Our story begins in a lovely suburban neighborhood in a small town in Washington state. In a cul-de-sac of houses made up of four different floor plans and constructed by a well-known builder, Officer Jureau tucks his cruiser behind a newer-model SUV and watches.
It's her. The same middle-aged woman driving a minivan. She's been here twice this week, to this house Officer Jureau has been watching since Mrs. Kravistan, the stooped, elderly neighbor at 3417, left multiple complaints on the local watchdog tip line. Seems cars come and go, at odd times of the day, early morning, late at night. No one knocks on the door. Rather, they root around in a plastic storage container that sits close to the front door. They emerge with a bag in hand, walk back to their cars, and leave. Occasionally, Mrs. Kravistan has observed the owner of the house reach out her front door, deposit several bags in the bin and disappear into the house as quickly as she appeared. Mrs. K doesn't know the woman; the family moved in just a few months ago and with the rain and cold, people slip out their garages and back in without so much as a nod to their neighbors. Mrs. K wishes things were more neighborly, but you can never be too sure about people these days.
Officer Jureau watches as the woman emerges from the minivan, giving him a glance that shows little, if any, concern to his presence. She's wearing black yoga pants and her hair is in a ponytail. The woman walks right up the the front door, looks through the bin and finally makes her choice among the many bags. She walks away, swinging the re-purposed grocery bag, as if she hasn't a care in the world.
Office Jureau knows he has to make his move. He's been watching the activity all week - cars coming and going, people from all walks of life taking bags from the bin; once he even observed a man walking away with a small microwave! Stealing, blatant and obvious, and in such a nice neighborhood. Still, he knew there had been multiple break-ins in the area and the drug problems were getting worse everywhere. From the outside, the house and its occupants appeared normal - a man and woman in their late 30's, a girl about eight to ten years old, a toddler. The lawn was often scattered with toys and he once saw the little girl talk to one of the many strangers who wandered onto the porch. He had to act before something worse happened.
The woman stepped into the minivan and started a slow circle around the cul-de-sac. Officer Jureau decided to tail her for a bit before pulling her over. Once outside the neighborhood, he flipped on his lights near the park. The woman looked in her rear view mirror with a combined expression of startled surprise and thinly-veiled annoyance, and pulled over. Officer Jureau approached the minivan with practiced caution (the woman looked harmless and her small frame seemed no match to his athletic bulk, but he had seen enough in his day to know even a slight woman such as her could be a crossfit aficionado and he had to be ready) as the woman rolled down her window.
"Is there a problem?" she asked as the preschool-aged child in a car seat behind her began wailing.
"License and registration," replied Officer Jureau, scanning the contents of the passenger seat. He spotted the grocery bag, and several more similar bags, as he took the documents from the woman.
Pretending to scan the driver's license he began, "Ma'am, I just observed you taking a bag out of a container on a porch of a residence in the Valley Trails neighborhood. This is the second time this week I've seen you do this. What's in the bag?" he asked, gesturing to the grocery-store sack.
"Oh, this?" asked the woman, picking up the contraband.
"Ma'am, I'm just going to ask you to hand it to me slowly," replied Officer Jureau. The woman handed him the bag, expressionless, as the preschool child in the rear seat flung goldfish crackers towards his mother's ponytail.
Officer Jureau relaxed noticeably when the woman complied without resistance. He worked the knot on the bag, which had a note affixed to it reading "Carla", and opened it up to find a......spatula.
A spatula. Red, plastic. No drugs. No residue. Just....a spatula.
"Ma'am, can you explain why you took this item off the porch of a house that was not your own? What was your business there? And what was in the bag you took last Tuesday?"
The woman, looking amused, replied "Oh, that was a stack of index cards. I had an ISO for them and Felicia fulfilled it."
ISO? Index cards? What kind of ring was this? He waited patiently as the woman began to prattle on about the Buy Nothing Project.
The Buy Nothing Project was started on Bainbridge Island, WA as a grassroots effort to build community, recycle and reuse. Using Facebook as a platform, the Buy Nothing Project has grown into a worldwide movement with over 80,000 members in 9 nations. Buy Nothing is a hyper-local gift economy. What that means is that members can give and receive goods and services, free of charge, to their neighbors. Whether a member is looking to downsize or purge their home, borrow a tool, or perhaps they're looking for a unique gift for a baby shower, the Buy Nothing Project is there to help.
Buy Nothing is a boon to new parents who can, quite literally, outfit a nursery and an infant exclusively on Buy Nothing. Toys, books, food, gift items, furniture, and yes, even a car, have been gifted freely through this amazing organization. Moving to your first apartment? Put an ISO (in search of) out for pots and pans! Have a bike your kid has outgrown? There's bound to be a kid out there who needs a new one.
My own experience with Buy Nothing has been nothing short of amazing. When I first joined, I was eager to purge items from my home. I have a big family so I was constantly giving away bags of outgrown clothing, books and toys, and even new-in-package gift items they had received for holidays and never opened. Buy Nothing was a way to share those things with people in my own community, many of them people I already knew through Facebook, our local schools and sports organizations. As I became more involved, I saw incredible things happening.
A woman with a terminally ill family member was gifted airline miles to go say goodbye. A hardworking single mom was gifted food items to last until the next paycheck. A little girl's wish was fulfilled when she was gifted a new bike, donated by one Buy Nothing family and tuned up by another Buy Nothing member. Young parents just starting out were able to put together a baby's nursery from donated items.
Buy Nothing runs the gamut from weird (half a pizza or birthday cake, leftover from a party, tampons, condoms) to hilarious (Enrique, the anatomically-correct blow-up doll) to artful (handmade soaps, jewelry, paper and wood crafts). There is something for everyone on Buy Nothing and the tenets of the group - honesty and transparency - run strong.
As with any large group, there are a few bad apples and members have been asked to leave for reselling items they have received for free, to lying about where they live (Buy Nothing is hyper local - if you live in Pleasantville, you give to and receive from other members of Pleasantville). And since it's Facebook-run, there are always a few whack-a-doodles in the bunch (one woman made up a long story about her daughter's leukemia - turned out she didn't even have a daughter!). Some groups have members in the low hundreds, some in the thousands. The more people in a group, the more likely there will be a few outliers.
But mostly Buy Nothing is incredible. Personally, I have benefited in several ways. I've been able to pare down my household excess, I've been gifted items I really needed (beds and bedding for two foster kids I took in for several months) and items I really wanted (a new purse, jewelry, clothing). I've met and befriended many new people in my community or formed stronger bonds with people I already knew. Recently someone posted that it was my birthday on our Buy Nothing page and I received multitudes of birthday greetings. One day, I posted jokingly that I was in search of (ISO) a decaf mocha and a chocolate-chip cookie and not long after my doorbell rang. There, on my porch, sat my "order" dropped off anonymously by a Buy Nothing friend (she later confessed!). I've received bilingual books for my classroom and fabulous, new-with-tags (NWT) Christmas gifts for my family.
But the best gifts I've received from being a part of Buy Nothing aren't tangible. They include my new conscientiousness when I shop - I ask myself if I really need or will use an item before I frivolously buy it. I shop less. And I ask for items (even big-ticket items) on my Buy Nothing page before I buy because you just never know who might have something. I've learned that appearances can be deceiving and that even a family who appears well-off might struggle between paychecks. So, I've learned to judge less and care more. I've realized that a well-timed comment or personal message can make a huge difference to a person. And I've learned that even a spatula in a plastic bag is a gift from the heart.
Buy Nothing. Give Freely. Share Creatively. Check it out here.