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The Weird and Wonderful World of Craigslist ‘Free’

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By Jillian Robertson

I love Craiglist Free, for its distinctly lo-fi appearance, its unofficial lingo, the cycling and recycling of questionably valuable items between people within a community.

Back in college, I challenged myself to furnish a two bedroom apartment, shared by my roommates Dana and Michelle, entirely off of Craigslist Free. In what in retrospect was a baffling display of confidence, they agreed to let me try to do it. Over the subsequent weeks, I secured a dining table, 4 chairs, a decorative painted tree, a loveseat, a couch, a stack of law textbooks, and a blender, remarkably none of which were infested with bed bugs, thrashed or peed on by cats, or otherwise defiled.

And thus began my love affair with Craigslist Free.

In addition to the obvious perk of free stuff (who doesn’t love free stuff??), there are the posts themselves. Nevermind the easily accessible gems in Best of Craigslist, the true pleasure of CF is stumbling upon diamonds in the rough: the unintentional humor of “Free tequila bottles, empty,” the pathos of “Free Funeral Urn, Used” reminiscent of “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” and the sheer bizarreness of “free ball of bike inner tubes.”

Dig (metaphorically) through the mountains of posts for free dirt, cardboard boxes, and broken fridges, and you will find hidden treasure.

Who are Free-ers?

Craigslist free-ers are notoriously flaky. Search the words “craigslist free” and “flakes,” and you will find forums with posts like “6 tips to avoid craigslist flakes” and the less diplomatic “Craigslist: what the hell is wrong with you flaky morons??”

This could be tied to the psychological concept  of how we assign value. It’s why free events on average have a higher no-show rate than paid events. If it’s free, by definition it isn’t worth spending much on it, including time.

While CFers have a reputation for flakiness, in my experience the ones that do show up tend to be pretty trustworthy. There’s a surprising intimacy to the exchange of free things. There’s none of the transactional, business as usual feeling of buying something, the exchange of money for goods, the familiar ritual. It feels more like giving a gift.

So thoroughly did I trust in the goodness of Free-ers that I invited a man I’d never met, who’d emailed me about the bed frame I was giving away, into my mission apartment, helped him dismantle it, and load it into his truck. Only after I related this story to a friend, did it occur to me that I might’ve inadvertently put myself in danger.

Every once and a while, I step back and realize, I’m one of the weirdos on Craigslist Free. After picking up a green vinyl dining chair in the Upper Haight, I hopped on a bus, chair in hand, to take it home. Without batting an eye, the bus driver said, “You can bring your own chair, but you still have to pay.”

[Waiting for the bus with my free chair]

And then there was the time a friend got hold of a slow motion camera and asked me to find “smashables” to demolish on camera. Ultimately, I secured a glass shower door, a large mirror, and a ceramic toilet [pictured below mid-smash]. Explaining the fate of these items to the people giving them away definitely raised a few eyebrows.

[Still from Slomo Dojo Highlights on Youtube, minute 1:52]


How to Speak ‘Craiglist’

While it’s not a full-blown second language, there are some terms that you can decode posts on Craigslist:

  • Comfy is code for hideous. If there’s nothing visually pleasing about an object, comfy seems to be the go-to descriptor.

  • Offers of free dirt, free trees or plants, and free appliances are actually inviting you to “come do my chores for me.” As in, “free fridge, not working” and “Free palm tree, you dig out.”
  • Vintage often means chipped formica, heinous print couches, and various other horrors from the recent past.

Perhaps most intriguing interactions on CF were the stories behind the objects.

The Dining Table

I pulled into the driveway of a small house in the Sunset to pick up a blond wood dining table one day. A heavyset woman greeted me in the driveway. “So glad you came early,” she said. “I’m on my way to my ex-boyfriend’s mother’s funeral.”

After offering my condolences, I paused to detangle the chain of relationships she’d listed. She filled the pause like she was answering a question I had yet to ask. “I’m going to the funeral to win him back,” she said.

Still reeling from this revelation, we entered her small house, which it became apparent was the house of a hoarder. She extricated the dining table from under a heap of boxes and dining chairs, stacked upside down on the tabletop like a deranged game of Tetris.

I have no evidence to support this, but I’m not confident she won him back.

The Plastic Chairs

A young father and his son were sitting in a nearly empty studio apartment, waiting for me to come pick up a set of white plastic Ikea chairs. “We’re moving to New York,” he said. “Tomorrow.”

He said it like he’d decided mere minutes ago to make the trip. They stood up from the chairs so I could load them into my car. Taking the chairs felt like pulling the last block out of a tottering Jenga pile. They’d leave for New York and the life they’d built in SF would collapse in a pile behind them.

Hidden Treasure

Every once in a while, something truly unique shows up on CF.

A ninja turtle shell, made from melted LP records, was one such find. Another was a prop from a play, a giant fabric donut, glazed with pink sequins, and a matching pink cupcake, all mounted on a plate with a handle, that could be held aloft like a waiter’s tray.

A San Mateo church’s choir robes, complete with gold sashes, caught my eye. I later passed them on to my friend Mustafa, for Sunday’s Finest, his secular Sunday services at The Chapel.

A barely chipped ceramic deviled egg tray shaped like a chicken popped up one day. That’s about as niche an item as it gets. But as it turns out, my dad loves deviled eggs, has adopted a love of chickens as an homage to his late mother and his new hometown, Petaluma, and is filling his house with tchotchkes shaped like eggs, baby chicks, and roosters.

[Look at that happy “customer.”]

The Thrill of the Hunt

Why do I want these things and why do I go out of my way to seek them out, sifting through the offers of free dirt, cardboard boxes, and broken fridges, to find the ninja turtle shells, the theater props, the choir robes?

There’s a concept described in a recent New York Times article about the tyranny of convenience. Convenience, the author posits, robs us of the struggle, the spontaneity, and the satisfaction of working hard for something. The flip side of that concept is to actively embrace inconvenience. “We give other names to our inconvenient choices,” the author wrote. “We call them hobbies, avocations, callings, passions.”

While it might be too grand to call my CF habit a passion or a calling, there’s something to be said for the feeling of satisfaction from that great find and that moment of intimacy or storytelling shared with a stranger.

And that feeling, like everything on CF, is free.

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