No free lunch? Ha!

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July 21, 2003 // UPDATED 10:59 am - April 30, 2007
By: Stephanie Watson
Stephanie Watson

On Nicollet Mall, there's free food and more

Last year around this time, I was browsing the Farmer's Market on Nicollet Mall when some guy running a soda promotion offered me a free T-shirt if I would shout "Make 7! Up Yours!" while navigating a hopscotch board chalked on the sidewalk. What, humiliate myself and offend passersby for a XXXL logo-besmirched T-shirt I'd never wear? Gimme the megaphone.

There's something exciting about getting a freebie, no matter how cheap or useless it is. It's akin to winning a prize from the State Fair. Even though you recognize that it's crap later, boy, that sawdust-stuffed SpongeBob seems wildly precious when you win it.

While walking down the Mall a couple of Thursdays ago, I realized that I was part of a throng of people gravitating towards a woman giving out samples. Everybody was slowing to receive a free gift -- even the most harried-looking executives. Seeing this, I felt anxious to get my hands on one. I felt very deeply that whatever the hell it was, I had never needed or wanted anything else more in my life.

Keep moving, people! I silently screamed at the sluggish crowd, and I prayed that the samples wouldn't run out before it was my turn. I looked at the people in front of me, reaching out cupped hands towards the sample giver, and read their minds: Ooooh, yes! Free stuff! Gimme!

When it was finally my turn to lean in for a freebie, the woman handed me a ballpoint pen stamped with the name of a nearby law firm. With a sense of relief and triumph that should be reserved for marathon winners, I dropped the prize into my purse for safekeeping. No matter that I hate writing with ballpoint pens, and feel no affinity towards the law firm that offered them. It was free stuff! And therefore good!

What's even better than complimentary pens, though, is free food. Every time Hershey's or Nabisco or whomever comes up with a new treat, they hand some out to the Downtowners for sampling. This is great for people like me, who are too cheap to buy lunch. And if the freebie planets are aligned, you might even get a sample candy bar and a New! Improved! can of pop handed to you all on the same day.

However, the skyway system is where the really great free stuff is. I was walking briskly past the Crystal Court Godiva a few months back (the cheap don't stop for dollar chocolates), when what to my scavenging eyes should appear but the lady behind the counter handing out samples. And not just candy fragments, mind you. Whole truffles. I was in business clothes, and thus felt I could pass as a chic chocolate patron in order to score a sample. I sauntered in, confidently swept my eyes across the lovely displays and OH! faked a look of surprise for Lady Godiva. A sample? Why, how nice! I had no idea...The Williams-Sonoma store in the IDS has similarly gourmet samples, almost on a daily basis -- mini-waffles and crepes and stuff.

Chasing after no-cost goodies makes me feel a part of a secret society of sample hunters -- invisible, yet everywhere there is free junk to be had. Fellow members, you know who you are. You got a thrill when you picked up this paper because it was free. You've got a collection of travel-size shampoos and promotional stress balls on your desk. Help me. They know me too well in Godiva now; I can't play Browsing Rich Girl anymore. The Saks perfume girls have started to give me dirty looks when I spritz on my weekly dose of Chanel, and if I ask for one more free cigar box at the smoke shop, they're going to snuff out a stogie on my arm. Please, I need your fresh freebie sources, before I do something drastic. Like spend money.

Stephanie Watson is a freelance writer, Downtown renter and renowned cheapskate. E-mail her at stephwatson2002