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It doesn’t get any more bestial than picking up some gewgaw from a specially marked package with something else.

When the cars grew 1950s fins and the treasure was buried in boxes of cereal and soap flakes, I doubled the soaks. Unlike Jack Horner, I put on all my glove and god damn it, what plum prizes haven’t I withdrawn? Frogmen and nuclear submarines powered by baking powder. Decorator’s tableware. Plastic triceratops. Highball cups. Miniature Morse Code Telegraph Keys. Steak knives. The decoder rings. Ugly washcloths, tea towels and tiny generic styrene cars. I had no idea the grain premiums significantly predated my baby boomer obsession, so it seemed like our building’s laundry room mirrored our breakfast nook during this heyday of Free Inside.

“Look mom, something for nothing!”

Like a jerk, I couldn’t believe my mother had graciously granted permission to have Duz detergent in boxes like a Forty-Niner at a Klondike lock. After the first box, the Klondike Lock might be too romantic a metaphor. Not clean and dirty like honest Alaskan alluvial silt, or tactilely average like Sugar Corn Pops, no it was up to my elbow in scented chemical gravel. Yet I persisted fiercely, while my mother had better things to do, like reading The New Yorker or smoke a Kool.

Looking back, I wonder what I was thinking. On second thought, I would say most of us have a cynical secret Republican refusing the free lunch that we choose to ignore for life. And strangest of all, the main draw is not the lunch, but the weird attractor of Free Inside.

Let’s be clear. I am not talking about promotional gadgets that are simply handed over to the point of purchase. It’s something that is often deeply rooted, sometimes wrapped in cellophane, but swims classically in a packaged product, a product rich in price if you will. The mystery of it all! I wonder what price sprang from which product first?

Cracker Jacks first occurred to me. Wikipedia sez, the popcorn candy brand, introduced a “toy inside” in 1912. Although in-box bonuses have been removed, a legacy of inexplicable behavior remains. How many generations have fished that sticky box thinking “This time it will be different”?

After that, I thought of the English ‘Christmas crackers’, loud holiday novelties concealing knickknacks, originally candy, introduced by Tom Smith & Company in 1847, also Wiki-based. Have you ripped off a Christmas cracker lately? Against all odds, their ephemeral content is more tasteless than Cracker Jacks toys, probably because it can feel like a temperature below absolute zero.

Something vestige is at play. Between you, me and Jane Goodall, I suspect there was a lot more of Free Inside long before cereal, detergents and candied snacks, long before Hector was a puppy, I would bet. Turducken’s imperative has to go to the monkeys sticking sticks in termite mounds for edible toys because, well, you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to guess that nothing is cooler than a shotgun. two… except maybe a shitty hat trick!

Turducken’s imperative? I’m talking about stuffing a duck with a chicken and then stuffing it into a turkey. I appreciate all three but for years I declined this trinity which left me perplexed, until recently thinking about the abstraction of Free Inside.

Yes, the three parts are domestic poultry, not exactly different, but also not identical cousins. Yes, nothing on turducken is free except for a guest. But then, which Melmac dish, which decoder ring was not taken into account in the cost of Blue Cheer or Spoon Size Shredded Wheat? Go on. Nobody jokes about “free”. And the element of surprise is almost nonexistent to boot. Who was shocked, shocked you told you, by the sheer nothingness of a Cracker Jacks toy?

What is essential here is the interior. Across Turducken Imperative, Something Good isn’t just new and improved with something different inside, but even better if it’s triple-stuffed with something else again. You could discuss what’s inside of what’s key, but I sense an instinctive Paleolithic novelty response to everything that’s inside anything else. It’s appealing to the crocodile brain. Ideally, the price is invisible, but ships in tiny bottles and midges in amber will do in a storm. Hair in lockets, now we’re talking. And that brings us to the porcelain figurines of Wade in the Red Rose tea.

I’m not saying that I organize a lot. I throw them away when I change my address. To do this, they gradually accumulate on window sills and desks. Big problem, I’m drinking Red Rose tea, once famous for its Dixieland chimpanzee group TV commercials, okay? Red Rose is quite inexpensive and if the packaging is specially marked, and if I happen to find a miniature ceramic buffalo, a Liberty Bell, or a choo-choo tucked between the tea bags, what should a hominid do?

It’s free inside.


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