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Mary Belk: Testing the adage that you never get something for nothing
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Mary Belk: Testing the adage that you never get something for nothing

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Belk: ‘Why am I paying more and enjoying it less?’

Mary Belk

I was raised by a long line of Puritan relatives who proclaimed, “You never get something for nothing.” But I’m a slow learner.

I tell myself I’m just striving to be a good American. The idea of getting something free is part of our heritage. The first settlers took whatever land they wanted free of charge. And later, the Homestead Act entitled families to property as long as they worked the land.

In the 1960s, grocery stores offered S&H Green Stamps. Tiny stamps were given for each dollar spent. After licking hundreds of grass-green rectangles and attaching them to the Green Stamp book, you could exchange them for merchandise. It was fun to pore over the countless items in the catalogue and pick a toaster or lawn chair.

Why can’t we be more like the Bushmen, the little people of the Kalahari Desert? They refuse to accept gifts because they don’t want to feel inferior to the giver. If a Bushman is offered a gift, he says that it’s worthless. By refusing the present, he cools the giver's heart and makes him humble.

I've certainly never been tempted to refuse a gift. For years I entered contests and visited time-share promotions. I was sure I’d sworn off this fruitless pastime until I got a call asking if I’d registered to win a truck. I remembered that I had. “Well, you didn’t win the truck,” the cheerful voice told me, “but you did win a propane gas grill.”

This tweaked my interest since my charcoal grill had recently died. All I had to do was tour a nearby resort area.

I unenthusiastically drove the 20 miles to a man-made lake that turned out to be the color of stewed prunes. I parked the car and plodded up the steps of the office building, a depressing quadruple-wide trailer. Inside, the walls were battleship gray and the furniture pea-soup green.

A young woman dressed in jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt greeted me and led me to a table by the window. Spreading her documents out like an oversized fan, she began her sales pitch using words that were clipped and choppy like someone practicing an unfamiliar language.

She took a drag on her Marlboro letting a cloud of choky fumes float from her nostrils into mine. Apparently, she hadn’t heard the news about second-hand smoke. I turned toward the open window as a woebegone-looking couple walked by. The man clutched a miniature grill under his arm. I squirmed uncomfortably on the naugahyde chair. I knew in that moment I’d given up my Saturday afternoon to end up with nothing more than a Barbie grill. I had a feeling this was going to cool my heart and make me humble.

I can’t promise that I’ll never try to get something for nothing again, but I am aiming to go straight. Now when I get a letter stating that I have definitely won A) a new Mercedes conversion van, B) $20,000 cash or C) a set of stainless steel knives, I just ask myself,” Do I really need more knives?”

Mary Belk lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.

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