A Moveable Feast
With Absolutely No Cash, A Reporter Gets Fed For A Week
Plop, Plop. Fizz, Fizz.
By Michael Colton
Congressional receptions, hotel conventions, happy hours, gallery openings, supermarket samples -- you name it, I ate it. This mission was a challenge; most people didn't think I would last past Wednesday. According to Colleen Evans, a spokeswoman for Renaissance Hotels, the heyday of free food was the 1980s, when large conventions hosted lavish parties and the Perrier flowed freely. But there's still enough food around that I didn't have to cheat.
For reasons of decency, I stayed away from soup kitchens. I didn't steal, and I didn't accept any handouts, either. (An actual woman asked to take me out to dinner, and I had to decline because of journalistic integrity.) I also didn't rely on Washington Post connections; as a member of the pampered media elite, I could have eaten practically anywhere I wanted, but last week I was just Joe Citizen. I didn't need a press badge, just a little ingenuity and no shame.
I head to Einstein Brothers Bagels in Georgetown for my first free meal and snatch a cut-up banana-nut bagel from a sample plate on the counter. Here I first encounter The Gaze -- the cool glare from the manager that says, "You're not following the rules of capitalist consumption." Obviously, that sample bagel is meant to entice me to purchase my own bagel, but I don't play that game. I ask for a glass of water instead.
Lunch brings me to the Silver Spring Community Library, where they're dedicating a mural or something. I slap on a name tag and mingle with the civic-minded folk, waiting for the women's club to unveil the spread: fruit, cheese, cake, lemonade, iced tea and more bagels. Free food does have a price, I find: small talk. "Yef, if weally if a wovely mural," I say, my mouth filled with smoked salmon cream cheese.
Freeloading legend and former congressional aide Russ Batson wrote a pamphlet four years ago, "Eat Free in D.C.: A Guide to Budget-Neutral Dining," which portrayed congressional buildings as hotbeds of free food. Following his advice, I prowl around the Cannon House Office Building for dinner, hoping to stumble upon a reception for a retiring legislative aide or a new tobacco settlement. I smell cookies near the office of Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) and popcorn outside the door of Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) but inside I am greeted with only blank stares from secretaries. I see two watermelons sitting inside the Veterans Affairs Office, but they don't fit in my mouth.
Stomach beginning to rumble, I leave Congress for happy hour at the Hawk and Dove, where I eat nine of the slimiest chicken wings I've ever had. They are the color of traffic cones, and they aren't exactly free; I buy a beer under pressure from The Gaze. "Happy hours are great places for free food, but not necessarily good food," says Tim Morningstar, a former White House intern. On the same Capitol Hill block I go to Taverna the Greek Islands, which offers sausage, potatoes, pizza and a cold, mushy dish.
At home, I steal a Pepto-Bismol tablet from my roommate.
At 8 a.m., the End-Time Handmaidens and Servants Convention at the Sheraton Washington has an intriguing name, New Age literature and a curious mix of Jewish and Christian iconography, but absolutely no breakfast food. Across the street at the Omni Shoreham, something called the NetWare Users International Convention at least provides me with cranberry juice and coffee.
These hotel conventions are easy to slip into. Though I lack a name tag, I wear a jacket and tie and look like I know what I'm doing. "The key component of freeloading is confidence," says Danny Tobey, an intern at a lobbying firm. "Always look like you're supposed to be exactly where you are with a slice of cantaloupe in hand."
In general, the larger the function, the easier it is to sneak into. Unless, of course, it's an invite-only, show-your-ticket-at-the-door event, but even those gates can sometimes be crashed. According to Mame Reiley, who manages WashingtonInc., a party service, "The more events you do, you basically see the same faces of people who were not invited but still show up."
Amina Runyan-Shefa, a researcher for the budget travel guide "Let's Go Washington, D.C.," mentions supermarkets as good places for free snacks, but Fresh Fields on Wisconsin Avenue disappoints: The only samples I get are a spoonful each of basmati rice salad and chicken fried rice. Having heard rumors of generous samples, I go to Costco (a k a Price Club) in Pentagon City, an economy-size warehouse stocked with every economy-size product known to man.
The rumors are true. Costco offers a terrific lunch, doled out in little paper cups by women in blue frocks: Atlantic salmon stuffed with shrimp, rice and imitation crab meat; spinach ravioli; Swiss cheese and spinach quiche; an assortment of breads; marinated mushrooms; baked potatoes; four-bean salad; Popsicles. There are Ling Ling Chicken Potstickers (3 1/2 lbs./$8.69); nachos (Sargento 4 Cheese Mexican Recipe Blend, 2 lbs./$5.99); and Minute Maid orange juice (2 x 96 oz./$5.59) to wash it all down.
As I circle the sample ladies they give me The Gaze, so I ask typical consumer questions. "What exactly is this stuffed with?" "Which aisle has the cheese?" I also grab a shopping cart to look like a paying customer. Among the Costco items I put in my cart: a 100-foot garden hose, a 20-pound propane cylinder, a five-liter bottle of olive oil, a CD of Frank Sinatra live in Australia and a pair of Calvin Klein black jeans. I examine a Stratolounger Swivel Rocker Recliner ($299.99). I do not buy these things.
On my way home from Costco I stop in at Borders Books & Music to hear the "Grosse Pointe Blank" soundtrack at the listening station and read the latest Harper's magazine. Unconsciously, I am still freeloading, taking advantage of corporate generosity for my own entertainment. A clerk looks at me, but I stare down The Gaze.
For Tuesday's dinner I go to the Capitol, where I've heard there's a reception for an art exhibit in room HC-5. Great spread: crab cakes, little quesadillas, melon wrapped in prosciutto, smoked salmon and cream cheese on pumpernickel. As I sip my chardonnay, I overhear a couple of congressional interns who are also partaking of the complimentary treats: "So your congressman supports the NEA? That's cool. I don't know if mine does or not." One of them tells me that she sometimes goes several days without paying for food. I ask for her telephone number.
Though I am stuffed, I go to a dinner reception at the Hyatt Regency for Oliver North. It is sponsored by the Freedom Alliance, which turns out to be a misnomer. There is nothing free here; without a ticket, all I get is a cash bar and a quick glimpse of the Great Patriot.
Later that night I go out for dessert in Georgetown. At Ben and Jerry's I ask for samples of Vanilla Chocolate Chunk, Holy Cannoli and Peanut Butter Cup; at the Haagen-Dazs across the street I get spoonfuls of Butter Pecan and Brownies a la Mode. I hit both stores because of the Universal Law of Sampling: If you ask for more than three samples at any one establishment, the employee hits the Emergency Freeloader Panic Button under the counter, summoning the nearest economist.
Back at the Sheraton Washington I mooch off the complimentary breakfast at the Tenth Annual National Conference on Federal Quality. I have no idea what this means, but it involves free pencils and chocolates from exhibitors like the Council for Continuous Improvement.
For lunch I sleep through a panel "discussion" about the National Endowment for the Arts at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in which all three panelists are anti-NEA. Afterward there is a measly fruit-and-cheese plate, but I stake out my corner of the table and wolf down smoked Gouda like it's 1999. I have reverted to savagery; I have become a ruthless hunter-gatherer. I am getting used to eating all my meals standing up.
The problem with my free food so far is not quantity -- even a plate of cheese can fill you up -- but quality. My stomach aches with indigestion, not hunger. But at Ciao Baby downtown, I hit the mother lode at happy hour -- decent chow with minimal grease: antipasto, lentils, couscous, rice, black beans, four types of pasta and six types of gourmet pizza (make sure to try the mushroom and chicken). This is the best free meal since Costco! Billy the bartender asks me three times if I want another beer, but by now I have developed a Counter-Gaze that says, "Go ahead. Kick me out. I dare you." I grab an after-dinner mint and split.
In Room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Sens. Carol Moseley Braun and Dick Durbin are hosting a breakfast for their Illinois constituents. I have never been to Illinois, but I eat a cranberry muffin. There is no orange juice to be found.
The room contains mostly Illinois high school students in matching purple jackets, here on some sort of field trip. They ask the senators softball questions like "How important do you think it is to have the Internet in the classroom?" I feel I should speak but all I can think is, "The California constituent breakfast has juice. The Florida constituent breakfast has juice. With all due respect, Senators, where is your juice?" The more free food I eat, the more demanding I become.
Lunch is even worse. An open house at the Bethune Museum and Archives offers only "tea cakes." Tea cakes? Is this someone's idea of a sick joke? For the first time this week, I am hungry. I feel empty.
I ask a cab driver, Big Frank, if he knows where I can get a free lunch. He has no suggestions: "Everyone's in business to make a buck," says Big Frank. How right he is; I ask for a couple of fries at Burger King, and they say they don't give free samples. Neither does the hot dog vendor on the corner, or the woman walking down the street with a candy bar who threatens to call the police. I am hungry, and no one cares. But I must not give in. I must not make monetary transactions. I must wait until happy hour.
At the Front Page in Dupont Circle, happy hour is certainly worth the wait. They have a guy handing out tacos on paper plates -- no wonder this place is crawling with interns. The food is strategically located away from the bar, so I can walk out beerless with two tacos. No Gaze. No mess. No one gets hurt.
But free dinner is not over. I am not sated. I go to Pizzeria Uno in Georgetown for free slices of free pizza and then head for a free opening at the Govinda free Gallery where I free get tanked on free wine free. Free. Freeeee.
At the Washington Hilton and Towers I arrive too late for breakfast with the Society for Organ Sharing. This is probably for the best. Instead, I play it safe with a bagel from the overachievers at the College Democrats of America meeting.
I find free sandwiches for lunch at a book discussion for the International Food Policy Research Institute inside the National Restaurant Association headquarters. The irony! Don't these people realize that my very presence inside their building is a subversion, that I defy everything they hold dear? I am rocking their world, and they don't even know it.
My last meal of the week is a festive African buffet at Songhai restaurant near Howard University. Out on the street, I see naive consumers forking over their hard-earned cash for dinner at various establishments. This money could be better spent on entertainment, prescription drugs and lottery tickets, yet in exchange for nourishment they must, reluctantly, give it up. Suckers.
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