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A 99-Cent Story
BY EURYDICE CHRONES
My love affair began over 30 years ago. But today, I still live for the chill of the cold steel against my thigh. The bar strikes where leg meets hip, and I push against it with only the force of my stride and sheer anticipation to carry me forward. I love that turnstile. I love everything about Walgreen's.
Jean Naté meets Cover Girl in a sensory "bien venido" that envelops me. Comforts me. "Go ahead, try me," dares a sensuously curved pastel pink bottle of vitamin-enriched body lotion. It's no surprise that Cosmetics is the first department I explore. It grabs you quickly, forcefully: Look at me. Touch me. Smell me.
But it's just the beginning. Like the notches in the turnstile, each and every department marks a turning point in my life. From Candy to Cold Remedies, every aisle has a story. You see, I lived with my mother as a child. That is not unusual. What was unusual was that my mother and I lived together -- at Walgreen's.
I don't know why we made such frequent visits. Perhaps it was because we were not a stock-up kind of family. We were lucky if we could remember to buy a yellow-flagged, 99-cent roll of Walgreen's-brand toilet paper before the cardboard tube on our current roll shed its final layer of skin.
We scorned the "club" concept. We could not understand why people would pay for the right to buy shampoo by the gallon (pump included), coffee by the plantation, paper by the pallet. These bulk buyers proudly walk down aisles 20 feet wide and three stories tall, pushing shopping carts that look like props left over from the old Land of the Giants TV show. We didn't belong in that world.
Walgreen's carts are Barbie-size. You love them as a child and appreciate them as an adult. They're training wheels: Practice before you can safely push at Safeway. I trained hard.
I pushed while Mom shopped. Silently at first. My comments were expressed not in emotions but in motions. My cart was an impervious, speeding SUV, racing past the Eye Care aisle. I went into 4-wheel drive, swerving to avoid Analgesics. I slowed to a crawl in Toys. I dragged my left foot, scuffing the cold tile floors with my sneaker-clad emergency brake, any time we approached Candy.
I learned more than the basics of driver's education at Walgreen's. I learned the meaning of "No." I heard it often: No. Don't eat that. No. That's for boys. No. That's for mommies. No. Ask me again in 20 years. No. I do not have a penny for the gumball machine. (I was a slow learner.)
But I would not have grown to love Walgreen's so much if all I'd ever heard was "No." On the contrary, I was allowed to buy my first lip gloss at Walgreen's ... and my first lipstick. My first crayons came from Walgreen's, as did my first five-subject spiral notebook. And my sister bought her first -- and last -- home permanent at Walgreen's. (She did not shop with my mother in tow as often as I did, or she would never have reached the checkout counter with that box of junior-high, peer-pressurized chemicals.)
And it was because of Walgreen's that I first grasped the magnitude of what my father did for a living.
"Where are you going?" I asked my mother as we finished our shopping one day.
"We have to pay at Cosmetics," she said, stopping me in my tracks.
This wasn't our usual pattern. A trip to Walgreen's had, up till then, culminated in a visit to the checkout lane for our final "I can't possibly leave without this" impulse purchases.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because Dad has a special discount now."
A special discount.
My father was a pediatrician who passed out shots and lollipops in equal measure. Like any physician, he had saved lives. And thanks to a stroke of Walgreen's marketing genius, he, like any physician who wrote out countless illegible prescriptions, was now entitled to a discount.
Unlike most physicians' daughters perhaps, I came to believe that the greatest reflection of my father's role in society was his "professional discount," at my favorite store in the universe. It was then that my father became God.
Through his omnipotence, we could bypass the long checkout lines. We could buy anything -- a bar of candy or a bar of soap -- with the personal assistance of the woman at Cosmetics. She and my mother were on a first-name basis. (I still regret not inviting her to my college graduation.)
When my eldest nephew, Luke, was born nine years ago, I discovered the diaper aisle. Five nieces and nephews later -- including twin girls born on Valentine's Day -- and I'm an expert in Baby Needs and Toys Games. (As the twins' godmother, I will have to take a special role in their indoctrination.)
Last fall, I uncovered new territory in Walgreen's: Anti-wrinkle creams. Anti-anxiety pills. Now my candy only looks like candy.
My father, bless his soul, passed away this year. (His discount fell by the wayside in the early '90s.) Yet my mother continues to hand down the family tradition to her grandchildren. When she and Luke go to pay for their crayons and notebooks, they make a beeline for the cosmetics counter.
And no matter how old I am, I think I'll always drag my foot a bit in the candy aisle.
Eurydice Chrones moved to San Francisco from the Windy City two years ago. She works as creative director for the ad agency that markets McDonald's Happy Meals. She lives in Buena Vista Park, but "I actually hang out at Starbucks in Noe Valley -- and, of course, I love the Walgreen's on Castro."