Opinion

Danny Wallace on the difficulty of giving away freebies

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Danny Wallace
Published

There are some people in life who have great conversational openers.

Not for them, the, “How you been?” or the “How’s the family?” You’ll never hear these people saying, “What you driving?” or “This weather!”

Strong examples from my own life include one stranger saying, “Excuse me, I think I delivered your baby” and a lady who ran up to me to say, “You once had a pee next to my husband!”

But while these were both touching in their own ways – one more than the other, which by the way involved no actual touching – I am less touched when a man approaches me outside a hotel because he’s seen I’m holding a pen.

“I couldn’t borrow your pen, could I?” he says, smiling, and of course he can. What does he take me for? The kind of guy who’d say “NO! I’m using my pen!”?

“Sure!” I say, and I hand it to him.

I wait for him to get out a piece of paper or something.

“You’re a lifesaver,” he says.

Gosh, I hope he doesn’t need it for a tracheotomy. (When did I start saying “gosh”?)

“Couldn’t find mine,” he says, and then there is a momentary pause as he builds to his next question. “Is it OK if I keep it?”

Well, wait just one second there, sir. We’ve gone from “borrow” to “keep” in under 10 seconds. If this guy keeps going at this rate, he’s going to end up somehow charging me for it.

“Oh,” I say, and then I instinctively lie. “It’s just I sort of need it.”

Why am I lying? I don’t need this pen. It’s a free hotel one. I was only holding it because I was clearing out my pockets by the bin as I wait for a taxi. But still, it’s mine, and I have immediately become very protective of it. Yet it means so little to me. I could barely describe it even if I was looking at it.

The man makes a pained expression, as if to say, “Oh, come on, what do you need a pen for?” and I find this very insulting. And remember: he’s the one who needs a pen, not me. I literally do not need this pen I suddenly want at all.

I find a compromise.

“Do you want to just use it now?” I say.

“I can’t,” he says, and he thrusts it back at me.

Well, if he can’t use this pen now, then what’s the urgency for a pen at all? Has he got an exam in, like, a month, or something? I begin to wonder whether this is actually some kind of scam, which starts with the pen as a sort of lead-in and ends up with me completely naked on the street with no phone, and then when I get home he’s changed the locks and he’s snoring in my bed with my cat. You have to be very careful these days.

“Well, do you want to borrow it for a bit?” I say, thinking maybe he can run off, use it and return it. Maybe he has to leave a note for someone or sign an emergency death warrant. But why am I suggesting a lend? It feels like a lot of work for me. I’d have to hang around outside this hotel all day. Or arrange to meet him later on, and before I know it I’m on a train to Uxbridge where I’ll have to change buses twice just to get my free hotel pen back.

“Actually, do you know what?” I say, weighing it up in my mind. “Keep it. Keep the pen.”

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I am being very magnanimous. And is it too much to assume that I may well literally have saved this man’s life? Yes, it might be, but still.

“Cheers,” he says, and do you know what? He doesn’t call me a “legend”; he doesn’t call me a “star”. He doesn’t even say, “Cheers, mate.” He just walks off. Walks off with my pen.

And before he goes, he gives me a small look. The kind of glance that says, “Why were you being so weird about giving a stranger whatever he demands from you?”

Well, I have done a good deed there. But I can’t help but feel that maybe I should feel a little better about it. I bet he’s going to slate me to a friend round the corner. I bet he’s going to say, “Sorry I’m late, but this guy was being so slow giving me his stuff for free.”

Well, more fool him. And do you know why? Because I’m still standing outside the hotel. I can get another pen right now, very easily. There are millions of them and they’re free.

So with no taxi yet in sight, I quickly skip back up the steps, and I walk to reception, and I see they have free apples, too. I can’t have one of those. I checked out five minutes ago and I sacrificed all apple rights. But a pen? It’s like an advert. I can still have a pen.

So I grab a pen from a small glass on the counter and I walk outside again, to breathe in the air of a just and generous world, balance restored, the memory of a thankless man now fading in my wake.

Right. What was I doing again?

Oh yeah. Clearing out my pockets by a bin.

Well, I certainly don’t need this pen.

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