Tuesday, July 06, 2021

What We Did With A Stranger's Gift

This is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage. The fields made a gift of berries to us and we made a gift of them to our father. The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.  ~Robin Wall Kimmerer

Woodland Park's playground is behind a fence on a hill that leads to one of Seattle's most beloved curiosities, the Fremont Troll. This means that there is a steady stream of pedestrians passing our front gates and it gave us the idea to try to sell things to them. We started years ago with lemonade on a hot day. I figured that not only would it be good, old fashioned fun, but it would also be a way to connect to our wider community, and maybe it would feed, or even spark, the entrepreneurial spirit in at least some of the kids.

My own childhood lemonade stands had not gone well because of an extreme lack of adult foot traffic along my cul-de-sac heading no where. I anticipated, however, that a relatively busy location like the one we have in front of our school, had the potential of turning into a gold mine. I imagined it would be a kind of honey trap. How could anyone possibly say "no" to preschoolers? Making money wasn't, of course, the goal, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility. What really interested me was this opportunity for the kids to learn a little something about supply and demand.

I first introduced the idea of the lemonade stand to the four and five year olds who enthusiastically began planning. We tried making lemonade from real lemons, which was a fun project, but if we were going to make enough to sell we would need more juice than our little arms could produce, so opted for a powdered product. I thought of this as our first economic lesson. We made advertising signs and had a long discussion about both pricing and what we were going to do with all the money we were going to make. I tried to stay out of these discussions as much as possible and had to bite my tongue when they agreed on a price of $5 per cup. I told myself they would learn soon enough that cute might sell, but not at $5 per cup. It was easier to stay mum about their plan to use the profits to fund a water park.

That first day, everyone wanted to man the stand, so we took turns in shifts of four. I was probably as excited as the kids as we waited there on the sidewalk, staring down our first prospective customer as he trudged up the hill toward us. He raised his eyebrows at the price tag, but chugged it down nevertheless, then purchased a second cup. This clearly wasn't an act of commerce on this strangers part, but rather one of gift giving. 

After this auspicious beginning, we hit some cold, hard, reality with our next prospective customer, an older woman who balked at the price. "That's too expensive!"

"That's okay," one of the children told her, handing her a cup, "You can have it for free!"

Another act of gift giving. 

And that's how our lemonade stand went. We sold those first two cups, then gave away at least 40. Not everyone accepted our free lemonade. Some brushed by us brusquely, not wanting to be bothered. Most, however, had their "sales resistance" overwhelmed by the children's innate generosity; their interpretation of commerce as an essentially social interaction. That first customer's gift, a stranger's gift, had rippled outward through us to everyone who came after him.

Scholar and writer Lewis Hyde writes, "It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people."

As we were packing up one of the Fremont neighborhood's many resident street people paused where our table had been. One of the girls said, "We're closed, but you can come back tomorrow." The man stared at the sidewalk. It was not clear that he even knew we were there. When he didn't reply, the girl said, "That's okay if you don't have any money. The lemonade's free!" When he still didn't reply, she handed him the two $5 bills with which the first man had paid us, "Here's some money. Now you can buy two lemonades tomorrow!"

As the man shuffled away, the money clutched in his fist, one of the kids objected, "We were going to use that money for a water park."

"That's okay," the girl said, "We can get more money tomorrow."


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