The Problem With Practically Free

by Parri Sontag
Originally Published: 

I’ve always loved a bargain. So when a local pharmacy was closing a few years ago, my husband and I stopped in to check out the sale. To our surprise, it was their final day of business. Everything was 90 percent off … or you could buy a big bag for five bucks and cram in as much as you could. We’re big bag people all the way.

Slapping down 10 bucks, we maniacally raced for the drug aisle. No more Pepto, Tylenol, Claritin or Band-Aids – just a Clorox-sized jug of milk of magnesia.

“We don’t use that,” Jim said.

“Hey, it’s practically free,” I said. “Grab it.”

Onto skin and hair care. No more moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner, cotton balls. But there it was, like an oasis in the Gobi – an entire shelf of Coppertone.

“How could people miss these?” I wondered, sweeping about 20 bottles into my bag. “This is expensive stuff.”

Turning the corner, we spotted a giant display of Chiquita banana slicers.

“What Einstein came up with these?” I wondered.

“That’s ridiculous ,” Jim agreed. “It takes more effort to clean that slatted gizmo than to just use a knife.”

We grabbed a dozen.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there are five minutes left,” management broadcast over the loudspeaker.

Panic set in. Jim and I split up, to cover more territory. He bee-lined it to foot care, while I raced for the beauty aisle. All that was left were used orange lipsticks, pistachio-colored eye shadows and pressed powder compacts that could only work on a mime. So I moved onto greeting cards.

Crazed patrons were grabbing anything they could get their hands on, and I followed suit. I didn’t even read the cards. If they had matching envelopes, they were mine. Then my eyes landed on some brightly colored book covers, with cool Peter Maxish designs.

“How did people miss these?” I wondered, quite possibly letting out an audible “mwahaha” as I reached for this undiscovered booty. I grabbed 40 packages.

(Okay, maybe they weren’t exactly Peter Maxish. They might have looked more like some first-grader drank paint and threw up on a canvas. But the adrenaline was flowing. I lost my mind a little.)

Returning to our car, Jim and I were hysterical as we examined our loot.

“Uh, Jim,” I said, “Seven packages of replacement blades for corn removers? We don’t even have corns.”

“Hey, I wouldn’t throw stones,” he laughed. “Did we really need this home testing kit for kidney disease?”

We had bags full of the kind of junk that even Goodwill drags to the dumpster … light bulbs for appliances we don’t own … greeting cards with captions like, “Why do men like breasts? Because they’re nice!” … and $111 worth of suntan lotion — more than we could use in a lifetime, even if we lived on the equator.

Then Jim noticed the book covers and raised one very accusing eyebrow.

“What are you going to do with those?”

“I thought we could give them out on Halloween,” I said.

“Kids don’t want book covers. They want candy,” he said.

“We’re giving them candy,” I replied. “This is a bonus.”

Jim shook his head.

“They’re hideous. They look like Old Man Cooper’s fading wallpaper. I’m not handing those out. We’ll get egged.”

“We will not. It’s just something extra. Like a ‘lovely parting gift.’”

I couldn’t wait to show him how wrong he was. I could just hear the squeals of delight on all of those appreciative cherubic faces.

So Halloween arrived, and I set up camp by the door. The first kids rang the bell, and I gave them glowing reviews on their costumes, a fist full of chocolate and a package of book covers. Not one said, “Wow, thanks!” But you know, this is the entitlement generation. They haven’t all been raised with manners.

A second group came to the door – Buzz Lightyear, Tinkerbell and Shrek. I gave them each one of every candy in my repertoire … good stuff, like Kit Kats, Snickers, Twix … and a package of book covers.

Nothing. Nada. Bubkas — no smile, no thank you. Tinkerbell looked like I had just given her a Brillo Pad, and Buzz gave me the stink eye.

This scene repeated itself several times, until some 8-year-old Batman rang the bell with a 6-year-old cop. I gave them each a fist-full of chocolate and excitedly plunked the book covers in their bags.

“She must be trying to get rid of these,” Batman whispered to his friend.

“What? I am not,” I answered defensively. “We bought these for you. I have a baby. She doesn’t use school supplies. Why would I have book covers just lying around the house that I need to get rid of? If you look in your bag, I’ve also given you one of every kind of candy I have. And good stuff – not those crappy Mary Janes or old lady sesame candies. And you have the nerve to …”

Jim overheard this exchange.

“You’re arguing with the trick or treaters?” he said, bidding Batman adieu and closing the door.

“I gave them candy. It was just something extra. Little cape crusading ingrate.”

“I told you,” he said. “You’re lucky there’s no yolk dripping from our mailbox.”

I don’t understand it. I would have liked the book covers. Other people are so cliché with their pennies and pumpkin pencils and those stupid little candy corn erasers that couldn’t wipe out a period, better yet a math problem.

To this day, I stay on the safe side … Milky Ways and Butterfingers.

But if Batman ever shows his face again, I’ve got a banana slicer with his name on it.

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