The following appeared in The Pitt News, 1999.
Photograph of Pitt Campus, ever charming in winter.
Usually, the distributor stands at an old fold-out table with frayed edges, smiling happily as I approach. He’s wearing a T-shirt promoting his cause, company or sect, and he’s cradling in his arms a pile of multicolored brochures. The sidewalk has never seemed so narrow or deserted. Suddenly, he and I share the same interpersonal space, and there is no way past him.
Just look ahead, I think. Don’t make eye contact.
But it’s too late. My hand reaches out—against my better judgement—and I snatch the brochure from his hands and maybe even utter a “thank you” as I pass. All I had to say was “no,” maybe even break into a run, but my arm was predisposed to do otherwise. He was, after all, handing out Free Stuff.
Back at the dorm, I examine the brochure and frown. It’s an advertisement for a radio station I can’t even pick up on my stereo.
This phenomenon is nothing new; my reflexes have betrayed me before. I have applications for free trial memberships to Time Magazine, National Geographic and the Isaac Asimov Fan Club. I have postcards from the most prestigious advertisers in the country—including the Wall Street Journal’s division for students savings—and free information on how to make thousands stuffing envelopes at home (“Fun and Easy!”).
I have a free VHS tape from the NRA: a 15-minute documentary about how the government plans to brainwash me in my sleep. The military lobbies for my service with infinite pamphlets, imploring me to be all I can be, get tough, and find out what I’m missing in malarial jungles. And each of these charities grants me an ample supply of business reply mail, postage prepaid.
I’m also an avid collector of religious paraphernalia. Chick Publications sends me pocket-size comic strips about salvation. I don’t care one fig whether Bad Bob Found the Lord, but I take it because it’s free, and then I read it because it’s mine. A Christian missionary was kind enough to give me a pamphlet about how I’m bathed in sin and will burn in Hell for eternity. I’m also the proud owner of the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata and the Upanishads, courtesy of the local Hare Krishna.
Why do I take these? It’s because my culture has programmed me to consume at the lowest price, and free is by far the lowest. Even if I don’t need what it is my distributor offers, he is invariably prepared to convince me to take it anyway.
“Come on, everybody needs shampoo!”
“But I already have a bottle at home. And I need a special brand for my psoriasis.”
“Take it anyway. Give it to your girlfriend.”
In that moment it sounds like a brilliant idea. Sure, I can give it to my girlfriend, at no cost to myself. Then I take it, and a second later I realize that this is a cheap and superficial idea. But the distributor is already gone by that point, and I’m left with a package of scented shampoo and conditioner.
Advertisers love to offer Free Stuff because it attracts customers; it’s the last-resort business ploy that never fails. But by the time I collect my mail, walk down Forbes and open a magazine, I have already accumulated more material than all my assigned readings for the semester. And somehow I’m still compelled to keep it because you never know when a best-soft-rock-of-the-1970s cassette might come in handy.
But a Kaplan brochure? A quarter-pound Guide to Good Times in Pittsburgh? The volume of Free Stuff dominates my personal space, and my desk is visibly strained beneath its weight. I examine the useless mass with apprehension, wondering if any of it is worth the price.