Sunday, September 16, 2012

Free Stuff

I’m back in the USA, the land of free stuff. It’s pretty amazing what we throw away or give away, especially in contrast to the thrifty culture I’ve just left. Our friends Malcolm and Judy help with a charity that gathers used furniture and linens from hotels and households and even gathers new furniture from warehouses and distribution centers. They then open their warehouse to families in need, who are allowed to choose a complete set of household goods to take home with them.

Last week I wondered if such a charity existed because I came home just in time to see the annual first-of-September ritual of the return of the students. Many people move in and out of our neighborhood at this time of year, and lots of them leave behind huge piles of household goods on the curbs as trash. Sometimes scavengers come by and rescue some of the best stuff, and sometimes we participate ourselves. For example, a couple of years ago we found a pretty nice wooden drop-leaf table out on the curb. We took it and gave it to Nika, who used it well and finally sold it when she needed something smaller for a new apartment. We’d like to figure out how to help the Household Goods Recycling people cream off the best stuff during moving season in our neighborhood.

We see lots of free stuff at festivals and other public events too. Companies have a tradition of giving away little gifts to attract attention. Common gifts include bags, water bottles, key rings, T-shirts, mugs and food. (The free food is usually samples of processed items like candy bars, ice cream, hummus and beverages, but I’ve even received free salads complete with dressing and a fork.) As I walked through Harvard Square yesterday I passed a bank with a big wheel of fortune. They invited me to spin the wheel and take whatever prize it indicated. I got a key ring with flashlight. I have several of these now, and I keep looking for opportunities to give them away.

My favorite free item arrived last week. I wanted to buy a new mobile phone and T-Mobile wanted me to buy a more expensive data plan to go with it because the new phone uses 4G and my subscription only gave me 3G. Somehow in the course of discussion the representative noticed that I’ve their customer for a long time and we barely use our American phones during the six months of every year when we’re living in Belarus. They decided to reward my loyalty and my annual subscription by giving me a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone for free. I thanked them very much, but told them that it would be hard to accept their gift if I had to pay more money for the data plan. They understood my concern, and upgraded my data plan on very favorable terms. I love T-Mobile. (And the phone works great. My internet service is faster on it than my home DSL service.)

All this free stuff is pretty amazing, but of course it comes with tradeoffs. The reason American businesses can give away samples and discounts is that their basic prices can be much higher than base prices in Belarus. Internet access, for example, costs so little in Belarus that it would seem almost free to an American. Still, I’m feeling pretty dazzled by all the good stuff I’ve seen up for grabs since I’ve been back. Let’s figure out how to get next year’s household goods off the curbs and into the hands of needy people in other neighborhoods.