Next Time, Please Go to Target by J. David Harper

What does it say about me that, when someone steals my identity, I’m offended if they use it to shop at a dollar store? I have nothing against dollar stores per se. But would it kill them to go to Target?

I don’t think of myself as elitist. I’m not asking them to use my good name to shop at Dolce & Gabbana. That wouldn’t work, anyway. A six hundred dollar t-shirt would surely show up as a red flag at my bank. But I wonder if I should feel gratified that, for me, they also consider shopping at dollar stores a red flag?

It’s not like I’ve never been to a dollar store. I went with my mom when I was a kid. That’s what shopping was for us. We were Baptist, so we were pessimistically materialistic. We couldn’t afford the latest video games, but we were royalty when it came to paper plates and travel sized toiletries. We didn’t dream of shopping sprees or fancy clothes or a new car every year. We dreamed of garage sales in nice neighborhoods, hand-me-downs from well-to-do relatives, and a new camper for my dad’s aging Chevy pickup. This was back when you were either a Ford man or a Chevy man, and my dad was a Chevy man until he got old enough to start buying Buicks.

That was the same time he got his first Sam’s card and we left the dollar stores behind. We went from pessimistic materialists to optimistic preppers with gallon jugs of shampoo, four pound cans of tuna, and enough toilet paper to wipe the bums of a small country under authoritarian rule. Had the coronavirus hit then we could have started our own retail chain. With the fortune I would have inherited I would absolutely expect an identity thief to shop at Dolce & Gabbana. 

My brother wasn’t around for the Buicks or the Sams card. He’s about a decade older than me and took the first chance he got to move out when he was eighteen. He was hip and busy and had stereos and records and eight-track tapes. I was eight and saw his apartment once. He and one of his cool friends were playing Almond Brothers LP’s and I wanted to be just like him.

Years later he told me those apartments had been a great place to buy weed. He hadn’t known that when he moved in, but thought it was a pretty good bonus. Other apartments had useless things like swimming pools and saunas and tennis courts. His place was like a dollar store for weed.

That’s what they should sell at dollar stores. Weed. Not that I would buy it, but it would be an interesting thing to see. Shelves loaded with baggies of weed, each of them only ninety-nine cents. I don’t know how much weed ninety-nine cents would get you. But I do know how much a dime will get you. Not a “dime bag,” as they used to call ten dollar bags of marijuana. Maybe they still call them that, I wouldn’t know.

I’m talking about a cold, hard dime. A 17.91 millimeter piece of mostly copper with a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Back in my day, that would get you exactly one joint made from tobacco my friend Randy had stolen out of his dad’s cigarette. That’s probably what you would get at a dollar store. Cigarettes posing as refers. If they still call them refers. I wouldn’t know.

I’ve had only two experiences with weed in my life. The first was when I was ten years old and Randy charged me a dime for the stolen tobacco he advertised as marijuana. When I discovered the subterfuge, I stomped around the corner to his house and demanded a refund. At first he didn’t want to give. But then I made vague threatening motions. Even at ten years old I knew if you’re going to be involved in the drug trade you’ll have to be willing to make vague threatening motions. I had been taking karate, so I looked legit. He gave me back the dime.

The second was in seventh grade. In the boys room between second and third periods, I gave a guy from Mrs. Whitman’s math class ten bucks and he forked over a bag of weed. 

Between third and fourth periods I was escorted into the same boys room by Mister Richard. Mister Richard was an eighth grader who had been held back for several decades. He was big and muscular and never spoke. As I was walking to my next class he stepped in front of me, jerked his head for me to follow, and went into the boys room.

When I went inside, he just held out his hand. No vague threatening motions required. I handed over the weed. Yes, I was still taking karate. But remember I was a seventh grader and he was about to get his first colonoscopy.

I was scared, but also excited. I had been involved in the drug trade, this time for real. I had bought actual marijuana, and had been threatened by an actual kingpin. I don’t know why I thought of him as a kingpin other than to make the experience more exciting in my imagination. He was probably just another victim of the drug trade, only bigger and older and able to get weed whenever he wanted from seventh grade weaklings like me who took karate but never, ever wanted to be in a position to use it. Not because I was noble, because I was chicken.

I don’t think it would be exciting for dollar stores to sell marijuana. Not now that it’s legal here in California. It’s not like you would have to go to some hidden door on the side of the building and a slit would open and two eyes would peer out and a disembodied voice would say “Password.” But at least it would be interesting. I wouldn’t buy it, but I could talk about it with my wife.

That’s what we do at Target. We just talk about the stuff on the shelves. We never buy them because we live in a studio apartment and between my MacBook Pro and her Acer laptop there’s barely room to walk in here. Add a coffee grinder and we’d have to rent a storage unit. And who wants to go to a storage unit to make coffee?

But at Target, I could pick up the coffee grinder. I could spin it around in my hand, studying it like it might hold some clue to the eternal mystery. Then I could say, “You know if we ever get a bigger place we might consider something like this.”

She’d take it and squint at it and look at the price and say twelve bucks seems like a lot when you could just buy preground coffee. Then I’d say, “Well I wasn’t suggesting we buy it now” and put it back on the shelf before changing the subject to food processors.

My wife is more cost conscious than I am, and even she doesn’t like dollar stores. But when I told her about the identity thief and how our bank thought highly enough of us to flag dollar stores as unlikely activity, she said it probably wasn’t the dollar store. It was probably the other charge they had placed. A buck fifty at a vending machine.

“They have to test them like that,” she said. “Small amounts in isolated situations. Banks flag it all the time.”

“If banks always flag it, why do they do it?” I asked.

“Because no one is around to see them. No cashiers, just a machine. Where else would they find that?”

“Well,” I said, pretending to think about it. “They have self-checkout at Target.”

David Harper is a Los Angeles based writer whose work is very occasionally published. He has written and produced award-winning projects for film, theatre, and web, and performed on stages from LA to New York. But right now he’s probably out sailing.

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