Friday, March 7, 2008

Canvassing for the human experience

A number of years ago, after ending my career as a nighttime driver for the now defunct Women's Transit Authority, I was in need of a good-paying job that would get me through the summer until classes started again. Since moving to Madison for school, I'd been seeing fliers all around town that said things like "SUMMER JOBS!" and "JOBS FOR STUDENTS!" - fliers claiming that said employment opportunities would pay "UP TO $1000/WEEK!"

Word on the street, though, was that these were all canvassing jobs, the kinds of things where poor students were put to work pressing bricks all across the city in search of donated money for one political cause or another. Honestly, going door-to-door gives me the heebie jeebies, always has. I couldn't do it when I was selling delicious cookies for the Girl Scouts, so what on earth would possess me to do it now? Still, the promise of such amazing pay was mighty tempting. I'd been making around $400 a month prior to that, surviving off of Easy Mac and whatever snacks the theatre department's costumer would think to bring in for me (God bless her).

Because the prospect of canvassing scared me so much, though, it pushed me to go ahead and apply for the job anyway. My motto has always been to face my fears. The success rate has been mixed, at best, but I still cling to it.

I called and arranged to come in on a Saturday morning, ready for a trial day of work to see if I could hack it as a canvasser on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, or DNC.

They had me fill out the usual application forms, detailing what kind of work experience I had and if I had any "leadership" experience. Apparently, my position as co-editor of the college newspaper counted as "leadership," and a very enthusiastic and bubbly girl told me that I would be a prime candidate for a "field coordinator" position if I stuck it out. Oh yes, love the ego stroking.

New recruits sat in a circle and listened intently as the current student employees raved about the great benefits of the job. "I made $5000 last month! And so can you!"

That kind of money was mighty appealing. I could practically taste the long-neglected grocery shopping trips that were in my future.

And then they dropped the "c" word: commission. Our pay would depend upon how much donation money we were able to solicit from complete strangers. OK, I told myself, you can still totally do this. How hard can it possibly be?

Oh naive, naive girl that I was.

We were separated into groups of about six and sent out in cars to different parts of town. My group ended up in a middle class neighborhood on the near south-east side of the city. I was given a buddy for the day--we'll call him John (not for anonymity's sake, but simply because I can't remember his name)--and he would be showing me the ropes, getting my back, making sure I didn't run screaming for the hills.

We were assigned a section of streets, or "turf" as it's called in the biz, to canvass. John shook his head and mumbled something dour sounding.

"What?" I asked.

"It's not great turf, but we'll be OK," he answered. Somewhat mollified, I nodded in understanding. We weren't on the near east side of Madison anymore, that was for sure. Still, we weren't that far out from downtown, so it couldn't be too bad.

We set off on foot, going from door to door, knocking and giving our preplanned spiel about giving money to support the DNC and campaigns for Democrats across the country. As soon as someone said "I'm a Republican" or even just "No thanks," we smiled politely, said thanks, and moved on. As much as I wanted that commission, I was still unwilling to be the pushy solicitor. If someone was going to give, they would give. There would be no extended sales pitches from me.

Of course, there was also the fact that knocking on the doors of strangers and asking them for money absolutely terrified me. Each time I walked up to an unfamiliar edifice, fist poised, I had to actively swallow down a lump in my throat that threatened to turn into a full-on gag. Still, with the help of my friendly buddy John, I persevered. I smiled, was courteous, informative and calm. This even though I wanted to commit seppuku every time someone turned us down.

And turn us down they did, one after another, house after house, street after street. Weren't nobody in a giving mood. The further along we went, too, the bigger those homes got. Lawns became expansive kingdoms of carefully manicured grass. Driveways were filled with hulking, shiny SUVs. The people at the door looked more and more annoyed with our very presence.

And then it hit me: oh shit, we're in Fitchburg! Not only that, but we'd wandered into one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county. Absurdly huge homes, not a single junker car in sight, and plenty of withering glances from bronzed wives.

I was vacillating between being horrified and fascinated by this trek through foreign territory. The houses were often huge and glorious on the outside, but our brief glimpses through their front doors revealed bare walls and cavernous rooms, as though the occupants had spent their last dime on the place itself and left nothing for decorations or even furnishings.

There was one home that we skipped outright, sure that it wasn't worth the trip up the long, winding driveway, through the wrought iron gates and up to the butler-manned doors to what honestly looked like a small castle.

We visited over fifty homes that day and, by the end, had only received two donations. They were the refreshingly bright spots in our otherwise soul-crushingly bad day. John called it the worse turf he'd ever seen.

One of the kind souls who took pity on us actually invited us inside for cold drinks (it was an immensely hot day, on top of it all). She said that both she and her husband were teachers, probably the only two Democrats in the entire neighborhood, and boy she sure didn't envy us our jobs. We smiled and gratefully drank the offered sodas before taking her donation and heading out again.

It was at that point that John told me it was time to fly solo for awhile. I was to prove my mettle, make my own way. Needless to say, I was not overly enthused by the prospect. Still, off he went, leaving me to canvass what looked to me like the richest section of this very rich neighborhood.

About thirty seconds passed between John disappearing down the road and me deciding that I didn't give a flying fuck anymore. I'd had more than enough of the relentless rejection. Instead, I wrote down a long series of addresses on my little clipboard, marking each with a "no donation" or "nobody home," and then decided to simply explore a nearby park.

This decision made me feel immeasurably better.

I traipsed through an overgrown field, chased butterflies, and inspected tiny insects before becoming distracted by the prospect of exploring a nearby unfinished home. It was an old habit. Part of my adolescence was spent living near a rapidly developing subdivision, which meant ample opportunity for running around in the frames of houses at night with friends. There was something thrilling about messing around in structures that would someday house families who would be totally unaware of our past exploits. We never vandalized the places, we just looked around. Sometimes we'd find a corner that was hidden from the road and just sit, shooting the shit and fooling around. That's what you did for fun in the 'burbs, yo.

So it was that I found myself climbing over a trench that surrounded a large, unfinished house, and pulling myself up through what would eventually become the front door. I walked around and inspected the plumbing work, checked out the upper levels and generally snooped around. My fun was ruined, however, when I noticed someone in the house next door watching me through their window. I hurriedly climbed back out of the house and ran across the street into the protection of the overgrown field. The neighbor didn't disappoint, either. A few moments later a squad car rolled by, slowing as it approached the unfinished house and lingering for a bit before moving on.

Finally, the day came to a close and it was time to report back to the car. I felt a little bad for lying about what I'd actually done that afternoon, but to hell with it, I was done. My canvassing career was over before it had really begun. We went back to headquarters, turned in our sheets and our donations (what little we'd all made, anyway), and got the final speech of the day. I informed them that it wasn't for me, but thanks for the opportunity anyway.

I came away from the day with absolutely zero dollars in pay.

Happily, about a week later I landed a decent job as a barista at a local coffee shop. Still, I don't look back at my day as a canvasser as a total loss. I had faced my fear and given it a try, at least, even though it ended with me having a renewed and strengthened resolve never to do that again. Too, it had given me a fascinating if brief glimpse into a hidden world.

It also made me wonder how many well-intentioned, young, potential political activists walk into a canvassing job only to be totally burnt out by the whole experience. The work sucks. The pay is sketchy at best. How long can you do that before getting totally turned off? It seems like a mild abuse of the very people who should be getting the most encouragement to become active and engaged in politics and social movements.

Whatever the case, I'm not sorry for giving up so quickly. It was for the best. It's entirely likely I would have ended up punching someone in the face eventually, and no one wants that.


Shane Wealti said...

I thought it was only WISPIRG that did the whole summer canvassing thing. I always feel bad for the canvassers because the way you describe it is exactly how it always is for me so I try to give them a donation whenever they stop by.

It does seem like there are better uses for the energy of young people who are interested in that stuff that would engage them instead of disillusion them.

John A said...

Very cool write-up. The canvassing thing always struck me as one of the most awkward social interactions our society has to offer. Thanks for the brief look from the inside.

illusory tenant said...

oh shit, we're in Fitchburg!

I have no idea what the significance of that is, but it made me laugh. Excellent post.

The Lost Albatross