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Making the most of free samples

Dignity and human compassion be damned: One writer takes free offers to the limit.
By Jake Malooley |

I’m in Trader Joe’s, pumping an obscene amount of lotion from the “sample bottle” into my cupped palms. As I massage the fragrant semiliquid all over my body, a stock girl looks on with wide eyes and a dropped jaw.

Sure, velvety-soft skin is a plus, but the gratis lotion isn’t why I’m at the Jimmy Buffett of grocers. I’m merely killing time, digesting the spoils from a half-dozen trips to the sample table. At least I think it’s six—honestly, I lost count. In less than 20 minutes, I’ve consumed three plates of warm mojito salmon with jasmine rice and spinach salad, six small cups of hibiscus-cranberry juice, four servings of nectarine slices and three cups of coffee.

With my moisture-rich skin glistening, I sidle up for course No. 7. “You’re sure hungry, aren’t you?” remarks the TJ employee policing the table. I pretend not to hear her and reach for another salmon plate, but she’s had it. “This is not a café, this is a sample table,” she says sternly. “Twice is okay, but after the fourth or fifth time through, I have to say, ‘Hold it!’”

I have to admit, I don’t appear the least bit interested in purchasing anything; I’m not pushing a cart like the other shoppers (including the older gentleman giving me a run for my money as king parasite of the sample table). The truth is, I won’t drop a single cent. In fact, I left all my money at home. It’s a little past 5pm, and I’ve been freeskating since 9am—paying for nothing but getting much in return.

I kick off my free spree with the breakfast of freeskating champions, a complimentary cereal buffet and unlimited coffee at Days Inn (644 W Diversey Pkwy, 773-525-7010). No, I don’t have a room, but that doesn’t stop me from confidently marching through the lobby to lay waste to the cereal bar for two hours.

Next stop: the Lakeview Specialty Clinic (2861 N Clark St, 312-744-5507). Coming upon a large garbage can full of condoms, I roll up my sleeves and shovel handfuls of Lifestyles rubbers into my bag. The office is library-quiet, except for the rustling of plastic-wrapped latex. I can feel the few people in the waiting room boring holes into me with their eyes, no doubt wondering what kind of superfreak needs a messenger bag full of jimmy caps.

If I’m going to use all these French letters, I think, I gotsta be lookin’ good! Off to Benefit Cosmetics Boutique (852 W Armitage Ave, 773-880-9192) for a no-money-down extreme makeover. “What did you have in mind?” asks the slightly skittish sales associate. “I’m going for a Pete Wentz kind of thing,” I say. After Google-imaging Wentz, she goes to work on Fall Out Boy–ifying my bearded mug, adding black eyeliner, a “complexion balm” called Dr. Feelgood, mascara and something called Erase Paste to conceal my under-eye veins. “I love it,” I say, darting toward the door. “You just have to promise not to buy these products anywhere else,” she pleads. Ha! Mr. Freeskate promises nothing!

Getting hungry. Luckily, Kerasotes Webster Place (1471 W Webster Ave, 773-327-1314) offers free refills on a large bag of popcorn. Bonus: Access to the concession stand doesn’t require a ticket. I pluck a half-full sack from near the top of a garbage can. It’s a little oily, but the slacker concessionaire didn’t seem to mind. He also didn’t care when I got two more refills within the span of 10 minutes. Score!

Next target: Baskin-Robbins. If it truly stocks 31 flavors, Mr. Freeskate shall sample them all! But just four tiny pink spoons in, the salt-and-pepper-haired soda jerk cuts me off as I waffle between vanilla ice cream and vanilla frozen yogurt: “What does the fro-yo taste like again?” I inquire. “It tastes like vanilla. Look, are you really planning to buy something?” he asks, losing his cool. “You’re only supposed to get one sample. I’ve given you four!” When I ask to use the bathroom, he refuses to acknowledge me. Ouch.

At a nearby 7-Eleven, I thumb through magazines beside the register. “Oh, take a penny!” I squeal, pocketing the six cents from the TAKE A PENNY, LEAVE A PENNY tray. The only thing I leave behind is the clerk to question his remaining faith in humanity. At long last, I sense something inside me has died.

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