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.
True, Madame Sarkozy might love it. She is, after all, a tastemaker. Still, we wanted to see what they had at a few smaller shops. Hmmm. A bobble-headed decoy owl? Perhaps Carla could use it to keep pigeons off statues of her husband? No...
Then we came upon the Goodwill Gospel Store, which promised that we'd be able to "Give a Gift with Spiritual Importance."
"Look, hanging in the window!" I screamed. "It's the gift that perfectly reconciles Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's rock 'n' roll, freewheeling past, her new diplomatic role as a high-profile political wife, and her much-maligned singing career!" It was perfect: a tambourine in the shape of a peace dove. It really said it all, and for the low, low price of $21.99.
With that, we turned to the grueling task of shopping for Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Since they are quintessential show people and are no doubt on the road a great deal of the time, living out of Louis Vuitton steamer trunks in six-star hotels with SWAT teams of hair and makeup artists, we wanted to find them something that would strike the right balance of sophisticated flair and down-home comfort.
We came upon a $14 pair of boxer shorts covered with bags of money hanging on a rack in front of a clothing store (unlike Phat Albert, many of the smaller places have no visible names), which we thought Mr. Z might appreciate. Another nameless discount store had a fantastic 3-D chart for identifying the different hair bun attachments it sold. Perhaps, we agreed, we could buy Beyoncé half a dozen of the various $7 "donut buns" and throw them into a Krispy Kreme box for extra whimsy! But neither of these options was really singing to us, maybe because they didn't speak to the couple's celebrated togetherness, which was the original sentiment behind buying them one gift.
"Oh, stop—these are it," Charlie suddenly enthused as we passed a small, anonymous shoe store. "These bandanna slippers are absolutely Runway Collection 2009!"
"Actually," said Gary, "they are really nice."
The price: $19.99.
We decided to buy red slippers for Beyoncé and blue for Jay-Z. Besides satisfying our criteria (snazzy yet relaxing), since Mr. and Mrs. Z "tied the knot," this matching-scarf footwear could serve as a lasting symbol of a peaceful Hollywood marriage.
I was very pleased so far...but I didn't feel we'd completely succeeded with Brad, so we wandered into a store called Gran Bwa that featured items of a West Indian nature.
"Hey, these could be great for Brad," said Gary.
The air in the room started shimmering, because he had, indeed, found some divine objects: a stack of six child-size straw porkpie hats. They were utterly hip, as if designed for miniature jazz musicians. We figured if Brad could manage to get all of his adorable children to wear the hats at the same time, like a global version of the Partridge Family, he could sell the photo to a tabloid for more than $4 million and donate the proceeds to the charity of his choice.
At $10 each, the hats were a tad beyond our price range. But we decided we'd splash out and spend the extra $20, since eventually they could end up housing, say, 30,000 displaced persons. We'd put Angelina on the gift card, too, and then we wouldn't have to buy her anything at the last minute. We were suffused with the joy of giving.
Mission accomplished, we found ourselves considering the plight of the Three Kings. Even with an unlimited royal budget, it still must have been difficult to shop for a newborn Messiah. But they looked around their respective kingdoms and gathered up the swankiest stuff they could find. In the earliest example of holiday gift giving, it was the thought and the effort that counted.
All in all, I came away with one really valuable lesson. You can learn a lot by shopping outside your ordinary consumer comfort zone. And during our practice pilgrimage, Gary, Charlie, and I remembered what's important about the whole insane gift hunt: appreciating specific virtues of the people we're buying for, and connecting these qualities, with love, to fabulous presents. And you gotta figure your brother's wife is going to hate everything you give her anyway, so you may as well save a few bucks, right?
'Tis the season!