It's said that necessity is the mother of invention. All too familiar with overdraft fees and creditor calls, I recently found myself at a crossroads and came upon one absolute truth—being broke sucks. But I wasn't about to let my personal economic distress bring me down. So, equipped with the air in my lungs and a full tank of gas (thanks to some unused gift cards left over from Christmas), I took on the task of doing as many free activities in a week as possible. I came to find out that from the cultural to the physical, San Diego County boasts an array of freebies. The rules were simple: One week, no money.
I started my first day by viewing the world's biggest book in the La Jolla public library; it's 5 feet tall, opens to about 7 feet wide and weighs 130 pounds. It went on display a few years ago while on temporary loan from a patron, branch manager Richard Burke said, and it became such a draw that it's now there on a semi-permanent basis. To keep things interesting, one page is turned each day. I stared in awe watching a diminutive, glove-wearing librarian flip the page. Sure is a mighty big book.
Intrigued by a group of people who roll balls around on a close-cropped patch of grass on Laurel Street at the west entrance to Balboa Park, I investigated and learned that what they're doing is called lawn bowling. The San Diego Lawn Bowling Club has been around for 75 years and offers free lessons. I jumped on it.
“It's a fantastic sport, played by a very social group. Everybody is in encouraging mode—you'll never hear smack talk here,” club president Georgie Deno said. The object of the game is to roll “bowls” (not “balls”) as close as possible to a smaller ball, called a jack.
“It's like playing chess from 100 feet away,” instructor Boyce Stringer remarked.
Free lessons are available regularly. You have to wear flat-soled shoes and, whatever you do, do not refer to it as “bocce ball.” Bocce is an Italian derivative of the sport, and lawn bowling and bocce clubs are like a more civil equivalent to the Bloods and the Crips. You've been warned.
Next, I headed to the Chula Vista Nature Center, home to an impressive shark and ray experience and a “Raptor Row” aviary, but at $6 it was way too rich for my blood, so I settled for some free bird watching. The area surrounding the center is one of the few remaining coastal wetlands in California; at least one-third of the nation's rare and endangered species depend on such places.
So far, my day had been a moderate, retiree-level stroll. Little did I know what was in store with my next free activity.
While checking out the birds, I noticed I was coming down with a case of the ass-jiggles, so I decided to do something about it. I started by taking an introductory boot-camp-style session with personal trainer Kevin LaCourte. I arrived at Murray Ridge Park and downed a Rockstar Energy Drink. The hour-long session included extreme cardio, seemingly never-ending medicine-ball push-ups and grueling figure-four crunches. I did not feel like a rock star. Mildly successful folksinger, maybe. Just so you know, I have the stamina of an asthmatic John Goodman. Luckily, LaCourte has the patience of a saint. I found myself at the end of Day 1 out of breath and exhausted. What had I gotten myself into?
Barely able to move, I willed myself over to the museums in Balboa Park, which offer free admission on a revolving schedule to local residents. My visit started with the Fossil Mysteries exhibit at the Natural History Museum, where I discovered, among other things, that fossil dung from a prehistoric sloth contained remains of 72 different plant species and that the sea cow thrived in Chula Vista 3.5 million years ago. Thanks to boot camp, I was walking with a certain elephant-man-style mosey, and I'm pretty sure I spooked a few children at the museum.
I dragged myself over to the Model Railroad Museum. From the Southern Pacific lower-quadrant semaphore that greets you to the tie-dyed train T-shirts available in the gift shop, this place is a true gem. Remarkable is its centerpiece, the San Diego-to-Arizona Eastern Railroad model. It's funny to see the industrious little factories and workforce along the U.S. line, and then as soon as it crosses over to Mexico, there's barbed wire, a dirt road, a junkyard and what looks like a girl in a mini-dress heading over to Coahuila Street to turn tricks. There's also a man in front of an overheated truck with angst on his little plastic face and two bums drinking on a makeshift table south of the border. I pointed this out to one of the volunteers, who replied, “Well, they were there when I got here 10 years ago.” Rock on, Model Railroad Museum.
Next stop: the Centro Cultural de la Raza, the Chicano art-and-culture center housed in a former water tank adorned with a large mural. In the '70s, a controversial part of the mural had to be covered. It was called “Bicentennial King” and depicted a hooded skeleton with a syringe in one hand and a cross in the other, which was stirring a cauldron. It was deemed offensive to folks at the nearby Naval hospital and was replaced with a portrait of Geronimo. I told a centro staff person about my south-of-the-border observations over at the railroad museum. I predict war.
What would a fun week of free activities and services be without a free STD screening? Luckily for me, the county government offers it. They try to liven the mood by playing action movies in the waiting room—nothing says “Sit back and relax while we get your HIV results” like Die Hard: With a Vengeance. As for the results, well, let's just say that pesky rash was not an allergic reaction to Suavitel fabric softener, as I had originally thought. As I was leaving, a K-Fed look-alike emptied out the free condom basket. He must have taken at least 80 of them. No way he has that much game.
Feeling like getting my groove on, I called up Ann Marsh of the Cabrillo International Folk Dancers, who offer a free class to newcomers as a way of promoting the club. “We really want people to join us and learn; it's such fun. We're addicted to folk dancing,” Marsh told me. As soon as I got there, I was treated as one of their own. Teacher Georgina Sham really made me feel at home on the dance floor. I got partnered with Edith, a grandmother of two, and we tripped the light fantastic. We dove straight in with a lively Bolivian mountain dance. The Texas waltz followed, and then we got down and dirty with the Romanian gypsy, during which Georgina belted out some serious high-pitched yodeling. Think Xena: Warrior Princess. The two-hour session was quite the workout. One man there told me he usually goes through five T-shirts a night! Boot camp ain't got nothin' on these folks. By the time the class ended, I was hooked on the dance. I had the gypsy rhythm in me. And talk about cheap—a yearlong club membership costs $6.
Later, I got a call from my friend Diana, half of DJ duo Dubbadeez, inviting me to their bimonthly night at Kadan Club. With no cover and their midnight “booty shaking” contest, how could I resist? I took my newly acquired moves, headed over to Kadan in Normal Heights and danced my troubles away to the sounds of Hot Chip and Chromeo.
My third day started with a visit to the California Center for the Arts in Escondido to take in the free first-Wednesday program, which included a show by L.A.-based prop comedian Chipper Lowell. The retirement-village buses that lined Escondido Boulevard told me I was in for a treat.
“I sold all my suave moves to this guy named Copperfield,” Lowell told the packed house. Then he threw some panties at a lady in the front row so she would throw them back up on stage in crazed-fan fashion. Lowell was kind of like Carrot Top on a Pixy Stix rush.
“If you don't like the show, you can ask for your money back—oh, that's right, it's free. So I guess you're stuck with me,” he told an audience made up mostly of octogenarians. On my way out, I picked an orange from the center's lush orchard. Don't call the cops—I asked.
My freebie scavenger hunt then took me to the Hui O Hawaii Club in Spring Valley for a free ukulele lesson. Big Island native Maelani Cazimero, or “auntie,” as her friends know her, greeted me with an effusive “Aloha!” and a big hug. She taught me the proper way to hold the ukulele—or “uke,” as we cool kids call it—and some basic chords. She was surprised by my initial clumsiness: “You have a name like Enrique and you don't know music? It's in your koko, your blood,” she said.
When one of the uke aficionados in the room started rattling his prescription-pill container to make the sound of a maraca, the whole group laughed and began an impromptu jam session.
Auntie was graceful and energetic in her teaching and mentioned that the instrument is for everyone, regardless of age. “Oh, honey, I might be 76, but I can still kick some major okole,” she said with a laugh.
Annual membership is $24, and hula classes for both genders are offered as well. BYOU (Bring your own ukulele). “Pawnshop ones work out just fine,” Maelani assured. So don't be lolo (stupid) and make sure to “freepeat” this one.
To contrast the day's earlier activities, I hit up an opera lecture at the Downtown Central Library. (On my way to it, I checked out the library's teapot exhibit. Riveting stuff, I know.) The subject was Donizetti's recondite Mary Queen of Scots, and it included history and music selections as part of the Opera Insights series that will go on through the end of April.
As interesting as that was, a kind of ennui was settling (first stages of withdrawal from my folk-dancing addiction, perhaps) so I headed over to The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma to check out its movie night. A free weekly social that attracts a funky mix of people, it includes a classic flick projected onto a screen over their vintage, oyster-shaped pool. The movie that night was Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Spicoli's timeless words resonated in the breezy night air: “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine.” Opera, ukulele and Sean Penn—that's how I roll.
Earlier in the week, I'd been at The Center in Hillcrest to join a marriage-equality rally, only to find out that it had been postponed. That's the thing with freebies—they're sometimes fickle. Fortunately, all was not lost, as The Center has a cyber center with free access to computers. I took my lemon and decided to make some juicy craigslist lemonade. The website is a treasure trove of free stuff. In it I found a posting for free horse manure and another for a free used swamp cooler. Tempting as those were, I kept looking and discovered a post for a free haircut.
Doubt struck me with this one. The Internets is a scary place. But this cut was offered by a licensed cosmetologist, Delia Roldan, who works out of the Mane Tamers salon in Sorrento Valley. I asked her what would prompt a professional to offer freebies.
“The economy is really slow right now. Gas prices are high and tax season is here, and instead of sitting around all day, I posted the ad as a way of getting experience.”
Having cleared that up, we got down to business. She gave me exactly what I asked for: a punk-rock 'do with a hint of carnival and a touch of saloon. I loved the look. The best part is that if some hater says, “I hope you didn't pay for that,” I can proudly respond with a gleeful “No I didn't.” As I was leaving the salon, I noticed a huge banner outside the neighboring racquet-ball center announcing free hatha yoga. It had taken a few days, but freebies had now started finding me.
I was looking fly and really getting into the swing of things, so I decided to take on some more grueling physical activity—boxing. I was nervous, so I first went to the Olympic Training Center in the South Bay for a free tour. After an inspirational video, an Olympic athlete guides you through the facility. Up to 300 athletes can train here at once in sports like archery, rugby and rowing, and it has the only Olympic BMX track (new to the games in 2008). I learned that AstroTurf should be watered because it helps with friction and lessens the impact of falls. Good to know.
I felt the spirit of Cassius and Evander in me; I was ready for the ring. Other places might think they're all that by giving you one free lesson, but City Boxing in Downtown goes all out and offers a whole free month. The workout starts with a brisk jump-rope session, and within three minutes I was a hot, sweaty mess. I could barely work in two full skips in a row, a sad contrast to the guy next to me who was jumping with grace and speed.
Trainer Manny Melchor, a former International Boxing Federation champion was relentless. “Hook, jab, jab!” he called out in a thick Filipino accent. Little did he know that I held back because I wanted to protect my fragile ukulele fingers.
I was ready to throw in the towel when, in my delirium, I saw the ghost of Burgess Meredith screaming in my face: “You're gonna eat lightnin', and you're gonna crap thunder, kid!” his spittle landing on my brow, co-mingling with my sweat. It was excruciating and rewarding at the same time.
The Museum of Contemporary Art's monthly TNT (Thursday Night Thing) awaited. It included amazing art, music by local band The Vision of a Dying World and a free create-your-own-pet-rock station. Outside, I met “True,” an emerging artist who saw in this event a perfect venue to show his own art. In true guerilla fashion, he had canvases lining an adjacent construction fence and was encouraging passersby to pose with one of his painted mannequins.
By the end of Day 4, I was starting to feel like Bart Simpson in the episode in which he saves up all his free birthday coupons and indulges in everything he can think of. I was starting to feel entitled. How would I ever pay for anything again? I had indeed become a glutton of gratis.
A new day came, and with it, a furniture upholstery class at City College. Upon completing an assessment and orientation, City College offers an array of free ongoing vocational training ranging from auto body to electronics. I'd never used a sewing machine, but master upholsterer Ernie Romero made me feel at ease. Double welt? You've got it. French seam? Oui, monsieur!
While Downtown, I swung by the Church of Scientology, enticed by a free personality exam. The 200-question test—which includes such probers as “Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?” and “Do you get twitches in your muscles when there's no logical reason for it?”—was developed to measure personality flaws, get to the root of them and raise a subject's various conditions from unacceptable to desirable. At the end of the hour-long test, minister Dan Wittermann went over my results and concluded that I was unstable, and that even though my activity level was through-the-roof on my graph, I was at risk of becoming alarmingly inactive soon. He emphasized the power of the mind in leading a better life and assured me that Scientology holds the key to success. He referred to L. Ron Hubbard not by name, but rather as “Him” or “He” and told me “He” had been a prolific author on many topics, not just science fiction, and that surfing had been brought to California by “Him.”
Wittermann also shared with me the planned expansion of the local church to an 8.6 acre parcel in East County. “Great things are going to be unleashed on the planet by us in the next four years,” he said vehemently, his bright blue eyes piercing me.
I felt oddly at great ease during our talk and asked him about some common misconceptions. He assured me the church has no link to space aliens and that no brainwashing is involved. “Do you know everything it would take to brainwash someone—sleep depravation, food depravation?” Wittermann asked. Nope, I didn't. But he did.
I headed over the bridge to the Coronado public library, where a few free exhibits were on view—one on presidential stamps, another on Beatrix Potter figurines and a third titled Hats Off to 2008, a retrospective on the history of ladies' hats. Fur, straw, pillbox and, yes, berets were all part of this glorious display.
The evening was looming and I was really looking forward to my next activity, a free fencing class courtesy of the La Jolla Golden Blades. Coach Vijay Prasad, who runs the program at the UCSD gym, has trained contestants that have made it all the way to the Junior Olympics.
“It attracts people that like to be intellectually involved as well as physically,” said instructor Bill Sneider. I learned the different types of weapons—foil, épée and sabre—and focused on footwork and the art of surprise. A game of class and deception, it felt awesome getting in the lineup and belting out my first “En garde!” If you find this sport is for you, a 10-week course will set you back a mere $36.
I had been out of the house for most of the week and noticed that Boris, my hyper French bulldog, was even more restless than usual. My week of freebies had taken its toll on him, so I went online and found a meet-up group that was holding its monthly get-together at Capehart dog park in Pacific Beach. There were at least 25 Frenchies there, and, coincidently, the Chihuahua group was holding its meet-up as well. Needless to say, it was hilarity on parade.
All that running around left Boris quite musty, so I cruised over to South Bark Dog Wash, the do-it-yourself, one-stop primping shop in South Park, and broke my no-money rule. The good news is that with every paid wash, your pooch gets a complimentary blueberry facial. Co-owner Donna Walker told me she dabbled with other ingredients when putting the formula together, like cranberry and vanilla. “We found that blueberry is a tearless cleanser, and it has an optical brightener—not to mention dogs just look funnier with a blue face.” South Bark now sells it to pet spas nationwide and in seven countries.
As Boris was getting his J-Lo on, a song started playing on the shop's sound system—“Nothing's For Free” by Chula Vista reggae band Stranger. I hope Stranger gets a chance to read this guide—they'll change their tune! After the pampering, Boris got a free kiwi-and-dried-chicken-breast treat—yum! Washes start at $10. He loved the treatment and ended up looking months younger (that's years to you and me).
Up next, ninja training. That's right, ninja training. My endless search for the coolest free activity had reached its zenith (no offense, Cabrillo folk dancers). It was an introductory lesson at Miramar's Bujinkan Anaguma Dojo in ninja and samurai arts. I arrived to find a group in action. The students' adeptness was impressive; all that was missing was a tall forest for them to chase each other around à la Crouching Tiger. Owner Laura Stegner walked me through the dojo and told me that pupils at the school, now in its third year, include everyone from IT techs to special-forces military personnel. She also said ninjas don't publicly boast of their training, so you never know who's a ninja. There are ninjas amongst us. The person sitting next to you at work—he or she just might be a trained killer.
Stegner introduced me to Thomas, a greenbelt, who showed me some moves. He explained how each movement can vary according to its relation with the natural elements. An air wrist escape, for example, is lighter in motion than the more intense earth variation. Our session also included correct stance and weight balance, swift punch evasion and proper floor rolling, or ukemi. I hadn't done one of those since kindergarten.
And those awesome ninja stars, or shuriken, as we experts know them—Laura told me they use plastic ones to train. “The state of California is very particular about that,” she noted. The dojo has several packages, and cost of training depends on the number of classes. In any case, I am now officially cool.
Dusk was looming when I headed down to the harbor to partake in SNL, Walkabout International's Saturday night walk through Downtown. It included the Gaslamp Quarter and a stroll along the sculptires that line the harbor as part of the port district's “Public Arts Focus.” The group holds free walks every day in various places throughout the city. Among the most popular are the 6 a.m. Sunrise Series strolls and the Mission Hills Meander. Little did these fine people know that I had their back with my newly acquired ninja skills.
My evening capped off with Ray at Night, the monthly North Park gallery fest in which every shop along Ray Street exhibits work by local artists—even the corner pet store is in on it. Amid the crowd faves is the edgy Planet Rooth, and if you'd like a whip or warming massage oil to go with your painting, try the risqué Rubber Rose.
My week of free shizzle was coming to a close, and although I was wary at first, I was now a certifiable freebie junkie. I had done a 180 and changed my life in a week's time. I gazed into the future and saw myself going to Costco only for the samples and going back to re-take the personality test at the Scientology Center just for kicks.
I've got to keep my activity level high on that chart.
My last day started with free fly fishing at Lake Murray, courtesy of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club.
“There are two givens: You might be caught in the face with a hook, and you will fall in the water,” organizer Ned Sewell said in his introductory safety talk. Then he added, “You'll never master this sport; it has a humbling effect on your ego.”
Evidently, S.D. Fly Fishers is the largest organization of its kind in the U.S. The best part is they'll let you borrow their equipment, and they're glad to guide you through every step. I loved the camaraderie involved in this activity. I pretty much stood in one spot for two hours and caught nothing, but, oddly enough, I would do this one again in a heartbeat.
Next up: the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages in Balboa Park. Open from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays, the cottages showcase the customs, traditions and food of 31 countries. It was a whirlwind trip through the delicacies of many faraway lands. Highlights included free sausage samplers in the Poland cottage, crêpes courtesy of Finland, soda bread and step dancing in the House of Ireland and carrot cake in the House of England.
I then proceeded to my final activity—a historically recreated tour of Old Town. The tongue-and-cheek walk was guided by actors portraying some of the notable figures of the time, among them the chatty Mrs. Sarah Robinson, hoopskirt and all. The guides spoke highly of the role of women in San Diego's progress and the town's indigenous Kumeyaay legacy. With dozens of little shops and free entry to many other attractions, such as the Sheriff's Museum and the Campo Santo Cemetery, Old Town is a nice free day trip in itself.
Freepeat: www.sandiegoflyfishers.com, www.sdhpr.org, www.oldtownsandiego.org
I got home and downloaded a free trial of Microsoft Office and got to work. Yup, even the software used to write this was free—I'm gangsta like that. At the end of Day 7, my journey was complete and I was in a true state of enlightenment. I had the air in my lungs, an empty tank of gas, less of a jiggle in my ass and, more importantly, life experiences I won't soon forget.
Now that's priceless.
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