nothing is everything

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It wasn’t until Angela Parker, 53, ran around her north Atlanta neighborhood to grab eight leftover thick slices of ham with gravy from the porch of someone she didn’t know that she started asking herself questions. Was it weird eating a stranger’s ham? Was it safe? Is ham worth it?

Parker had been alerted to the ham through her neighborhood Buy Nothing group, where people offer their goods to neighbors who might need or want them. The ham donors had leftovers from a party, they said, and it was from Matthew’s Cafeteria, a legendary old-school Southern restaurant.

Indeed, it was delicious. Well worth its (non-existent) price.

“Ham is my jam,” Parker says. “Loved it, on Hawaiian bread.”

Meanwhile, in Takoma Park, Maryland, Julie Patton Lawson, 44, posted a free article on his Buy Nothing group: 13 gallons of guinea pig poo.

“They eat a lot of fiber, so they poop a lot,” says Lawson, who owns four guinea pigs and raises seven others. She used their poop as an occasional fertilizer in her garden, but with 11 guinea pigs in the house, she had more poop than she needed. Also, his dogs continued to eat it. So Lawson decided to gift it to his neighbors.

“Within an hour, I had a request, and she came to pick up this bag the next day,” she says. “I have other people asking me, ‘So when will you get your next bag? “”

There have always been scrappers and freecyclers prowling the sidewalks on trash day for abandoned furniture and other treasures. People who think “Someone could use this” and people who think it. They are crooks and savers, environmentalists, neighborhood benefactors, benevolent hoarders; people who love stuff and hate waste and have a high risk threshold, or just a quirky sense of adventure.

Who wants this raccoon skull? Could this doll be haunted? That toilet seat? Those three mismatched spoons? A shoe-shaped landline phone?

The answer is, almost always, someone. Especially if it’s free.

Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller started the Buy Nothing project as an experiment on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. The idea was to encourage their neighbors to donate unwanted goods instead of throwing them away, and to take other people’s things instead of buying something new and adding to the piles of plastic waste that circulate in the world. People can also use the app to ask if other members of their community have something they need and would be willing to part with – for free. This part is important. Members are prohibited from selling and trading, or even mentioning the monetary value of items.

By design, each participating neighborhood has its own volunteer-led group – to keep donations close and convenient, though this presents issues of access and equity – wealthy neighbors donate fancier stuff, and Moreover. People are trading their stuff on Facebook or the Buy Nothing app. The movement has grown considerably in recent years and now encompasses more than 7,000 groups.

“I’m a total Buy Nothing freak,” says Katjusa Cisar, 41, who writes a newsletter, Curb Alert, about her adventures rating used finds on mailing lists and in thrift stores.

Expiration dates don’t bother her. She has, on more than one occasion, obtained free used underwear. (“I just took them home and washed them,” she shrugs.) Some of her recent acquisitions from her Milwaukee Buy Nothing area have included a Gucci Mane puzzle, a vintage book on the CB radios, bunk beds for her children, half an empty container of contact lens solution, and a jar full of mostly expired cosmetics and beauty products (some of them rancid and needed to be thrown away) . Some of the things she’s successfully donated in the past include a half-eaten bag of frozen chicken breasts, a book on witchcraft, and a broken hot dog roll, like the convenience store ones.

“A misconception people have about Buy Nothing, if they don’t know about it, is that it’s charity,” Cisar says. “Buy Nothing’s number one goal, at least for the group I’m part of, is to keep things out of the trash.”

Clark, the co-founder, has seen some weird gifts and requests as a group. A neighbor once asked for a plot of land to bury a beloved dog. In the Pacific Northwest, a more common post than you might think is owl pellets, a term for the bird’s regurgitations, where the skeletal remains of the animals it is eaten are often kept.

“A lot of families or teachers who are home schooling ask for owl pellets,” says Clark, “Because students can walk through them and learn about the different bones.”

There’s an Instagram account (there always are!) called “Best of Not Buying Anything”, which documents weird items that show up on giveaway groups. Sex toys make frequent appearances. Other discoveries included an empty (used) container for cremated remains, x-ray film of the donor’s head and neck, and a deflated volleyball.

There’s a lid for every jar, as the saying goes. Who could want a terrifying and realistic animatronic chimpanzee head, growling and huffing loudly? And who has sensors so his eyes follow you as you move? (And which was also broken, according to the owner?)

That would be Britny Adams, 36, of Colleyville, Texas.

When a member of his band Buy Nothing posted the screaming chimp head last week, Adams went there.

“I said I wanted it to scare my mom, because she had a pet monkey growing up in the 70s,” she said.

The piece wasn’t actually broken, Adams said. The batteries were just stuck. Now it blows very well. The chimpanzee head, she said, provided hours of entertainment for her six-year-old – and hours of abject terror for her dog. They named it Ape Ventura.

The plan could have been to prank his mother, but Adams ended up pranking himself. When she came home last week after a night out with friends, she suddenly noticed Ape Ventura, staring at her in the dark. Adams screamed in fear. Her husband burst out laughing. Ape Ventura was screaming with howling monkey noises.

There’s something about free stuff that makes us abandon all rational thinking.

“What our research has basically shown is that when people come across free items, they overvalue them,” says Nina Mazar, professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Take, for example, the case of the two granola bars.

Anna Paone Levy, 32, didn’t really like a box of chocolate chip coconut granola bars she ordered on Instacart. After she ate a few, she posted them on Buy Nothing, and someone claimed the other two. Which, on the one hand… two granola bars? Really? On the other hand, heck yeah – two free granola bars!

“From an economic point of view, we would simply evaluate these costs and the benefits,“, explains Mazar. Are two granola bars, which aren’t worth more than a dollar each, worth the 15 minute walk? Most people value their time at a higher rate than that, and so would be losing value on the deal, although the bars were free. (Paone Levy did not know how far the woman had traveled.)

It also goes the other way. People might try to sell all the miscellaneous things that end up on Buy Nothing, but given the time and effort (and possibly the guilt) that comes with finding a buyer, giving it away may be the most economic.

And a lot of people put their junk on Buy Nothing just because it’s unsellable.

After Paone Levy unloaded the two granola bars, her husband tweeted in amazement about the swap — a post that prompted others to share their own observations of Buy Nothing’s bizarro economics. Someone posted a screenshot of a free squeegee and used toilet brush that, despite the donor’s assurances that he “washed both in the dishwasher”, there were still alarming brown stains. Another person shared an offer of birth control pills – but only the row of placebos at the bottom of the packet.

A third sent in a screenshot of an offer for something called “Privacy Pop,” which is a tent that goes above a dorm bed. “We bought this for our college freshman son in case a sleeping visitor wanted some privacy with another roommate present – never used.”

Similar gender: an Arlington, In Virginia, a woman was cleaning out drawers when she encountered condoms a month from the expiration date. “I was looking at my bedside table and I was like, ‘Oh, well, that was a hopeful purchase,'” said Olga, 43, who spoke on condition of anonymity to save face.

There were no takers. “I gave it a few days and then just threw it away,” she says.

If these examples of unused giveaways made you think of the famous six-word short story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway — “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” – then you are not alone.

Jason Loviglio, 58, is the Poet Laureate of his Baltimore neighborhood’s Gift Group. People’s scraps are “a very generative source for art,” he says.

Loviglio, who says he once saw someone post an offering of three sticks of celery, writes poetry based on the absurd offerings he sees in his group, which includes hornworms, champagne yeast, medications for irritable bowel syndrome and overly spicy gumdrops. Here is one of his masterpieces:

The saddest short story on the mailing list

Free: Violin for children

Never been played well

The ordeal of Bridget Pooley’s gift felt less like a poem than a riddle.

She had moved into a house in St. Paul, Minnesota, which came with a rain barrel. It had proved useful during the warm months, providing a supply of water for his garden. As the weather grew colder, she worried about what would happen to the barrel filled with rainwater when temperatures dropped below freezing.

A friend suggested putting it on Buy Nothing.

That is, the water, not the barrel.

“It has more nutrients, doesn’t it? And it’s untreated, so it’s better for the plants. And so I thought maybe people would come and get water,” says Pooley, 34.

What happened, instead, was that she spent a lot of time chasing people away who thought she was giving the barrel. The day ended with a confrontation with someone in his yard who had gutted him – apparently thinking he could take the barrel without water – and saturated his lawn in the process.

“I felt like an idiot,” Pooley says. “But I think it was a good laugh for some people.”

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