Think about what you do best, or what it is that you love to do, then go do it to get what you need. Leave out the “middle man” of payment, go straight to a task for task economy.
Almost 29 years ago, my first son was born. I was overjoyed at his birth and being a PERFECT new parent was very important to both myself and his Dad. We had planned so much and were ready to start our family. I was not going to work outside our home once Woody was born, and I was happy to use my time in other ways to contribute to the household. I canned peaches and tomatoes and made applesauce with produce we had picked in the last weekend of my pregnancy. (Woody was late and I was all about climbing peach and apple trees to get things moving). As canned goods filled the small pantry of our log cabin, I felt pride in my contribution, even though it was not monetary. I worked hard at fixing up the cabin, and for Christmas I was rewarded with a sewing machine as a gift from my then husband. What a guy.
Little did we know at the time that my sewing machine would lead me down a path of creative entrepreneurship neither of us knew existed. It started innocently enough, I made some curtains for the living room windows. I then found a pattern for some placemats, and before I knew it I was making quilts. And not only was I making quilts, people were beginning to ask me to make them for them, and they were willing to pay me for my efforts. Sounds like good old capitalism now doesn’t it? I made things and sold them, pocketed the proceeds, invested some of it back into my little sewing business and used the rest to augment Andrew’s income as a Forester. Happy little story. Obviously, that wasn’t all that happened, after all this is an essay about bartering, and I have learned to be the queen of that process.
When our son Woody was around a year old, that time in a toddlers life when they are just beginning to walk, and have still not learned how to sleep consistently all night, I developed a horrible toothache. I had been dealing with the lunacy of new motherhood well until that point, but my left upper jaw began hurting in a way I had never experienced before (or since) and I had to take myself to a dentist. Not my favorite thing, and something that admittedly I had been avoiding. Hey, I was 32, in great shape, you know the age of being invincible. Why would I worry about my teeth? Other than occasional and sporadic cleanings, I was not a regular in the small office downtown where our local dentist Ray had a practice. He lived on the second floor of the office with his family, so it was a warm and fuzzy kind of dental practice.
Turns out I needed two things, a root canal, and a crown. $3000. Holy crap was I ever in trouble. Andrew was doing a great job supporting us, and we had the requisite 3 months of emergency funds in the bank, but this type of an expense would almost wipe us out. I wasn’t planning to go back to work anytime soon, and it was not appealing to visualize myself sans an upper molar. I was not native to New Hampshire. Where I come from, keeping one’s teeth is a priority (sorry north country folks, ya’ll do have dental issues). So what was I to do. Out of the haze that comes along with new motherhood an idea began to appear. Would Ray be willing to trade with me for a quilt? As it turned out, once he got his hands and equipment out of my mouth, and got the OK from his dental assistant (wife) we hashed out a few design ideas, and we had a deal. I made some measurements and began working on his quilt, a process that took over 2 weeks. At my next (30 minute) appointment he did what he needed to do up there in my upper jaw while I listened to music and inhaled laughing gas, and a few weeks later he installed my crown and I delivered the queen sized quilt I’d crafted for the bed in the upstairs master suite. A beautiful Irish Chain quilt in deep hues of blue and a soft white on white background. I also had to make matching pillow shams and curtains to pay the entire dental bill but it was well worth the effort.
My crown has lasted me for nearly 30 years. I made a career eventually as a craftsperson in fiber, but that is only tangentially important to this story. What is important is that I used a skill I had to attain a service I needed without that pesky middleman: money. I did not have to work for someone else for many hours at a job that was done for the sole purpose of acquiring money, to acquire something I desperately needed. I was able to go in a straight line from skill to goal, no interference, no passing GO, no messy payment plan. I had a new tooth, Ray and his wife (whose name I can’t remember) got a beautiful new quilt and most importantly we both felt like we had gotten a good and fair deal.
Six months later, my husband and I decided to purchase a piece of land adjacent to our property. Again I used my quilting skill to our advantage. I asked the attorney doing the closing for us if she were interested in bartering for her fees, and alas, another quilt was made and another deal was done. But bartering for skill was not new to me. I’d been doing it all my life. When I was a wayward teenager I took to the road and hitch-hiked across the country: more than once. As a young, attractive woman this was a somewhat dangerous task, but rides with truckers soon became a way to not only get from point A to point B, but an experience that taught me how to fulfill the needs that are most prevalent in your potential barter partner. And how to fulfill those needs with only the skills YOU wish to barter with.
In 1976–1978 I met lots of truckers. A few of them were real pains in the ass, harassing me and, at times, scaring me pretty badly with sexual advances. This was 40 years before ME TOO was around for guidance and channeling of rage so I made do with my creative superpowers. I had something they wanted, but I did not want to give it to all of them, duh. But what I learned on the road (literally) was that if I had something else they wanted, I could get a ride anywhere I needed to go and not have to deal with horny old trucker dudes. No, I wasn’t a drug dealer selling speed to tired truck drivers. I learned to drive an 18 wheeler, not legally but I learned to drive one competently. I could drive and they could sleep and still get to wherever they were going on schedule. I earned a few bucks, saw the country and learned a skill that I later used legally and briefly as a logging-truck driver in South Carolina. Again, different story, a tangent that we don’t need to go into.
I bartered this driving skill, taught to me by a drunk trucker in a remote part of Montana late on a weekend night when we had both been playing pool and he had been doing most of the drinking. I used that skill learned by grinding gears and laughing my ass off to make my way through 42 states in the 2 summers of my 17th and 18th year. I also worked on a road crew, picked produce, worked a dime toss in a carnival and waitressed in some of the rankest bars in the west. What a blast. But adventure always has to end and at the ripe old age of 19 I took a more conventional route and began college and the duldrums of work and school. I still bartered, sometimes with my landlord by painting the house or mowing the lawn, and sometimes for necessities, like an IBM Correcting Selectric Typewriter my senior year of college in exchange for babysitting a professors 3 children while he and his wife went on a cruise. Not even close to fair, but I needed a typewriter and had no cash. Are you getting the picture? You don’t need money to get what you want, you just need to know what you want and figure out what the person who has what you want wants.
That was a complicated sentence. When I got married the caterer knocked $2.00 a dinner off our food bill and I pulled weeds in her garden for the rest of the summer. I once traded a 1968 Volkswagon Squareback station wagon (which was indeed a shade of Aqua with Pow Flower Stickers on it) for a new carpet for my living room. I currently bake pies and an occasional cheese cake for the woman who takes excellent care of Wallace the Airedale when I can’t be here. This is primal economics people. Bottom up. No trickle down. I have a need, I can fill a need of yours with something I have if you can fill a need of mine with something you have.
Call it what you will. Governments like to say it is a “black” market. Ewweee, scary. I call it neighborly. Some schools of thought think that one needs to declare the value of the goods or services they are bartering as income, but in our current taxation culture, the amount of time it would take to also itemize all the possible deductions needed to offset the revenue received in goods or services makes it a zero sum game. Oh, and accountants, they don’t usually like to barter. It’s a lack of creativity thing, I think.
So that’s my story. How can this get us out of the current mess we are in with our economy shut down? Put on your thinking caps boys and girls, this is going to take some imagination! My first inkling that things were changing came when I decided to make some cotton masks for myself, friends and family. I am a good sewer. I was state juried into the League of NH Craftsmen in 1999 and was an active member of the American Craft Council for dozens of years. My quilts were sold through the Renwick Gallery, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The American Textile History Museum, do you get the picture? The first thing I did when I tried to sew a mask was break my sewing machine needle on a pin. It had been awhile.
Alas, dear Facebook came to my rescue. I posted my loss on the local Cornish, ME community page and offered to trade fabric for a new needle. Within hours I was sewing again, and had 6 needles to spare. I had also traded some interfacing for elastic, and given a local woman yards of both fabric and interfacing as she was donating the masks she made to the workers running a local food bank. This is not a wealthy woman, but a woman with a rich heart doing a good deed for nothing more than the satisfaction and fulfillment one gets from doing such things. Again, a tangent, not going down the philanthropy path, though it is a good journey to take once in awhile. Next essay perhaps.
So now, with a pandemic keeping me home, and working a limited amount, I have had to revert back to my bartering days. Don’t worry, it is safe to go out on the roads, I am not driving anyone’s truck in exchange for a ride. I cook for a friend, trade baked goods for yard work and dog sitting, make my mechanic a pie to pay for my oil change, and occasionally babysit for the gift of holding a sleeping baby.
Let’s use the skills we have, the assets we have squandered to get the things we need. In this particular moment the asset we most abundantly have is time, so use that asset to fulfill the needs of those around us. Let’s also let them help us out with the things we need from them. I have a friend in Florida who at this very moment would probably make you an awesome woven rug if you could get rid of the pain in the ass squirrels who won’t stop eating her tomatoes. Perhaps you’ve learned to make a pretty good beef stew these last weeks left home with nothing but YouTube cooking videos to keep you company. You say you need that grout in your shower re-done? Maybe that nice lookin’ fella down the hall is just dying for a good home cooked meal and knows a thing or two about tile. Do you have a reliable lawnmower? Ask your neighbors what they would be willing to trade for a nicely trimmed lawn once a week this summer. Are you good at math, a wiz at social media, bake awesome cookies? Is that overdue rent worth a new paint job to your landlord? Does he/she need someone to tutor their kids while they’re being schooled remotely. Do they just need someone to do anything with their kids while they are being schooled remotely? There is always someone who wants what you have and has what you want, all you need to do is find each other.
Get online, join your community’s social media page, ask your friends what they want, need or have. Start trading in life and let the stock market and the users of money do what they want. Use your skills to get you to where you want to be the old fashioned way, with a trade where both parties win. Barter, its the new/old way that markets can work for all of us.