This Thanksgiving, Douglas De Haas of Essex found a unique way to give back. A miscommunication led both him and his mother to purchase turkeys, even though they were dining together, so he placed an ad on Craigslist that stated, “FREE TURKEY for dinner . . . need a bird? I got a small turkey for your holiday dinner.”
It seemed like the right thing to do, says De Haas, who has seen several close friends get laid off over the past year. When a young mother replied to his post, he talked with her about how to prepare for her and her children’s first-ever Thanksgiving feast. The two never met; when the time came, De Haas left the Butterball on his front step for its new owner.
The “free stuff” listings in newspapers and on Internet bulletin boards tell partial, sometimes tantalizing tales. Who has an extra Thanksgiving turkey? Why would someone give away free soup? A new sofa? A live hen? Will those multiple advertisers ever find takers for their faux Christmas trees and horse magazines?
Free stuff can seem depressing when we see it as a heap of unwanted crap — the cast-offs of our thing-oriented culture. But maybe there’s truth to the cliché that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. On Seven Days’ free listings, Global Markets owner Waell Murray is giving away used vegetable oil that he suggests can become diesel fuel. And evidence suggests there’s a network of enterprising folks with their eyes peeled for just such discards. The Burlington chapter of Freecycle.org, an Internet-based swapping network, claims 4744 members.
You don’t have to go online to give stuff away — or get it for a song. De Haas, an active member of the local “free culture,” cites ReCycle North and Jamba’s Junktiques as more evidence that Burlington is “the best area I’ve ever seen for this kind of thing.” He says he seldom sees listings for free stuff in newspapers in his hometown of Lake Placid, or even in Montréal. “You’d be shocked at the difference!”
De Haas himself is “constantly giving stuff away,” he says. “I’ve gotten so much free stuff, from the hot tub in my backyard to my electrical [wiring]. I always stay in the loop. I’ve gotten more than I’ve given, and I’m still trying to even it up.”
The Thanksgiving turkey probably helped — and De Haas is not the only person who’s offered free food on the local Craigslist. Pat Peters, a 43-year-old cook at Middlebury College, placed an ad on December 1 offering to serve people free soup every Wednesday from her home in Middlebury.
Like De Haas, Peters considers herself among the more fortunate folks facing the recession. “I’m not rich, not by any means, but I am so much better off than some others,” she says. “I was a single parent for years. I can remember times in my life when a free meal made a big difference. I have a little extra now, so it’s my turn to share.”
Only one person appeared with thermos and spoon in hand on December 3 for a helping of the pasta fagiole Peters had prepared on her new woodstove. The older woman seemed grateful, but offered no details about what brought her there. When asked whether she thought her visitor might have been homeless, Peters bristles. “Does it matter?” she asks. “Needing a meal doesn’t mean you are homeless. But it could mean having enough gas in the car to make it to work, or having the money to buy your kid cough syrup or a Christmas present. It is not for me to decide who needs a meal. If they take what they don’t need, that’s their karma.”
Some people give stuff away as charity, others as a way to avoid tossing it in the landfill. Burlington nonprofit ReCycle North, soon to open a branch in Barre, is a 17-year-old destination for people looking to unload household goods and building materials. (Actually, neither giving nor getting is entirely “free” here — many drop-offs require a small donation that funds the center’s repair and job-training programs.)
The ReCycle North store on Pine Street is a sight to behold. Like a backwoods Crazy Eddie, it has prices that are indeed insane, with major appliances in the low hundreds, albeit in a space that feels more like a gritty warehouse than a retail showroom.
Marketing Manager Milia Bell says ReCycle North recently expanded its repair capabilities, allowing it to take even more old or damaged washers, fridges and TVs and make them usable again. Bell hasn’t yet seen the downturn in donations she’s been expecting, given the current economic climate. “The only decrease is in our furniture,” she says. “We’re in a real need for quality used furniture.”
The store is no stranger to knick-knacks. Since ReCycle North accepts items only in season (don’t try to drop skis off in July), the store is full of Christmas angels and Santas when Seven Days visits. Bell’s colleague, Christina Martell, says some people have tried to unload odder items: “We get a lot of different weird homemade art. We wouldn’t take them, but one woman came in with a bunch of hookahs, with the pipes coming off of them and everything. For tobacco use only, of course,” she adds with a wink.
Bell can one-up that story. “We don’t take food or clothes,” she says, “but we’ve gotten a bunch of . . . what do you call them? With the cups? Jockstraps. We don’t take those.”
Not all giveaways are unwanted goods or charitable donations. Sometimes hard times necessitate finding a new home for an item — or a member of the family. Benita Hall’s recent Craigslist ad read simply, “Free hen — I have a hen that I would like to find a good home, if interested please email me thanks” — revealing none of the pain that led to its placement. Not long ago, the 37-year-old homemaker kept 14 roosters and two hens as pets. Over recent months, predators — which Hall assumes were skunks or raccoons — massacred 15 of the birds, which she’d received as a gift. Roadrunner, a sweet lady chicken, is the only one left standing, and Hall doesn’t want her to meet the fate of her fellows. Having found good families for pet rabbits, she hopes Roadrunner will get a home, too.
Another Craigslist free-animal ad was placed by a 41-year-old part-time administrative assistant who wishes to remain anonymous. She seeks a home for her two rabbits, Kaylee and Flower, and three gerbils, Mario, Luigi and Honey, and says that she has given away other items on both Craigslist and Freecycle — “however, not a living creature,” she clarifies.
The woman originally listed the gerbils at $5 each and the rabbits at $15, but when she got no responses, she took matters further. With six children, four cats, eight chinchillas, two African dwarf frogs and an aquarium full of exotic fish, she says, she can no longer afford to feed her household. Her ad offers the rabbits and gerbils as “pets or food.” Though the rodents are beloved by her and her family, the woman says, “I am not opposed to them being utilized as food . . . in a sense I would not have to worry that they were spending the rest of their lives in horrible conditions.”
Some people need to unload pets. Others want to help you unload pests. Matthew Barnes recently started advertising his free beaver removal service on Craigslist — he’s been doing it for 15 years, he says, often using newspaper classifieds.
From October to March, Barnes and his father and brother are full-time trappers. He says clearing out dam builders is a mutually beneficial deal: “Many trappers out there would charge for this, but we are looking for places to trap, and like to see beavers utilized and not wasted. We skin the beavers we catch and sell the hides. It works out pretty fair — property owners get what, to them, is a nuisance removed, and we get to do what we enjoy.”
Ali Douglas’ free-stuff story is a rare tale of joy. An occupational therapist who works in the public school system, Douglas had always been the picture of health. When she became pregnant with her first child, Jason (now 3 and a half), “I got really big, and diet and exercise didn’t help,” she says. She was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. The condition cleared up after Jason’s birth, and Douglas gave away the testing supplies on Craigslist. “I got crazy emails,” she recalls. “One lady wanted to use it to test her cat. I ended up giving it to a guy who had recently been diagnosed and wanted an extra for work.”
All was well until Douglas was once again blessed with a pregnancy — and insulin issues. After Becca was born last year, the 33-year-old was ready to give away her second set of testing supplies. A nurse quickly answered her ad. Her child is a student at Douglas’ school, making it, Douglas says, “the easiest pass-off ever!”
At its best, the free-stuff marketplace can help one person’s desperation become another’s inspiration. De Haas has gained a new hobby from his fondness for free goods: refurbishing antique pipe organs. His home currently holds three, which he says he’s learning to play. A church organ, which he discovered on offer while driving to Johnson, fills his kitchen. A Hammond organ found on Craigslist is nearly ready to take up residence at a local music studio.
At a time when some shoppers are literally trampling others to death in their eagerness for a bargain, it’s nice to be reminded that, yes, some of the coolest stuff is free.