Anyone who has trolled the unregulated territory of the largest collection of online ads has seen the warnings. And while many of us might laugh at the idea of getting caught in a scam ourselves, for CBC radio host, author and now playwright Bill Richardson, it became all too real as he found himself falling for one of the oldest.
Still, the experience seeded a fascination with Craigslist that now forms the basis of Richardson’s musical Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, now playing at the PuSh Festival.
Finding himself between assignments one day, Richardson took to Craigslist to see what it might offer. An ad about making money by typing at home convinced him to sign up for a PayPal account, from which he sent the $11 demanded to find out more. It didn’t take long for the response to come back in the form of an email explaining how to post similar Craigslist ads to dupe others. “This shows you the depths [to which] I had sunk,” Richardson laughs.
From that rather inauspicious introduction, Richardson began to see the strange world of autographed copies of the Bible, and the guy willing to look after pets left behind at the Rapture, as a goldmine of material.
“I became fascinated by it,” says Richardson, who soon found himself searching for the most peculiar and outlandish ads. “Every posting, no matter how pedestrian, had the possibility of a story.”
Creating that story from seemingly random ads plucked from the internet sounds like an impossible task, but there is an odd cohesiveness to the often laugh-out-loud 90-minute show that Richardson eventually co-wrote with Vancouver composer Veda Hille.
While some of the ads are obviously chosen for their relationship to others, Richardson says it was never their goal to present them as a traditional story. “The ads all have a quality of longing and humour — there is a sense of people who are looking for something — wanting to put themselves on the map.”
As a gay man, Richardson says there was never any question that the show would include some gay content. He and Hille wanted to capture the entire spectrum of life on Craigslist, he says.
“One of my favourites is ‘Chili Eating Buddy,’ which is a fantastic ad from a guy who wanted to trade some of his chili for weed and sit around with another guy drinking coffee in their underwear,” Richardson says.
Singing “Chili Eating Buddy” is New York transplant J Cameron Barnett, who moved to Vancouver a year ago with his husband, Dan. “It is kind of typical of what you can find on Craigslist,” he says, “these supposedly straight guys looking to hang out and maybe have a little sex on the side, all the while professing they are not gay.”
An avid Craigslist user himself, Barnett says that unlike Richardson he has never been scammed, despite having gone so far as to arrange a house swap with a woman in Los Angeles.
“I’m a big fan of Craigslist. I’ve sold stuff, searched for jobs and at one time even sought out legal advice. And of course, I’ve also used it for dating — before I was married,” he adds quickly.
But don’t expect a serious examination of such things as murderous luring plots by alleged Craigslist predators between ads for a Sarah Palin look-alike to perform in an adult film (no anal, the ad reads) and light-hearted songs about missed connections. “It’s not about Craigslist,” Richardson says. “It is about human longing.”