Barter, Banter and a Condom

Barter, Banter and a Condom

While trading a good for another good of similar or equal value used to be an everyday practice, this type of exchange has now largely become a thing of the past. In a burst of nostalgia, Max Callister-Baker goes on a quest to resurrect bartering in the modern context of the Dunedin student community.

“I have this condom,” I told the person standing at the door. “Wanna trade?”

And so my bantering journey began. The mission I had set myself was to see how far I could go trading items for slightly better ones, starting with a condom. However, before I even began I spent 20 minutes gathering up the courage to go knocking on doors. I couldn’t quite figure out why it was so nerve-wracking approaching houses at the start. You pass them every day. Inside them are things identical to your own. Yet walking up to one you don’t know triggers a sense of uneasiness. You are in someone else’s property that you weren’t invited into. You don’t know the type of person who owns it. You are walking into a space where you have to justify being there. The person on the other side of the door is in his or her fort of safety and you are a stranger whose intentions are unknown. If things go badly he or she only has to close the door, and you’re left back at the start.

The girl who opened the first door I knocked on gave me a funny look. I realised I would really have to work the conversation in order to make her feel disarmed, otherwise she wouldn’t actually think about engaging in my question and instead focus on a polite way to end the conversation and close the door on me. At first she was hesitant but soon she warmed up and left briefly to consult with her flatmates. Do I step inside or wait by the door? I wondered to myself. She had a laugh with one of her flatmates then returned to me with a mostly full bottle of Spray and Wipe. Not a bad start. I gave her the condom.

The next flat took me by surprise. Unlike the previous one, the door opened straight up to the living room; so when one of the female occupants opened it, I instantly observed five more female faces staring back at me. I don’t know how successful I was at keeping it casual; I might as well have been pushed on stage, and I wondered how red my face was turning. It was a strange type of tension. On one hand it’s empowering to be at the centre of attention – on the other, you feel at the mercy of being openly judged. For them, there are minimal repercussions for cracking a joke about a stranger at their door. They are in their own home; the stranger is outside. They are with their flatmates; the stranger is alone. They also have the discretion to answer or deny the request. After a lengthy discussion among themselves, they offered me a chair. This was going way too well.

My exchange at the next house was probably the smoothest of my entire experience. The guy who opened the door was looking to get rid of a lot of junk and was genuinely interested in the whole project. He brought out a little plastic box, and then from inside of the box, he pulled out a remote-control helicopter and flew it around the room. This was awesome, but there was a problem. While the first few items were relatively cheap and common, a remote control helicopter started to push the value of what people were willing to give up.

My visits along Anzac Street were fast, painful failures. It must have been getting late into wanker o’clock because the majority of the guys that answered the doors told me that they didn’t have anything to exchange within a moment of me explaining my mission. Once you find yourself on a rejection streak it’s natural to want to give up. With my enthusiasm derailed I decided to give the one house at the end of the block a shot before calling it a night. I knocked on the door and a chorus of screams sounded out from somewhere inside the house. I wish I hadn’t approached the house but it was too late to run away. I’d obviously given the group of girls a fright so when one of them answered the door I let them know I wasn’t Freddy Krueger. At least I had their attention. This frightening start turned out to be a great thing as we had a good laugh about it. It only got better when I asked if they had anything to swap and they offered me a blender. Things had turned around. However, before any exchange occurred, the girls asked me to prove the remote controlled helicopter worked. I pulled it out and hit the buttons. Nothing happened. Things got pretty awkward. I thought that maybe it needed a flying start so I threw it up in the air then hit the buttons, but this only resulted in it crashing to the ground. They offered me a puzzle for it instead. I couldn’t believe it; I was going backwards.

Not accepting this embarrassing fate, I went back to the previous guy and he gave me a tutorial in flying a toy helicopter. I then rushed back to where I came from and began my second attempt at flying. Oddly, while setting it up, the house’s occupants began asking me for some dating advice – in particular what to do if a guy they like is oblivious to them liking him. Well, that was a mundane question, I thought to myself. It turned out they went to a Pentecostal church, so I figured even talking to a boy for them was a big step. Maybe when my masculine hand knocked on their door it had been such an intimate experience for them, that it had sent a wave of man-particles causing them to wet themselves. To seal the deal with the blender, I promised them I’d hit up their church this coming Sunday. What was I getting myself into?

The next day I started at the flats on the hill just beyond the Bog, then continued to make my way upward. Although there were a lot of steep paths to walk up, the houses were in tight proximity to each other, which made things more simple. My first attempts of exchange all the way to Scotland Street were quickly shot down with conversations lasting less than 30 seconds. I started to pick up recurring signs that let me know right away that I wasn’t welcome: the door would only be slightly open; I would only see half a head poke out; the occupant would only say a few words. I felt as if I was the bad tax collector and everyone had warned each other of my arrival, or that there was a secret the whole community was trying to hide. I entertained the idea of beginning my conversations with “you know what I want” just to see people’s reactions. Maybe my luck had finally run out.

I approached a rather big house on London Street with what had to be over 100 empty beer bottles crowding the outside – a classic indicator of a student flat. When I knocked, I prepared myself for a big bloke in shorts, a singlet and jandals to answer. How wrong I was. Instead, a young skinny girl with a nose piercing opened the door. Once I told her my project, it was as if I’d thrown a bucket filled with excitement, happiness and unicorn jizz in her face. She took me inside and leapt into her “Harry Potter corner” where she explored for various items. Her flatmates, curious as to the commotion, came out of their rooms. Once the first girl told my story they started bouncing ideas off each other about what to swap. It was like watching kids building up each other’s excitement as they figured out what toy to bring for show-and-tell. I stood there in silence. Before they reached a conclusion, however, I had to show them that the blender worked. Again, like my first attempt with the helicopter, nothing I was doing could get it going. A deep, sinking feeling washed over me. Suddenly, the blender came to a roaring start, which was so unexpected that we all simultaneously screamed.

While it was a bucket of awesomeness that seemed to have washed over the girls in the flat initially, this time it seemed like a waterfall. I was taken back and forth between different locations of the flat, trying to find the most ideal item. Suddenly one of them thought of the suitcase a previous girl had left behind, and dragged it out from a corner in the room. The flatmates then made me close my eyes as they put a huge range of various items inside the suitcase; everyone was in hysterics. It was like the other kids had banded together and donated me, the poor kid, their most awesome gifts. After thanking them for their help, I made my way back into the streets. Although I was grateful, it felt wrong. When people normally have a fun experience with each other, they make some plans to do it again. But since my business was the project and not them, I felt I would be breaking a silent rule if I made a move to get to know them beyond what I was doing – still, it felt like I had missed out on getting to know some delightful people. When you’re feeling alone, the echoing noise of a suitcase’s wheels against the pavement certainly does not help.

Unsurprisingly, I made things difficult for myself knocking on strangers’ doors with a suitcase behind me at 9 o’clock in the evening. For the first time in my life I began reflecting on what body language represents “homeless” and what represents “non-homeless.” If I wasn’t uncomfortable enough, I started finding the houses further along all had gates. I tried to do everything as slow as possible to look non-suspect. I was making my way up to the door of one of the houses along Grand Street when a German Shepard came bursting out, barking madly. Here’s the thing about dogs – when you see one on a walk with their owner, they are the most approachable, joyful creatures on the earth. However, when it’s just you there – alone, uninvited, and on their property – a barking dog becomes a completely different story.

The first few seconds you try to reason slowly with it, as if it was a foreign tourist who couldn’t speak much English. Like if you say “calm down” slow and nice enough it will take a deep, deep breath and walk away. Then you realise you’re talking to a dog. I slowly backed off, or more like I began slowly walking off then turned my pace into a quick walk. I let the dog know that it was great getting to know him, we should catch up later sometime over a beer and his teeth were looking impressive – but I had better be on my way. As I was walking backwards, however, my grand exit quickly turned into a grand disaster as I tripped over. The dog came running up to me. I dropped the suitcase and threw myself over the fence. I had either just missed out on a slobbery dog hug or becoming a Scooby Snack. I then spent the next 15 minutes waiting around the corner for the dog to move away. Eventually it did and I rushed back in to grab the suitcase. I called it a night.

The following day I aimed for more student-friendly streets. Flat after flat fell in love with the mysterious suitcase. But, while I was constantly getting good responses, most of them weren’t that interested in trading and instead they simply enjoyed opening it up and looking through it. This happened so many times that I considered starting a career as the mysterious suitcase man. Maybe people could exchange their most interesting items for those inside the suitcase once they had pillaged through it all. Like a Mr Whippy jingle, the wheels echoing against the gravel could be my signature noise, signalling my approach.

After a while, I reached an apartment complex. It was like finding a gold nugget. Everyone was right next to each other, which made it easy to go between them. What was intimidating, however, was that the main entrance was a slide door, which opened straight to the living room. This meant that when I approached it, I was constantly stared-down by half a dozen people on the couches inside. Still, I went in. While the offers started piling up – an old TV, a mattress, a semi-new tennis racket, a desk, a couch (and one particular girl in a flat even offered sexual favours) – there were no offers that seemed clearly better than the suitcase, even though I had kept my promise to the girls on London Street and never looked when people searched through the suitcase. I did, however, overhear some cheeky, revealing comments such as “how high can I get on this?” and “this will go well with the lube!”

I walked out of the complex, disappointed that I hadn’t managed to trade up despite all the opportunities. My shoulders began to droop with resignation, when a guy came rushing out after me with the offer to trade his mini fridge. It was of a good size and in all right condition. I was sceptical at first, but he added the case for the fridge into the negotiation and I agreed to the deal. As we shook on it, a big cheer came from a group of people around us. The people slowly disappeared back into their homes, leaving me at the entrance to the apartment complex. I felt a moment of pride at how well everything had gone … then a crucial question dawned on me: “how the fuck do I take this home?”
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2014.
Posted 2:59pm Sunday 16th March 2014 by Max Callister-Baker.