The Art of Street Canvassing

Once we get someone to stop, our job is to quickly outline a specific problem, the solution and past Greenpeace

Once we get someone to stop, our job is to quickly outline a specific problem, the solution and past Greenpeace victories that will make potential members confident about giving us money. Amy asks us to choose either deforestation or whaling for our pitch. The two people before me choose deforestation. Just to be different, I take whales, which I almost immediately regret—currently the most prominent whale in America is the one that killed the Sea World trainer.

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Despite having already lost my canvassing virginity, I’m nervous the following morning when I gather in Union Square with Amy and 10 others. I am dispatched to Babies ’R Us with two seasoned staffers, Matthias and Dana. They are big, handsome guys who use their charm as a hook. “What are you texting about, trees?” Matthias calls to a woman standing at a bus stop, absorbed in her BlackBerry. She looks up, smiles and blushes. His battle is half-won.

I’m not doing as well. After a few attempts, I find I can’t bring myself to tell strangers that they look like they love whales, so I revert to the forbidden yes-or-no questions. I try flirting; a few men stop, but I can’t close the deal. “You have to believe they’re going to sign up,” Dana tells me. “They can see it in your eyes if you don’t.”

“Can I wear sunglasses?” I ask hopefully.

“No,” he says. As I ponder this Catch-22, Dana goes back to work. “Clean, renewable energy!” he bellows to anyone who will listen. “Let’s make it happen!”

At the end of my shift, I am once again empty-handed, and rather than feeling relieved, I’m defeated. “A lot of people don’t come back after their first day,” Dana tells me. “It’s a hard job, but if you love doing it, it’s incredible.” I feel like hugging him, but instead I take out my wallet. I’ve canvassed for a few measly hours and can’t hack it; the people I’ve met—and countless more—are on the streets every day with smiles on their faces and clipboards at the ready, trying to raise money for causes they believe in. I hand him my credit card. Twenty bucks is the least I can give to make up for 10 years of fake phone calls.

I haven’t, however, gone completely soft. As I descend the subway steps to return to my normal life, a young man touches my arm. “Excuse me,” he says. “Can I ask you a few questions about your hair?”

“Not today,” I tell him. “I’m good.”

editorial@observer.com

The Art of Street Canvassing