Having spent my entire adolescent life in the suburbs, I had become accustomed to certain grocery store hallmarks. Now that I'm in the city, I'm finding that many of these familiar elements – displayed prices, legal citizens and tax, to name a few – have been replaced with blaring ethnic soundtracks and a complex pricing-and-purchasing system. Rather than walking around and using marked prices to determine a total, you instead carry your products to the front and place them on the counter. There, the clerk will name an outlandish price. Then his associate – previously invisible, cloaked inside the cigarette rack – will manifest and begin to argue in a foreign language. This discussion will eventually result in a suitable price, adjusted for the perceived economic status of the purchaser. A tub of ice cream that costs me, say, $0.15, might cost a suited investment banker $217. It is, if nothing else, a convenient system.

So, plagued once again by late-afternoon hunger last week, I grabbed some cash and dashed across the street to the store. At the time I was wearing a Shakira world tour t-shirt and brown "Wyoming Cowboys" mesh shorts, which is my standard business attire for a transaction of such relative magnitude. Since the shorts have no pockets, I was holding my money in a fist. Since I have no money, it was a handful of small change. That I could even spare a few bucks in loose change was indicative of a lucrative work week – typically I work on a "'shoestring budget' and try to pay for things with discarded shoelaces. That night, as a reward for my hard work, I set out to the store to spoil myself with "'dinner.'

Torn as I am between healthy eating and extreme culinary abortion – my "it averages out" nutritional plan – my meals fluctuate wildly on a night-to-night basis. On this particularly evening I happened to be on a health kick and headed out in pursuit of some orange juice. I grabbed a big carton and some pretzels, noting their location so I could quickly put them back. Then I walked to the counter and presented them to the clerk for pricing. "Your rent," he quoted, which is a general term for any amount of money that I can't pay. Undeterred, I headed back to downgrade my juice.

This routine continued for a few more rounds as I tried to combine the most cost-effective, yet hunger-and-thirst quenching combination of juice and pretzels. After running through every possible variety of orange juice, I finally assembled a duo that seemed as if it should fall in my price range. With a final deep breath I embarked for the front of the shop, prepping myself for the inevitable showdown. The clerk was armed with his arbitrary pricing and argumentative associate. I wielded only a handful of change and an assortment of inane, compassion-eliciting facial expressions. It would be an epic melee.

He drew first blood by inquiring if I had everything I wanted. I responded by scanning the store with a vacant look; then doubled the attack by staring longingly at my juice. My nemesis watched me skeptically. He began to speak. I cut him off with a prolonged sigh. A price was quoted that far exceeded the change in my hand; I countered by feigning approval and started to count my coins. Then I counted again while awkwardly shifting the juice and pretzels in the nooks of my elbows. My nervous laugh met his bitter glare. I puffed out my cheeks and counted a third time, looked around, exhaled loudly and absent-mindedly counted a forth time. As the fifth count neared commencement, I contemplated dropping the change all over the ground and spending a few moments gathering it. Fortunately, the enemy relented first.

"How much?" he muttered, pointing at my cupped-palm fountain of wealth. "Three bucks and change," I replied. He scowled. "Yes, give." At that point, I imagine that I would've gotten a similar reaction had I rooted through a handful of lint and crickets. But I didn't dwell on that. Nor did I dwell on just how much food I could've purchased back home with that kind of money. I just paid the man and walked home, content that I had orange juice and pretzels to maw on for dinner.

And that I still had my shoelaces for lunch.