“Hello, sir! You look like you care about the environment!”
I am standing in front of Babies ’R Us in Union Square, making what could be mistaken for a single, spastic jazz hand at a man 15 feet away. He rolls his eyes, takes a drag on his cigarette and pointedly tosses it, still burning, at my feet. Perhaps he doesn’t care much about the environment after all. It is a beautiful spring day and people are trying to enjoy the sunshine during their lunch break. I am standing in their way. I am a street canvasser. To many New Yorkers, I am the enemy.
Maybe I should clarify—to me, I’m the enemy. When I see canvassers on the street, I pick up a fake phone call. It’s not that I don’t support their causes. I just balk at the practice of bothering strangers. When I was a kid, I had the most passive lemonade stand ever. It was basically a performance piece: me, sitting silently on my stoop with a sweaty pitcher, terror etched on my face, praying for people to heed the words of Dionne Warwick and walk on by. So I figured that signing up to canvass would force me to face my fear while simultaneously helping me to understand why people do it.
After a few phone calls and emails, I convince the ACLU and Greenpeace to let me tag along with them. My first gig is with the ACLU. (Full disclosure: My father is a former employee and board member.) Their canvassing operations are managed by a third-party organization, Grassroots Campaigns, that works out of a cheery, streamer-festooned office in Herald Square.
David, Grassroots’ lanky and charismatic regional director, greets me at the door and introduces his team, a band of fresh-scrubbed, bright-eyed 20-somethings. They seem invigorated, full of life and suspiciously devoid of any signs that they, too, might have downed an entire bottle of Tempranillo the previous night while catching up on Sixteen and Pregnant. I feel immediately at a disadvantage.
A woman named Amanda, with blue eyes, blond ringlets and a cheery, camp-counselor disposition, is tasked to train me. Amanda has canvassed for various organizations since 2007, and when I ask why she does it, she practically beams. “It’s so fun and rewarding.” She counsels the importance of maintaining a perma-grin. “People are like babies,” she confides. “If you smile at them, they smile.” Nearby, a group practices “positive leaves,” otherwise known as telling people to have a good day even if they are flipping you off.
When we arrive at our Lincoln Center location, I put on an extra-large blue ACLU vest, which gives me the appearance of a portly, progressive Smurf, and then receive my goals for the day: six successful stops and $200 in pledges. “Couldn’t I have more modest goals?” I ask. “Like ‘Don’t vomit on yourself’ or ‘Try not to say fuck’?”
I wave maniacally at passersby, asking if they have a moment for gay rights. My first target, a Kris Kringle doppelgänger, slows as he approaches.
“I think I have the civil right to walk down the street without being ambushed!” he says angrily, his face reddening.
Thankfully, I’m not verbally abused for the remainder of my two-hour shift. People generally fall into one of three categories: They ignore me completely, politely decline or stop because they don’t speak English and think I might be giving out free samples. Amanda tells me that one out of every five people who stop normally make a donation, but at the end of two hours, I have 10 stops and nothing to show for it—like I’ve been unsuccessfully speed-dating with all of New York. The others, meanwhile, seem to effortlessly convince people to hand over their credit cards, and it occurs to me that canvassing takes a considerable amount of skill.
While canvassers seem as natural a part of today’s New York City streetscape as hot dog vendors, I was surprised to learn that they haven’t actually been around that long. Greenpeace has been active in the U.S. for about 10 years; the ACLU just started its program in 2006. From a historical standpoint the Salvation Army is a trailblazer, having solicited charitable donations on the streets as far back as 1891. But Dana Fisher, a Columbia sociology professor and the author of Activism, Inc., dates the birth of grass-roots, cause-based canvassing as we know it to 80 years later, to May of 1971, when a former encyclopedia salesman named Marc Anderson used his door-to-door experience to raise money for Citizens for a Better Environment. The practice has been exponentially growing since then, and keeps many organizations afloat. Steve Abrahamson, the ACLU’s associate director of Membership for Direct Marketing, said that canvassing represents “a significant percentage” of monthly membership recruitments; Adrian Brown, Greenpeace USA’s national canvass director, told me that the job makes up “at least 50 percent” of the organization’s income.
It’s to Greenpeace that I head a few days later, hopeful of improving my track record. Their office in Williamsburg is unmarked but for a series of stickers on the street entrance; upstairs, a door proclaims “Welcome to the Revolution.” Amy, one of the New York City Coordinators, sits me with four other neophytes and then takes us through the basics.
Unlike the canvassers at the ACLU, Amy discourages the yes-or-no-question approach. She advises us instead to be conversational (“Let’s fight global warming today!”) or assumptive (“I know you care about whales!”). Apparently, a Greenpeace staffer named “Crawdaddy” likes to ask, “What does a burning orangutan smell like?”