I've had a bit of a bad luck patch over the last month (losing my job, watching my 401k completely disintegrate, etc., etc.) and ended up relocating from a high rise in Lincoln Park to a new neighborhood along the Fullerton underpass on the Kennedy Expressway. I was a bit worried about the move at first, but my new neighbors have been great. In fact on move-in day they greeted me with a grocery cart "welcome wagon" containing some lovely and practical gifts like cans of Sterno, cardboard, fortified wine, and a hypo-allergenic harmonica. I would like to show my appreciation with thoughtful "thank you" gifts. Can you recommend something nice that won't break my budget ($3.00 total for 6 gifts)? Please help!
Barbara in Chicago
With my busy schedule of entertaining foreign dignitaries and celebrities at the White House, I know how important a well chosen gift can be. Two weeks ago, for example, we received a visit from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister brought a few housewarming gag gifts including a pen set made from a boat, a framed paper thing from another boat, and some old books by Churchill (not Ward, but that English guy). Obviously we wanted to return the nice gesture so I sent my interns out on a scavenger hunt for an appropriate present. They couldn't find anything in the West Wing, but luckily Costco was open and was running a 25-for-the-price-of-10 clearance sale in the DVD department. You should have seen Mr. Brown light up when he opened that sack of classic titles like "Wizard of Oz" and "Baby Geniuses 2." I like to think those DVDs helped cement our Anglo-American "special relationship" even if, as he mentioned to me, they probably wouldn't work in his European player. Thinking quickly, I told the PM I would send him an American DVD player as soon as I earned enough cash-back points on my Costco card. Crisis averted, but that episode taught me a valuable lesson: always keep a stock of gifts handy in case some foreign poobah or supreme religious figure or failing industry leader pops by for coffee. As a result, I make sure the Oval Office closet is filled with pre-wrapped Sham-Wows and Snuggle blankets and trillion dollar bailout packages for whatever gift emergency might arise.
Sometimes, though, the occasion calls for a gift with the warm "personal touch" that reflects the personality and tastes of the recipient. For example, my wife Michelle is very involved with fashion, fitness, and beauty, so for our 10th anniversary I gave her a Norelco heavy duty personal ear and nose hair groomer. Sure, it was expensive, but that glare of delight in her eyes was more than enough payback for the $89.95 price plus $20 for shipping and monogramming. When I sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet with a Russian delegation last week, she brought along a cute novelty "panic button" from Spencer Gifts that my staff relabeled with the Russian word for "Reset" as a humorous token of America's new gentler approach to diplomacy. Even though they pointed out the word actually translates as "Vaporize," the Russians still had a good laugh because I think they understood where we were coming from. It was such a hit that later this year when we meet with the Iranians we are planning to bring along a Big Mouth Billy Bass that sings "Don't Worry Be Happy" in Farsi. If there's anything I've learned about international relations, it is to bring a fun gift and leave the attitude and preconditions behind.
But let's get back to your situation. At $0.50 per gift I'm afraid there aren't a lot of good shopping options. You might think about buying your neighbors a couple shares of GM, Citicorp or the New York Times Company, but even if you could afford the transaction fees the shares would probably continue to deteriorate out there in the elements. The Dollar General nearby on Belmont stocks a big selection of weather-proof plastic utensils and sponges, but at $1 each you will probably have to pare back your gift list. My advice is to focus your generosity on those underpass neighbors who control the biggest voting blocs. Happy gifting!
[Cross-posted at my UK home base Anorak - stop by and say howdy!]