The large woman in the green cashier's apron looked at me strangely, like I was eating raw squirrel tongue with a small ice pick and some pesto.
"You know it's free, right? It comes with the book. No charge at all."
"I know. Thank you. But I don't need it. You can have it, if you like."
"Oh no no no," she looked a little stunned, almost offended. "I guess we'll just give it away. Or something. It will be an extra. I'm not sure how we handle that."
It was an odd moment. Curious. It was a giant, overlit, massively stocked, air-conditioned Borders bookstore somewhere in north Idaho and I was innocently buying a copy of the latest deathly Harry Potter epic for a family member, along with a small stack of nonfiction vacation reads I was forced into enjoying after my beloved MacBook Pro suffered a meltdown and required a complete harddriveectomy, accompanied by much pained moaning from yours truly. But that's another column.
It was, I quickly learned, a special offer. Apparently, with any purchase of Rowling's final, thank-God-it's-over 20-pound doorstop, you get a free Harry Potter poster. A poster, mind you, of the exact book cover you just purchased. Because, you know, if there's one thing this book series needs, it's more promotion and hype.
As the nice cashier bagged my books, she decided to give me one more chance. "You sure you don't want it? You know it's free?" she was smiling a little sideways, not quite sure what to make of me. I couldn't quite tell if she was irritated or just a bit confused by the fact that anyone in the world would refuse anything at all, if it didn't cost anything.
"I'm sure, thanks. I really have absolutely no need for it."
"Huh," she said, as if I was speaking Latin. Naked. Underwater.
It is, of course, rather unheard of. I mean, oh my God, this is America. We love free. We adore it like a meth addict loves sugar and coffee and rural high school proms. We love it like Dick Cheney loves slapping live kittens. It is, quite simply, our most favoritest thing ever.
And dear God, we will suffer hell to get it. We will take on piles of pain, we will put all manner of toxin and garbage product into our body, endure all sorts of abuse and humiliation and disgrace (ref: game shows), tolerate ridiculous promotions and contests and demeaning advertisements just so we don't actually have to spend any money because, see, money is our one true religion, our shiniest and most loving god and therefore to obtain something without having to hand over even a penny of your precious pile is akin to getting a back-rub and a hot tongue bath from Jesus himself.
In fact, it is no stretch at all to say that "free" is a human cultural obsession, something that defines us and holds us in eternal thrall. And I'm sure there's been some sort of deep scientific study on just exactly how many segments of our brain light up when we hear that omnipotent word, even (and this is where it gets really fascinating) when we know the free item in question is actually bad for us, pointless and unhealthy and even a little sad.
My friend relates this particularly sordid and terrifying tale: Driving by AT&T Park on a recent breezy San Francisco weekend, just before the big All-Star Game, she spotted an unusual throng, a huge double line of people that snaked around the block in both directions, just in front of the stadium. She drove on a bit to check out what they could possibly be lining up to see. Was it a celebrity? Was it some sort of special ticket sale? Was Barry Bonds handing out free needles and some residual muscle tissue?
No. It was tacos. Or rather, a single taco, about the size of your average cell phone, as dispensed by the frightening Yum Brands corporation in one of its more noxious incarnations, known as ... Taco Bell.
That's right. It was, apparently, taco day. It was a single, tiny Taco Bell taco, one per person, for free, hundreds and hundreds of them, each one reportedly even smaller than normal, maybe two or three little sodium-soaked bites featuring a scoop of pre-frozen meatlike substance and a pinch of nuclear orange cheese and a twig of watery iceberg lettuce and something remotely resembling a corn shell and all of it about as nutritious and filling and worthwhile as a cupcake made of cardboard and paint thinner.
Didn't matter. The people, well, they just stood there in line anyway, hundreds of them, waiting for who knows how long, lured like sheep by the magic word. Hey, it's free. They're just giving them away. I mean, you can walk right up there and they'll just hand you one and you can eat it in broad daylight and no one will ask for any sort of payment whatsoever, save for your weakening bones and your wailing kidneys and your sighing heart surgeon. What better way to spend a small, meaningless chunk of your life?
Hell, I've been there myself, been caught unaware on far too many occasions, most often by those little booths erected by nefarious food corporations during one of San Francisco's roughly 14,000 street fairs. Have you seen them? They're those damnable companies trying to break in a new product, trying to raise awareness of yet another useless comestible and hence they're practically throwing little cartons of coffee-flavored yogurt or corn-syrupy tealike drink bottles or some sort of compressed candy bar thing masquerading as a healthy "energy bar" at unassuming passers-by.
You almost can't help it. The booth workers smile deviously and hold out the giant bucket of crap and say "free sample" and, before you can blink, your hand shoots out -- a deep Pavlovian response programmed seemingly from birth -- and suddenly there you are, carrying around yet another wasteful hunk of sugar and corn syrup and "natural" artificial flavoring you probably shouldn't give to your dog, all encased in a plastic container that will survive the next ice age. Damn.
It is, of course, the American way. We are not the slightest bit trained to care about waste, excess, the mindless accumulation of needless things. The notion of simplifying, of saying no, of intentionally and mindfully choosing to keep ourselves free of all the superfluous crap that's hurled at us by a product-drunk culture is so far from our junktastic ideology it is, as evidenced by my cashier's baffled reaction, nearly unthinkable.
Free plane ticket! Free iPod! Free colonoscopy! Free tank of gas! Free extra set of cheap useless knives when you buy the two other sets of cheap useless knives! Free supersizing of your Coke! Free upgrade to premium membership when you commit to a 10-year contract! Pay no money whatsoever! Seriously! No money at all! All we ask in return: countless, endless chunks of your time, your brain, your intelligence, your health, your soul, your respect for nature, just a little bit of your ability to think and feel and care about the world. Come on now, is that too much to ask?
Thoughts for the author? E-mail him. Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle.
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