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Below the Beltway

This column was originally published in 2002.


WASHINGTON -- It is interesting how one can have a house that is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if it lacks nine inches of sticky foam it is transformed during the winter into a place that should feature sides of beef hanging from hooks. And so it was that on New Year's Day, obeying a timeless ritual dating back to the days of cave men who had to forage for firewood so their significant cave others wouldn't yell at them, I went out in search of weatherstripping for my back door.

I arrived at a Home Depot, but when I got out of the car, I realized I had forgotten my wallet. I had no money and no credit cards, and while a quick inspection of the floor of my car turned up enough dog hair to weave into a parka, there was only 27 cents in negotiable instruments.

Now, the average man might simply smite his forehead and go home to collect his wallet and hours of ridicule from his family. But the average man does not have to come up with a humor column. So, I decided I would enter Home Depot, whereupon I would attempt to barter for my weatherstripping.

My theory, to the extent that I had one, was that this is America, by gum, and we are a resourceful people. Indeed, back before the Industrial Revolution, bartering was a staple of most economic systems. Here is how it worked. Let's say a sorghum farmer named Cletis wanted to buy a right purty dress for his wife, Sharleen. Now, there were no dress stores, but the widder Yoakum down the pike sews up some fine dresses, only she don't have so much as a pot to pee in. So Cletis brings over a pot, and gets a dress in return, which he brings back to Sharleen, who whacks him over the head with a rolling pin because it was last year's fashion and what in tarnation did he do with her best pot?

In the parking lot of Home Depot, I found myself peering into my trunk for barter-able items. There were two. One was a brand-new calfskin wallet I had purchased several years ago for $15 from a smiling roadside vendor who had assured me of its quality but forgot to mention that the credit-card slits were one millimeter too small to accommodate a credit card, the wallet apparently having been manufactured in a nation in which all transactions are conducted in cash or poultry. The other was a fancy 1930s electrical medical device that I had purchased at an antique store for $30. It produced a "Violet Ray" that, according to the literature, cures headaches, insomnia, lumbago, rheumatism, dyspepsia, constipation, female complaints and "brain fag."

I got my weatherstripping and approached a cashier named Ebony, who rang up the purchase -- $2.97. I plastered on my most sincere smile.

"Actually, the funny thing is I forgot my wallet and don't have any money or credit cards at all, but I do have this excellent quack medical device that "

When she stopped laughing, Ebony directed me to the head cashier, Mary, who was no help either. What was wrong with America? My country was failing me.

Then Home Depot salesman Don Davis walked over. Don examined my wallet, then took out his wallet. Mine looked a lot better -- things seemed to be going swell! (Don didn't know about the missing millimeter, of course, but I figured for $2.97, I didn't have to tell him. This is America. Caveat emptor, baby.)

Then Don reached into his wallet and handed me $5, and my wallet. He told me to pay for the weatherstripping and bring him the change. Don't worry about the rest, he said: Man needs weatherstripping, he needs weatherstripping. I could keep my wallet.

That night, I felt warm. Even warmer than I'd expected.

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