Do you know anyone who needs another tote bag? How about a coaster, or a click pen inscribed with an organizational logo, or pretty much any of the stuff that comes in the obligatory goodie bag we all receive at a conference, sometimes even at a luncheon?
A couple of years ago, I began giving the staff handing out these things a polite smile, “No thanks, I don’t need it.” In return I got baffled looks and uniform replies, “But it’s free!”
To quote my philosopher brother, “Free is a very good price.” And when I find something that I can actually use, discounted to the incomparable price of zero, I take what’s offered. Sometimes two. I’ve even been known to sort through the goodie bag, right on the spot, to see if perhaps the lip gloss has SPF 15, in which case I will fish it out and put it in my pocket. But I’m never tempted to take stuff I don’t need. Because even free stuff carries a cost: the societal cost of creation and the personal cost of possession, to carry, store and eventually throw away.
Note that I refer only to things I ‘need’ because, in truth, there is nothing that I want. I long ago realized that my existence resides an idiosyncratic limbo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem: ‘How am I different from everyone else? Let me count the ways.’
I am a woefully deficient 21st century American, an economic mutant born without the consumption gene so essential to our consumer economy. I appreciate beautiful things, objects that reflect the imagination and skill of the maker. But I have no wish to own them. Macy’s Department Store, Mahoney’s Landscape & Garden, Museum of Fine Arts: all equally enjoyable places to stroll. Never do I see anything in them and think, “I want that.”
Thanks to my housemate, perhaps the most perfect person in the world, our house looks rather nice. His vintage prints, antique breakfronts, upholstered chairs, and silver candlesticks almost obscure the dining room table I scoffed from the curb.
Sidebar on that table: a non-consumer coup. Not only was it free, not only did I save it from the landfill, the timing was perfect. I had just completed renovating the dining room (I may not much like things that move, but I’m fastidious about permanent attachments). I dreaded having to shop for a table. Then I found this grand slab of solid oak, large enough to accommodate twelve, only a block away. Drag it home, Pledge it down, toss a cloth over it, and no one sees the cracked shellac or the ciggie burn in the corner.
Being practically perfect, my housemate is a pretty good consumer, which means he buys a good amount. He’s also a savvy purchaser, with some kind of credit card that yields many benefits. Alas, those benefits have expiration dates, and if he hasn’t claimed enough credit goodies, they offer him free magazines. Which he accepts.
First we got Time, then New York and People; followed by Southern Living, Food and Wine, and The Economist. Lately, Bloomsberg litters our breakfront. I understand the allure of free magazines, but my housemate only reads online. The magazines exist for no one, except maybe me. I used to get back issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic from the library, now I have a dentist office’ worth of glossies in my own dining room.
The magazines are nice to have around, though when the subscriptions end I will return to my old habit of library journals. One day, when the pile was high and he wasn’t dipping into it, I asked my housemate why he subscribed to them. His answer echoed the voice of every conference staffer barking totes, “Because they’re free.”