At my first job, as a summer sales clerk at a hippy boutique, I befriended a woman coworker, who it was whispered, traveled the world by private plane. This was hard to figure, given that we both made less than $200 a week selling tie- dyed t-shirts. I asked her about it one day. It turned out that she had in fact, recently flown to Nice, Marrakesh, and Martha’s Vineyard by Lear Jet, courtesy of an older couple and their circle of wealthy friends.
Eventually, she gave me the details. The first time she hopped a plane, she said, was out of desperation when her flight was cancelled after she had made plans to see a boyfriend up in Maine. She was cute as well as French, so the airplane mechanic was ultimately persuaded to introduce her to an older couple flying from Washington DC to Bar Harbor. Back in the days before airport security, it wasn’t hard to charm them for a ride. During the trip, they mentioned they had a two-year- old granddaughter. After landing, they exchanged addresses and my friend sent a thank you note and included a toddler size sweater she had knit herself, complete with the child’s name embroidered on the collar. The couple was so touched, they included her on future trips and passed her name along to friends who were only too happy to offer a seat on their Cessna in exchange for a hand knit scarf or hat.
Since splitting from my husband three years ago, I’ve discovered for myself the value of barter. I got the house in our divorce, but lost much of the cash to maintain it. Add to this, I was starting a business with a paltry amount of capital. Around the same time, I met a neighbor down the street, also divorced who had managed to secure himself a new stove actually a vintage garland stove-even better!) in exchange for his design services. This was truly inspiring.
I know how to knit. I actually made three pairs of fingerless gloves for the friends who helped pull me through the toughest months of my breakup. But I haven’t seen any of them wearing theirs. It turns out, not everyone goes in for a look that one friend described as “Agnes B. meets Les Miserables.” The trick to barter, I learned is identifying what it is you can do, or what it is you have that someone else will find truly useful. It also helps to keep an eye out for others’ needs.
When a five-foot lilac bush needed removing from a walkway near our house, I gave it to a farmer friend who offered to pay for it with twenty pounds of his farm-raised organic Berkshire pork, deliverable over two months, along with 4 dozen of his excellent fresh eggs. Since it was more eggs than I could use, I dropped off two dozen at the home of another neighbor who happens to be a fish broker. A few days later, he delivered 2 lbs of the freshest flounder my kids and I had ever eaten. That same month, I made a giant dish of lasagna for a carpenter who fixed my broken front door.
From there, the bartering spirit just seemed to flow like fresh maple syrup into the work arena. I was looking for someone to videotape an event I was hosting. A cinematographer friend, traded his camera AND his time, for a few evenings of babysitting for his two year old. Another friend traded editing time for subscription tickets to an off–broadway show, and my web designer offered a meaningful discount for a weeklong stay in my house while we were gone (he even fed the cats).
Before I was married, it seemed relationships were doomed to fail unless they were based on real mutual need like the frontier households of yore. Then I fell for a wildly impractical man who loved spending cash on services. But I still maintain that the most solid marriages work like partnerships for survival. So why then, couldn’t one build similar relationships, with multiple partners only without the sex. This may sound flinty to some. But I’m not looking to barter my way to riches like the Barter Kings of reality tv who started with a gold Elvis record and bargained their way up to a power boat. I am not looking to undervalue my friends’ skills or catch them off guard. They are after all my friends. Now more than even before. Bartering works, even if I can’t write it off on my taxes, and it won’t abolish my need for a Visa card anytime soon—unless someone wants to treat me to a deep tissue massage for a lesson in partnered Charleston.
Currently, I’ve got some window screens needing repair before mosquito season arrives. In return, I am ready to give up an extra membership card for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, good till March of 2014. Any takers?