single cigarette for fifty cents. I texted my friend Devon, one of the city’s few remaining smokers, to get an update. “50 cents, sometimes a buck, depends,” she reported back, of the current price. “Newport 100s or Marlboro Reds.”
Another option for the vice-minded: gambling! Most NY State scratch-off lottery tickets cost $2 these days, but $1 options remain including Elephant Luck, Lucky 7’s, Loose Change and my favorite, “Snow Me The Money.”
Heading left on Atlantic Ave., I stopped into Five Below, a national chain offering merchandise priced between $1 and $5. Among the $1 items: greetings cards, water, and a 24-pack of crayons. The 3-for-$1 candy section featured instant Jello. I bought a $1 pack of dog-breed playing cards and a $1 bag of marbles for my sweetie. Come on Saturday night!
I found more deals at the nearby Salvation Army thrift store, where everything marked with a pink tag costs a dollar. Options included Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” a swag coffee mug from a local optometrist, and an amazing pair of men’s board shorts.
I even managed to find one of the few city’s remaining 99-cent pizza shops, at the corner of Willoughby and Jay. The counterman was having fun. “$100!” he barked when I ordered my single slice. “$200!” he demanded of the man who ordered two.
And just around the corner, at a street vendor’s stand on Fulton Mall, I came across the following temptation:
My final stop: the dollar store. I chose one that was (sort of) recommended by my friend Aharon. The big attraction at 99¢ World, on Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush, is the delightfully vague tagline rendered in glow-letters across storefront: “EVERYTHING 99¢ OR LESS/MORE.”
The store is huge and, like most dollar stores these days, offers tens of thousands of items that cost more than $1. Even the items in last season’s Valentine’s Day display started at $1.49.
“Hi!” I greeted the counter lady, who was wearing a sari and sipping from a mug of tea. “Where’s the 99 cent stuff?" She guided me to the single 99-cent item in aisle one: unlabeled packets of incense. Other 99-cent options scattered in obscure locations throughout the shop included Malta Goya soda and a plastic, disposable Nobility Adult Rain Coat. In the refrigerator, which doubles as a storage case for the store’s cleaning supplies, I discovered two small containers of probiotic yogurt priced at 59 cents each.
Reader, while I bought the coffee, pizza, McNuggets, cards, marbles and two packs of incense, I passed up most the day’s bargains, and now sorely regret it. Imagine the fun I could have had gobbling dubious yogurt, smoking loosies and scratching lotto tickets in a transparent raincoat.
What’s the best bargain you’ve found, or most fun you’ve had in NYC (or wherever) for a dollar? Maybe that’s best left unsaid, but please share anyhow. It’s free.
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