I get off the elevated train at 72nd-Street and Roosevelt, the heart of the Indian shopping district. At the endearignly decrepit Eagle Theater, subtitled movies are $5 on Tuesdays, but today’s full-price admission is $8, so I’ll have to get my Bollywood fix at one of the half dozen entertainment stores nearby. An Indian friend has told me to haggle with shopkeepers here, but the prices at Punjab Music on 74th Street are already rock-bottom: in the $5 DVD bin, I find choice titles like “Disco Dancer” (Bollywood’s "Saturday Night Fever") and a mafia flick “The Godmother.” I’m distracted, though, by the $5 bhangra CDs, mixed by local djs. The cashier/dj plays a couple of tracks and seems annoyed when I go for one of the $2 cassettes instead.
$2, “Urban Flavas III: Massive Bhangra Remixes for the Streets.”
After turning onto 37th Avenue, the more sedate shopping strip parallel to Roosevelt, I stop at Madhu’s, a grocery store and halal butcher that stocks things like cow ghee and entire 3-feet fish out of the freezer. Outside, a man is hawking mangos (the manna of Jackson Heights) for $8 for a box of nine, the same price they go for at Patel Brothers, the large supermarket nearby that also sells delicacies like gigantic, fuzzy jackfruits. The man also sells kalfi (a rich, thick version of ice cream) for $1, and for $2 he’ll cut the top off a fresh green coconut and stick a straw in it for you.
Outside of Moda, I see women perusing racks of clothing for under $10. Peasant skirts fetch three-figures on West Broadway, but these are priced at a far more reasonable $10. I stroll in and find a wide array of bright, Spanish-influenced summer clothing, including embossed ruffled skirts for $10 and capri pants for $5. I pull a pair of loungy white draw-string shorts off of the $3 rack. Worried that my girlfriend will accuse me of being cheap, I buy her one of the most expensive things in the store— a gauzy, frilled dress for $12.
$14, little black dress and shorts.
I stroll up 37th Avenue until I reach 82nd Street, where there's a lovely, anachronistic tree-lined block of retail shops in tudor buildings. I expect the $5 Shoe Warehouse to stock the sort of orthopedic knock-offs also carried by Payless Shoes nearby, but I’m delighted to discover a vast and vibrant array of heels and platforms by lesser known designers like Be Fly, Go New, and Bamboo. An electric pink heel with a rabbit-tail thong is $7, as are almost all of the others. I pull an outrageous Converse/heel hybrid off of the $5 shelf and hope I’ve remembered my girlfriend’s shoe size right.
$5, funky kicks.
Back on Roosevelt Avenue, I pass Tacolandia, one of a dozen or so taco stands and trucks (at night, the trucks are usually parked outside of the 74th-Avenue Station) that pump delicious-smelling smoke into the air. I decide to hold out for Taco Veloz down the street, since their wider selection includes $4 head-cheese tortas (the Mexican version of a sub, loaded with yummy avocado) and $2 "sesos" (brain) tacos.
Next to Tacolandia is the stretch-limo of dollar stores. America’s 99-Cent boasts no less than eleven aisles of hardware, grooming items (the 99-cent cologne doesn’t smell as bad as expected), kitchenware (a 99-cent butcher’s knife), CDs (everything from line dancing to Mexican Christmas songs), even ties. In the extensive glassware aisle, I instinctively reach for a martini glass, a brandy snifter, a pint flute, and a liqueur glass. I’m bummed to spot a carafe I bought for $15 at Surprise! Surprise!, sold here for (surprise, surprise) 99-cents.
$4, alcoholic’s starter set.
Up on Roosevelt at 82nd Street, I find $10 Express, a narrow store with walls lined by a variety of tops, teddies, and stylish blue jeans for, you guessed it, $10. A few years back, the store caused a flap by selling $5 sandals with Hindu goddess prints. Today I don't find anything quite as controversial-- a couple of rhythm and flamenco dresses for $10 and on the $3 rack, a hooded Old Navy sweater and a tourquoise blue top.
$3, Old Navy top.
It’s noon now and my dogs are aching. It’s time to put my feet up, and what better way than by catching the $5 “War of the Worlds” matinee at the Jackson Triplex Theater. Located on 82nd Street next to a fruit shop that stocks aloe leaves, sugar melons, and donut peaches on a quaint block of bi-level restaurants, income tax offices, and bakeries with colorful awnings, the theater is a blast from the past: admission is $8 (reduced to $5 Monday through Friday before 5pm; for the first Saturday showing; or always for kids and seniors) and the interior is a charming wonder of faded rococo. The screen is small and the lights never really go down (which makes for excellent people-watching if the movie’s boring), but the antique seats slide back and forth luxuriously and it’s one of the few places where you can watch a movie under a wilting chandelier.
$5, summer blockbuster.
After the flick, I head back to Roosevelt Avenue. On the block between 88th and 89th Streets, barber and beauty shops are clustered below street level and on the first and second floors of a row of low-rise buildings. Street barkers try to lure me in for a $10 haircut, $22 dye job, or a $5 eyebrow wax or piercing. I wish I had the time to take advantage of the $10 pedicure at Hermosa Nails, but I’m getting hungry.
Tasty chicken comes cheap in this neighborhood: entire rotisserie birds can be had for $6 or less. A safe bet is Casa del Pollo Peruano, a spartan, bright-lit feeding spot where the only atmosphere is provided by locals washing down quarter-chickens ($3.75 including rice and beans) with cans of Inca Kola. The cola tastes like Bazooka Joe, but the chicken is succulent. Its crisp, well-seasoned skin is topped by a zesty green sauce, and the beans aren't the usual bland, runny affair.
$3.75, heaping helping of grub.
I’m pretty full after the meal, so I have to resist the row of Ecuadorian food trucks, parked along Warren Street, that serve delicacies like roasted goat and beef tongue. Normally I’d be jumping to order some shellfish ceviche, served in plastic cups in a light gazpacho-like broth of tomato, onion, lemon juice and vinegar, and accompanied by delicious, garlicky roasted corn kernels ($6). For the hell of it, I peruse the dozen or so street vendors selling homemade pig hocks. Among them I find a cart selling grilled corn, served with a choice of mayo, salt, butter, and/or the crucial grated cheese. At $2, it sure beats the pricier knockoff at La Esquina.
By now I’ve crossed into Corona. Just past Junction Boulevard on Roosevelt, Botanica La Caridad is one of several neighborhood botanicas selling Santeria products, from the traditional herbs and minerals to more questionable products such as sulfur soaps and money-attracting cologne. On the offchance that the pricier soaps don’t work, I buy the “all-purpose” aerosol spray, meant to freshen the air while giving off luck, riches, protection, and a “divine eye.”
$3, super powers.
It’s time to get practical again. Junction Boulevard is a prime cruising strip for cheap urban apparel. Jewelry garages like Prima Donna stock rhinestone earrings for $3-$12 and Austrian Crystal necklace-and-earring sets for around $18-$25. La Coqueta offers budget lingerie, and you can get your name on a rhinestone belt buckle for $15-$20. Jumping Ladies Wear stocks a dizzying array of glittery night-on-the-town tops, jeans, and skirts, most of them for under $25. (Be warned, they run on the small side). A denim crop-top is $2; a sequined shirt depicting a card-playing, bikinied woman wearing a golden necklace that actually protrudes from the cotton, is $10. I’ve already done plenty of shopping for my girlfriend, though. It’s time to look out for #1.
When it comes to men’s ware, La Moda is the neighborhood’s H & M: almost everything in the gargantuan space is under $20, including elegant pinstriped dress slacks, designer-inspired jeans, and Abercrombie-and-Fitch-like preppy shirts with stitched-on soccer patches. Summery short-sleeved button downs are only $10. Most of the clothing is by Xios, a designer knockoff line, but there are name-brand deals here and there ($30 Lee Dungarees). I grab a pair of dressy Xios jeans off of one of the four $10 jeans racks and head to the check out. There's a bit of a wait, but the reggaeton thumping on the overhead speakers makes it go fast. Much better than the canned techno at H & M.
$10, slick jeans.