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Season 7, Episode 22 -- Free? Of Course It Is

Sunday provided one of the first real indications that autumn has arrived. It was cloudy and cool with a moderate north wind that, at if you stepped out at just the right time, could tell you, “Maybe it’s better if you just spend your Sunday in the house, enjoying a good book, watching a football game or catching up on your household ‘to do’ list.”

I like autumn, and I especially like days like Sunday, where the wind has kicked up, the leaves are starting to fall, and the air is crisp, with a little “bite” to it (or as some might see it, a slap in the face).

After successfully executing my typical early morning Sunday routine (get up/put dog out to do her early morning routine/drive to convenience store to pick up Sunday paper and bananas/get cup of coffee/settle in at kitchen table/complete crossword from same Sunday paper/start load of laundry), I decided to go for a run, knowing that – unlike others who would bemoan this weather – for me, the conditions were almost perfect for such an activity.

As I stepped out, a cold, light mist intermittently made its presence known, letting the steady north wind know that it wasn’t the only player in this game. I headed out on one of my usual routes, enjoying the relative quiet of the early morning. (If “enjoying” is a word one can use to describe distance running; I’ve always told others I enjoy running, but over the years, I think it’s more accurate to say I enjoy “having” run, specifically, the feeling I get after I’m done.)

I used to run with music, but for the past year or more, I’ve decided against it, opting instead to keep things simple, reduce all possible variables. At first, it was difficult, but after a few days, I liked the simplicity of it. It allows me to think and take in more of my surroundings. It also means my mind has something else with which to occupy itself; that is, anything but what used to be shooting into my ears from my music player.

About three miles in, I was running up a hill through a familiar neighborhood, when I saw the same word twice within about minute. It’s a common word, but in both cases, it made me think.

The word was “free.” The first time I saw it was on a sign staked into someone’s front yard, advertising “free estimates for your next siding job or roof repair.” At first, I didn’t think much about it, but because nothing was artificially feeding my brain with music or a podcast at the moment, I started to consider the sign.

To be clear, Joan and I need neither new siding nor roof repairs, so the company or its services were not of interest to me. It was the phrase “free estimates” that caught my attention. I immediately let my brain travel back in time to do some on-the-spot research. “Has any tradesperson, craftsman or company ever charged a potential customer for an estimate?” I thought to myself as I passed. “I mean, who would have the nerve to ask for money to basically – ask for money?”

Now, I know that advertising “free estimates” is just that … advertising, a way to say to someone, “Hey, we’ll be good guys and come out, take a look and give you a ballpark, BUUUT, we do want you to know we’re giving away the time it’s going to take us to do that, so while you’re not going to be on the hook for anything if you don’t want to hire us, you’ll still have to make that uncomfortable phone call to tell us you went with someone else.”

We’ve all been down that road before, and most times, it works out just fine. We find the person or company we want to work with, and when we notify those that didn’t get the gig, they’re usually understanding (though I do sometimes wonder if all that toilet paper I see in people’s trees is from high school students or contractors exacting revenge on people who don’t hire them).

Anyway, then I started to consider the irony (I think it’s irony, but I really don’t have time to figure that out right now) of what it would be like if service providers, contractors and the like would charge for estimates.

“So, I’m thinking we need new siding, and really, we should probably look at the gutters and soffits too,” I’d say to the person standing next to me, clipboard in hand, in our front yard. He or she would nod, maybe furrow a brow, write something down on his or her clipboard, and then say, “OK, well, I’d love to give you an estimate on this, but you know that at Acme Siding and Trim, we charge a fee for our estimates.”

“A fee, really?” I’d respond, taking the opportunity to furrow my own brow but not writing anything on my clipboard, because, well, I don’t own a clipboard and even if I did, I likely wouldn’t have it with me during such a conversation. “Oh yes, Mr. Hasselhoff, we believe that the only way we, at Acme Siding and Trim, can provide you with top-notch service is to offer our estimates at a nominal fee.”

“Hmm, OK, Randy is it? (He nods.) Randy, first of all, it’s Haznaw, but I’ll overlook that detail. I’ll have to talk to Joan about how much we have budgeted to pay for an estimate for this job. That said, could you give me an estimate on what it might cost for that estimate?”

And so begins the endless House of Mirrors schtick where I continue to ask for estimates on the estimates for the estimate for which Randy (not his real name because he’s not a real contractor) wants to charge me so he can tell me how much the job is going to cost (all the while, referring to me as Mr. Hasselhoff, Hazenschmidt, Hardinski, etc.) In the fictional sitcom playing out in my mind (wait, I guess all sitcoms are fictional, aren’t they?), I can see us continuing this circular discussion and never getting to the actual estimate, as Joan and I end the episode right where we started, with no new siding, and left to question if our name is really Haznaw.

“And that’s one reason,” I thought to myself, “why estimates are free.”

But then, in a strange and beautiful coincidence (not irony, I know that for sure this time), not two blocks later, I saw an old desk sitting at the curb in front of a house with a handwritten sign that read, “FREE.”

Again, my mind -- now having shaken “free” from the last “free” -- started working again. I’m sure we’ve all seen pieces of furniture, appliances, lawn equipment and the like, on street-side display in our respective neighborhoods, offering these treasures on a first-come, first-serve basis.

And, maybe you’ve done it yourself (I know we have). You know the phrase, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure … only to become that person’s trash three months to a year later, when it will be put out on that person’s curb with a handwritten ‘FREE’ sign on it.”

Again, my brain started to process the scene, wondering why this person felt the need to advertise this desk as “FREE.” Isn’t it obvious, an unwritten rule of sorts, that if something is 1) in a relative state of disrepair but possibly salvageable (this desk fit comfortably into such a category), 2) placed within five feet of the street, OR, simply placed on the “street side” of the sidewalk and 3) obviously out of its natural habitat (like a desk or recliner), it’s not only available, but at no charge to the first lucky street pirate to stumble upon it?

It’s like when I was a freshman in college, standing – alone, beer in hand -- with my braces, fresh mullet perm and newly-grown mustache (believe me, your mental picture isn’t even close to what I really looked like). Do you think I needed a sign announcing I was “free?” I’d say it was brutally, abhorrently obvious. Nonetheless, the only people that even slowed down to see if I was worth it were the two guys I was with that night, and believe me, they were just as “free” as I was that night, and for many after that.

But back to the desk (and other things). I think when it comes to putting stuff on the curb, we’re overthinking it. I think if we say something’s “free,” it will bring people in from all over to take what we’re offering. Ironically (I know I’m using the word correctly this time), I think you have a better chance of someone taking that old vacuum cleaner, dehumidifier or bowling ball if you put a price on it, even something really modest, like $5. Because then, people think they’re actually getting away with something and not just assuming someone else’s liability.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone stealing (or toilet papering someone’s trees), but I think it’s pretty obvious that if an old couch is sitting near the street in front of a home, it’s there for the taking. If it’s a bike or toys or something that one would likely see in and around that property, leave it alone because the kids probably just forgot to put it away.

And that’s my “free” advice for today.

© 2019 David R. Haznaw

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