Today I was thinking of the day that I quit my canvassing job. It was my summer job, and I couldn’t do it another day.
The day was sultry, like today. So hot that, when you walked, bugs would touch down on your skin for a salty drink of sweat. So dank that, even early in the evening, the sky flirted heavily with the on dark its wet edges. The breeze, if you could call it that, was more like the exhaling of a dragon. After it ate a bag of nacho cheese Doritos. It’s nothing except nasty.
But when you’re dropped off in tonight’s territory, you ignore that. It doesn’t make sense to be angry with the outside since you’ll be there for the next four or five hours. You have doors to knock on. You have a smile and a riff to give to the person on the other side of that door. Heat madness has no value.
I wasn’t a good canvasser. Not like those well-trained, almost Disney Channel canvassers I see on the streets of D.C. No. I was an old school canvasser. It was so old school that the goal for a 21 year old woman walking in an unknown neighborhood alone was to get into the house of a stranger to make friends enough that they gave you money. I only got grabbed on my ass once. I was never bit by a dog.
I wasn’t a good canvasser and my wages proved that. You only got salary if you made quota. Quota was the amount of money you were tasked with raising. You needed to make quota all week to make salary. I never did that. I probably should have been fired with my low take. I made quota maybe 4 nights over the summer. But I got paid out a percentage of my take. That was enough to pay for my sublet, utilities, french fries and beer. It was summer.
People with more experience than me always loved the nights when your territory had curvy streets. That meant more income. But to me it was just doors opened by glassy-eyed housewives who would let me prattle on about energy costs, and then when I did my ask they’d say that their husbands weren’t home. And that they didn’t make decisions, not even a $10 or $25 donation, without him. I found myself humming Mother’s Little Helper as I dejectedly stepped off the porch and walked back down their long driveways. It took me a while to realize that their vacant interest was more vacant than interested.
The last week I canvassed we were in Dearborn. The second day of the week I, as usual, wasn’t doing great. People weren’t home, the ones that were weren’t interested, and, honestly, I wasn’t good enough to get their interest. I hated asking for money. This one house, though, had a pair of teachers behind the brick facade. They invited me in. It was the money shot, getting in the house. The idea was if you were in, they’d write a check.
The wife-teacher offered me lemonade. I joined her and the husband-teacher on their back patio, sitting at a crackled-glass topped table, underneath a sun shading umbrella. I spent thirty or forty-five minutes talking about energy, jobs, cars and education in metro-Detroit. The sun was just starting to sink as they offered me a beer. It was a cold Michelob on a dripping night. I was totally screwing up, I should have been to more houses. But instead I shared progressive political thoughts with my hosts. I was too friendly with them to ask for a check, but he wrote one for $15 anyway. That plus the other $15 I canvassed meant that I wasn’t making quota. Again.
The next night, a Wednesday, we were a little further west. Away from the city. I was doing poorly, as was my way. I was discouraged. I’m sure I was looking sultry. Without any sexy. The house in front of me wasn’t huge, but it looked pricier than yesterday’s neighborhood. There were four late-model cars in the driveway, including a shiny new red Cadillac. I rang the bell. I could see into the house through the screen door. No response. I looked to my right at the thousands and thousands of dollars worth of almost new cars in the driveway and rang the bell again. A woman spilled down from upstairs, her silky kimono-y robe streaming behind her as it was still wrapped around her. She had auburn hair that framed her face in a soft Liz Taylor kind of bouffant. She listened to my pitch with great interest and said, “I’m sorry I can’t help. I was just laid off.” And she looked at me blankly, and I realized that she had been blank the entire time.
Thursday night we were in Dearborn Heights. It was the end of the week because we didn’t knock on doors on Fridays. The streets were laid out in a strict grid. This was not a place for me to make up for my week’s failures. The houses were still brick, but were closer to the sidewalk. The heavy concrete porches were reached by climbing five steps and were fortified by brick and mortar. I half-heartedly knocked on doors and pressed doorbells for the first thirty minutes of my shift. It wasn’t unusual that most people weren’t home yet. I plodded on. The houses were mirrors of each other. One had the door on the right side of the porch, and the next on the left side. I met her at her house which had a right-sided porch.
She seemed like a grandma, the stooped woman who answered the door. She lived with her son who was at work. She had a slight accent, and I am going to say eastern European, but that could be because that was the accent of my own grandmother. But she was much younger than my grandma. Maybe not too much older than my mother, but she had lived hard. But well. And with pride.
I almost didn’t go through my spiel with her. I didn’t think I would get anywhere, but she asked me a set of engaging questions and I realized that I was unfairly dismissing her. Not as a donor, but as a person. She was interested in the energy issues and asked me to explain the regulatory process. I think that she was more curious than interested, and I know that she was more lonely than curious. We sat on the top stoop of her porch. Again, the sun started to set. I needed to move on and thanked her. She asked me why I was there. I told her that I was raising money in the neighborhood. She looked at me in the eyes and held up her finger so that I would wait. She disappeared into her house and returned in a few minutes. She had a pile of coins in her hand.
She took my hand into her small hand and passed the coins. “This was for the paper-boy, but I want you to take it.” I didn’t want to, but I wanted less to insult her, this woman who was so engaged with me, who was so kind, who was so generous. I thanked her with all of my heart and walked back to my rendezvous point. My pickup wasn’t for ninety minutes.
I sat down on the curb and lit a cigarette. I decided right then that I was done. I couldn’t take the paperboy money from the working poor anymore. And I couldn’t extract money from the Cadillac lady.
I saw in that week the generosity of those who have little. People who will share what they have. Because they know what it’s like to do a day’s work. They respect your work as they do their own. They give what they can.
I think about being embraced by that woman on that muggy day and in that oppressive week. I think about her giving from her heart. I think about the woman running down the stairs in her billowy robe. I remember who I am, and who I wish to be. And I remember to put my hand out, to help when I can.