Giving Stuff to the Neighbors Through the Buy Nothing Website


1. We post on Buy Nothing in order to give. A frog, kissed just once, could be a prince. A sow’s ear upcycled, a silken satchel. One man’s trash may be another’s “lucky futon.”

In today’s Buy Nothing feed: a retro keyboard “up for grabs” gets 25 likes. Or, a retro keyboard is the one you’ve been searching for your whole life. Or, a retro keyboard is junk and should be disposed of in an ethical manner.

Why do we browse, and offer up? Because we are alone in the Zoom room, because we are desperate to prowl the bowels of a neighbor’s garage, because we could really use a lucky futon. And so we look for the sermon in the words “gently used,” for the neighborly discourse in spreading our castoffs around the subdivision and, especially if we are writers, for the chance to craft lively, self-vanquishing prose in praise of the pregnancy test remaining from a pack of two (“Won’t make that mistake again!”) or a tottering Ikea Kura bed (“Yours if you can get it down my stairs!”).

I am talking about a time when I was living in a small midcentury house in a part of Los Angeles that could now be described as a “senseless-gifting” neighborhood. So insensate was the giving, it was Sensodyne, and yes I am referring here to the toothpaste. Three sample-sized tubes collected at three dental visits spaced six to twelve months apart. Three tubes that I personally made available “if anybody has a use.” Yes, the tubes were expired, but “probably still fine,” I said. A practical CVS find, unexpired, for about $5.

Moments after posting I was besieged with responses from people who were “interested,” and “VERY interested,” asking, “Would you be willing to split up the lot?” Seventeen in all. Seventeen “able to come by today.” Seventeen wanting to “take those off your hands.” Why do people want these things? You might ask that. I never ask.

I placed the tubes in a bag, tucked it into the curve of my front staircase and closed the gate. My dog paced at the sound of footfall, the contactless pickup, but I did not gaze through the Levolors.

2. During this period I also offered up what were to me items of at least modest value: a brand-new Bluetooth speaker, a set of four stemless wine glasses, a lovely original painting that could be great if the battered frame was replaced. It should be clear that these offerings were made by someone who wanted to give, someone who prized connection, someone determined to play the game.

I spent what seemed to my husband an eccentric amount of time checking for responses. Beyond a DM about wanting the old frame should I end up “chucking the painting,” there were none.

3. In a Notes app, I kept a running list of things claimed on my local Buy Nothing feed. It read like an absurdist’s notebook: used Ziploc bags (washed & dried), an abundance of disposable ice packs, three varieties of onion jellies, a food dehydrator (“used just once, when I encapsulated my placenta”) and something called “rainbow unicorn shooter.”

What I neglected to include on my list were the online interactions themselves, which may have held more value than the items.

4. FLASH GIVE: “Dog bed, like new. Pickup ASAP”

MM: I’d love the dog bed! Can I come now?

BR: Sure! MM: Thanks! Address?

BR: Yes!

MM: OK, ready for address:)

BR: It’s out on the driveway!

MM: Great! Just need address …

BR 1621 LaRoma

MM: Hmm … not seeing that in Maps. You mean LaLoma?

BR: You coming? I get the feeling you don’t really want it

MM: No, I do! Did you mean to say LaLoma or LaRoma?

BR: Love Roma! Lived there one summer. You going?

MM: Ha, no! Do you LIVE on LaLoma?

BR: Yes, sorry! Silly autocorrect! I see you got the dog bed. Enjoy!

MM: Wait, I don’t have it! Is it gone??

BR: It’s gone!

This is an exchange I had with a neighbor who may or may not have ever had a dog bed to give. I recall commandeering my Subaru to the driveway on LaLoma nonetheless and, as the motor idled, observing an almost imperceptible sway of the Levolors.

5. It was about this time in my life that I became aware of Buy Nothing Project bylaws. “It is up to the giver how they wish to give: first-come-first-serve or use a raffle when several members are interested.” Many neighbors operated on what I later recognized as raffle theory, and so, during this time, did I.

Names were chosen from proverbial hats. Names were chosen from actual hats. Names were chosen from a “random name picker” online. Or, would it be “interesting” if the chooser employed a children’s counting rhyme? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe …

This singsong, which required neither hat nor app, had on me the effect of brisk corporal isolation, an ironic effect of a gifting community. I remember I was drinking a Spindrift alone on the terrace. The dog paced inside, having nowhere to lie down. “Toosie Slide” played on Alexa. I ate a tortilla chip.

6. “In May of this year patient experienced sensitivity and roughness to the touch, #25 lingual. A thorough dental evaluation revealed enamel sheered off at gumline. She was placed on 1 cart. Septocaine 4% w/ epinephrine 1:100,000 prior ML composite restoration.”

The patient to whom this dental report refers is me. The damage may or may not have been caused by an errant tortilla chip. It may or may not have been aggravated by bruxism. Ongoing sensitivity may or may not occur. Recommendation: “Try Sensodyne.”

The toothpaste’s potassium ions hyperpolarize the nerve to halt firing. In light of chemical desensitization, the following sense emerged: the keyboard got 25 likes. Tooth #25 was chipped by eating a chip. Tooth #25 is a mandibular central incisor, a bottom center tooth. In other words: the center didn’t hold. The dentist admonished that, failing restoration, the tooth would “die and turn dark.” Nobody wanted a Bluetooth speaker. The woman who now needed Sensodyne had just given hers away.

7. I once gifted an HVAC filter (in original packaging) to a man who claimed he never won anything. “I’m so happy!” he said. The correspondence was digital but I sensed he was nearly in tears. The next day I saw a post by the same man, giving the same filter away.

8. Another FLASH GIVE: “Fortune cookie, crushed, plastic sealed. SPOILER ALERT: Fortune is ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ If multiple interests, raffle at 10 a.m.”

9. I have known, since participating in a neighborhood gift economy, very little about its givers and takers. I do know that a raffle was held and the cookie was claimed. I know that the new recipient of a half-full bottle of body lotion smelling, for its original owner, “too strongly of lavender” posted that Buy Nothing had restored her “faith in humanity” and she “now understands why people gift online as they do.”

Quite often I reflect on the lingering roughness of my central incisor, on onion jellies and repurposed Ziplocs and on the fact that, while sleepy, my dog still has nowhere to lie, but I do not yet understand why people gift online as they do.

Michelle Madden is a writer in Los Angeles.


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