Free Associations

toronto—Offer: A 1kg can of Maxwell House Original Roast Coffee that is about 90% full…. I usually buy Tim Horton’s coffee, but the price of this can was too good …

Brian Fitzgerald/Courtesy of Greenpeace

toronto—Offer: A 1kg can of Maxwell House Original Roast Coffee that is about 90% full…. I usually buy Tim Horton’s coffee, but the price of this can was too good to beat, so I bought it…big mistake…because I don’t like the taste at all. I won’t turn my back on good old Timmy again. lol If you want it, you can have it.

Someone wanted the coffee. In the Greater Toronto Area, population 5.3 million, someone always wants the coffee, and anything else that’s on offer: a broken-down laptop, a stack of aging National Geographics, the liner of a lost London Fog coat, a giant dried-out spider….

Offer: I have two 16 oz bottles of Plant Gro aquatic plant fertilizer. One is Iron enriched, the other is npk. Both are used but almost full (I only used a few capfuls of each). Please take both.

Each day, the email listservs FreecycleTO and freeTOreuse offer gta citizens hundreds of items—free, somewhat used, and available on a first-come, first-served basis. With a combined membership of almost 9,000 people, it’s easy to spend entire days lost in the jumble of semi-anonymous missives.

The freecycle concept was started in 2003 by Deron Beal of Tucson, Arizona, and now includes over a million members in more than fifty countries. This listserv and its imitators, with their awesome barrage of Offers, Wanteds, and Takens, have become portals into the stuff overflow at the heart of Western consumer society, offering fascinating insights into the lives of those with either a deep dedication to social change or way too much time on their hands.

Offer: I have a coupon for $1 off of one package of kotex security tampons. Expires in December 2005. Anyone Interested out there?

Why doesn’t she want the tampons? Have marketers failed to excite her about the brand’s possibilities? Has the company failed to keep pace with changes in the global marketplace, forcing it to offer her an insufficient discount? Or perhaps age has caught up with her—a baby boomer in menopause.

Wanted: Would anyone happen to have a 1976 Chevrolet 350 Truck owner’s manual. I can pick up at your convenience, any time, any where!

It’s not just the giveaways that hint at greater significance. The requests, too, suggest the kind of bittersweet urgency that parlays a simple need into a cosmology of disappointment, desire, and possibility. Consider, for example, a husband and wife who have lost their U tile, each night facing the prospect of playing their beloved Scrabble deprived of a crucial vowel. Or what about: Wanted: Looking for a map of France to help with planning bike trip…thanks a bunch. Our hearts go out to the dreamer whose plan for a sun-drenched cycle through Provence could be derailed for want of a map. But such pain pales when placed next to the agony of: I’m desperate for 2 tickets to Hedley tonight. Can you help me out folks!!! What is Hedley??? And why so desperate? Is romance on the line? Was a promise made and not kept? Could this email indicate the unravelling mind of an obsessive fan?

Wanted: People to stop abusing this site by asking for concert tickets…this is to keep things out of landfill sites, right???

Is this really about saving the environment? A Wanted from a woman looking for nasa patches to make a spacesuit for her son suggests a shared existential crisis—a mini-universe of like-minded satellites orbiting endlessly. Perhaps the freecyclers of Toronto are just trying to stave off loneliness. After all, most of us who have stuff worth giving away have friends to give away to?—?baby clothes, for example, passed on from mother to mother through the usual network of neighbours, work associates, ageing high-school chums, and family.

Re: Taken: I am looking for the lady I was suppose to call in regards to the girly items…my cell phone broke and that is what had your number in it…lol please email me again with the number…thanks

When traditional aspects of community fade, people seek new ways to connect. Speed-dating, webcam voyeurism, online backgammon with anonymous strangers living in faraway countries. Freecycling is on this continuum—not just as environmental disposal or never-ending garage-sale end-of-day giveaway, but as expression of existence: yes, I’m out here, somewhere, and I have something for you, or want something from you, and all I’m asking for is a kind word and prompt pickup, which isn’t too much to ask, merely (when you think about it) the bare-minimum acknowledgement that I am.

Response to Offer: hi, i am wondering if u still have your futon? i am a single mother of two small children and i am currently sleeping on a futon but the mattress is no longer any good and the frame is all cracked, it is very old and i havent had the money to replace it.

And maybe, just maybe, something else will happen. Maybe somewhere in the far-flung metropolis, two strangers meet to give and receive and actually pause for a minute. They talk. They keep in touch. Two mothers supporting each other—one with an extra futon; one tired of sleepless nights.

Or a man and a woman, a past and a future suddenly intertwined by a mattress. In the throes of a newfound friendship, they tire of monitoring Toronto’s endless output and intake. They drop off the list, but that’s no big loss. They have each other now; the anonymous business of giving and getting can continue without them.”

Hal Niedzviecki
Hal Niedzviecki is a writer, speaker, culture commentator, and editor whose work challenges preconceptions and confronts readers with the offenses of everyday life.