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Personal Hygiene on a Shoestring Budget

It’s a cold, menacing world out there, and it doesn’t care whether or not you’ve brushed your teeth this morning. But you care and you’re broke. So what’s going to come between you and your hygiene needs? The law?

I once stole a packet of razor blades from a Rite Aid. I don’t remember what kind of razor blades they were, just that they were the most expensive kind in the store. I figured that if you’re going to steal razor blades, you might as well steal the most expensive kind, since the punishment is the same regardless.

My method was simple. I walked in, went to where the razor blades were kept, placed a pack in my coat pocket, and walked out. In this I was inspired by a man I’d recently read about who was caught trying to steal a painting from the Louvre. After he was caught, the police searched his apartment and found dozens of paintings that Louvre officials had long considered ‘missing.’ It turns out he’d been doing this for years. He described his method to the police: He’d walk in, take a painting from the wall, and walk out. Through the front door. Holding the painting. He said, ‘I believe you can get away with anything you believe you can get away with.’

That blew my mind. It still does. Because it’s the truth, I think, provided you really believe the thing, as opposed to merely telling yourself you believe. Of course there are limits—witness the man’s eventual capture; although it’s possible, I suppose, that on that particular day he didn’t fully believe. Regardless, his words inspired me to act, and I felt his presence as I exited the Rite Aid, the automatic door swinging shut behind me.

I remembered all this when Andrew Womack suggested that I write a TMN editorial entitled ‘Personal Hygiene on a Shoestring Budget.’ Actually, the first thing I thought of was the posse of homeless guys who hang out in the little so-called park across from my apartment building and who I sometimes see in China Star ordering wonton soup and paying with change spilled on the counter. Although none of these guys smell that bad, it’s still difficult to imagine them in Duane Reade, debating between brands of deodorant. No, what little money they have goes to buy booze and then wonton soup and perhaps an occasional order of barbecue spare ribs. Plus—and this is the main thing—I can’t imagine they have much impetus these days to look or smell ‘presentable.’

By contrast, my razor blade theft occurred at a time when I cared about such things, though I spent almost nothing on hygiene, having almost nothing to spend. Best I can recall (this was more than twenty years ago), my hygiene-related purchases were limited to soap and toothpaste. Note the absence of shampoo, floss, and deodorant. In lieu of shampoo, I washed my hair with soap. In lieu of floss and deodorant, I didn’t use floss or deodorant.

I’d buy store-brand toothpaste and squeeze out no more each time than necessary, rolling the tube up from the bottom, a practice I’ve continued to this day. My soap was Ivory, for Ivory was not only the best buy (I did the math, calculating the price per ounce of various brands), but had the best slogan: ‘99 and 44/100% pure.’ That’s genius. Had they said ‘100% pure,’ no one would have noticed. But 99 and 44/100ths is such a specific percentage that one naturally assumes that the Ivory people worked day and night to reduce the level of impurities in their soap, and that the small percentage that now remains—56/100ths of a percent—is likely the result of some unassailable physical law akin to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. 99 and 44/100ths: it’s a percentage you can trust.

I should say that I had no specific budget for hygiene, or for anything, really; I merely spent as little as I could, having little to spend. When I ran out of razor blades, I considered buying new ones, but decided instead to try a new cost-cutting measure: shoplifting. Truth is, I didn’t fully believe I could get away with it. This scared me. How do you get yourself to believe something you honestly don’t believe? You can’t. Or I couldn’t. But I could at least act the part, and that seemed halfway to believing. Did it work? I don’t think it worked; I just got lucky. And I knew it too, because later, when I ran out of shaving cream, I returned to Rite Aid and picked out the cheapest kind they had, Barbasol, the kind in a can that looks like a barber pole, and paid real money for it—seventy-nine cents, if I remember correctly—there being no sense in stealing the cheap stuff.