The Secret Lives of Strangers

XX Files
After writing this story, M. Miller finally finished sewing her quilt. (Courtesy Author)
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By M. Miller
Sunday, June 14, 2009

I came home from work exhausted, wanting nothing more than a bath and my bed. But minutes after the cursory check of e-mail, there I was on my bike, pedaling toward a stranger's apartment in downtown Washington.

I hadn't met this "Richard" before. But he was giving away leftover vegetarian pantry goods -- brown rice miso, organic blackstrap molasses, four kinds of seaweed -- and I wanted them. He'd posted a notice on Freecycle, an online network where people offer up items that may otherwise end up in the trash. I'd joined months ago with grand plans about giving things away and being part of the green movement. But money had been tight, and so far I'd only been a Taker, not a Giver.

Richard's swanky apartment building was easy to find, and, for a moment, I fantasized about what it would be like to live in such a lavish setting. Richard fit right in with the surroundings, sporting a casually expensive haircut and effortlessly faded jeans. I, however, looked a little bedraggled. My natty yoga pants were still rolled up so they wouldn't get caught in the drive chain of my bike, and my hair was frizzy from the rain and matted from my helmet. Fortunately, Richard still let me in. I peeled off my damp shoes at the front door in an effort not to muss his hardwood floors.

These kinds of meet-ups can be awkward. There's the uncomfortable feeling that I'm trespassing in someone else's home. At the same time, they're completely captivating -- like watching a preview for a reality TV show but never getting to see a full episode. There was the Shoe Rack Giver who lived near the zoo. Way too thin. Dark circles under her eyes. Holding a large shopping bag with the unassembled shoe rack in one hand and her BlackBerry in the other. Was she ill? An eating disorder? Did she lose her job? The Ironing Board Giver on Capitol Hill mentioned that her friend had gone missing two days earlier. He had two kids and a frantic wife, and no one knew where he was. From time to time, I still wonder if they ever found him.

Though brief, my Freecycle relationships often blur the line between stranger and friend. When Amanda, the Bag of Felted Sweaters Giver, had to reschedule the handoff because a family member had gotten sick, we swapped a series of e-mails in the "how are you doing," "thanks for your support" genre. It went on for weeks. But after she finally gave me her sweaters, there was no need to e-mail anymore. It was sort of sad. She said to send a picture when I finished the quilt I was making with sweaters. That was a while ago, and I'm only halfway done with the sewing.

It's faster to throw things out, really. But these people take the time to pass items along so someone else can benefit from them. Once, feeling miserable after a long day at work, I posted a plea for GRE study materials (you know, in case a third round of grad school seemed like a good idea). In just a few hours, I had offers. I couldn't help but feel that this group of strangers was more supportive than the boss I saw every day.

I felt the same sense of camaraderie in Richard's apartment. We talked about travel, work, food and his plans to go to design school in New Zealand. He seemed thoughtful and interesting, and there were so many questions I wanted to ask him. Why New Zealand? What were his life plans? How come he bought a whole bag of macadamia nuts and didn't eat any? But Freecycle etiquette doesn't allow for the long linger. So I finished packing up the seaweed, soy sauce and yogi calming tea, jammed my helmet back on my head, and we wished each other the best of luck.

That was it. It seemed odd that I would never see Richard again. Part of me wanted to invite him to meet for coffee, to stay in touch, to visit him in New Zealand if I ever traveled in that direction. But that would be ridiculous. This was just a brief exchange -- a passing along of hand-me-down food.

As I headed home, it occurred to me that I didn't even know Richard's last name. For the first time, I wondered if I could trust him and his food.

In that moment, I considered throwing it all out. It would be easy to pitch the whole stash in one of the city's trash cans. No one would know. But just the thought seemed so anti-Freecycle. So I didn't. At home, I did give the macadamia nuts an experimental sniff before sampling one. No suspicious bitterness. Just wonderful, fatty, Hawaiian nut taste.


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