Feeding America

Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox signs autographs for employees at a Boston Taco Bell restaurant as he arrived to have a free taco as part of the "Steal a Base, Steal a Taco" MLB World Series Promotion, Oct. 30, 2007. Ellsbury stole second base in the Game 2 of the World Series, forcing the fast food chain to live up to its promise to give away miles of free tacos to fans across the U.S. (AP Photo/Taco Bell, Mary Schwalm)
AP Photo/Taco Bell, Mary Schwalm
Americans love free stuff. Our national motto could be "In Bargains We Trust." So I wasn't surprised by Taco Bell's recent promotion in which the fast food chain offered a free taco to everyone in America if any baseball player in the World Series stole a base. Red Sox rookie outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury stole a base in the second game of the Series. True to its word, Taco Bell announced that it would be giving away free tacos at all their restaurants between 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 30.

The whole thing is very American. Ellsbury is of Native American descent. He's the first Major Leaguer to have a Navajo heritage, he plays in what is called "America's Pastime," and because of him, the whole nation was entitled to some free Mexican food. You can't get more melting pot than that.

From the moment I first heard about the giveaway, I was filled with amazement. They were actually saying that they were willing to give a free taco to every American. According to the Census Bureau, there are approximately 300 million Americans. I know not everybody likes tacos, but even if we take away 100 million from that figure, that still leaves free food for 200 million people. Imagine how many tons of beef that is, how many heads of lettuce, how many things of cheese. I'm pretty sure that this is the biggest offer of free food in the history of the United States - if you don't count the average bar mitzvah.

A few days before the big event, I visited a local Taco Bell to see how one of the 5,800 outlets was preparing for the big day. I spoke to "Lonnie," the manager. He was quite excited about the promotion, and was pleased by the generosity of the company. He pointed out that if homeless people want free tacos, he'd be happy to serve them. That seemed like the most worthwhile part of the promotion.

As I waited for Tuesday to arrive, I contemplated what the giveaway day would be like. I figured it would be huge. Shoppers are willing to sit out in the freezing cold all night to make sure they're among the first in line for a sale when a store opens up. People actually pay a membership fee to have the right to spend more money than they ever intended by purchasing all kinds of things that they never wanted or needed - at a discount. So when someone's offering something for free, all bets are off.

I wondered if business would come to a standstill in each time zone for the three hours of the giveaway. I imagined what effect that would have on the economy. I assumed traffic would be jammed anywhere near a Taco Bell. If the police were tempted by the free tacos, how would the crowds be controlled? And the offer was not just good for those who live in the 50 States. People in Washington, D.C., were also eligible for free tacos. I thought about whether the federal government would come to a complete halt for three hours. And if it did, would anyone notice?

I woke up Tuesday with the certain feeling that it was a special day. I stalled until two o'clock, and then went to Taco Bell. I was shocked. And disappointed. There was no crowd.

I asked Lonnie the manager about it. He said that they had been giving away some tacos, but they weren't overrun with people because of the promotion. Then I noticed that there were no signs, no banners proclaiming things like, "Get Your Free Tacos Here." And then I realized that I hadn't seen any ads or commercials over the past few days in which Taco Bell mentioned the giveaway. In other words, if you hadn't heard about it watching the World Series on TV, you probably didn't know about it.

And as Lonnie put it, "Not that many people watch baseball these days." Lonnie's right. This World Series had the second lowest rating in history - only slightly ahead of last year's disappointing ratings. Future historians will probably debate "the chicken or the egg" situation, but it's just possible that we might be seeing the fading of love for two institutions that have helped define America: baseball and freebies.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some which he got for free.
By Lloyd Garver