There are very few things in this world that are still free, and we covet the few that we have, like good conversations, hugs, and the fried sausage samples at Costco. “Freedom is having your own individual toothpick, Charlie Brown,” said Lucy, adding, “That’ll be five cents please.”
I learned a lot about freedom in a course I took in college called Migratory Languages. It only met every other month, which fit perfectly into my ambitious college itinerary. The professor himself tended to migrate to and from his lectern, but he had a horrible temper that flared up any time the subject of our inalienable rights came up, especially the one about freedom. When he blew his gasket in class one day, his anger came from a deep place—his billfold.
Apparently, on his way to teach our class, (I think it met on every third Tuesday), he had stopped to put some air in his tires at a gas station, at the alienating cost of fifty cents. To him, the very idea that he was going to have to shell out money for something so universal, so commonplace as air, began to eat at him like Red Reaper Taco Sauce. By the time he arrived at our class, which I believe met on Sunday afternoons, he was a walking fire hazard, loaded for bear.
“What is free anymore?!” he exploded in class, spraying tiny droplets of frustration all over the front row. “I just came from the gas station,” he said waving us off like we were on trial, “and they wanted to charge me for putting air in my tires. Can you believe it? Imagine that! You can’t even get air for free! Air! Nothing is free, nothing! When I was a kid, you could get a piece of chewing gum for a penny, but not anymore! Heck no. Can you buy anything for a penny anymore? I don’t think you can. In fact, I’ll ask you right now. Does anybody in here know anything you can buy for a penny?”
“Probably not…” he answered himself, not missing a beat. “A penny just doesn’t mean anything. It’s thought of as worthless. We take it for granted in this country, the penny…”
But as he continued his tirade, breathing harder, my very own hand, palm outward, ignoring the signals from my limbic system, began to climb into full view, ready to be called upon.
“…and another thing…uh, yes…you there with the hand. Do you have something to add, young man? Something that you can get for a penny?”
“Yes,” my voice crackled, “I believe you can still buy time on a parking meter, sir.”
Lowering his trifocals, the professor stared down. In fact, he stared at me so long I thought I might earn another college credit hour. He reached for his folded handkerchief, and moped the sweat off his forehead with one neat stroke, then spoke:
“Young man… you might be right. Hmmf! I think you are onto something there. I believe you can still actually put a penny in a parking meter and get some time. Not much time, but a little,” and with that he patted the sweat off his head one more time, picked up his Naugahyde briefcase and said, “We’ll pick up there next time,” and left.
Meeting on the next crescent moon phase, Professor Flair stomped in to teach our class, straight from a faculty meeting. He was hotter’n two snakes in a barrel. At his staff meeting, there had been a vote on campus parking, and half of the faculty spaces had been confiscated and given over to students and his space was one of them.
His lecture started off well enough, with a few newsworthy items on Indian dialects and Columbian idioms, then…something ticked him off.
“… and pretty soon they are going to be charging us for talking. Oh yea, you wait. There’ll come a time, and it’s just around the corner. You kids think it won’t, but it will. We will have to pay to speak. Talking won’t be free anymore, you’ll have to pay. Uh-huh, it’s true. Nothing is free anymore, nothing. Used to be you could get a piece of gum for a penny, or time on a parking meter. Not now! You can’t even get time on a parking meter anymore, not for a penny, not at all! There is no free parking anymore. Now you kids have taken my parking spot here on campus. Free is gone! Gone! I would challenge anyone of you to come up with one thing, just one you can still get for a penny. One thing! Anyone?!”
He scanned the room for signs of life, and someone behind me dropped their pencil on the floor. The soft wooden tone awakened in me something my grandmother said long ago, something about a sleeping dog, and then…I reconsidered. This was no sleeping dog. It was a sleeping pencil, and I made a decision to leave it right there on the floor.
“Anyone?” He challenged us again. “See! There is not one single solitary one of you that knows something you can get in this country for a penny! Ha!”
Suddenly, a one cent stamp came to my mind, and I thought of raising my hand again, but I had my freedom and according to the professor, there’s no price you can put on that. Not even a penny.