Closer To Free

There’s no such thing as a free meal. But if I go to the mall and spend enough time in the food court, I can get as close to a free meal as possible by confidently reassuring the hopeful owners of the various eateries that their minute sampling would definitely land my business in the immediate future, after I’ve looked at the other places and have vetted their samples. I can then cleanse my pallet by stopping at the frozen yogurt place and asking for a free sample.

These are all things that are readily available. If the lady behind the counter did not hold out a toothpick with the most delicious teriyaki beef ever tasted, I would not expect her to do so. If the little plastic card I found in the parking lot did not say I was entitled to a free grilled chicken salad sandwich, I would not ask the cashier, “Can I have some food that I don’t intend to pay for? I might pay you on Tuesday, if you’re lucky.”

This is a blog post I have wanted to write for sometime, especially since I have had so much free time these past two weeks. But it’s the most recent heckler clip by comedian Steve Hofstetter, involving a heckler demanding a free shirt that his spurred me to finally follow through.

We all like free things. Sometimes we even buy a product because of the free gift. But it’s when someone comes right out and with no indication that they had a right to do so, demands or asks for something for free. I truly can’t think of anything more brazen and disrespectful, except of course, for someone who tried to get a former roommate of mine to sell him some sound equipment for way below the market price, but that’s another story entirely.

When I was reading tarot cards in Burlington, I wasn’t allowed to put a price on the service. Because the people in charge of Church Street’s Marketplace consider what I did a performance and not an actual service. So as such, I was required to put a bucket down with a sign that said, “Donations”. Some months, I could pay bills with the money they’d throw. On other days, I could do a load of laundry. It was one step up from panhandling and yes, this is what I plan to do in the coming months with comedy, since ironically, I can’t read tarot cards in Salem.

According to the rules, which a lot of people seemed to think I was just making up, the donation had to be voluntary. If I was caught breaking that rule I could lose my license altogether and not get my twenty-five dollars back. So I was following that rule as well every other one, which by the way, was written down in a document I had to sign, which made it more frustrating when people kept chiding me for not charging. But again, I digress.

So when it comes right down to it, I could do about forty readings per day and get pocket change for my trouble. But that was fine, because long as someone was throwing something useful into the bucket I was happy for the chance to do this. I even didn’t mind when someone would get the reading and did not donate, because for every one that didn’t donate, there would be about ten really big donors.

What got under my skin were the people who came right out and asked, “This is free, right?” “Do me for free.” “I don’t need to pay for this, correct?”

Again, no, it wasn’t necessary to pay for a reading. But asking me like that always felt like they were telling me how little my time and service was valued. Getting something in exchange for the reading made the day worth it and reinforced the idea that my time meant something to the people who sat at my table. I was good at what I did and whether you believe in it or not, I didn’t employ cheap tricks or psychology to do my readings. I believed in what I was doing and I believed that I deserved to be compensated.

Similarly, you may think you deserve to get something for nothing. But the person on the stage, or behind the counter at your favorite coffee shop, or at the gas station, deserves to be able to live comfortably in exchange for the work they do.

If a shop owner offers to give you something, take it with a smile and a thank you. But don’t ever act like you’re entitled to something based on nothing but your own selfish desires.


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