MV Ps & Qs: About that free stuff by the road

Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole,

While I am a believer in the sharing economy, I don’t think people should be leaving their old mattresses, even if they’re not stained, on the side of the State Road — or any other Island road — with a “FREE” sign. No, I don’t want your old mattress, and I don’t want your TV set from the 1990s. It’s true that I have occasionally seen some appealing items left for the taking on the side of the road, and once or twice I have even driven past, turned around, and pulled over to “shop” at the side-of-the-road shop. I think we need some guidelines about what items are OK to leave for others, and what items shouldn’t be left on the side of the road and I think you’re the ideal person to establish those guidelines.


Confidentially yours,

Free on the Side of the Road


Dear Free,
I’m flattered you consider me the ideal person for this, but I bet officials in all six town halls would argue with you about that. Various and sundry of their departments (trash, highways, etc.) are more qualified to comment on this. So my disclaimer is, for legal advice, go to your friendly local town hall. Educated guess that the town hall guidelines read something like this: DO NOT LEAVE ANYTHING ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD! HOW MANY TIMES DO WE HAVE TO TELL YOU? That’s as far as I am able to go on the legalities. As for non legal guidelines …
Let’s start here: There is a big difference between leaving something “FREE” in front of your house, despoiling and sullying your own property, and leaving it on someone else’s property (or property owned by the town or state). Do not leave something on somebody else’s property. UNLESS:


  1. You are a UPS/USPS/FedEx delivery person, and you have a package for them.
  2. You are a friend who is surprising them with a gift that cannot stay in your car until you cross paths. Perhaps a pony.
  3. You and they have had clear communication, and they are expecting and desiring you to leave something for them on their property.


Q: What do these have in common?
A: None of them include a sign that says “FREE” on it. If your deposit includes something with the word “FREE” on it, then it does not belong on somebody else’s property. That’s just rude. Don’t be rude.
But — I can hear you argue — a lot of the roadside isn’t the property of another private citizen. It belongs to, or is leased to, the town, county, or state. This is where the orphaned mattresses tend to graze.
It might seem absurd to point this out, given current events, but the government is composed of We the People. That is OUR roadside — yours, mine, theirs –— that you are despoiling with the mattresses. So the same rules apply as for private property.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s consider what is OK/not OK to leave by the roadside IN FRONT OF YOUR OWN HOUSE OR DRIVEWAY.
I know better than to tell a bunch of Yankees what they can or can’t do on their own property. I’m foolish, but not that foolish. So these are just some gentle suggestions.
If something is good enough for the Bargain Box but you missed the deadline, it’s fine as a “FREE” offering. If it’s good enough for the Dumptique, but too big to transport there, it’s fine as a “FREE” offering. If it’s good enough for a decent yard sale, but you just can’t be bothered to host a yard sale, it’s fine as a “FREE” offering.
If it’s something you’d throw away if only you could fit it into your trash can — like a used mattress or a broken 8-track tape player (or something else nobody under 40 remembers), then it’s not a “FREE” offering. It’s trash. And you already know that, which is why you wanted to leave it by the side of the road (or in the middle of the woods, where you have convinced yourself that it will decompose into organic compounds of polyurethane, polyester, and nylon).
If the item is useless to you but you’re sure it would be useful to someone else, because Vineyarders are really resourceful that way, and hey you never know, somebody might take that busted pressure cooker apart and use that valve for a cool project, or maybe, hey, if someone wanted to spend a weekend sanding the rust off that Chevy Impala fender, it could be useful … if I’m describing you, then you get points for originality, and maybe even get a halo for sincerity. But if you’re not going to be that resourceful Vineyard, probably nobody else is either.
In short: If it’s something you wouldn’t mind seeing in front of your own house for a few days, go ahead and leave it in front of your own house for a few days. Otherwise, put it where it belongs. Which will never be the side of the road on not-your-property.

That’s my take.

Bemused readers ask bestselling novelist and Shakespeare for the Masses co-creator Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Her upcoming novel, “On the Same Page,” is set on the Island in winter, and comes out New Year’s Eve from William Morrow. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to