There is something tremendously powerful about the concept of “free.” Economists have marveled that people will spend more than an item is worth—in time, effort, or indirect costs—to be able to claim that they got it for nothing. Kids will whine for expensive cereal with “free prizes” inside. Seniors will send their lifelong savings to strangers in response to Nigerian e-mails promising massive payouts. People will swallow undigestible kibbles if they’re given away from the sample carts at Costco—a store that charges people for the right to shop there.
The modern economy is built largely on the psychological power of free. Give away the cell phone but charge for the plan. Give away the TV feed but cram it with commercials. Just consider the Internet, which supplies information, games, music, and videos, e-mail, software, storage, pornography, and classified ads. Free.
If people will pay plenty to attain free, paradoxically the reverse is also true. Some people don’t want free at any cost. They wouldn’t take a free couch, a free television, a free rug if you paid them enough to buy a new one. There must be something wrong with it, they’d suppose, but they’d also worry about what it would say about them. The cornerstone of modern marketing is the concept that products are supposed to enhance our attractiveness, our sexuality, our prestige. What we buy tells people who we are. If that’s true, what is the point of consuming something free; isn’t that saying that the consumers themselves are essentially valueless? The numbers of those people have certainly dwindled with the economy, and yet they exist.
These stories are not for those people. These are for those who appreciate freedom. Enjoy.
—Patrick Howe, managing editor
- PHOTO BY PATRICK HOWE
- RIDING THE COUCH : Kate Harrison and Nik Goodell barely grumbled when asked to pretend surfing on a couch. Harrison put up her house for the night and Goodell was looking for a place to stay before going back to Santa Cruz
Surf’s up for couch surfing
BY COLIN RIGLEY
Who needs an apartment or motel? Finding a free place to stay is almost too easy, as long as you’re willing to sleep with strangers. Within a few hours, about half a dozen people responded to a New Times post on couchsurfing.org.
Couchsurfing.org is an online network of people either offering a free place to sleep or looking for one.
After weeding out one potential creeper and another guy who thought I was interested in actual surfing, I got a hit from Kate Harrison, a 27-year-old Cal Poly graduate student.
Pointers for first-time surfers: Don’t stay more than a night or two. There are plenty of people offering so bouncing from couch to couch isn’t all that difficult. Also, go through the website’s verification system. It’s tough to trust someone whose profile is scant on information, as one potential roommate chided me in a message.
Hosting couch surfers can be a way to meet people from other countries and cultures, but the journey from my place to Harrison’s turned out to be ridiculously short. It took about a minute to go the two blocks up the street, and it would have been shorter if I had known where I was going and didn’t take a wrong turn on the way. We live so close Harrison laughed when she realized she passes my house while jogging. She let me stay anyway.
Along with two roommates, Harrison shares the house with the random travelers she extends invitations to through the site. They generally stay just a night, but someone who had been staying a few weeks had left just that morning. He’d left behind a hat on the futon in the garage along with a few empty red-stained wine glasses sitting on the coffee table. Harrison called him the “permanent surfer.”
Nik Goodell was also there for the night on the day I arrived. He’s a 27-year-old with pale-orange bleached hair, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He and Harrison were sitting opposite one another in the family room, barefoot. They were exchanging stories.
Goodell was in town for the night. He came down from Santa Cruz to find a place to live before he transfers to Cal Poly in the fall. He said his sister introduced him to the idea of couch surfing.
Harrison started surfing during her frequent trips overseas and now is recharging her karma by opening the house to others.
On its surface, the idea of meeting people online and then sleeping in their house is inherently creepy for everyone involved. Usually, Harrison and Goodell said, it’s easy enough to find a good place to stay, just be smart about who you pick.
“I think for the most part you can read into people’s profiles and figure out if they’re nuts,” Goodell said.
Case in point: there was the time Harrison was traveling through Texas with a friend. Her friend was all gung-ho to crash with someone in a trailer surrounded by miles of nothing, Harrison said, and the profile picture was of a man holding an axe. They didn’t stay there.
There was also the time Harrison opened her previous studio apartment to a surfer who had been traveling through South America and had spent the prior night sleeping in an apple orchard.
“How do I put this politely?” she said. “She told me she hadn’t showered in 30 days.” After using the shower, the woman immediately passed out. Because it was a tiny apartment, her early sleep forced Harrison to delicately tiptoe around her and basically ruined Harrison’s night.
Goodell said he hasn’t had any problems so far: “Everywhere I’ve been has just been like extremely beyond accommodating.”
Sometimes things can get weirdly accommodating. Both Goodell and Harrison had experiences where they arrived at a house and were quickly handed a key and left alone.
Harrison doesn’t go quite that far, but she has a serious mothering instinct. She almost forcibly gave Goodell and myself a tour of downtown SLO, even though he’s visited the town before and I live here. Most restaurants were closed, but we went back to the house where Harrison fed us stir-fry and beer.
There are other hosts, however, who get a little too friendly. Goodell’s friend was once staying with an older man. He was lying in bed and the man came out of the shower, still dripping and wearing nothing but a towel, and sat down with her.
“And all he wanted to do,” Goodell said, “was talk about God.”
They can be rich, but stories seem to be the only currency exchanged in couch surfing. By the end of my night Harrison gave me a seal of approval: “You’re a surfer.”
So branded, I felt a certain pride heading in to work the next morning, even as I passed by my house. ∆
You don’t want to sleep on Colin Rigley’s couch; it’s disgusting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- PHOTOS BY MATT FOUNTAIN
A life found on the curb
BY Patrick Howe
The question was a simple one: Could a person outfit an entire apartment—everything from the toilet brush to the television—for free from the detritus left behind when Cal Poly students depart school for the summer?
When you ask a question like that it implies a journey, a challenge to be met, but in fact the question was ridiculously easy to answer, and the answer was “Hell, yes!*” Mostly. It took only hours on the day after Cal Poly held its graduation ceremonies, driving past the curbs of student houses or combing the surge of “free” offerings on Craigslist, to find anything and everything an individual could need or want for their first pad.
No need for clichés about the kitchen sink; we found one. It was cast-iron and plenty nice. Same with the pots, pans, rugs, shelves, stemware, televisions, more televisions, printers, girly posters, mops, dressers, couches, knives, and everything else.
Intern Matt Fountain and I began our quest with a camera and a list of several dozen items commonly needed to outfit a first apartment.
The first item we found on our quest was a blue La-Z-Boy-style recliner that had been left out for the taking and … subsequently set on fire. Inexplicably, pornography cards—the kinds that litter the streets of Vegas—were spilling out, uncharred, from the chair’s cushions. As we tried to make sense of the evidence a SLO City motorcycle officer stopped by and, his curiosity satisfied, pointed us toward other curbside bonanzas nearby.
We followed his direction and scored a succession of bigger and bigger stashes. At one of them we found David Sorrow, already ahead of us at the trough. He was rummaging through the overflowing piles next to an apartment Dumpster, looking over a tangle of electronics. His VW Rabbit was already stuffed with finds, including a large rug.
“It’s perfectly nice, no stains,” he marveled. He said he planned to use it camping—imagine the luxury of a nice rug outside a camper!
He said he does this every year, finding treasures for his own use or to sell on Craigslist.
He might do well to wait a few weeks to list them. Craigslist itself was surging with items from the free list. In fact, some of the items we found to check off our list—such as a vacuum cleaner—ultimately came from Craigslist.
Was it a total success? Not quite. (Here comes the explanation for the asterisk.) The big stuff was no problem, you could have as many couches as you have digits. The problem came in the tiny things, like the supplies. Sponges, paper towels, a plunger. They were all on the list, but they weren’t on the curbs. Maybe people were still using these items for their final clean-up. Maybe they were small enough to fit inside the garbage bags that littered the streets—and we weren’t about to start opening garbage bags. Or maybe people still have uses for their coasters.
Managing Editor Patrick Howe doesn’t like having too much stuff. Contact him at email@example.com.
- PHOTO BY KYLIE MENDONCA
- INSTORE : These provisions dwindled as the week progressed.
San Luis on 25 cents a day, or less
By Kylie Mendonca
For breakfast on Friday I had a crusty, half-eaten cinnamon croissant that I found on the counter at my house, as well as a dozen or so loquats picked from the tree across the street. I washed it down with several cups of black coffee, consumed at the office while my colleague Colin Rigley strutted around the cubicles, looking smug and taunting me with his sandwich, which he described as “scrumptious” and “flaky.”
It was the last day of a five-day experiment to see if I could go without spending any money. And it wasn’t going so well. By the end of the week I was hungry and starting to think about the pitchers of beer and the burrito I’d buy at midnight when this experiment was over.
For an entire work week my challenge was to live well in SLO without spending any money or feeling “poor.” It meant entertaining myself, eating, and traveling without exchanging any currency.
The bulk of what I had to eat during those five days consisted of fruit foraged from around my neighborhood, leftover scraps of muffins and baked goods from my roommates, and bits of shrubbery—such as rosemary and nasturtiums—from our yard. This bounty, subsidized with rice and beans, a single slice of pity pizza from my boss, and about 15 cups of black coffee from the office kitchen left me a little jittery during the week, but it also reinforced my opinion that even in the worst recession of my lifetime, there is still a lot of fat on the land.
I’ll admit upfront that I cheated a little bit, because rent was paid in advance and I had some food in the cupboard—mostly condiments—that made foraging for meals a little more palatable. Also, on Thursday I broke down and bought a $1 beer. It was bitter and I regretted the purchase immediately.
Another thing to point out, just to be fair—or in case this story is audited—is that I have really good friends who would rather share a meal than eat alone. In the new economy, community could be the most important asset a person has.
This quest started on Monday. When I came home from a weekend trip, I took stock of the dry goods in my cupboard and the near total emptiness of my refrigerator. I fell into a panic. There was plenty of hot sauce, two beers, three small potatoes, two elastic carrots, some highly processed cereal (ingredients 2,3,and 5 were variations on sugar), some dry rice and beans and other miscellaneous food items but nothing at all breakfasty. Just minutes in, I was already voicing my desire to run to the café across the street; they have such a delicious yogurt parfait. And they have coffee. But my roommate scolded me for being a quitter, and so I resigned to eating a potato, cooked with garlic and rosemary, both plucked from the yard. Lunch included miso soup made with raw green vegetables from the yard and one of the wobbly carrots. Later that day a friend brought over a bag of ripe bananas. I didn’t eat any, but there was consolation in knowing they were there.
The biggest survival problem I faced, it turned out, was not in gleaning food but in breaking the cycle of consumption. Little habits, like going to Linnaea’s for coffee to pass the time, or aimless shopping trips for clothes—which I already have too many of—had to be replaced with real activities. I broke out my roller skates, and I rode my bike a lot.
Tuesday was bagel day at work. Although that covered breakfast, the bagels, combined with my customary three to five cups of coffee, didn’t work well for my belly. I picked some oranges on the walk to work, too. They were more tart than sweet, but in the world of SLO scavenging, snacking on oranges has to be considered one of the main courses—they’re everywhere.
By chance I met with Ron Combs, the arborist for the city of SLO, who introduced me to another fruit-giving tree, a strawberry tree, also called arbutus. It has beautiful red fruit that looks like it’s been dipped in sugar, but doesn’t taste anything like a sweet and modestly tart strawberry. It’s fairly tasteless, like watered-down Kool Aid. What it lacks in flavor, however, it makes up for in ubiquity. I spent the remainder of the afternoon pedaling my bike at low speed looking for them. I also got some day-old bread given away free from a thrift store.
For entertainment, I decided on the SLO City Council meeting. Budget hearings contain just the right mix of excitement for a person with low blood sugar: PowerPoint presentations, outraged citizens speaking respectfully and at a reasonable volume, Boy Scouts against bike boulevards and so on. Perhaps it was not carbohydrates but the sweet taste of democracy I craved. Regardless, the price was right.
By Wednesday, I started to accept my role in the universe as a hollow, ethereal being of non-consumption. I avoided my normal haunts, stayed off Higuera Street with its line of watering holes, and I contemplated the true value of tortillas, new shoes, and a contact-lens solution in my life. I went for bike rides just because, and thought a lot about what things I should actually buy to be comfortable. I borrowed a car from my boss for work and wound up putting a quarter in his parking meter. I’m not proud of that, but he appreciated not getting a ticket. I must have looked pretty pathetic, too, because later he bought me some pizza for lunch. I ate more miso soup, more oranges, banana bread made from donated bananas and other ingredients floating around the house. When you’re living without money, it helps to have roommates.
Instead of hoarding the banana bread, I shared the wealth. It’s one of those things that came back around to me.
Thursday: I wound up eating cactus from the back yard, which, like most things, is delicious when cooked with butter and garlic. I pedaled to the beach, bringing with me two beers, one for myself, and one for my friend, though I really wanted two. Later in the night I succumbed to my worldly cravings and bought a pint of home brew, cheap because my roommate made it. But I couldn’t even enjoy it. The ill-gotten beer tasted filthy, like guilt. Still, there’s a lesson here: A beer is like an investment in a friendship. Later that night, I was repaid with food.
Friday: I was hungry all day. I ate more loquats than I care to remember, and drank more coffee than is healthy. In theory I like foraging; there is certainly plenty of good food for the finding, but it would be a lot easier to forage without this job.
I worked all day with my stomach growling, knowing I had a bank account containing nothing but stupid, inedible, money. What did I learn? I learned that looking for free things required more time than shopping but it’s probably time better spent. The days even seemed to take on a quality reminiscent of childhood: Instead of buying a pass to swim at the public pool, I jumped in the ocean. Instead of shopping for groceries, I climbed trees. The final result? Over five days I spent $1.25, an average of a quarter a day. I couldn’t do this for the long term, but it certainly provides lessons about the sorts of things you can do without just fine.
New Times staff writer Kylie Mendonca once ate a muffin out of the trash can. So what? It’s still good. Send her your food stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.