As I drive the byways of Maine, especially during these long, lovely summer months, I cannot help but notice the various castings-off that people place curbside, all appended with one seemingly irresistible word – FREE!
In this state noted for its ethic of sufficiency, it is a singular joy to get rid of stuff that one no longer needs. But it is also fascinating to observe the jetsam of other households. Here is a short list of what I have seen by the side of the road on a representative weekend:
Computer (with accompanying sign: IT WORKS!)
Perfectly good wheel and tire
Snowboard (with bindings)
So why do many people throw away serviceable, and often valuable, things? I mean, why don’t they just try to sell them? I think the answer is also tied in with the Maine ethic of keeping it simple: It’s easier to give something away than to go through the trouble of advertising and then fielding phone calls, followed by the inevitable dickering. But I also think there is the subtle joy of seeing an item retrieved by someone we presume can use it.
What strikes me is the speed with which discarded goods are scooped up. It is as if there exists a nomadic army dedicated to acquiring the rejecta of others, ready to swoop in on a moment’s notice.
Case in point: For years I had a chunk of rusted, twisted steel sitting next to my garage. I finally overcame my ennui about the thing and hauled it curbside. No sooner had I turned my back than a pickup appeared. The driver hopped out and, in a tone of disbelief suggesting I had discarded the Hope Diamond, asked, “You getting rid of this?” When I nodded, he hoisted it, yelled a brisk “Thanks!” over his shoulder, and roared off.
Maine, then, is truly the land of the free. That one word is the catalyst for enthusiastic community assistance in one’s housecleaning.
A couple of years back, in a fever of industry, I was able to empty my garage of a door, two bald tires, a torn tarp, a roll of chicken wire, a rake with a broken handle, a lobster crate, and half a sack of concrete. I placed them by the street, and the gleaners began to swarm.
One woman (who took the concrete) even glanced at my garage and asked, “Got anything else in there?”
These freedom fighters actually comprise a number of subcultures. There are the rovers I’ve spoken about, who pick things up on the fly. Then there are the dumpster divers who cruise the trash bins outside the dormitories at the nearby University of Maine at semester’s end. (One of our neighbors is a member of this tribe: She has presented my son with a working electric scooter, a pair of like-new Nike sneakers, and a set of fine drafting tools.) The third group is represented by the dump prospectors – those who scour the town dump for overlooked gems, some of which are difficult to overlook, such as the sailboat (with trailer!) someone had unloaded there. (Need I mention how long that one lasted?)
My guilty little secret is that I sometimes stop for a share of the largess. There really isn’t anything I need, but that word “free” speaks to some deep impulse to acquire, and to compete, lest someone else beat me to the punch. In this manner I once muscled a picnic table into my truck.
When I arrived home, my son remarked, “But we already have a picnic table. Why did you get another one?”
My answer was immediate: “Because it was free!”
As I write this, I am glancing out the window at a Windsor chair my neighbor has put out. The sign says FREE, but the chair is missing one leg.
Hmm ... I could either repair it or use the chair for firewood. Which shall it be? Too late! While I dither over a course of action, an old-timer has pulled up. The chair is his, and I feel a tiny sting of loss.