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Free For All

The rough-and-tumble world of giving and grabbing on Craigslist

THE CRAIGSLIST POSTING had read “FREE PARROT FOOD.” When I responded to say that I was interested in meeting, interested in discovering why someone would give away parrot food to strangers over the Internet, the e-mail reply—concerning a house fire and a dead macaw—was four paragraphs long. “His is an epic tale,” Reyna Abram wrote in the high style of Gilgamesh. “I was burned trying to save him, however I could not get him out before he perished.” That was five years ago in Montecito. Since then, Abram had wandered the country, toting a sack of parrot feed wherever she went, settling eventually on a forgotten block that cracks and buckles along the rim of South L.A. It was here that my car sat, outside a shuttered office complex whose signage read NORMA DESMOND PRODUCTIONS, one shard in a smashup of buildings as discarded and unused as the aged star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. A trilevel Extra Storage structure was the only new edifice on the block. For the past 18 months Abram had lived in storage, working seven days a week as manager, sleeping on the property, knowing only her clients. In the aftermath of the fire and the death of her pet, she had seemingly placed her own life in storage. Now, Abram said, she wanted out. She longed to unburden herself of her parrot feed, of her story, of the anchorage of her past. I would take my time before crossing the street to our scheduled meeting. How was it that I’d landed of all places on this block? Abram’s tale, a heartsick footnote to the month I’d just spent monitoring the Craigslist free page, was as genuine as they come. Getting here, on the other hand, had been plain nuts.

Craigslist, of course, is the online community board where apartment rentals are advertised, jobs are offered, and almost anything is sold. It debuted in 1995, the Web child of a San Francisco über-nerd named Craig Newmark, who wanted to publicize upcoming Bay Area events. Within a decade it had exploded worldwide. Today 450 Craigslist boards serve cities in every state and more than 50 countries. There is a Craigslist for Micronesia and another for Saskatchewan. Last year the site ranked seventh in corporate page viewings, ahead of both Amazon and Disney.

Some 30 million new classified ads are placed monthly on Craigslist. A recent morning saw a total of 11,808 items selling in the Greater Los Angeles area—a number that did not include “36DD in Pomona,” who at that hour was offering, well, the hour for $250. (Craigslist’s lengthy apartment listings are matched only by the site’s encyclopedic catalog of prostitution services.) The L.A. free page, in contrast, features nearly a hundred new items each day. There one can find useful offerings like free dishwashers, pianos, and fruit trees; far-fetched listings for rusty fishhooks, “prescription” condoms, and leftover potato salad; and creepy invitations guaranteed to freak you out, like this posting: “My tenant died and has no family, so if you want his things, email me.”

Looking at the free page as an online community, it’s impossible not to wonder about the sort of people who give away leftovers from the dead as easily as they do leftovers from picnics. What does this day-to-day conferral of everything under the moon say about L.A.? Are we a web of generosity spun from a million DSL lines? A city so committed to recycling that we’d sooner invite complete strangers into our homes than throw out a broken lamp? Or are we just a lonely town of sad eccentrics seeking momentary companionship through a free pack of hamburger buns or a bag of parrot feed? My assignment was to spend a solid month in the backwoods and swamps of the Craigslist free page, tracking its natives.

THE FIRST THING to know about L.A.—the L.A. as it appears on the free page—is that we are a town up to our necks in excess dirt. Visit Craigslist, and you will find people frantically offering priceless ground everywhere. “GOOD DIRT—GOING FAST!!!” in North Hills nearly got me out to the driveway one day, car keys clutched in hand, until I noticed postings for dirt in Santa Monica (“Good for the front yard or the backyard”), in “Mom’s garden” in Long Beach (“Please don’t make a mess”), in La Mirada, Northridge, Hawthorne, Palmdale, Altadena, Beaumont, and Winnetka. My favorite posting, however, came from Venice: “FREE DIRT—MAKES GREAT SOIL.” (If only I could find some free shrubs that make great plants.) Obviously, few megalopolises can compete with L.A. for sheer tonnage of exposed soil. We are a city of opulent yards, Xeriscaped gardens, landscaped rooftops, terraced vegetable plots, and basements of tilled marijuana fields. The decision to dig out a rain forest pool or bury a dead hamster can say everything about one’s tax bracket, and depending on the neighborhood’s median housing price, people on Craigslist know what they have their shovels in. The same day that someone in Brentwood described her dirt as “high-grade fine soil,” someone else in Pomona—sounding a tad defensive—championed dirt that was “not contaminated.”

Captive reptiles enjoy an exalted station on the site—perhaps because after a sunburst Les Paul, they remain the surest sign that an adolescent has stepped into Slash’s boot print. An ad for “TWO FREE TURTLES” received 50 hits in a mere hour, while “FREE GECKO TO GOOD HOME” was gone before my fingers could reach the keyboard. Boas, water dragons, bearded dragons, panther chameleons—all were grabbed up almost instantly. Yet one night I nearly struck gold with “FREE RED-EAR SLIDER TURTLE” when I called the seller, a man named Chris, who explained in Brad Garrett’s cellar-deep voice that he was leaving the country and needed to lose the turtle fast.

“Do you have any children?” Chris asked.

“No, none at all,” I answered.

“Have you ever contracted salmonella?”

“Uh . . . not that I know of,” I said.

“And you said you have no children, right?”

Was this man in the habit of spoon-feeding spoiled turtles to kids? “I should tell you,” I said, “that I’m a reporter at Los Angeles magazine.”

“Great,” said Chris, brightening. “Call me tomorrow, and the turtle is yours.”

Was I surprised that I never reached Chris again? Not really. But I was startled by an L.A. Times story the next morning about children who had suffered awful, protracted deaths after contracting salmonella from handling red-eared sliders. In the wake of an article like that, I imagined, a guy had to be drowning in the red-eared slider trade to flee the country overnight. The Craigslist free page is a big room. Stepping into it is not unlike entering an LAPD lockup; sizing up the postings around you, it’s hard to know who’s friendly, who’s benign, who’s crazy.

Don’t tell me when you are coming, because obviously you’re a little paranoid,” Ray wrote me when I answered his ad for “FREE TUMBLEWEEDS.” “I understand paranoia, because I am fearful of meeting a stranger who wants free tumbleweeds.”

OK—Ray had a point there. But all I’d asked for was his address. “They are a little soggy from the rain,” he had replied to my first e-mail, “and some are very large, so bring a pickup. See you Friday.”

“Great,” I wrote back. “What’s your address?”

“Just tell me when you’re coming and I’ll show you around,” Ray replied the following day.

“Fantastic,” I responded. “But I still need an address.” Five e-mails and as many mornings later, directions to Ray’s block in Cypress Park—not his address—landed in my mailbox along with his angst.

I went anyway and found myself on a desolate backwater of an avenue strung here and there with knots of bleary-eyed men dressed in khakis and oversize T-shirts. Some slouched menacingly against phone poles; others hung off the open doors of half-wrecked cars. They looked as unmoored and rootless as the dead sage scrub that piled along the curb. “Hi, fellows!” I didn’t hear myself saying. “I’m here for the free tumbleweeds?” 

Anticipate the unanticipated. That, I’d learned, was the first rule when mining the free page. But idling here on this wretched street, a question was forming in my mind: What kind of person would seriously offer free tumbleweeds online?

I DON’T KNOW if Ray’s posting was a joke, but plenty on the free page are. One Sunday a smarty-pants in Montebello claimed to be giving away “Free Celine Dion tickets, free lard, and a free condom machine.” The Craigslist police deleted his posting before anyone had time to ask, “Exactly how much lard?” But there was genuine poetry in that grouping. Typos could also launch their own flights of fancy. “Free sex chair—phone and ask for gorge” was a home run, up there with “Three-level shelfish thing—I really don’t know how to describe this thing.” Neither could I, but a 90-gallon fish tank offered in Sylmar might hold it. Near as I could tell, the answer to who was out there lay in Craigslist’s frugal forum. That’s where, depending on the season, great debates are waged (Is it rude to invite friends over to a BYOB barbecue when the B in question is meat?), important questions are answered (for an inexpensive Christmas tree, try a large tumbleweed spray painted silver), and prudent advice is given on squeezing life from a penny. Here are five tips I learned after just a brief scan of the forum:

1. Save money on toothpaste by spitting it into a cup and reusing it the next morning.

2. An open window is a cheap way to keep the air fresh in your apartment.

3. Why buy a book that Oprah suggests when you can read it in the bookstore, then use the money to buy your wife a gift—a favor she will return in ways that make your motor purr.

4. Peeing in the sink saves on water bills.

5. A $20 cage and the price of two rabbits will keep you in good eating for the year.

These same self-denying, rabbit-eating kinfolk populate Craigslist’s free page, sometimes even employing the Mesopotamian trade model. I was drawn into bartering after the following, posted by a woman named Lisa, caught my eye: “I was on a sugar-free kick for a while but not anymore. If you would like six LARGE size sugar-free JELL-O then please contact me. If you want to bring me any unopened item from Trader Joe’s, I’d be thrilled.”

Nestled deep in my fridge, I knew, was an untouched block of Trader Joe’s cheddar cheese, 48 condensed grams of pure saturated fat—a holy grail for anyone parachuting off a failed diet. Days passed as Lisa and I exchanged phone messages. When we eventually spoke, I informed her that I was a reporter interested in asking a few questions when we met.

The next day this message arrived in my mailbox:

Dave,

I feel weird about this. It seems like you’re only interested in the damn JELL-O cuz you have a story to write. It seems the JELL-O will end up in the trash, so I think I will just throw it out myself.

Thanks, though.

Lisa

Now, when one has freely entered into a five-day cheese negotiation with a complete stranger online, isn’t feeling “weird” the last emotion that should trouble the mind? What, precisely, was un-weird about the entire proposition? Still and all, I couldn’t help pitying myself as a spurned lover would after reading her note and its sign-off: “Thanks, though.”

If Google is a launch pad for people’s desires, then Craigslist’s free page functions as its antithesis. Men and women don’t post there to answer needs; they arrive weighed down like Sherpas, seeking to rid themselves of old wants. Most of what appears is the alluvial muck of everyday living: empty liquor bottles, dented headboards, busted fax machines, mismatched carpet remnants, ratty love seats, stained baby clothes, discarded acne cream, and “vintage disposable douche bags.” Items like these aren’t abandoned orphans sitting unnoticed and unloved; they’re snatched up regularly and greedily by the hour. The free page seems to attract a sizable population of Angelenos who are comfortable enough to afford a phone jack and a computer but might nevertheless glance in the medicine cabinet one night, survey the contents of their wallets, shrug, and then hit the Web for a special on old douche. Most of us, reading this posting from West L.A.—“My Landlady gave me an arm sling and potty chair, but I don’t know if they work because I haven’t tried them out”—would naturally think, “Well, hold on there. I’m not going out on a limb with an untested potty-chair.” The free pagers pounce right on it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with such behavior. It’s on display at every garage sale, yard sale, and estate sale you visit. Instead of a Sunday in the car hunting down that “slightly used bottle of Jafra Body spray” you didn’t know you wanted, you can now find it on your desktop. Spend a month watching an entire underworld of people doing just that, however, and it becomes hard to distinguish between necessity and neurosis.

That, at least, was my thought until I met Sheri in San Gabriel. Sheri had posted $3.20 worth of Betty Crocker box top coupons, inviting me to drive 50 miles round-trip to pick them up. Yes, the tire wear alone cost more than the coupon savings. But Sheri I found fascinating. “Oh, I’m addicted to the Craigslist free page, all right,” she told me as we sat in her backyard, much of it landscaped with the free page’s rotating nursery stock. “In fact, if there is a step beyond addiction, that’s me.”

Sheri works as a special education teacher for the L.A. Unified School District. She scans the free page while doing her makeup before work, in the afternoon when she returns home from school, and at night before bed. Once she gave away a six-pack of Spam on Craigslist. “It was gone in an hour,” she said. “People are just waiting for Spam out there.” But her time online was mostly spent seeking materials to supply her underfunded classroom: a plastic Spanish mission, an interactive globe, books, magazines, toys. Sheri was bright and cheery and excitable and fortyish, speaking in a scattershot cadence and dressed in a gray turtleneck and corduroys. One of her students had gathered the Betty Crocker coupons by mistake; she and her class collect coupons from another brand, trading them for more classroom materials.

Here I sat in the presence of a poster woman for the Craigslist company, a public school saint, a teacher of the disabled who devotes her free time to reaching out to strangers over the Internet in hopes of improving the lives of her students. “I don’t make a ton of money,” Sheri said as we walked to the street. “But people are so nice and generous and helpful on Craigslist. That’s the real story. People are just so good inside.”

It had begun raining, and I turned my collar up to leave.

“You know,” said Sheri, catching my eye, “most of the time I actually think that people are just terrible. Like when you’re in the mall, you know, or when you’re in traffic? You kind of hate people, and I wish then that I could kill everyone.” She laughed nervously.

Rain turned to a downpour, and then to sleet. 

I admit it—that last remark rattled me a bit. I’d found a woman leading an almost mendicant lifestyle, transforming society’s flotsam into value for her students. But driving off into the rain-snagged streets, I wondered if Jesus would do any better than Sheri stuck in the same gridlock. Little did I know that as I idled in traffic, a woman in Whittier was at that moment answering my thoughts with this post: “19 FREE CHURCH PEWS.”

By the time I entered the Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, 35 requests had filed in, some arriving from as far away as Mexico. “One guy,” said Chris Samayoa, the church’s office manager, “called from Orange County, where he has a big barn, a pipe organ, and a dream of turning his barn into a recital hall.”

“Would you donate your pews to a satanic church if they were nice about it?” I asked.

“Probably not,” Chris said. “They might burn the pews as part of their service—you never know with those people.”

Long Beach, I’d come to realize during the past month, gave away more furniture than any other municipality. The greater Whittier area, however, was ground zero for Craigslist’s largest donations. Sure, Tarzana might boast of its “50 free damaged Fender amps,” but that was chump change next to Brianna Borg’s “250 tons of free asphalt.”

“We grind it off the surface of parking lots,” Borg told me in her office just south of Whittier Boulevard. “I’d never even thought of posting free asphalt before, but I got eight replies in two days.”

After 15 dump trucks of asphalt grindings, I was happy to stumble upon a posting as tiny as “TWO FREE 20-YEAR-OLD BANANARAMA CASSETTES” in Northridge. “Usually I try posting on Freecycle first,” a woman named Chiaki, outfitted in a maroon leisure suit, told me when I visited her apartment. Freecycle is a reuse Web site designed to keep unwanted items—even six ounces of new wave—out of local dumps. “But no one wanted the cassettes,” Chiaki said, “so I placed them on Craigslist.”

As I drove off listening to “Cruel Summer,” it hit me that altruism and benevolence must be the engines of the Lilliputian-size reuse economy Chiaki was keyed into. Despite Craigslist’s northern lineage, there is something intrinsically Southern Californian about its free page. Ours is a landscape of runaway consumption and round-the-clock waste, of biofuel messiahs and reuse do-gooders, of sluggish recycling streams and municipal dumps clogged to the gills like dying lakes. Free dirt and asphalt grindings pile onto Craigslist because there’s no place left to put them. Couches and old stoves are posted because the Salvation Army’s tastes have become as selective as Sotheby’s. And your Maytag washer won’t fit in the blue bin out front.

For all I knew, L.A.’s free page—with its 100 postings a day—led the country’s philanthropic Pac-10. Or did it? How well do Angelenos stack up against other cities? Turns out that for all of Manhattan’s hype, its free page is a total snooze, mostly giveaway haircuts from stylists in training and some IKEA fragments. Lacking L.A.’s front lawns, New York apartments have no curb appeal, no place to leave out a bag of “random Styrofoam peanuts” for the taking. (“Curb alert!” is the “shots fired” of the L.A. free page.) A quick tour around the nation found few signs of improvement: Amarillo (one posting a day), Baton Rouge (a couple), Chattanooga (a few). Then I went on the San Francisco board. Yikes. More than 300 daily free postings, a number almost tied by Seattle and the formidable Portland.

Maybe it was wet, green, leafy places where liberals nest that nourish off-the-charts levels of beneficence. Or maybe minds go soft at the sound of “free stuff.” One wants to believe in the best intentions, but too much time on the free page can lead to a rough comedown. I soon became aware of the treetop screeches from someone with the Internet handle “Canyon Country”: “First off I am in Canyon Country, and if you are no where near do not email me saying you will pick up. I NEED THIS STUFF TO BE TAKEN TODAY!” I learned to be wary of certain phrases, like “momentarily not working” and “be prepared to be turned away if a man named Clarence Barnett is there and says it’s his.” One day a description of a “free floral hat box” got my attention: “I do not have a picture, but it is a really beautiful box, which is why I just don’t have the heart to throw it out.” I imagined an aging spinster wrapped in a cozy afghan, teacup balanced in her palsied hand, sadly parting with a lifetime of memories. Then I noticed her e-mail address: Slickzthings4U@yahoo.com.

I began to despair.

That’s when I spotted Reyna Abram’s parrot food posting. She was younger than I expected—29—intelligent, articulate, attractive, friendly. “I guess I honestly don’t know what else to do with myself,” Abram answered when I asked why she’d spent the last 18 months in a storage unit. Five years earlier, Abram explained, she had been living with a boyfriend in a $5,800-a-month rental while being stalked by an ex-boyfriend. One night a motion sensor, installed to ward off her ex, shorted out, igniting the Montecito home. Abram woke to her parrot’s cries, halfway across the house.

“If you can stand being in the presence of a woman in tears,” Abram’s e-mail had warned me, “feel free to come by.” True to her note, Abram had started crying.

“I could hear myself screaming,” she said. “The fire was roaring around me. The parrot was still alive and screaming, but I couldn’t see. I couldn’t get the latch to open. My hands were burning on the metal cage. I’d owned him for five years—he was the most magnificent, complicated creature I’d ever met. He saved me that night, but I couldn’t save him.”

When her tears subsided, I asked Abram about the parrot food—why she’d kept it, why she had decided to part with it.

She ran a finger across her eyes and said, “I’d bought it on eBay, and it was delivered to what was left of the house the following day. I couldn’t bear to throw it out. I’ve dragged that bag around for five years, and I think I’m ready to give it away and maybe finally move out of here. That’s the premise of the Craigslist free page: If you don’t have use for something anymore, you give it off to someone else, even if it is an emotional quagmire.”

That was the end of my month on Craigslist. I thanked Abram for her story, drove home, called Chief Kevin Wallace of the Montecito Fire Department, who assured me that Abram’s account was true, and then logged on to my e-mail. One message sat waiting:

Hi Dave, If you’re still collecting items for your story, you can have the JELL-O. I don’t know why I got “weird” on ya. My apologies. Lisa

Illustrations by Quickhoney