Kris called me down to the kitchen this morning to listen to This American Life. While she baked a molasses cake and canned applesauce, I sat at the table and took notes on the show, which featured four stories about people trying to get something for nothing.

Hands on a hard body
The first story was about a “free” truck. Each year, a car dealership in Longview, Texas gives away a vehicle in a one-of-a-kind contest. Twenty-four people stand around a pickup truck, touching it with at least one hand. They continue to touch the truck for a very long time. For days. The last person left touching the truck gets to drive it home. Sounds easy, huh? It’s not.

“What happens is you go slowly insane,” says contestant Benny Perkins, a past winner. “When you deprive your brain of rest, you start going slowly crazy.” He talks about hallucinations, about exhilaration, about the strain placed on the mind.

This contest, which is no longer run, was the subject of the documentary film, Hands on a Hard Body.

Guinea pig zero
I recently wrote about my experience earning $120 for an hour of medical research. I suggested this might be a way for people to pick up extra cash. Apparently there are people who do this regularly.

Host Ira Glass interviews Bob Helms, the editor of Guinea Pig Zero, “an occupational jobzine for people who are used as medical or pharmaceutical research subjects.” Glass and Helms talk about people who “sell” their bodies and minds to science for medical research.

“Do you feel this is easy money?” Glass asks.

“Yes,” says Helms. “Ideally, that’s all it is: it’s easy money…But you need to realize you’re taking a risk.” Sometimes you’re doing something very painful and getting little in return. You might get $100 to allow a spinal tap, for example.

“You’re not going to get rich,” Helms notes. “You could do it for a living if your expenses are very low, [or] if you have another income.”

Tao of the dumpster
In the show’s third part, writer Dirk Jamison describes how his father discovered the joy of dumpster-diving during the mid-1970s. After (more-or-less intentionally) losing his job, Jamison’s father decided trash-hunting was a way to get something for nothing: a way to feed his family without money.

Jamison’s father has a philosophy that I’ll bet many GRS readers will identify with, though his approach to it is different from what most of us would choose. And it’s definitely different from his wife’s — his dumpster-diving becomes indicative of deeper problems in his marriage and other relationships. Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale about taking anything to an extreme.

(This story reminds me of modern-day freegans, who mostly live normal lives, but scavenge for discarded food.)

Another success story
Ira Glass says that the classic story about something for nothing is actually about the price that you pay once you’ve obtained success. The show’s final story is about Roger, a man who travels from New York to Hollywood to find his fortune.

When he stumbles upon a high-paying job, he transforms himself from a down-on-his-luck bohemian to a Walt Disney imagineer. He’s living a dream-life. But then his luck turns. After five years of success, he loses his job, and he returns to the life he had before. And he’s happier for it.

Something for nothing
Ultimately, each of these stories demonstrates that there’s no thing as something for nothing — everything comes with a price. This episode was originally broadcast in May 1997, but the stories are just as interesting now. This stuff never gets old.

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