Nobody knows the value of anything anymore. I hear pawnshops in Beverly Hills are filling up with grand pianos and original Warhols. More than ever, your stuff is worth only what it's worth to somebody else.There's an old-school solution to troubled money that's circumventing paper (or plastic) altogether: barter, the direct exchange of goods and services. We've all done it, often without realizing we're bartering.
I once helped some friends move an acquaintance into a new apartment, and when no pizza materialized at the end of the schlep, there was some grumbling about a rip-off. Not that there was a stated contract, but everyone knows the implicit value of helping someone move: a large pizza at the least, complemented by a 12-pack of beer if the movee is looking to turn an acquaintance into a fast friend—and a stop at the gas station to fuel up the borrowed pickup if said movee's a mensch.
The place where early-21st-century Americans barter is craigslist. That's where you go to trade a balloon-animal lesson for a professional earwax coning, or a humidifier for a dehumidifier. So, what's the going rate right now on craigslist for helping move a stranger?
“My friend bailed on me,” a craigslister from Hillcrest says. “I need help moving asap! Only a small load, would fit in a pickup, all light things. Will trade hour [of moving assistance] for an hour massage.” It's not clear if the lister is male or female, but if you're not picky and you've got a truck—what a bargain: After straining your back lifting a sofa, you get the kinks worked out. Beats pizza any day.
Or maybe you don't need help moving, but you want to move in style. A lister in Carlsbad offers a vintage Louis Vuitton garment bag in like-new condition that her husband purchased at an estate sale 25 years ago. If you've got a Mac G5 you don't want, the fancy suit bag is yours.
Or maybe you've already moved and you don't need your trailer anymore; you seek a dog to guard the new yard. A lister in Santee wants that trailer and has a United Kennel Club, Purple Ribbon, 5-month-old, male pit bull puppy “worth over 1500 dollars” to trade you for it.
Bartering keeps it local. No long-distance shipping to spew a ton of carbon into the atmosphere. And no credit card and no PayPal. Every day, craigslist functions as a bustling, virtual, municipal marketplace of traders circumventing the fuzzy symbolic logic of money and navigating a much simpler economic equation: You want this and I have it; I want that and you have it—let's swap.
Some of the exchanges are simple. For example, Sally in Mission Beach is an expert in spiritual / mental healing with a quarter-century of experience, but sitting there helping screw people's heads on tight for 25 years has put an equal number of extra pounds on her frame. She's looking for a trainer to help her shed the unwanted weight in return for some healing therapy. An hour of inner health has got to be worth an equivalent hour of outer.
It gets trickier when the value is less obvious. Take the lister in Clairemont who wants to trade his “100% genuine Rolex two-tone 18K Yellow Gold & Stainless Steel Oyster Perpetual Datejust watch with the quickset date function and a gold champagne dial that is very impressive-looking” for a four-door automatic sedan. Value can be determined through a professional appraisal of the watch and by checking the blue-book value of the car, but if the value is uneven, haggling over additional cash compensation could complicate the deal.
Without formal appraisals, a haggle seems even more inevitable: Christopher wants to trade printing and copies for dental work; a lister in Serra Mesa wants to trade Avon products for housecleaning. And you just know you'll have to bargain with the lister in San Marcos who wants to trade a box of Tarzan movies and “a few Beanie Babies” for a working vacuum cleaner in good condition (with accessories because they “have hardwood floors”).
Some offers are darkly mysterious. A lister in Downtown San Diego can get you all the Ritalin you need. In return, he is “also looking to get out of pain.” What does he expect for all that sweet, sweet Ritalin? Sex? A chiropractor? Respond at your own risk!
A lot of people don't know what they want, only that they have something and would be willing to let it go if you could just come up with an equal thing. A sample of items you could've bartered for on the day I wrote this, and which still might be available: No Doubt or Padres tickets, a kayak, Viejas gambling certificates, a tattoo.
If you're struggling, you might as well list all the possessions you don't need anymore and see what they're worth to another. Everyone knows the story of the guy in Canada who started out with a paper clip and kept trading up until he got a house.
I didn't expect to take the leap myself when doing research for this column, but then I found her: a former editorial assistant at a literary agency offering feedback to authors seeking agents. Things she's willing to trade for? A lot of things I can't provide, like a pedicure, but wait—she wants tickets to the zoo! As a Zoological Society member, I have a couple extra passes sitting on my desk. This could be my big break—and it didn't cost a dime. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.