"I NEVER SMOKED. Well, only when I was 18, to look more sophisticated so I could get into bars," explained Marie, my favorite rabble-rousing senior citizen extraordinaire, over lunch at the Dearborn St. Goodwill. "What a good time we had! The daughter of a chicken farmer in the big city! One night my best friend Mary goes, 'I'll take the tall one, you take the short one.' And that's how I got married."

Marie was wearing a smashing denim outfit she had acquired for a mere $2. It was one of those glorious last days of summer in Seattle, gray drizzle and a general ennui, and she had taken me to the Goodwill to boost my spirits. Where else do you go when you're feeling low?

"Look at this place!" Marie waved her hands to include the expanse of the main room, its racks of clothing zinging as people in a stunning array of costumes exclaimed "Bargain!" in at least five different languages. Marie greeted employees by name, asking several young women if they had registered to vote yet, then turning to me to proclaim, "Isn't she lovely!" Marie has a high average of her letters to the editor published, espousing her opinion eloquently and firmly on a range of political and cultural issues (her latest was a revolt against a regressive and oppressive instructional on how to wash baby diapers). "I'm Irish! I can't help talking!" she insisted. Marie received her B.A. in political science at age 72, after a career as a private eye, among other things. After scanning the main floor, we found nothing cheap enough for our tastes and proceeded to the legendary "bins."

I had always been too overwhelmed by the bins to search long enough to find anything, but somehow, having Marie by my side--relieving the intensity of the hunt with anecdotes about her long and exciting life--pushed me onward and upward. I found myself wrestling silently with a Vietnamese American woman for a teeny, shiny bebe tank top.

Marie emerged with a hardly worn pair of purple flats; me with a sexy red holiday dress, plus a whole pile of baby clothes. We staggered under our purchases--totaling $3 minus Marie's Senior Monday discount--and over to the store's cheesy Memory Lane Museum, which featured an old clothes washer that made Marie laugh.

We could smell the hot dogs and the hot fat spluttering in the deep fryer and wandered over to the Vintage Cafe, the juicy Sinai kosher dogs ($1.69; $2.79 chili dog) beckoning from their little wiener Ferris wheel. Several older gentlemen sat at tables, slurping their 59¢ coffees, exclaiming things like, "Harvey! This shirt! Forty-five cents! Can you believe it?" Burgers and sandwiches (tuna, egg salad, ham, grilled cheese, bacon, etc.) run from two bucks to three, and are made to order. All manner of deep-fried items are available, but the onion rings stood on their own. While I wolfed down the onion rings (real onions with a thick, crunchy coating, not those paltry diced onions in soggy breading usually offered--and this for a mere dollar), Marie told me about her new favorite drink: vanilla soy milk with whiskey. The Cafe is what cheap eats should be--cheap (soup, 89¢). It's not fancy, except for the white wrought-iron patio furniture in the outdoor seating section. It is the kind of place to eat when you are hungry and want to keep the bargain rush going.

The circa 1950s Goodwill building, ugly and utilitarian, is about to undergo a huge renovation in exchange for the land where the parking lot is now. The manager told me that the restaurant would be expanded and fancified with espresso--which, of course, only made me love the old building and find the Vintage Cafe very dear. No one really knew what would become of the dusty Memory Lane Museum, with its "Ladies' Fashion throughout History" display (including the Power Suit of 1980!) and scary vintage-Christmas-in-a-glass-box scene. Visit while you can, because, as Marie quipped when we examined the renovation plans, "Humph! Don't know if I'll be welcome there!" We exited the Goodwill into a burst of sunlight. I felt giddy with cheapness. Ten dollars later, Marie had succeeded in feeding and outfitting me, and buoying me with her sass.

Vintage Cafe

Seattle Goodwill (off Dearborn), 1400 S Lane St, 329-1000. Daily 10 am-8 pm. $.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up.