The Portland Mercury $10 Challenge 

Mercury Staffers Stretch 10 Bucks to the Limit, in the Most

Photos by Minh Tran

There's no getting around it: The holidays can be a financial drain, no matter what your budget may be. And even though people love to say, "It's the thought that counts," everybody knows that gifts are where it's at, and thoughts have no resale value whatsoever.

So just how frugal can you be with your Christmas shopping? The Mercury editorial staff decided to test the threshold of bargain hunting and generosity in something we like to call the 10-Dollar Challenge™. The premise: Working in pairs, five teams set out to buy five presents—one each for their parents, grandma, spouse/lover/partner, boss, and one other recipient of their choosing who really deserves a gift this year. The teams could not spend a penny over $10 (total), and worked to find the most passable gifts possible within that budget.

The only other rules: No shoplifting (it would pose an unfair advantage to the few of us not on probation), no gifting of something you already own, and absolutely, positively, no homemade, DIY, or baked presents. (No matter how thoughtful your homemade gift, no one likes it. Ever.) Each team's haul is then assessed for resourcefulness, originality, and most importantly, believability as a legitimate gift.

So what, exactly, does $10 worth of Christmas gifts look like? Instead of calling your depressing family in Eastern Oregon to find out, read on as we play the Portland Mercury 10-Dollar Challenge!

TEAM #1: SCOTT MOORE & AMY J. RUIZ

TOTAL EXPENDITURES: $0.00

Parent Gift: Portland walking maps; Portland Office of Transportation (1120 SW 5th, 823-5185), FREE

We're gonna let you in on a little secret here: The City of Portland gives away a poop-ton of free things that don't suck. Take, for instance, this sweet set of SW and SE Portland walking maps, which can be procured for free by logging onto portlandonline.com/transportation. Sure, it's a shitty gift for anyone, let alone a parent, but with parents you can always pull this crap: "Now, I know it's not much, but it reminds me of how you used to walk me to school when I was a wee one. I never told you how much that meant to me, until now." Boo ya! In your face, Hallmark!

Girlfriend Gift: A complimentary cosmetic application; Nordstrom (701 SW Broadway, 224-6666), FREE

Every girl wants to feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and every boy wants to be able to wow her with his wealth in order to get some play. Trouble is, you're as broke as the rest of us, so what's a penniless, horny man to do? Luckily, Nordstrom schedules free cosmetic applications from top brands like MAC and Estée Lauder. Schedule an appointment for your favorite lady (unless she's too ugly to be helped by make-up) and let her think you're worth a billion bucks.

Drug Dealer Gift: Scrap metal; craigslist (portland.craigslist.org), FREE

The free offerings on craigslist are riddled with offers of free scrap metal; all you have to do is haul it away. What better gift to give your entrepreneurial dealer, who can take it to an industrial recycling shop and walk out with some cash, which he can then convert into more sweet, sweet drugs for you to snort.

Boss Gift: An actual pirate ship; private residence, Gresham, FREE

We'll just let the craigslist ad speak for itself: "For the love of God will someone please get this???? I don't understand why so many people are flaking out even before they see it. It's a free boat! It's 15-foot, fiberglass boat that was turned into a pirate ship complete with cannons, mast, wheel, etc. The boat has no title and you will need to bring a trailer to haul it. Plug up the drain hole and it's seaworthy. Please just come get it off my front lawn. You don't need an appointment. You don't even need to knock on the door. Please just come get it."

Grandma Gift: Plastic water bottle; Portland Water Bureau (1120 SW 5th, #600, 246-3399), FREE

Ol' Gramsies has a lot of pills to take these days just to stay alive, and that's been difficult ever since her salivary glands stopped working 20 years ago. Give her the gift of at least one more day of existence with this fancy plastic water bottle from your friends at the Portland Water Bureau. It's free, and—according to the helpful text on the side of the bottle—you can get 16 refills for a penny. Isn't your grandmother's love worth 1/16th of a penny?

What the judges say: You mean to tell us they were just giving those tattered maps away? NO WAY! It's a Christmas miracle!!! Other acute observations: You must like your girlfriends even dumber than we do, because that gift idea wouldn't even impress an aspiring hillbilly drag queen who's never seen the inside of a mall. Also, drug users steal and sell scrap metal so that drug dealers can pocket all their money. Offering a dealer a sharp pile of rusty tin might very well get you shot. Finally: The pirate ship would have won you Best Cheapskate Gift Giver of all time—if you had actually, you know... gotten it. Telling people about what you would have given them if you weren't so lazy is worse than no gift at all. Please take us off your Christmas list. (As a result of this embarassing display, Scott Moore no longer works for the Mercury.)

TEAM #2: ALISON HALLETT AND ERIK HENRIKSEN

TOTAL EXPENDITURES: $8.26

Parent Gift: One jar of Gerber Carrot Apple Mango Baby Food; Rite-Aid (1814 NE 41st, 249-7627), $0.69

Let's face facts: Ever since you dropped out of college and got a job waiting tables, you've been nothing but a colossal disappointment to your parents. These days, you traipse home once a year hoping for a Christmas check, and otherwise refuse to return your Dad's phone calls or read the email forwards your Mom sends you. And your parents know this.

At this point, they've given up on you, and want only what your fertile genitals can provide them: a bouncing, bubbly grandchild. Make their gift a simple jar of Gerber's baby food, and let them draw their own conclusions. You don't need to respond to their ecstatic queries—just nod knowingly and say something vague about it still being "very early." It's the gift they've been waiting for, and they'll remember this Christmas forever. SIDE NOTE: Expect things to get awkward around August.

Partner Gift: Paper bag of condoms 'n' lube; Planned Parenthood (3231 SE 50th, 888-875-7820), $1 for a dozen condoms and a few travel packs of lube

What are your most cherished memories with your significant other? Doin' it, of course. And nothing says, "I sincerely value the depth and intensity of our spiritual connection, as expressed through the spasms and spurts of unfettered physical ecstasy" like a big ol' bag of rubbers. Choose the condom that best suits your unique love-making style (Flavored? Studded? Colored?), and the fine folks at Planned Parenthood will throw in some lube, ensuring a smooth ride to satisfaction. Yes, friends, that's what we call "romance," and you just got a brown paper bag full of it—for less than the price of a soda.

Boss Gift: Origami paper; Fred Meyer (3030 NE Weidler, 280-1300), $3.99

As everyone knows, the best boss is a distracted boss—one who's too preoccupied to notice that you spend 38 hours a week watching hilarious cat videos on YouTube. How best to ensure that your shameless slacking goes undetected? Drop a package of origami paper on the boss' desk. Nothing captivates an OCD control freak (i.e., a boss) quite like the ancient Japanese art of paper folding. Mention that the giraffe is particularly fun to make, then watch him disappear into his office—only to emerge hours later, red-eyed and mumbling about how its "goddamn tiny neck" won't fold right. Continue watching hilarious cat videos.

Insipid Nephew You Barely Know Gift: The Uncanny X-Men #238, "signed" by "Stan Lee"; Periodicals Paradise, (1928 NE 42nd, 234-6003), $1

Periodicals Paradise is a labyrinth of abandoned media, where tattered magazines and pulpy paperbacks go to die. For a real holiday gift, head for the boxes of virtually worthless comic books: Snag a comic in a plastic bag with a backing board, and you'll have what some deluded nerd once considered a "collector's item." Scrawl a half-legible "Stan Lee" on the front of the issue in Sharpie, and you've got yourself a gift—one that the borderline-retarded kid will promptly destroy, thus ensuring his parents will never find out you didn't actually spend a fortune on their little angel. Mission accomplished. Thanks Stan!

Grandma Gift: Googly eyed novelty rolling pin; I've Been Framed, (4950 SE Foster, 775-2651), $1.58

What? It's a rolling pin with googly eyes. Old ladies love this shit. (Come on. Your grandma's just desperate for any hint that her entire family hasn't abandoned her to the dark, unspeakable horrors of the discount retirement home in which she's imprisoned. She'll find her new "best friend" to be "so, so sweet"—and your spot in the will is assured for at least one more year.)

What the judges say: Good job on the parent gift, but your dad knows that feeding a baby mangoanything will only ensure it will grow up as fruity as you did. Grandma's rolling pin teeters on DIY fare, but googly eyes are the spice of life, so we'll let it slide. However—if our partners ever gave us the "gift" of prophylactics, we would automatically assume they had contracted an STD somewhere and were paranoid about giving it to us. Gotta think these things though, Team #2. Decent job.

TEAM #3: MATT DAVIS AND WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY

TOTAL EXPENDITURES: $3 PROFIT (WE MADE MONEY, BITCHES)

Children's Gift: A crime spree with McGruff the Crime Dog; Portland City Hall (1221 SW 4th), FREE

McGruff the Crime Dog may look disconcerting to adults in his tatty brown trenchcoat, but guess what? Kids love him—just as kids are naturally drawn to all strange men in similar attire! Now, thanks to the City of Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, you too can borrow the full-size McGruff suit and teach your kid to "take a bite out of crime" instead of his sister's leg. For nothing! (Though it may be funny, don't wear the costume while drunk and waving around a gun.)

Drunken Uncle Gift: Bowling ball, Easyriders calendar; Metro Central Transfer Station (AKA the dump) (6161 NW 61st), FREE

It's a sad but true fact: People throw away ANYTHING—even here, in recycle-happy Portland. That being said, you're not much of an "environmentalist" unless you're picking out this year's holiday gifts from the city dump. And OH! The treasures you'll find! A recent trip to the dump revealed scads of perfectly lovely giveables, including lamps, desks, beds, mattresses (ignore that oozing brown stain)—and the perfect gift for my drunken Uncle Woody, a gorgeous purple bowling ball, and a super-cool Easyriders motorcycle calendar from 1981. (He's so drunk, he'll never know the difference.) As they say, "One man's trash is another man's treasure"... especially if that man is my drunken Uncle Woody!

Sexy Grandma Gift: Slippers, basket of lotion samples; Windermere Real Estate, mall makeup counters, FREE

Just because one is over 50 doesn't mean one can't be sexy. HAW! Just kidding. But we'll continue to let "sexy Grandma" believe this fallacy. In fact, we'll enable her futile dreams with luxurious slippers and bath products—all provided free of charge from local corporations! See, to maintain their high-class clientele, corporations give away tons of swag—and since everyone has a friend who works at a large company, get them to help you score great gifts! A friend who works at Windermere Real Estate provided some sweet promotional slippers, while a make-up counter friend came through with a basket of cosmetic samples. (Now if I can make pals with someone who works at Victoria's Secret, sexy Grandma will make out like a bandit! LITERALLY. Wink.)

Blazers-Lovin' Cousin Gift: Limited-edition Greg Oden T-shirt and "signed" basketball; City Dump and Nike Corporation, FREE

Oh... another thing we found at the dump was a slightly deflated basketball—the perfect gift for my b-ball-loving cousin Jeffrey. The thing about Jeffrey is that he's a complete nutbag for the Blazers' Greg Oden—even though thanks to his recent injury, Oden is of no use to anyone. I also have a friend at Nike, who was easily able to obtain a sweet limited-edition Oden T-shirt (another great example of corporate swag that's free for the taking). Then I simply pumped up the ball, and wrote on it, "Your Friend Greg Oden." Notice how I didn't put a comma after "Your Friend"? That legally protects me from any forgery charges, because all I'm saying is that Jeffrey considers Greg Oden his friend. Goddamn, I'm smart.

Noisy Neighbor Gift: Vintage '80s boombox, Herbie Hancock mix tape; Portland freecycle.org, FREE

If Flanders has been playing his music a little too boisterously lately, why not employ this ingenious win-win gifting solution? Tell him you loved nothing better than hearing Eric Clapton Unplugged at full volume through the walls on Thanksgiving, but the least he can do is "diversify" his tastes in return. Give him this vintage boombox (obtained from the free recycling website freecycle.org) and a looped mix tape of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" (recorded off YouTube). Then send him off up Alberta to ask about this new "so-called breakdancing phenomenon."

(EPILOGUE: Since we didn't spend a single penny on the gifts, we spent our allotted 10 bucks on scratch lottery tickets, and actually made a whopping THREE-DOLLAR PROFIT. Eat THAT, other teams!)

What the judges say: Hats off for your ingenuity and willingness to dumpster dive for people you hardly even like, Team #3. Kudos especially for using freecycle.org and scoring the sweet biker calendar. Your resourcefulness and creativity should be applauded. HOWEVER—Not only did you disregard the rules of the challenge, you have absolutely nothing to give your wives, parents, or boss on Christmas. (I'm sure they'll take solace in knowing that you were too busy taking care of water-brained Uncle Woody to buy them a gift.)

TEAM #4: CHRISTINE S. BLYSTONE AND CHAS BOWIE

TOTAL EXPENDITURES: $7.23

Parent Gift: A grandchild, as represented by a plastic baby doll; Teen Challenge (3101 NE Sandy, 232-7086), $1.34

"What the... ??" is what you'll hear on Christmas morning when your parents unwrap this palm-sized plastic tot. That's when you work up your best Renée Zellweger happy face and deliver their real gift: The news that you're pregnant. Not only will your parents be filled with joy, but they will also dote on you the whole day, bringing you seconds on pie, telling you to put your feet up, and excusing you from doing any dishes after the Christmas feast. March is a good time to send them part two of the present, the porcelain figurine of an angel baby, also picked up at Teen Challenge, along with the heartbreaking news. Be sure to send it when you're PMSing, so it will be that much easier to cry on the phone when they call about the miscarriage.

Partner Gift: Gift subscriptions to all of their favorite magazines (including the fancy European ones); FREE

You know those pesky subscription cards that fall out of magazines? Here's a little secret: If you fill them out, check "bill me later," and (this is important), don't sign anything, the subscription centers will process your request and the magazines will start rolling in. Once they finally start bugging you about payment, and you can't stall them anymore, tell them that you never sent off for anything, and the magazines just started showing up. No signature equals no responsibility. So treat your sweetie to all their favorites this Christmas, then get ready to badmouth the mailman for stealing all of their magazines, come springtime.

Grandma Gift: A photo of "dear, sweet Johnny"; Really Good Stuff (1332 SE Hawthorne, 238-1838), $.50

Tell Grandma you hired a genealogical researcher earlier this year, and he miraculously found a long-lost photo of her late brother Johnny from when he was stationed overseas. Present the picture (any old photo will do; Really Good Stuff has file cabinets full of them) and watch Grandma's cataract-fogged eyes well up with sentimental tears. Turn on some Murder, She Wrote, grab some hard candy, and slip out the back door quietly.

Boss Gift: An autographed Born in the USA LP; Everyday Music (1931 NE Sandy, 239-7610), $.50

Since every boss' life peaked sometime during your childhood, and has been losing meaning every day since (not Wm. Steven Humphrey, of course!), go ahead and make him feel still relevant for a day. A quick Sharpie-mod manipulates his dull wit and self-import perfectly. "To the 'real' Boss," it reads. "Tramps like us were born to run—Bruce." For the next six months in the office, you can do no wrong.

That Friend Whose Emails and Phone Calls You've Been Ignoring Gift: El Salvadoran machete; Andy and Bax (324 SE Grand, 234-7538), $4.89

You know who he is. You ditch him to voicemail every time he calls. You ignore every one of his emails for no good reason, including the one that reads, "Just want to make sure everything's cool between us. Hope you're all right." But now you've bumped into him on the street, and he invited you to his Christmas party—what to do? Show up with a $5 machete from Andy and Bax and tell him that you just returned from Central America the day you before you ran into him. But you missed him greatly, and smuggled this wicked machete through customs just for him. (Wince and point to your butt for extra effect.)

What the judges say: Five different gifts, five forms of deceit. Bra-vo. But seriously, how many bogus autographs and faked pregnancies do Mercury writers have up their sleeves? Add one point for a well-thought-out exit strategy on the dead fetus scam, and minus the same point for basically stealing the magazines, even if it's not technically shoplifting. By the way—does that trick really work?

TEAM #5: COURTNEY FERGUSON & MARJORIE SKINNER

TOTAL EXPENDITURES: $9.89

Parent Gift: The Complete Bartender book, Sula by Toni Morrison, bottle openers, beer publications; Any bar with a bookshelf and swag, FREE

One of the only things you and your parents have ever agreed on is booze. It's what makes Thanksgiving bearable. So while you're prefunc-ing for the holidays at your neighborhood tavern, why not pick up some free books for ma 'n' pa? It's not like anyone ever reads the dusty tomes on display at your favorite bar—so ask the bartender if you can have a couple. Dad's happy because he can use his new bartending book to try his hand at vintage cocktail recipes, and Mom's ooohing and aaahing over her Toni Morrison book ('Wasn't this on Oprah's Book Club?'). See, everyone's happy, and you got to spend all their gift money getting boozy.

Boyfriend Gift: Disposable camera, vintage Playboy, package of spaghetti; City Liquidators (830 SE 3rd, 232-7412), Cameron's Books and Magazines (336 SW 3rd, 228-2391), Fred Meyer (various locations), $3.29

He didn't start dating you because he needed someone to buy him a fancy Christmas gift, he started dating you because he wanted to tap 'dat ass! Holidays are just an excuse to try out new ways of ass-tapping, so for peanuts we've supplied the tools necessary to recreate a classic scene from the April 1974 issue of Playboy (plus he gets to keep the issue, which is full of natural boobs and pubic hair) in which a man and a woman are "playing" in a bathtub full of spaghetti! Yummmm! Document your re-creation of the scene with the $1 camera, and if it falls in the tub, who gives a shit?

Niece/Nephew Gift: Neon and glow-in-the-dark sidewalk chalk, modeling clay set; City Liquidators (830 SE 3rd, 232-7412), $2

Whitney was right—children really are our future. So give them the tools to grow, like a pack of bright-colored and glow-in-the-dark sidewalk chalk and a modeling clay set. These artist supplies are cheap as hell, and because your li'l niece or nephew has no concept of money, they'll never know the difference. Think of all the projects these burgeoning artists of the future could come up with—in no time flat, little Johnny or Judy will be tagging the chalky shit out of their kindergarten classroom, or sculpting uncomfortably violent reenactments of Saw IV with their modeling clay. Aaaaw, kids are so adorable.

Boss Gift: Confederate Tin Rooster, Patriotic Star Earrings; City Liquidators (830 SE 3rd, 232-7412), Teen Challenge (3103 NE Sandy, 232-7086), $2.65

Other than the whole work economy thing, you really don't have a lot in common with your boss. In fact, the only thing you can thank that bitch for is having something new to gripe about with your coworkers over lunch. But, since it's the holidays, you struggle to find a common ground— and finally, you found it! You are both from the same country! Now, faced with the choice between an American Flag tin rooster and a Confederate Flag tin rooster, what are you really going to do? You have to go with the Confederate rooster because it will eventually be worth more on the 22nd century's answer to Antiques Roadshow, and in the meantime your boss will be obligated to display it in her office out of false gratitude, something that the HR department is just going to love. Hopefully she'll be wearing the chintzy earrings you got her on the day she is forced to clear her desk, when she will most likely leave the Confederate rooster for you to reclaim and stow in your basement until the 22nd century. Cha-ching!

Grandma Gift: Sewing kit, storage tin; City Liquidators (830 SE 3rd, 232-7412), $2

Grandma ain't got shit to do after her morning armchair exercise show and before tea time, so help her fill the empty hours with what truly would be an awesome gift for anyone, at any age: This sewing kit comes with a ton of different colored thread spools, little scissors, needles, and other notions you need for everything from simple mending projects to freestyling needlepoint work. And to keep everything together, we've settled them into a three-compartment storage tin that's printed with all kinds of old-timey looking stuff. We're not sure what exactly, but we bet Grandma will remember.

What the judges say: (Insert slow clap here.) Not only were you two able to convince us that you care at least a tiny bit about the people you're buying gifts for, but you also sound slutty, and that kind of gift just keeps on giving. (At least, until you change his status from "boyfriend" to "husband." ZOINK!) Congratulations to Team #5 for making 10 dollars stretch further than the elastic band on Rosie O'Donnell's boxer shorts!

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