When I moved to Charleston, I walked away from what, in hindsight, was a mega magazine salary. The zeros did me little good back then, though, as I squandered them in an attempt to buy my way out of the city-dwelling blues toward bliss. It didn’t really work, and now that I’ve been living off a skinnier paycheck as a writer here in the Holy City, I have made a happy peace with the fact that I don’t have as much, but I have so much more.
In plain terms, Charleston rocks for freebies. Can’t pay for a gym? Buy a pair of running shoes and hit the picturesque streets or shoreline. Honestly, we’ve got the landscapes people use as screen savers. Don’t have change for dessert? Hit up the praline samples on Market and King streets. They don’t mind if you’re a repeat visitor—trust me, I know. Dying to go on a house tour but need to pay the AC bill? Just wander South of Broad after twilight and do a sidewalk sneak and peek. I could go on and on (trail a carriage on your bike for a history lesson...), except I don’t want to appear gluttonous.
But don’t get modesty confused with shame. I am not ashamed, nor am I alone. I know one fellow who took the freebie train far, far beyond anything I’ve ever dared. Come Bridge Run time, he rode his bike to the downtown foot of the old Cooper River span, locked up his wheels, and darted into the mass to finish the race, solely to score the finale goodie bag. He caught the Krispy Kreme donuts tossed to finishers, got his sack of fresh fruit from Bi-Lo, coupons to Chick-fil-A, and more. He even got an extra vigorous round of applause when crossing the finish, he says, but I pointed out that might have been because he said he had forgotten to take off his helmet. For my part, I use his brazen abuse of good graces and appropriation of loot as my personal line of decency. Cross that border and who knows what moral decrepitude may follow.
Now, all this is especially relevant come May through June, when Spoleto hits. Yes, I support the arts, and yes, I understand the cost of this and that and so on and so forth. And, of course, I know about the legitimately gratis events, as I tend to attend those, plus I avidly shop Piccolo as well. But when you’ve gotten press tickets (free tickets in great seats) to A-list events for years, and then the gravy train stops, and the incoming checks get anemic, what’s a snooty art lover to do? Apparently she gets creative.
My favorite place to troll, I mean stroll, is George Street on select nights when the Cistern is hopping. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve “just happened” by those benches on the western side as the music was kicking into high gear. Thank you, Caviar and Bananas and Fresh Berry for making my ruse more plausible. (One looks so much less suspicious with a yogurt or after-dinner coffee in hand.) And boo to the tacky, blatant mooches who set up their folding chairs in the brick alleyway. You’re making us art stalkers look bad and drawing too much attention to our hot spots, which could very well lead to a shutdown by the freeloader police. Hasn’t living in the Deep South taught you anything about subtlety?
I recently began dating a fellow art enthusiast and broached the subject of his freebie threshold when the annual Spoleto catalog came in the mail. It’s tricky to pull off the walk-by-and-stick-around as a couple, and you never know whether your other half might prove to be a better half and take the high ground. But the truth will out my frugal ways, so I asked how he felt about “catching” a show—on the wrong side of the fence. He swelled up with a freebie-loving gleam in his eye, then deflated a little back to a socially acceptable middle ground. “How about we buy tickets to the ones we really, really want to see,” he suggested, “and walk by those we could take or leave?” Love, love me do.
Since I’m not quite ready to let him know just how opportunistic I am, I haven’t shared my other “ins.” Like wandering the former Gaillard and eavesdropping on orchestra rehearsals. Or popping in at Memminger to check out this or that stunning set. Or lurking in Dock Street’s courtyard to see what I can overhear from sundry string ensembles. Or loitering in churchyards to soak up the sounds of practicing choirs. Honestly, it’s a smorgasbord. You just have to mind your manners, watch the tacky factor, and rein in the urge to gobble everything up.
Freelance writer and editor Frances Bramsen is a regular contributor to Charleston Weddings magazine.