26 August 2006

No religion no politics no soliciting no shoes

We're missing our charming do not knock sign (we don't really mean the "no shoes" thing in our house, if the truth be told). Now the door-to-door folks are upon us.

Tonight the knock came the minute we had finished our roast chicken dinner. My daughter and I opened the door to a woman who could probably earn a small fortune in Japan as a Venus Williams lookalike, asking if I could help people including herself get themselves up off the streets and go after some goals instead of all that loser stuff they were doing before, in her case in the inner city of Baltimore, Maryland. (This, though I don't always know how much of these raps to believe, is what makes me want to open the door. I find people's stories irresistible.)

When I offered her a glass of water, knowing what it's like to go door-to-door, she asked for chips instead, which I produced. We then proceeded down the road of her magazine sales pitch. She did that thing where she handed me the clipboard with the list of "people I've been talking with in your neighborhood -- here's one over on N_____ Street." So I had to take her clipboard and I had to look at the list, even though I pretty much knew what would be on it. (Maxim, Sports Illustrated, and Elle are the norm, so I found the Notre Dame sports magazine an odd inclusion.) I found as she spoke, though, that I didn't like the smell on this girl (cigarettes, alcohol), and the things she said sounded like excuses the way she put them.

I asked how much it would be to buy a couple magazine subscriptions for poor kids, because they offered this new option. It sounded good: I would never get any bills or renewal requests. She scribbled and calculated and showed me an outrageous figure. Well, I've been around the block and felt I'd be a fool to pay for subscriptions at those rates. To boot, she could not produce a shred of information about the money going to the kids vs. the money spent on administration or overhead (the expenses of teaching kids scripts and driving them all over urban areas).

When I declared, "I'm sorry, but I couldn't possibly do that," Venusene's wide nostrils flared further with rage. It was 8 at night on Saturday and she was no doubt dashed, thinking she finally had that last sale. She lost it when I announced it was the principle: "I would rather give your organization the money and not go through the whole rigamarole of ordering overpriced magazines."

"You'd rather give my organization the money," she repeated back to me slowly. "That's like stealing from me! That doesn't put dinner on my kids' table. I got a 4-year-old, and an 11-year-old, and that doesn't give me any commission.

"Here." Venusene thrust the chips I'd given her into my daughter's hand and stalked off.

When we'd gone back inside, my daughter asked, "What did she mean by that, when she said, 'That's like stealing from me'?"

I said, "I do not see it that way. That's too extreme a view of it. For her it just means she doesn't make the money she wants to make, but that was an unfair way to put it. Mean, even."

"She was probably tired and hungry. It's Saturday night and she's probably been out walking around for hours," added my husband.

I could see the gears turning in my daughter's head -- it's news to her that people don't always mean what they say, or that people might disagree about whether others speak the truth. She's just recently grasped the abstract concept of sarcasm: saying one thing and meaning another. So I see her grappling with what it means when what someone says doesn't reckon with what she knows.

But I do know what it feels like to lose a sale when you really need one: I've been on the same side of the door as our Venus lookalike. I actually did it a couple of times. The first was selling encyclopedias (New Standard brand - not even very good ones) and another time I canvassed for CalPIRG, the public interest research group in California (in that day Colorado's was COPIRG but is now Environment Colorado).

I remember the encyclopedia sales team leader on our excursions into Denver calling the houses that looked like good sales prospects "mooches." A Volvo in the driveway: mooches. Toys and tricycles on the lawn: mooches. The signs were the houses just up from poverty, people who knew what it was like to be poor but were trying to make it better for their kids.

I would knock at these doors and ask to schedule an appointment to come back later. If they said yes it was a slightly more formal arrangement and they would be inviting me in, which gave me a big boost. Sometimes the family simply wasn't home at the appointed time, and I quickly learned not to be surprised by this.

Once inside, we were supposed to read from our copied-down scripts. (To get our scripts, we listened to someone recite it and copied the words, pretty much as fast as we could write, until we got a break for sodas and snacks (and socializing, no small part of the cultural immersion process), and repeated the cycle several times until we had the whole thing in our spiral-bound notebooks.)

We had been advised to not to worry about feeling embarrassed or awkward when reciting the script because that was "normal." We were instructed to ask our prospects for water, and to compliment them on their "nice home." (That became a permanent habit, actually. Except I usually say "house" -- "home" always seems pretentious, like saying "wealthy" instead of just "rich.")

But I found that when I started learning the script too well, after two or three weeks, it wasn't as effective; that fumbling newbie thing really did tug at the heartstrings of the young families. (I still have that notebook, and I remember how our team leaders instructed us to always read from the script we had written down, even if we'd memorized it. I found that surprisingly difficult. I wanted to recite the parts I knew.)

I remember getting dropped off in neighborhoods all around Denver. I never forgot one great couple in central Denver who were very apologetic when they cancelled their order. We liked each other so much that I actually felt much better about the whole thing when I heard that they'd cancelled. By the end of my four weeks of selling encyclopedias I would have pitied them had they actually gone through with the purchase; they would have ended up paying $2,400 for a $700 set of books. I came to feel terrible about saddling those few poor hopeful families with all that debt. It became a little stain on my conscience.

Canvassing felt different, though, because I got a place to put some of my self-righteousness (before getting taken down a peg or two by people's stunning indifference or resistance to talking to someone at their door who says, "Hi, I'm so-and-so and I am wondering whether you care about your water. I'm here for the California Public Interest Research Group and... yadda yadda yadda."). I found I was very unwelcome in the high-security Defense-contractors' backyards, around what had recently become Silicone Valley; in some Sunnyvale neighborhoods I started guessing in advance how many doors would be slammed in my face on a given evening. I was far more welcome in Palo Alto and Burlingame and the liberal enclaves where earnest good-doing people like the ones I grew up around answered the door with their babes at their ankles saying, "Why yes, I do care about my water!" as if they'd just been waiting for me to knock. Sometimes they surprised me and subscribed at $100 or even $75 instead of the basic $35 level and I felt charmed and had great days without even trying.

In my six-week stint canvassing in California, I came to love the days I got to go to the Peninsula's safe, comfortable neighborhoods, where I'd find a school playground and a niche where I could sit and write. I'd go door to door for a while and as a reward tuck myself into a at a park or into a booth at a diner for a piece of pie and a couple of cups of coffee and would just write like crazy. I don't remember what I wrote about, but I had to write.

Today I choose my interactions more carefully, and those doorstep transactions seldom seem like a good way to work with people, from either side of the door. (Although I do delight in opportunities to deploy my "Thank you, but I already believe" line on the Jehovah's Witnesses.) Yet I still question whether I should post a do not disturb sign on my door. One friend surprised me with his strong reaction against doing so. "No politics!?" he exclaimed, incredulous.

I read a good Miss Manners (aka the disarmingly clever Judith Martin) once in which she suggested that the best response when you wanted to say no without explaining yourself was to say, "Oh, I couldn't possibly." I felt the same way, sincerely, with Venusene's magazine pitch tonight. Is that a total cop-out? I don't think so. As an adult, I now have the privilege of choosing the people I work with, the business I transact, the political discussions I engage in. And we certainly extend ourselves in many ways in both our immediate community and in our larger one, too. It's nothing so simple as not wanting to help people, or wanting to "steal" someone's commission for selling magazines. I just don't like doing it in on those terms, on my doorstep on a Saturday night, during dinner. Been there, done that.

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