Sunday, May 15, 2005

Shopping the Three-Dollar Wall.

I've never been a code guy. You know, code of the Old West, honor code of the NHL, dress code, Hammurabic Code--that sort of thing. My romanticized self-image attributes this to my rebellious, free-thinking, philosophically skeptical nature, but closer to the truth is probably that I'm juvenile, inattentive, and plain don't like following rules. To live by a code is to have a routinized existence, and I am nothing if not poor at adhering to routines.

But I should probably clarify. I do follow a code; it's just a personal code. Everyone has one of these, whether he acknowledges it or not, and there are plenty of psychological inventories out there that can help one define whatever it is that personal code involves. Still, I have the same problem with my code that I do with all others: I establish fundamental rules and then ignore them whenever it seems convenient to do so. It's a slacker's way of getting through life, and perhaps that's a code in and of itself--the code of disregarding the lessons of experience in the hopes that improvisation will save time and effort. Again, the romanticized view says I reject precedent in favor of pragmatism, but actuality asserts that I cut corners in defiance of better experiential knowledge. Case in point: I shopped the three-dollar wall, and now have grease-encrusted fingernails and a still-broken Wal-Mart bicycle as dividends.

My own code has affirmed, time and again, that one should never shop the three-dollar wall. What exactly is the three-dollar wall? It's both a literal and an abstract concept. Most people are familiar with it in its literal sense: you go to any of that thriving class of discount stores that feature imported knockoffs, ersatz junk, and general gimcrackery, with a sprawling wall featuring such fare for the bargain price of a mere one United States dollar. These retailers like to call it the dollar wall, but as anyone who has gambled enough dollars knows, two of every three procucts purchased off of it either fall apart in your hand after you open the package, or are utterly destroyed during or following their maiden usage. I've bought the one-dollar dartboard-and-darts set in which the board disentegrated in my lap, the one-dollar all-purpose knife in which the corkscrew snapped on its first wine bottle, the one-dollar dashboard clock which lacked any mounts to attach it to the dashboard (and a non-functioning clock--double points), and the one-dollar set of steak knives that rusted in the dishwasher following one meal. Balanced with the few working and/or freakishly amusing items I've procured (like the eerily-matching hair extensions), the mean price paid per useful item procured is right about...three dollars.

Now, it is those retailers' fault for selling me any of that junk the first time. Shame on them. It is only my own optimism and stupidity, or perhaps the realization that three dollars is still pretty cheap, which makes me continue to wager a Washington on something that is, in preponderant likelihood, worthless. Shame on me. That is the literal idea of the three-dollar wall, in a nutshell.

But on to the natuaral extrapolation of this lesson--the figurative sense of the three-dollar wall. This is an important, if bluntly obvious concept. If you buy the least expensive product of any type from the least expensive dealer, understand that: A) you are gambling; B) there are sound economic reasons that this product was cheaper than its competition; and C) you have no right whatsoever to be outraged or disappointed when your stuff turns out to be junk. People who unwisely purchased $2,500 dollar new Yugos back in the 80's and then were angry that the engines blew up are a sublimely illustrative working sample of this idea.

Back in the infant days of this blog, I wrote a gloating and self-congratulatory post about the great deal I'd scored from the evil Wal-Mart on a three-speed, aluminum-framed Chinese bicycle. I even gave it a name. I was so pleased that I'd successfully cheated the system, and that for a song I'd be rolling to and fro from Wrightsville Beach that I sang the praises of cheap imports to the heavens. The wary Giant Bladder warned me of my folly, suggesting that you get what you pay for in these exchanges, but I would have none of it. I figured, "how can something as simple as a bicycle be made badly?"

The rear wheel on Chiang the Chinese bicycle began to lock up arbitrarily a few weeks ago--just past any return date I could have reasonably used to argue with Wal-Mart. Any one who has ridden a bike (and probably anyone who hasn't) can infer certain...externalities associated with this happening. On an elementary level, it becomes rather difficult to get anywhere while fighting with a stuck drive wheel. It also means that, while darting across an intersection, one may suddenly be faced with the unfortunately lethal possibility of a car bearing down, with no immediate escape-type remedy. And then there's the third nuisance of riding in the upright position downhill when motion is suddenly and totally arrested, sending one careening headfirst over the handlebars toward the caprices of the landscape. To be brief, that's no good.

So, rather than surrender in the face of my poor choice, I took to attempting DIY repair this evening. I am not mechanically adept, but I am unfailingly mechanically adventurous, to the point that I will disassemble and analyze things with which I've no familiarity at all. I certainly did learn a lot about the propulsion, gearing, and braking of bicyles--things that I'd taken for granted. As such, the session cannot be viewed as a total failure. But by disconnecting the gearing cable, removing the rear wheel, hosing everything down with WD-40, and attempting to reinvent and reassemble my three-speed bike as a one-speed, I learned the following: I was sold defective garbage that I should have returned before I got it home, as I noticed a strange brake-friction even then. The rear wheel still drags and locks, and I'm likely out the $100 I originally thought was so cleverly spent. Had I the proper tools, I could do more, but acquiring those would probably cost more than trying to replace the defective rear wheel and/or axle. Never shop the three-dollar wall, unless you have no vested interest in the results.

As I was finishing this post (really) I popped open a bottle of a Cotes-du-Rhone white that I got off the clearance table at my neighborhood wine seller. The cost? $2.99. Perhaps I've learned something. I am not at all surprised that it sucks.


Blogger Giant Bladder said...

Here's a code for you. This is America you can have it cheap, fast or good. Pick two.

Mon May 16, 01:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nigela said...

One/Two/Three Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's. The label is Charles Shaw and it's $1-3, depending on where you are.

Mon May 16, 04:19:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous little sister said...

Apparently some old cliches still hold true: You get what you pay for.
Or, another old cliche: You can't afford to buy cheap things. I.e. it will break and you'll have to buy a good one in the end anyway, and thus you haven't saved any money.

Mon May 16, 04:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

GB, you forgot about crack--it's all three of those and so much more.

Nigela, I don't think it's one dollar anywhere; in California, where wine is (paradoxically) cheaper than anywhere else, it goy the name "Two Buck Chuck." I think it's three most places. Have you had it, and is it any good?

LS, your last comment relates to a theory I came up with in college: all cars cost the same amount of money. Sure, this rule doesn't appl to Ferraris and such, but holds true for nearly all other cars. You can make your monthly payment to the dealership where you bought it, or you can make it to the mechanic, Autozone, and the tow truck driver in more irregular increments, cuopled with your lost income from not getting to work. No one really and actually saves money by buying $500 cars.

So I now have to go back to the evil Wal-Mart and see if they carry replacement parts for their crappy bikes. Oh joy.

Mon May 16, 04:54:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'All cars cost the same amount of money' - I forgot that one. It's true, case in point, my 'new to me' Cagiva scooter. $1500, 1998, one owner. After 4 months, a few hundred of my dollars, and some 'massaging' to get SuperSonic to warranty things, I should have gotten the new Derbi GP1 - same price as of today!
I am still trying to break the habit of buying junk (always a 'good deal') and regretting it later - my (now gone) moped parts bikes, my ravenous appetitie for Emerson stereo equipment (why???), and anything else that I may 'need'. I am getting better, but it's a long road to recovery. What, a 1980 rabbit, bad reverse gear? How much? I'll be right over!!!!

Mon May 16, 05:53:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Hello Michael, and thanks for commenting. (You can come up with a cool anonymous blogger super hero name like the rest of us if you want to.) The car rule is particularly relevant to restorations: you can buy that shiny, running, show-quality Spitfire for $4,000, or you can buy the $800 dollar one and drop $3,200 into it over two years while not having a usable car. The used market is more accurate and prescient than anyone gives it crefit for being.

Sorry to hear that the Cagiva has been a hassle. I'm still shopping e-Bay for scooters, and really, really need to reread this post regarding Chinese off-brands offering me 70mph and the world on a string for $1000.

Mon May 16, 07:55:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Hamel said...

So I should back out of the 10,000 acres of farmland in Montana for only $1,500?

Regarding fixing bikes, last summer I brought my bike into the local bike shop after I attempted repairs myself. When done, he said "You want some advice?"

"Sure," I said.

"Don't work on your bike anymore."

What is Buck Chuck? Wine? I'm a Canadian beer man myself, and don't know Crown Royal from the Royal Throne.

Mon May 16, 09:22:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nigela said...

It's a wine that's got all the wine snobs in uproar because the bottles cost $2. I could be wrong, but I think the story behind it is that Charles Shaw was in financial troubles and sold his winery/vineyard--and along with it his somewhat-prestigious label. Whoever bought it started selling the bottles for dirt cheap and Shaw was outraged. (The label still says "Charles Shaw," it's just people call it Chuck now.) Anyway, at blind wine tastings, Chuck won many medals and no one could tell the difference between it and the bottles that cost $100+. So the trick to buying it is to get a bottle from Trader Joe's and taste it to make sure it's from a good batch of grapes, if it tastes good, then you buy cases of it and revel in your cheap success.

Mon May 16, 09:53:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

Hamel, I'm sure I'll get the same advice. I resorted to the "if you don't have a bog enough wrench, chew the hell out of that nut with an adjustable pliers" route. Weirdly, I did not get the desired results.

Two Buck Chuck (or three, depending on where you live) is slang for products from the Charles Shaw Winery, a bunch of rebels in California that decided to buy up a lot of the glut of extra varietal (particular wine grape) juices taking up vat space and bottle it as $1.99 table wines. Some people swear by it and some people tell me it's just box wine in a bottle. I'm still uninitiated, though.

Perhaps when we're all rich and famous we can have a blogger convention at some central-coast point (Maryland or so?) and everyone can bring their alcoholic beverage of choice, Canadian beers and all.

Mon May 16, 09:56:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Sunil Natraj said...

I frequent Hamels blog and find your writing quite amazing. It would be an honour if you would visit my blog and post a comment.

Mon May 16, 10:52:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jason said...

I'll bring along a selection of ryes and Irish whiskey, and Brother Chris can share his rather impressive knowledge of tequila (to anyone out there who thinks they don't like Tequila, try something besides Jose Cuervo. It's gross, tequila can taste quite nice.)

Clevelanders: they've just opened a Trader Joe's in the Western suburbs. Three Buck Chuck is now in your grasp.

Tue May 17, 09:44:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're interested...I have a bridge I can sell you. Beautiful location, and in the words of my father, is the longest bridge in the world as it connects to very different ethnic populations!

Tue May 17, 01:07:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Hamel said...

What!!?!? Wine tastes good? Yeah, right. That's funny. I'll stick to Moosehead, thanks. And no Canadians complain when I buy six bottles for $6 or so.

Tue May 17, 04:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

I've been known to drink a Moosehead here and again; it's probably the best widely available Canadian beer. Molson, on the other hand, just plain sucks. Or at least it always has by the time it gets to me. What might have been a nice lager to begin with is invariably tainted with that past-its-prime Heineken skunkiness that makes me want to trade it in for something crappy but fresh like Miller Lite. I'll stick to the craft brews when I've got the cash and cheap domestic specials when I dont't. It may not be a great beer, but I've never had a stale PBR.

Tue May 17, 06:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Hamel said...

Do they still make National Bohemian? I remember the days when $6 would get you a case of cans. Mmmmm, good.

Tue May 17, 07:15:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jason said...

I had Natty Bo at a rock show in Towson, MD a couple of years ago, so I think that in Baltimore, at least, it's still available. I'm off this weekend to Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, perhaps I'll see if I can't russle up a can or two to confirm its existence.

But my preferred American macrobrew is Stroh's (a 15 pack - what a brilliant idea!) but PBR is a totally reasonable substitute.

Tue May 17, 10:24:00 PM EDT  
Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

The Stroh's fifteen is indeed a good idea, as is the Miller Low Life 30 pack; it's like having a twelve with bonus or a case with bonus. Among the bad ideas of packaging were the Ranier 20 packs. I am convinced that this is why that beer (aside from being shitty) never caught on; it's like being cheated out of your rightful quantity, and it confused drunk college kids on the critically important cost-per-can figure. Moral of the story: when doing gimmicky packaging promotions, always round up. This is America, isn't it?

Tue May 17, 10:36:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nightcrawler said...

Amazingly, I have very little to add to this that hasn't already been said. I am not a frequent consumer of alcoholic beverages, but when I do partake of them, I prefer Miller Lite. My wife got me started on beer. Prior to meeting her, I drank nothing but Jack Daniels and rotgut vodka. I think it was McCormick's. $3.00 per gallon! Just don't drink it out of a styrofoam or plastic cup, I think they'll melt.

Anyhow, good luck with the bike. Perhaps you can find another bike that nobody is using, canibalize the parts off of it, and use them to resurrect Chiang, the Chinese Bicycle. Just a thought!

Tue May 17, 11:35:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Dave said...

I've only recently learned that it's value that I want, not price. I have $50 shirts that last four times longer than my $25 shirts—the more expensive product turns out to be cheaper in the long run!

Thu May 19, 11:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Byrdie said...

As for following a code....No one ever stood out for being the same...

As for the 3 dollar wall, through many years of experience, you get what you pay for.So yes, like you I learned the hard way on that one.

Great post!

Sat May 21, 01:19:00 AM EDT  

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