Lean days and the funky jive: All you need is $25 and a trip to Dollar Tree

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The night before my family left for five days, venturing only as far as Windham to dog sit on Cobbetts Pond, I decided to treat my son Leo and his friend Liam to a trip around the Dollar Tree for sleepover snacks, the new one near Livingston Park on Hooksett Road.

I’ve been a fan of the Dollar Tree since I discovered the chain years back when I was dust broke, raising two toddlers on a $16 an hour job delivering oxygen.  Lean days indeed. Fights galore overspending, even when it was needed. Stress about filling the car with gas more than twice a week. Self-loathing after realizing you spent half the weeks nut in some beer joint talking smack with your buddies.

“Wasted day and wasted night.”  Sing it, Freddie Fender.

Unable to get my head around the fact that I was nearly 40 years old and still licking the curb, a dozen years later with my finances for the most part intact, I still fear going back to those lean days. They left an indelible impression on my psyche. And when I stood in front of the back coolers at the Dollar Tree five nights ago, I was amazed at the ensemble of delicacies the store now sold.  Or maybe they always have. I stick to the armpit and candy isle mostly. This was a new world to me.

Immediately, I dusted the boys and went my own way.  Slowly I walked past the frozen foods and my mind began to churn right back to the old days when I needed to severely stretch a buck to survive. This was a glorious discovery to me, the vast array of foods I could live off if I needed too.  Instead of spending $100 a week on groceries, resenting nearly every bite and sip I took, I wondered how well I could eat off $25 bucks.

Then, I went to work.

I grabbed a green basket and tore into the first cooler in a line of six or more.  This grab would be like no other I’ve delivered upon the Dollar Tree. No gum, no readers, no birthday cards.  The basement spray would have to wait. As would the styrofoam coffee cups I like to drink out of.

The Asian style beef and broccoli lo mein was the first food to catch my eye.  Right on, I said. If I was to live lean for the next five days I was going to get exotic.  So the Asian lo mein went in the basket. My eyes flew through the selections. Cut okra. Done.  Four-pack of yogurt. Done. Vegetable spring rolls, a dozen of them. Done. Wild salmon filet and a pork loin riblet.  Done, done, done. Fish, vegetables, dairy and protein and I was only $6 into my allocated funds.

The goods.

I went to town, filled the basket nearly to the top, grabbing cooked shrimp, cookies-and-cream ice cream, Virginia sausage, blueberries, a lobster roll, vegan meatballs, Jamaican beef patties, strawberries, field peas and snaps, egg noodles, a bag of dill pickles and a scrambled egg pizza looking thing.  All kinds of funky jive. One run down the candy aisle for a bag of Twizzlers and it was time to check out.

The two meatballs I came with were struggling to carry a dozen bottles of Arizona ice tea to the register. Baffled by the buffoonery a pair of 14-year-old boys are able to create, I went ahead and had the girl ring me up.

“Oh, I love egg noodles.” the female cashier said.  “My mother always made them with chicken broth.” Chicken broth?  Never considered it outside of a can. “Let’s go for it,” I said. “What aisle?”

“Aisle 11.” she said  “I’ll get them. I know right where they are.”

I deal with professionals on a daily basis.  This young woman was the best I’d met all week.

I can’t say I wasn’t concerned about this social experiment of sorts.  I don’t eat well. I eat okay. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want and as much as I want.  It’s not out of the norm for me to shovel through a box of Cheez Its in one night. Or three popsicles.  Or an entire bag of grapes. But as I chose my Dollar Tree food, I didn’t dare look at the ingredients. I never do.  Processed or not, I’ve had worse in my mouth. I’ll live.

I spread out my take on the kitchen counter when I got home and took an inventory.  Lots of food. More than five-days worth. That’s fine. I’ll never finish a dozen spring rolls.  And the field peas and snaps were already making me nervous. Intrigued by the shrimp, I still wondered if the okra would taste the same as the fried pile I had in Mississippi.

That night, I went to bed thinking about the morning, wondering how the food would taste.  Would I be able to overcome this slightly nauseous feeling gurgling in my belly? Would I dare to cut into the pork loin?  How hard would I need to swallow to take down them field peas?

Nevertheless, I vowed to relive the lean days for a short period of time. Just better this time.  With that, I fell off to sleep, thinking of about yogurt and blueberries.  We’ll start slow.

Be sure to come back real soon to find out whether I needed to get my stomach pumped.

Till then….

Rob Azevedo can be reached at onemanmanch@gmail.com. His new book, “Notes From the Last Breath Farm: A Music Junkies Quest To Be Heard” can be purchased at the Bookery on Elm Street and Amazon.