from LA to Chicago with an empty suitcase
February 16, 2012 4:42 PM   Subscribe

What do you get the guy who has nothing? I'm looking for practical going-away gifts for a friend who's about to pack up his few belongings in his car and move cross-country, broke.

So: Adam's decided to restart his life in Chicago despite the fact that he won't have a job or a place to live when he gets there. I'm worried about him but he's made up his mind, so I'm trying to come up with gifts that are extremely practical. Right now, the best I can think of is a gift card to his favorite restaurant...McDonald's. As much as the thought disturbs me, I know that a $50 card would feed him for a week there. There must be better gift options. Hivemind, please tell me what they are.
posted by roger ackroyd to Grab Bag (48 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
AAA gift membership?
posted by des at 4:44 PM on February 16, 2012 [18 favorites]

A small insulated cooler where he can store water, drinks and snacks beside him while he's driving. Fill it with healthy snacks like trail mix, bottled flavored water, beef jerky, etc.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:47 PM on February 16, 2012 [13 favorites]

Does he have a cell phone?

Otherwise, I would use what you know about him. You know he likes McDonald's, and it may be really, really useful -- and when he uses it, he'll think of you, and that you knew what he liked and didn't judge it. So I would go with that.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 4:47 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

A Visa (or MasterCard etc.) gift card. Works like a credit card and he can use it at a hotel or restaurant, grocery store, or gas station. I have bought them at my local grocery store from the gift card rack.
posted by cecic at 4:49 PM on February 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

A gift card to a big box store like Target? He could buy food. Or toilet paper. Or a t-shirt if he needs one.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:50 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the AAA membership if he doesn't already have one.
posted by tdismukes at 4:50 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd go with the preloaded credit card. It can be used for anything.

As for the autoclub, the freerider model is to call and sign up for a membership and then ask for a tow truck...
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:54 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pre-paid long distance phone card.
Gas station card.
If he hasn't already done so, make some printouts of his resume/CV?
posted by methroach at 4:54 PM on February 16, 2012

A gas gift certificate!
posted by analog at 4:54 PM on February 16, 2012

On those Visa/Mastercard cards: you (the buyer) are charged $6 or so for the convenience, and they're kind of awkward when you run out of funds, as it's not too clear how close you are to emptying them. Cash is easier, unless you really want to be kind and you're giving them a $500 card (I think most hotels want a real credit card, so they can charge the card if you wreck the place).

A list of contacts or resources along the way, if you have time to search for him.

How about a mixCD or five? Both of these could be small add-ons to other financially supportive gifts.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:55 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Has he, or is he planning on having his car serviced before he starts the trip? If he hasn't already perhaps you could offer to pay for that.
posted by OsoMeaty at 4:56 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

He's broke, give him cash!
posted by Snazzy67 at 5:04 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just an FYI: I've had some trouble paying for gas at the pump with a pre-paid/gift credit card on more than one occassion. Usually you can go in and pay just attendent, but not always.
posted by OsoMeaty at 5:04 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depending on where he's staying once he gets to Chicago: a gift card to a furniture store so he can get a mattress, blankets, etc.
posted by Milau at 5:07 PM on February 16, 2012

He's broke, give him cash!

The problem with cash/Visa gift cards is I don't want to pay for his beer tab.
posted by roger ackroyd at 5:15 PM on February 16, 2012

How about a couple of bags of non-perishable groceries? I like Fig Newtons when I am on a long trip.

Also, how about hot pot? You could get him that and a couple of cases of Ramen for less than $50. Hot pots are good as well because you can use them in hotels or, if it comes to it, shelter/half way house places will (usually) allow them as well.

Also, CHicago has a CVS on every other corner, so a CVS gift card would come in handy.

Also, a nice fleece blanket or pullover. A scarf. A nice pair of warm gloves or a knit cap? It's cold as tits in Chicago about now.

Finally, what about something non-essential that may gave him comfort. A copy of his favorite book?
posted by holdkris99 at 5:16 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a man who not too long ago moved a thousand miles to start all over again in a city that I knew little about...

A good soft bristle tooth brush with tooth paste. Maybe throw in a spool of floss while you're at in. The feeling of clean teeth and presentable breath goes a long way for me to remind me I'm human. Some times the littlest of things is all one can muster.

Pride in one self, at the end of the day, is what a nomad needs.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 5:18 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does he have any winter clothing at all? A hat, scarf, gloves, and even a cheap-o pair of boots in the trunk might come in handy if he has car trouble along the way, and will certainly come in handy if he's planning on staying in Chicago long. Most department stores have all their winter clothing on clearance -- you might even be able to snag a decent jacket (and stick a McDonald's gift card in the pocket).
posted by jabes at 5:19 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

As someone who spent many months jobless (and on a pretty much nonexistent budget) in Chicago until recently, I'd go another direction with this. I spent almost zero money on "frivolous" things (i.e. things that weren't food, rent, or student loan payments). What I appreciated most were when I got gift cards for things that were only frivolous, so that I had to go and do something fun. It was a nice respite from the doom doom doom that I was constantly feeling.

For me, the best thing was a Field Museum membership, because it meant I could go whenever I wanted and also take a friend for free. For your buddy, it may be something different. If you give us an idea of things he's into, we can try to give you some Chicago-centric recommendations.
posted by phunniemee at 5:21 PM on February 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

He's originally from Detroit. Moved to LA six years ago. Visited Chicago last month and got a blast of icy weather realness, so I think he's prepared for the cold in theory.

His tastes run very blue collar, mainstream. (Almost to the point of fetishism.) He likes the food at 7-11. He's proud of the fact that he doesn't read books; he complains about fancy food. He loves television. He's gay. He does have a cellphone.

One of my other ideas was a big box of Snickers for the road.
posted by roger ackroyd at 5:24 PM on February 16, 2012

oh and he's a hockey freak.
posted by roger ackroyd at 5:26 PM on February 16, 2012

A card to somewhere like Bed, Bath & Beyond or someplace where he can get the things to stock his apartment. If that's too pricey, then somewhere like Target or (if you don't mind the politics) Wal*Mart. You won't be paying for his beer tab that way.
posted by xingcat at 5:29 PM on February 16, 2012

a card for mcdonalds is better than a box of snickers. it might not be healthy food, but it's better than living for a couple days on candy bars.
posted by nadawi at 5:31 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only Walmarts in the city are those Express ones, which are just groceries. Not too bad but there aren't that many of them. Target is a better option.

Also, Blackhawks tickets.
posted by Lieber Frau at 5:35 PM on February 16, 2012

Is he going to be living in his car in Chicago in February? A sleeping bag. Thermal socks. He kind of sounds like he might be out of money early when he gets there, so stuff that hooks him up in Chicago might be nice -- maybe he doesn't like fancy, but gift certificates for local pizzerias, or local transit passes, might be nice if he's overextended on arrival because his upswing is going to be slow. He may be able to make it from LA to Chicago and then have a tough time on
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:37 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hit post too soon....
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:37 PM on February 16, 2012

Gift cards that can be used towards food, i.e. dining locations or grocery stores. impersonal? Maybe, but practical.
posted by djduckie at 5:38 PM on February 16, 2012

A leatherman or other multi-tool. It's compact and light out of all proportion to its usefulness, and it's the kind of thing that somebody with blue-collar sensibilities might appreciate but not spring for himself.
posted by gauche at 5:39 PM on February 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Just get him the gift card to McDonald's. You already know it's something he would use, whether to eat during the trip or after his arrival in Chicago. And this would be a much better gift than a box of Snickers.
posted by needled at 5:44 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing an AAA membership. Also how about a thumb drive so that if he's reliant on the library for computer access he can store documents on it? Even blue-collar jobs tend to have online help-wanted ads and applications these days.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:45 PM on February 16, 2012

Doesn't have a cell phone? A pre-paid cell phone would be great.

Nthing the AAA membership.

Also - detailed maps of the states he's going to drive through, and/or an atlas. If he doesn't have a smartphone and/or GPS, he'll need some sort of map to help him if or when he gets lost.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:55 PM on February 16, 2012

That reminds me. Make sure he knows about the services he can get (including free Internet access) at the Center on Halsted.

Does he work out? A month of gym at the cruisey Fitness Formula Club on Halsted will get him free showers, make him feel better, and win him a bunch of new friends.
posted by Lieber Frau at 6:04 PM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Spoken from practical experience, get something that will last. Cash or some gift card is temporary. Think of something that will keep on giving even once he uses up all his money. A nice warm blanket or sleeping bag that can pack up small is extremely useful. That AAA membership could be quite handy. I can get nickles and dimes or new friends to pay for my food, but I have a hard time with those more expensive items. Maybe a non-flashy durable backpack. Don't burden him down with junk he doesn't need. Also, I would focus on the arrival in Chicago, those first couple weeks are going to be the hardpart, especially if he doesn't have friends there yet.
Conclusion: High-value, high-quality, non-flashy items or a useful membership somewhere.
posted by Folk at 6:11 PM on February 16, 2012

rain jacket, rain pants, hat, gloves, sleeping bag, medical kit, survival kit, emergency food, quick-dry towel, hands-free flashlight, maps in waterproof bags, mini cooking stove, woolen blanket - these are emergency items (in case he has to sleep in his car or gets stuck in the middle of nowhere).
other than that - gym membership? voltage adaptors for the car? solar charger? emergency phone?
posted by leigh1 at 6:18 PM on February 16, 2012

Swiss army knife and some good wool socks. AAA membership is also a great idea.
posted by markblasco at 6:47 PM on February 16, 2012

Pre-paid fuel card - he may still spend the cash he would otherwise have spent on fuel on beer, but you can't really protect people from themselves. Sleeping bag (sounds like he may be sleeping in his car at least on the trip) - one that can unzip to be used as a blanket.
posted by dg at 7:22 PM on February 16, 2012

Does he have someplace to stay yet? What about getting him information on couchsurfing or staying at the Y?
posted by annsunny at 7:25 PM on February 16, 2012

I'll go against the flow and vote No to the AAA membership. It's not like he's going to be driving his car more than the average person over the course of the next year, he's just doing one road trip. He sounds like the kind of guy who'd appreciate something he can use more than an insurance policy, and perhaps even like the kind of guy who'd forget he had it if his car broke down 6 months from now. Go with McDonalds, you know he'll like it, and you avoid making any assumptions about where/how he'll be living.

My only new brainstorming idea would be, if you know he's going to be applying for the kind of job that he'll need to dress differently than he does right now, then a pair of work shoes (whether that means steel-toes or loafers or kitchen clogs).

But seriously, McDonalds.
posted by aimedwander at 7:40 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

A gym membership will give him a place to shower.

A car cover will enable him to sleep in his car without being seen. Related: print out this page for him: Living In Your Car: Viable Survival Option. Some Important Tips.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:00 PM on February 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to get a gift card for the YMCA? So if accommodations are difficult to find at least he won't be living out of his car...also Chicago is one of the least car-friendly cities in the US as far as parking is concerned. The city takes an avid interest in seeing that cars parked on public streets are towed immediately for the slightest infractions, and impounded at usurious rates.
posted by motown missile at 8:06 PM on February 16, 2012

A good backpack. I dunno what blue collar guys like, maybe Jansport? And a thermos.
posted by devymetal at 10:09 PM on February 16, 2012

Opinel knife. Thermos flask. LED flashlight. Hot water bottle. Microfibre towel.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:33 AM on February 17, 2012

Pre-paid cell phone, and a month of service and minutes - makes any travel safer.
posted by theora55 at 5:12 AM on February 17, 2012

A bucket for washing his clothes.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:19 AM on February 17, 2012

I'm going to see my friend this weekend and run a few of these ideas by him. Thanks, everyone.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:29 AM on February 17, 2012

A gift card from Jewel-Osco.
posted by brujita at 10:21 AM on February 17, 2012

The first things I bought when I moved to Boston without a job were a knife and a cutting board so that I could cook to feed myself.

HeyAllie's idea of a cooler and food for the trip is also good.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:52 AM on February 17, 2012

Encourage him to sign up for a Y membership. The Y has a policy of not refusing anyone, so, if he is low income, he could get a membership for free and then use the showers and cafeteria ($ but cheap) all across the country.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:48 PM on February 17, 2012

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