It is true that I never took home a Rolex watch in a discreet silver bag. The closest I have come to an item of real value--like the down jacket a director friend snagged one year at Sundance--is via one of those seven degrees of separation things: I have been to the festival, and I have gone to parties with this director, so I'm sort of related to his jacket.
Because it was my signature on the requisition forms for ordering the many xeroxes of every manuscript that landed on my editorial-assistant desk in my first job, at Christmas the copy shop sent an ornately wrapped toiletry gift set of bath powder and cologne. No matter that it didn't smell so great. There were no bonuses in the paycheck--in fact the paycheck was utterly without padding of any sort; I had economic bruising all over. That gift that appeared out of the blue on the mail cart with my name on it felt like the sun coming out after a sleet storm.
The next year I was in grad school, which is the strict anti-swag institution: you gave them everything you were worth and then some, and when you left with a useless degree in English literature, they handed over the first of five years' worth of loan-due bills.
The universe likes to play fair, though, and that must be why the next job more than made up for that year of solitary confinement in the ivory tower: a part-time proofreading gig that yielded health insurance, profit sharing, free books, magazines, records, and a boozy Christmas party. Ah, those were the days, weren't they?
(They shit-canned the proofreaders as soon as they realized they could make do with spell-check, doubling the typesetters' workload, and lowering the bar on error tolerance. Thus they were at the forefront of this new, leaner, meaner, swag-less--and quality uncontrolled--era.)
Then came the brief epoch of going to the occasional literary gala (MAC cosmetics in a Barnes and Noble canvas bag, along with a brand-new, thick anthology on a deadly subject like "writers on writing" that went straight onto the bookshelf, never to come down until packing day and its final journey to the library book sale). This period coincided with the best job I ever had or am likely ever to have: freelance video reviewer at a new publication called Entertainment Weekly. Above the fat paycheck, the easy and fun work (can you guess that I am rather fond of delivering opinions?), and the rapidly growing home film library, there was the often interesting swag thrown freely by the video companies. Perhaps they thought free stuff would affect reviewers' judgment of their product? Hard to imagine. (What--you think I'll be like the candidates for elected office after the Supreme Court rules they can be auctioned off to the highest bidder?) Of course it never changed a bad movie into a good one, but that didn't stop me from sticking my mitt in the air when their tchockes started flying my way.
"Free" does things to people. I'm just saying.
I had cause to remember this long-gone time of treasure yesterday, when I searched the knife drawer for the whetstone I hoped was still there, the rolling-wheel knife sharpener carrying the Virgin logo and the legends "Edge of Sanity" and "Never a Dull Moment." (I see I missed an opportunity for paying back the grad-school loan, since Virgin obviously had a whole department of English majors dedicated to the conception of clever swag.) I am also just now getting to the bottom of the cube of note paper, also from Virgin, commemorating the release of Communion: I've been writing grocery lists for years over the ghostly impression of an almond-eyed space alien.
Now, the swag is running out. I have nowhere to get any any more. I am certain, in some glass-enclosed corner of the western world, many sparkling items of untold luxury and cost are dancing their way into silk-lined pockets. But here, at the motorcycle show for instance, the only offerings presented to us commoners are the likes of refrigerator magnets from the state police, brochures for new bikes we can't afford, and plastic Suzuki keyfobs.
Not needing any of these hardly stopped me from taking them home, however. They were free.