Give & Take

The Baltimore Sun

Her son, a Marine corporal, was moving out of barracks and wanted a recliner for his new apartment. Patsy Shifrin could have gone to a La-Z-Boy store and forked over a few hundred bucks. Or she could have gone on Freecycle.org, the online bulletin board, and secured for her son a gently used La-Z-Boy for ... nothing. Nada. Zip.

Guess which she chose?

Lo and behold, four recliners were offered up within hours of her posted request for a free La-Z-Boy. Before sunset, her son, Cpl. Ben Shifrin, and a buddy were driving around with a La-Z-Boy in their truck.

Since its launch in Tucson, Ariz., five years ago, Freecycle.org has spread across the globe to 4,531 communities with 5.4 million members. Baltimore's group, one of the first on the East Coast, began in 2004 and has more than 5,000 members. That doesn't include separate chapters for Owings Mills and Westminster. In all, Maryland has 44 Freecycle offshoots, each geographically contained so no recipient will have too far to drive to collect the goods.

Offered items are a varied and eccentric bunch. Recently, members have had the chance to snap up "one small drumstick" (presumably the instrumental kind, but just the one), a cosmetology mannequin head and at least three fixer-upper sailboats, as well as all manner of other stuff - bags of clothes, old National Geographic magazines, microwaves, couches, beds, plastic silverware, paint and an antique carved rocker.

Some of it might fetch a decent price if the owner chose to sell; other items are barely worth a two-mile trip with gas at $4 a gallon.

If nothing else, Freecycle is a testament to some primeval urge not to let anything, no matter how insignificant, go to waste. How else to explain this cryptic listing: "Offer: Not sure what it is." ("I think it is a dish that holds Easter Eggs," adds the owner.)

So powerful is this impulse that offers have included an opened bottle of Centrum vitamins ("I don't want these to go to waste," writes the donor), expired canned goods and a broken telescope ("Maybe," its owner suggests hopefully, "you could fix it!").

It's not just givers who write in to the site, but seekers, too, such as Hampden resident Jamie Schott. One day, for no good reason, he remembered thinking to himself how much he enjoyed playing the trumpet as a kid. So he posted a "wanted" notice on Freecycle. Soon enough, he was again tooting his own horn.

Rarely do givers and takers meet. For security and convenience, the site recommends that items be left on the porch or front steps. It works well, this elegantly simple system of keeping things out of landfills and putting them into the hands of people who can still use them.

But as with any community, Freecycle has adopted laws to govern how members behave. The Baltimore group's code runs to a whopping 3,000 words, perhaps a sign that a lawyer offered free legal advice. The rules are meant to help ensure smooth sharing and a Zen-like balance between giving and getting.

Even so, tempers occasionally flare to the point that one of the Baltimore site's three volunteer moderators insists on using only his first name, Rick, after he said he received threats from members who were not allowed to post items for various reasons. The last thing Rick says he wants is a free broken nose from an irate freecycler.

ONLY PHYSICAL ITEMS YOU PERSONALLY OWN MAY BE OFFERED. Please do not post about services, web pages, information, or anything intangible.

One member had an Orioles ticket to give away. That was fine. The problem was he also had a ticket for the adjacent seat and proposed driving the would-be recipient to Camden Yards. Freecycle moderators rejected his offer since it constituted a personal service.

In the same vein, you can't "freecycle" yourself. That's what dating sites are for. One woman tried - perhaps facetiously - to freecycle her husband. That was deemed a no-no.

Otherwise, just about anything is fair game, as long as it's legal for all ages to possess.

So, there was nothing inappropriate about a frozen moose head finding itself on Freecycle, with the plea from its unhappy owner, Angela Benam: "Please get it outta here!"

The moose head had come from Alaska. Benam's husband is a documentary filmmaker and had needed it for a close-up shot. Afterward, he brought it home, still frozen. She didn't want it there, but what to do? Putting it out with the trash seemed wrong.

Then it hit her. "Let's just put it on Freecycle," she recalls saying. "Those people take anything."

She had no idea how much demand there would be for a frozen moose head. Nearly 20 responses came back. At least one seemed to be a rueful joke from a woman eyeing it for her "cheating ex-husband." More cheerily, a teacher wanted to pass it on to a man who visits classrooms with animal bones as educational props.

In the end, Benam chose an old acquaintance who'd spotted her post: a longtime collector of "pretty weird stuff," she says, who plans to display the skull at his home.

KEEP YOUR OFFERS AND WANTEDS IN BALANCE. The purpose of freecycling is to reduce waste and share with others. In that spirit try to post more offers than requests. However, YOU MUST POST AT LEAST ONE OFFER FOR EVERY TWO WANTEDS.

A member once posted 38 consecutive "wanted" messages without offering a thing. He was an uber-taker and had to be stopped.

In reality, moderators can't police greed because while "wanteds" are public posts, replies to offers go via private e-mail. But active members say they have a sense of who's been naughty and who nice, and are biased against known nongivers.

Rick the moderator believes the Baltimore site brings out more than enough generosity. Of last year's 23,000-plus messages, nearly six in 10 were offers, a proportion he deems desirable.

Kathleen Harrison of Parkville has been true to the site's ethos.

Yes, her home is festooned with Freecycle castoffs. Newly divorced and not exactly flush, she turned to members a couple of years ago to help furnish her place and get back on her feet.

"My entire living room is practically from Freecycle - the bookshelf, the couch, the dining room table," she said. These are quality items, "things I wouldn't ever even be able to afford." Thanks to the site, she also has a holly bush and storage shed outside, and a nice dresser upstairs.

But Harrison is no one-way mooch. She says she has more than balanced the scales with what she has pumped back into Freecycle Universe: shoes, dresses, blouses, bedding, a girl's bike, printer ink, even a bathroom sink.

YOU MAY CHOOSE WHO GETS YOUR ITEM. Your offer must be open to all members, however you may ask people to tell you why they want your item...

First-come-first-served might be the simplest method to dispose of an item, but it's not really the Freecycle Way. It ignores the question of who's most deserving.

Part of the fun, members say, is fulfilling a wish or satisfying a need. Patsy Shifrin, mother of the marine, gave two digital cameras to a man who had just gained custody of his grandchildren. He thought the cameras would entertain the kids and expose them to photography.

Shifrin, who got her dog Rocky on Freecycle, applied similar logic last year when she decided to part with a solid piano that too often sat unplayed. One woman who e-mailed a request for it said she had a pianist cousin coming from Russia. Perfect, thought Shifrin.

But when the woman and her husband came to pick it up, and Shifrin mentioned the piano-playing Russian cousin, the man looked at her like she was crazy. His wife, upon whom Shifrin and the man both trained their gazes, could only stammer a couple "ums" and "you knows."

Shifrin deduced there was, in fact, no piano-playing cousin from Russia - or anywhere else. The episode didn't upset her, though; it gave her a big laugh. And she moved that piano.

PLEASE DO NOT POST HARDSHIP STORIES. No freecycler needs to beg for the items they want.

Deservability is one thing, but moderators discourage "wanted" messages laden with verbal violins. No woeful tales of lost jobs, no sad-sack stories of being tossed out by a heartless lover.

If that policy seems contradictory, the rationale goes back to the fact that "wanted" posts are, by definition, public for the whole Freecycle family to read. The prohibition was enacted after people started telling fishy-sounding tales. One woman wrote memorably, if implausibly, of having seven different diseases.

Moderators have made rare exceptions, such as when area members wanted to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

But rules are made to be broken, or at least bent. Besides, moderators can't police every message. Shifrin's La-Z-Boy request might have run afoul of the regulations because she waved the flag a bit: "Extra bonus - you would be supporting the troops!"

Many posts end up at least skirting the line. Schott, the reborn trumpeter, recently asked members for a mountain bike. "Unfortunately," he groused in his posting, "it's not getting cheaper to live in the city, so I hope the Freecycle community can look out for me."

His request so far has yielded no results. As for the rule, he does not consider his post a sob story, just an explanation - no different from when he gave books and toys to a doctor's office serving low-income patients. And his plea happens to be truthful, which is not always the case.

Once, Schott bid on a blue 1970s-vintage swimsuit for his girlfriend. He told the offering party that it was her size and favorite color. In a play for sympathy, he added that he was in the "doghouse" for some relationship faux pas.

How much of the story was true? "Everything," he said, "except the doghouse part."

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

The Web site address for Freecycle of Maryland is freecycle.org/group/US/Maryland. (There are links to the regional groups within Maryland.) Membership is free.

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