Land of the Free

We’d receive word from Curly at any time—and when delivered, it was immediately time to jump into action.
Curly was a neighbor kid that lived two doors down. He had hair like bedsprings, hence the name. I never knew any kids named ‘Straight’ or ‘Wavy.’

SIDEBAR: Those were less correct times when kids often had nicknames based on their personal characteristics: Tubby, Tiny, Skinny, Lumpy, Shorty, Maggot, etc. A classmate named Stinky grew up to become an excellent card-player. Solitaire mostly.

Whenever Curly showed up he had one message—always containing a tantalizing word: Free! It was because Curly was uncommonly tuned in to anybody and any place that was offering something for nothing.
“Free scoops of ice cream at Newberry’s,” he might say furtively, then dash off.
Or, “They’re giving out Frisbees at the Arco station.”

Perhaps even, “Free bookmarks at the library.” Not exactly pulse-quickening perhaps, but free. And that was the point.

Since the beginning of time—or at least since the beginning of currency—there have been few human allures more compelling than those that are free. Especially in America—the Home of the Brave…and the Land of the Freebie.

We Americans will get into the car we are making hefty monthly payments on—gas it up—drive on our quickly balding tires a hundred miles—pull the car into a high-priced parking garage—then walk five city blocks in 90 degree heat to arrive at a store that is giving away free zucchinis.

On a recent trip to Bend, Oregon, I noticed a full-page ad in the local paper:

It was the promise of a food restaurant celebrating its first anniversary by giving away
“TOTALLY FREE BURGERS” for one day. (Research shows that ‘totally free’ has more consumer appeal than ‘partially free.’ Or ‘partially eaten’ for that matter.)

I showed the ad to a friend of mine who loves burgers more than Aardvarks love ants.

He didn’t bite. “I know that burger place,” he said. “They serve nothing but veggie burgers. No thanks!”
He was right. The year-old burger company is called “Next Level Burger”—where the fare is “100 percent plant-based, dairy-free, non-GMO” food. The free burger was vegan.

“Getting a free burger from a joint like that,” says my red-meat friend, “is like offering Jay Buhner a free shampoo. ”(At press-time, I was unable to reach ‘The Bone’ for a comment.)
Turns out there is no such thing as a free red-meat lunch.

Let’s face it, there is a little that is conventionally free anymore. Free doesn’t even mean free. Free has come to mean “absent of.” Like gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free, wheat-free, nut-free, lactose-free—plus cholesterol, carb, paraben and cruelty-free.

Gather around children and you shall hear of a time we had free stuff up to here.
It was a time when airplane meals were free. OK, maybe they weren’t really free—it was secreted into your plane fare—but they seemed free. Taste-free, but free.
You used to be able to keep money in the bank—for free. Grocery store bags, trash dumping, extra-cheese, dressing and gravy, copies of birth certificates—along with camps and state parks (I know, paid by your taxes). But otherwise, free as air.

Except that air isn’t free anymore either. 75 cents to fill your tires—and you race the clock to do it in time.
Remember full-service gas stations where guys would check your oil, etc. for free?
No, I don’t remember them either.
Some restaurants now charge for a glass of water. Not Perrier mind you—just straight out of the rusty tap H2o.
I went to a fancy steak restaurant last week where they charge you extra for steak sauce!
That’s like buying a car where the steering wheel comes extra.

There are websites like and They will generally direct you to other websites that often begin with something like “Want free stuff? Let’s get started? Simply enter your zip code.” Right.

They might as well write: “Let us simply help you start receiving thousands of additions to your already bulging junk mail and spam! All free!”

Still, my old pal Curly still carries his torch for free stuff—and insists there’s plenty of it out there. “I-Hop will give you a free meal on your birthday,” he’s quick to remind. “And Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts will give you free coffees.” Plus Delta gives you a hundred bucks if you book a flight during your birthday month—and Baskin-Robbins will give you a free scoop on your birthday.

This is all fine and good—unless you were born February 29th. Then you only enjoy any of it every four years.

Still, the lure of the word ‘free’ remains universal—even if it sometimes clouds us to the rest of the offer. Here’s one I saw on sandwich board in Burien:

There’s gotta be a catch.