Illustrations by Jorge Colombo
Every holiday season we are cursed with the same challenge: to articulate exactly how fond we are of our friends and family in the language of purchasable objects. This begs a couple of questions, like, "How do I shop for gifts that please both my brother and his wife without offending my own soul?" Even if you love your brother dearly, you might spend way too much and give him a French designer tablecloth covered with a really terrific artichoke print, which would prompt his cute but rigidly uptight wife to say something like "Artichokes? Wow. Ha ha; only you would give us something like that! No, really, it's great!" And another deep and philosophical question: "How the hell am I supposed to express fondness for my extremely fancy friends when I have only $40?"
Deciding I needed a psychic obstacle course that would train me to emerge victorious in this upcoming battle, I arrived at a strategy: I would theoretically buy gifts for people who were absolutely impossible to shop for. If I could climb these holiday Matterhorns, I could find presents for anyone. I asked myself: "Who in the world would best represent my worst nightmares in the area of budget holiday shopping?" And I came up with a holy celebrity trinity: Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (the mind-bogglingly fashionable, ex-supermodel wife of the president of France), Brad Pitt (the half-Brangelinian father of six, at last count), and ultracouple Jay-Z and Beyoncé (who I technically counted as one since I wanted to get something they'd both like). My budget for each: around $40.
Obviously, this mission was going to require an insane level of creativity—especially in a city like New York, where everything is so monstrously expensive. So I called women's clothing designer Gary Graham at his new boutique inside ABC Carpet & Home, a posh yet quirky department store filled with enormous golden Buddhas and strange chandeliers, and asked him to accompany me.
"We should get my friend Charlie to take us to Flatbush," he offered. I knew immediately what Gary was getting at. The Flatbush section of Brooklyn is a fertile mix of Caribbean families, art school hipsters, neighborhood discount stores, and specialty shops crammed to the ceiling with exotic imports.
Charlie—writer and artist Charles Beyer—met us at Phat Albert, a legendary discount store that sells everything from leather baby pants to Lucite shower fixtures. We agreed that when shopping on a budget for people rich enough to buy their own islands, the goal was to find objects that would underline qualities we liked about them, and let them know we understood their particular needs.
"I think Brad Pitt would appreciate something that helps him control his children," I suggested. "I mean, he has so many of them. We need to find him a six-headed lollipop, or something that can keep the kids consolidated in space for a few minutes so he can rest."
We found a gift that, with just a little bit of creative doctoring, might do the trick: an XXX-large T-shirt featuring the late hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. "We could cut five more neck holes in it and call it a six-pac," said Charlie. It was tempting. This masterpiece of modern babysitting cost only $8.99, which would enable us to buy more child management aids. But I wasn't satisfied that Brad would be as thrilled with it as I wanted him to be.
"Hey, check this out," said Charlie, having already moved on to Carla. "It's a camouflage duffel bag featuring a fake McDonald's logo." Even more beguiling was a secret pocket outside the bag, the fabric of which was printed with the image of a cheerful, anthropomorphic french fry. The price: only $4.