Although there are plenty of good deals along Nassau Avenue, most are on Manhattan Ave., where discount shoe, electronics, variety, and 99-cent stores abound, with a few dive bars thrown in for good measure. I start my sweep at the strip's northern end, where the Alcapulco cafeteria offers a rice-and-beans meal for $5. Frustratingly, the owners are away for the month, presumably in Alcapulco. So I guess I'll have to shop on an empty stomach.
A block south, I duck into Vortex, a quirky thrift shop that sells 70s bric-a-brac ranging from the eccentric (golf club-shaped swivel sticks) to the perverse (back issues of obscure S&M magazines for $2). In the back, a rummage chest is organized by names: the Bill Cosby drawer contains sweaters for $4-$7 and the Felix Unger drawer contains silk scarves for $1-$2. On the hat rack next to the book section (paperbacks are $1, hardcovers $2) I find a Native American headdress for $10 but it’s matted down with who knows what, so I pass. I head to the front and lament not having held on to my Atari (game cartridges are $3), but make up for it by buying back another lost relic of my youth: a Mr. Potato Head doll for $3. It's just right for my cubicle.
$3, battery-operated Mr. Potato Head.
Vortex has an extensive and well-organized selection of second-hand LPs-there’s even a “Psychobilly” section. But the place to go for records is The Thing. The ground floor is cluttered with forgettable thrift store stuff, plus occasional surprises like a $15 Dutch wooden shoe. Djs and vinyl junkies know to make a bee-line for the labyrinthine basement, known as “the spot." It’s said to contain more than 80,000 LPs (almost a Guinness record) at $2 a pop. After trying to make sense of the organization system (there isn't any), I buy a Dolly Parton album for a friend to use as a wall decoration.
$2, "Dolly: Great Balls of Fire" LP.
The Salvation Army is a letdown after Vortex and The Thing: pleated pants go for a reasonable $3.99 to $6.99. Still, I envy the guy next to me, who walks away with a slick pair of Adidas sneakers for $6.
$1.29, gold-dusted mesh scarf.
Although Greenpoint is predominantly Polish, a sizeable Mexican faction populates the north end. I’m lured into El Encanto Mexicano by racks of fresh, green coconuts by the door. Inside is a modest Mexican food shop that stocks hard-to-come-by items like cactus leaves-only $1.79/lb. Having no idea how to prepare them, but suddenly hungry for a cactus salad, I buy the bottled version. In the back of the store are boxes of assorted dried chiles for $1.99/lb. I bag a handful of anchos, arbols, and guajillos and I’m on my way.
$3, bottled tender cactus and dried chiles.
I’m getting really hungry, and it's Mexican food I crave, so I duck into San Diego Mexican Restaurant and look around. Then I remember all the Polish greasy spoons down the line, and force myself to resist a head cheese torta for $5 (the south-of-the-boarder version of a sub, loaded with avocado). Most of the Polish shops serve free, locally baked bread and a glass of the Polish version of Tang with their huge portions of food. While snacking on a $2 tongue taco, I enjoy the telenovelas and Spanish music videos on the overhead TV before moving on.
$2, tongue taco.
Passing the historic district on Noble Street (most of Greenpoint is made up of vinyl-sided row houses, but this looks like a little slice of Brooklyn Heights) I see that a film crew has comandeered the leafy block. Third Watch filmed in Greenpoint during its seven seasons and movies such as "Serpico" have used its distinctive brick, limestone, and terra-cotta houses as backdrops. Today the guys from the Comedy Central show Stella are shooting a skit.
$0, live comedy.
The Polish are notorious carnivores-at any one of a half dozen meat markets, sausage links hang like stalactites from the ceiling-but there are also an abundance of fruit and vegetable stands on Nassau and Greenpoint Avenues, some of which, naturally, stock higher quality goods than others. And it's up to me to find the best-looking fruit. With two locations (another on Nassau Ave.) and a fairly extensive selection, Rachel’s Garden is a safe bet, but I’m lured into Poland Farm across the street by the kiwi special. Inside I find an huge orange papaya for $1/lb and am tempted to splurge, but at 5 lbs., it might break the bank.
$1, six kiwis.
At Dee & Dee, I decide it’s time to get practical. Finding deals at this gargantuan variety store is like shooting Singing Fishes in a barrel. The oriental rugs for $14.99 won't fool anyone and the usefulness of the $6 pancake press is dubious, but there are plenty of honest bargains. Today, the competition for irregular-fit underwear is especially fierce, so I retreat to the bathroom wares.
$3, shower curtain and bath mat.
By now I've blown about $15 and haven’t even hit the discount clothing hub. I decide to hold off on buying more food, though it pains me to pass up a $5.75 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at Kam Loon, a Chinese takeout joint. I wonder how many times they'd let me refill my plate. I pass Half Price, a women’s clothing store, and discover that the name is no joke: Jones NY Sport dress slacks, Izod tops, and chic jeans go for $7; funky, sequined Victoria Harbour blouses are $5; and Zara blouses are 3 for $10. I resist to the impulse to buy the $5 “I Love Party Girls” T-shirt and instead buy my girlfriend a practical but sporty black-and-white Dockers top.
$4, Dockers top
Down the block at Mary’s Discount I find still more rock-bottom deals on women’s clothing: I buy an electric yellow cotton NY & CO top for $1 (my girlfriend e-mails me from her law firm the next day: “My shirt’s a big hit.”).
$1, NY & CO top.
Time to get selfish. There's a rack of $10 club shirts in Fashion Plaza, plus a healthy supply of moderately priced Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Donna Karen holdovers. Because I’ll be in the Meatpacking district later that night, I buy the obligatory multi-color pin-striped shirt at 40% off.
$21.60, Arrow "Summer Preppy" shirt.
At Top 99-Cents, one of several 99-cent stores on the strip, I grab a pint bottle of Perrier for $1.29 and a jar of Sarelle, the Polish version of Nutella, for $1.79. I’m tempted to buy some black currant juice or other Polish-brand delicacies not often found in 99-cent stores, but then conclude that my last dollars are better spent on lunch.
$3, Perrier and hazelnut/chocolate spread.
I walk over to Lomzynianka, where nothing exceeds $5.50 on the extensive menu of workman’s grub--blintzes, breaded veal cutlet, boiled hocks, tripe soup, and auspicious-sounding veal balls in dill sauce. I order the jaw-droppingly cheap Polish Platter. Even if it didn’t come with a side of cabbage salad, this heaping plate of fried pierogis, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, beef stew, and mashed potatoes would still be the best deal around.
$5.50, a heaping helping of grub.
After the meal, my stomach is about as heavy as the bag I’m carrying. But my spirit is light. I've fed and clothed myself and my girlfriend and have picked up some tunes and toys for a fiddy and change. Now it's time to retreat to the subway--a ride that'll cost me more than a silk scarf--and go home to sort through my deals and make my cactus salad.