On Saturday, Solas Nua gave away thousands of Irish books around Washington. My wife and I braved the morning cold at the corner of 16th and U Streets and personally gave away hundreds of books.
If you’ve never tried to give anything away for free, I highly recommend it. Quite amusing. Especially in this city. Last year, we gave books away on Capitol Hill, and people there seemed more at ease in getting something for nothing. (Must have something to do with Congress, but I can’t quite put my finger on what.) I’m not sure why U Street is different, but the people who are out on Saturday mornings, going to the gym, picking up their dry cleaning, getting their morning lattes, are much more skeptical.
My spiel was: “Irish books for free! For St. Patrick’s Day! Contemporary Irish authors! Totally free!” I’d say 75% of people walked past with either a skeptical look on their faces, or no look at all, completely ignoring my existence. Some of them actually laughed out loud, as if to say “I won’t get taken by that old scam again!” I think some of them thought we were somehow supporting the IRA. Another 20% would politely say “no thank you,” leaving the last 5% to do all the free-book-getting.
My wife said maybe I was too loud, or too insistent, and that perhaps I was scaring them away. I must admit, I was provoked by the people who scoffed as they walked past. I would keep talking to them as they crossed the street: “we’re all over the city today! More titles at Love Café! They’re totally free! Better than green beer! etc.” Surprisingly, this didn’t change their minds.
I was beginning to think that my wife was right, that I was scaring them away. Then, another man passed unheeding. He was walking a large, shaggy dog, and as he cross the street I commented “isn’t that an Irish Wolf Hound? Maybe he wants a book! Did you ever think of that?” He turned around and came back, causing me some consternation. But he only wanted a book of poetry.
It all reminded me of a college sociology project where we were instructed to go to a public place and give away a dollar. We all thought the teacher was nuts. He promised to repay us for every dollar we gave away. With nothing to lose, my friend and I staked out the entrance to a grocery store. We were not allowed to reveal that we were with a sociology class. We could only say that we were giving away a dollar because we wanted to. Talk about skeptical! No one took it. We increased the denomination to 5 dollars. Surely someone would take a free 5 dollar bill! But people were even more skeptical. We tried a twenty, and were verbally assaulted: “What are you trying to pull? What kind of scam is this? I should call the police! You should be in jail!” If we had had a 100 dollar bill, we’d probably have been shot.
Saturday evening we retired to our place and had baked potatoes and beer with friends before everyone went out to the bars. It seems almost ridiculous to have potatoes and beer for St. Patrick’s Day, but it was a hit! I think we’ve founded a new tradition.