I think I had my last 99 cent dream a long time ago. I met Shawn my sophomore year of high school, and we became best friends pretty quickly. We had the same sense of humor, liked the same music. When you’re 15, it doesn’t need to be a lot more complicated than that.
Shawn’s sister was a lot older than us. She had two daughters from a marriage that hadn’t worked out. Their dad didn’t come around anymore. They were great kids, quick and bright and happy, and their mom was doing her best to give them a good life, but it’s hard when you’re raising two kids alone without much of a job or an education. We used to hang out at her house sometimes, watch TV with the girls. After they went to bed, Shawn’s sister would drink a beer and talk about how she didn’t know what she was going to do. Between her job and food stamps, she brought in enough to feed everybody and pay the rent but not much beyond that. Her mom was a source of free day care, but was in no position to help financially. It’s not that she was unhappy, exactly; she just loved her daughters and wanted to give them a better life than she had. And she didn’t know how she was ever going to be able to make that happen. To give them anything other than the barest necessities.
Of course we felt bad. But what could we do? We were 15. We had no money to speak of, none that wasn’t given to us by someone else. And we both thought we’d be far from there in a few years, living the lives we always imagined belonged to us. Significant lives, grown-up lives. So Shawn and I took to stealing things. Never very much, mostly little treats: candy, magazines. Sometimes some cute school supplies, pink pens or folders with Powerpuff Girls on them. We particularly liked stealing Kool-Aid.
Kool-Aid packets are small, easy to hide. They’re cheap, so it feels easy to steal them, like it doesn’t matter as much. And they’re something that a mother on food stamps was never going to spend money on. Still, a lot of the time we had to smoke before we could do it. To make ourselves less nervous, to make ourselves care less. We’d bring the packets back and slip them to Shawn’s sister, all rolled up from our pockets. Or sometimes we’d mix it ourselves in a pitcher, leave it in the fridge for when the girls got home.
The looks on their faces was worth it. Kool-Aid’s fucking sugar water, of course. It’s citric acid and factory flavors; it’s nothing. That was their 99 cent dream. Some Kool-Aid when they got home, some pencils with Buttercup on them. Their dream was dirt cheap, but still too expensive for anybody around to actually spend money on. Such a small thing.
We didn’t have to steal, of course, is the funny part. I could have bought them. Any number of our friends could have chipped in, if we’d said anything. But I think that was mine: striking out, refusing (in some small, dumb way) to accept a world that gave such difficult lives to kids that did nothing to deserve it. Seeing that the game is fixed and deciding to cheat. Fuck your lemons and your lemonade. Sometimes the most just response to an unfair situation is to act unfairly. I was a kid too, and that was my 99 cent dream.
-James DeFord, Tampa