Often times, when I am in a city I only stop moving once I’m at my destination. It is never in the middle of the sidewalk. Usually, it’s inside a store front, a guarded park, or a friend’s apartment. Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk is like parking on a highway; no one is supposed to live outside of their particular moment in those places. For one week, though, I stopped and watched.
I was actually paid to do this, since I was a canvasser for Greenpeace. Yup, I was one of those annoying people who asks for money and your signature for a plethora of causes. Let me tell you, though, it is one of the hardest jobs I have ever done. Honestly, I think anyone who wants to be an artist should do it for at least one week because it really teaches you how to bounce back from rejection and to never lose the smile on your face: no matter how plastered on it may be, eventually it feels real again.
I’d heard about Greenpeace before I saw the ad on Craigslist and knew that they loved whales and weren’t huge fans of the fashion industry, but other than that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When I walked into the office off of Sixth Avenue, I was nervous and willing to please, since it was my first job interview in over three weeks.
The building their office was located was one of the tripiest I have come across in NYC so far. The front of the building looks like a typical office building and the lobby confirms this assumption. There are no doors on the first floor. Instead, shiny metals walls lead you to an elevator. Immediately to your left when you walk in, there is a doorway, that leads to a red wooden staircase snaking up through the building.
The first question that Duke asked me during my interview was whether I could handle rejection. “Of course,” I said. “I’m a writer.” We shook hands and agreed that I would come in first thing the next morning to start orientation. Similar to D-Day, everyone around the office referred to Wednesdays as “O-Day” since this was the day new recruits were brought in and taught the ropes of canvassing. Only 20% will make it through the week and still have a job with Greenpeace by the next Wednesday.
Many canvassing jobs pay their employees with a fixed minimum wage and then give them commission for any new member they bring to their particular cause. Greenpeace works differently since they don’t contract canvassing work outside of their organization. Instead, they use a quota system, and fellow O-Dayers and myself were expected to sign at least three people up by the end of the week if we wanted to stay employed.
There are three majors obstacles any street canvasser has to overcome: stopping people, getting them excited about the cause, and finally signing them up with a small contribution. The hardest thing to do is the first- stopping people in the middle of Manhattan. Positioning yourself in the center of the sidewalk, you make your body an island and force the flow of millions of people to pulsate around you.
The first rule of NYC is to make yourself incospicous while walking its streets. You don’t respond to strangers who say hello, you never smile at fellow passengers on the street or subway and never ever make eye contact, in fact it doesn’t matter if its sunny out always wear your sunglasses. Breaking any of these rules pegs you as crazy or as an out of towner. Of course these are the top three rules of canvassing: Hello, smile, eye contact, and repeat until someone stops.
Out of the thousands of people that passed me by during O-Week, one woman in particular stays with me. She was the first person I ever got to stop in the street. She was an unemployed chef and photographer- at least that’s what it says on the business card she gave me. On that first day I’m sad to say that I profiled people. Anyone, with a hemp jacket, long hair, or band shirt I would immediately flag down and tried to stop. I had been trying to wave down a guy with a serious fro, but as he passed me by, ignoring me, Eileen happened to walk by right behind him. What I had been saying was meant for the fro guy, but she thought I was talking to her. She stopped right in front of me, eyes wide open and asked me what I was talking about.
Soon we weren’t just talking about saving the Amazon. She told me about her passion for nature, sustainability, and photography. I was sure that I was going to sign her up during my first hour on the job. By the time I brought the conversation back to Greenpeace, I asked her to become a member. Eileen was more than willing and practically ripped the pen out of my hand to sign up. When we got to the credit card section of the form though, that’s when things turned dark.
She turned to me and asked if she could simply give me twenty dollars in cash. Of course I had to refuse and press her to use a credit card. Since there’s such a high turn over of canvassers, most places only accept credit card information to make sure that none of the money is stolen. Finally, she told me that she was fired from her job three months ago and was having no luck in finding a new one. On top of that her hands were covered with eczema blisters because of stress, she had no health insurance, and whatever cash she had saved, was quickly being drained by her student loans for a degree she earned over fifteen years ago. She was so embarrassed when she told me that I could see tears forming on the edges of her eyes just barely hanging on.
Although, I didn’t know exactly where she was coming from I had just spent the past month unemployed, wondering why I had wasted four years of my life getting a degree that no one seemed to care about. Our culture puts so much worth into what we can materially afford, that when we no longer have the means or opportunity to make money all of our self worth flies out of the window. Standing in front of me was a smart, nice woman who had been discarded by capitalism and was freefalling. Eventually, I watched her disappear down the street, but I made sure to keep her business card safe in my pocket for the rest of that day.
How many people do we know that hide their money issues? For a society and culture that puts so much importance on what we own, very rarely do we actually see the financial situation our friends or acquaintances are in. It’s all about keeping up appearances, and by doing so we isolate ourselves to the point that we think we are the only ones with these issues. I’m sure there are thousands of Eileens out on the street of just New York who have been passed over and thrown to the side for whatever reason. Don’t forget them.
The next day I was back out on the street ready to get my three pledges. I had only two days left and I was trying to stay positive that I’d have this job for more than a week. My last days have melted together and the only person I can still see clearly in my mind is Eileen. I was able to get people to stop and listen to what I had to say, but they never had any money. Many of them would tell me stories about how they were either on their way to a job interview or that they were new to the ranks of the unemployed. The thing is they all looked different. Of course the occasional homeless person would pass me by, but the other unfortunate souls I met looked like my parents, my friends, and my brother. Nothing about them made it apparently obvious that they were all in the same financial boat, they were hidden in plain sight.
Sadly, I never made quota and am once again unemployed, but the memories of that week will stay with me for awhile. For a short period of time I forced myself to talk to people of all classes and races, which for most people does not happen enough. It made me realize how similar we all are and that is more valuable than any paycheck I could have received.