Elementary-school lunchrooms are budding mini-economies. They are thriving trade networks where goods and services exchange hands as freely as stocks and bonds float around Wall Street. It’s a beautiful web of bargains and deals—if you get to participate. Nobody ever wanted to trade with me in elementary school. My lunch box was packed with healthy snacks that were totally unappealing to an 8-year-old palate. I’ll trade you these delicious carrot sticks for those Dunk-a-roos? Not likely. Fig Newtons for Teddy Grahams? No thanks. Kix for Cookie Crisp? Riiight.
Until this past week, the last time I’d legitimately bartered anything was probably in the John Ward Elementary School computer lab, where I traded beaver pelts for venison or bullets while playing Oregon Trail. But with money tightening up and my shopping list not shrinking proportionally, I began to think my young classmates were on to something. Why not replace the purely symbolic value of money with an object or service of more inherent value? Why not barter?
And so I turned to Craigslist, the online marketplace for love, jobs and used couches. In the site’s “barter” section I found a booming community of traders filing offers of used mopeds for LCD TVs, English tutoring for home repairs or fridges for ping pong tables. In this magical world it was possible to trade nearly anything for something newer, fresher or more useful. I imagined the junk cluttering my house replaced with a more attractive assortment: a glimmering crock pot, a comfy hammock or a new set of picture frames.
But what to purge? My house is crowded with objects whose only worth is the sentimental kind, and I also really like most of my stuff. I could barter the beautiful cookbook I’ve never used; but what if I had a sudden urge for Cambodian chicken soup? I pawed through old jewelry, new-ish stationery and other random junk to no avail. Slowly, I came to a depressing realization: I own almost nothing of value.
Eventually, I settled on a few trade-ables: a bag of miniature rubber ducks that I’d lifted from the Palms Place pool, a Michael Kors leather belt, a baseball signed by Trot Nixon from his last year on the Red Sox (given to me by a creepy neighbor) and a pair of oversized binoculars that house two eight-ounce flasks. I shot a few photos, typed up brief descriptions and began to list some of things I was willing to accept in return for my random assortment of treasures—picture frames, a wine rack, rain boots, a climbing harness and Mason jars, along with whatever else my potential traders could come up with. Barterers can’t be choosers, after all.
As the e-mails came in, I noticed something odd. Of the items I’d posted, two had some ostensible value—the belt and the ball—and two had virtually none—the ducks and the binoculars. Yet, the ducks had garnered the attention of a handful of hopefuls, and the binoculars had brought in a few e-mails, including an attempt at outright purchase for the grand sum of $25. (I trust that e-mail came from someone who’d neglected to Google the item, which runs about $10-$15 online.) In the spirit of the lunchroom, I rejected the cash and got down to the business of bartering.
Ann offered up her used Baby Trend Jogger ($100-$160) for the duckies, but alas, no baby, no baby Jogger. Melly wanted the bathtime toys for day-of-show tickets to Nathan Burton. Kim had picture frames to trade for the flasks. And finally an offer came in for the belt—hair color services at a local salon.
A few e-mails and text messages later, Kim was outside my front door, picture frames in hand. The inevitable awkwardness of the Craigslist meeting set in as she laid out the frames across my coffee table, but after a few moments of appraising, the frames and flasks exchanged hands with a nod. It was done, all in five minutes or less.
The rest of my barters have been a little slower going—I’m still trying to nail down a night for Nathan Burton, and I have a hair appointment scheduled for Tuesday—but my house has a little less crap in it, and I have gained a new appreciation for the possibility of a money-less economy. Just as long as I’m not the one in the cafeteria wielding the carrot sticks.