The Agony and the Ecstasy of Door-to-Door Activism

August 5, 2016 | 1 10 min read


My first inclination was to tell Carly I’d answered the ad in the local alt-weekly asking for energetic self-starters who cared about the environment because, in the words of Albert Camus, I wished to find out what might happen should I open myself to the gentle indifference of the world, to learn if in the midst of winter there was within me an invincible summer. Since I suspected that might sound pessimistic or confusing what with it being early summer in North Carolina, I told her it was because of hog waste.

For months, the state’s largest newspapers had been covering river and groundwater contamination caused by leaking “lagoons” dug to contain manure produced by the state’s seven million hogs. One article had described a viscous red muck the color of coagulating blood rushing knee-deep through the woods and fields, coating acres of tobacco and soybeans until it found the river. It was dangerous and gross and had pushed me over the edge. The others nodded in shared disgust. Carly flopped over the orange fringe of her denim skirt and suggested I incorporate the story into my pitch because “it’s hard to argue with poop.” The way she said “poop” made it sound cute and fun, so I said I would, while wondering what she meant by “my pitch.” She pronounced this awesome. As did the ten other rising college seniors with similarly thin employment histories making up the rest of the circle on the threadbare carpet of a spartan office in Chapel Hill.

It had only taken me a moment to recognize Carly as the person who had answered the phone number listed in the ad. By the end of the call I’d learned I was not only an energetic self-starter but also a citizen activist and coalition builder who was willing to work flexible hours five days a week for the rest of the summer and be paid through a multi-tiered, incentive-laden bonus structure. My potential employer: the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, one of the older consumer and public interest watchdog organizations in the United States.

A box fan blew warm air around the warm room as she explained she was there to teach us what it meant to be a Regional Field Analyst for U.S. PIRG. And what it meant to be a Regional Field Analyst for U.S. PIRG was knock on doors asking for donations. Someone asked the question on everyone’s mind: How much would we make over the summer? The answer: potentially three to four thousand dollars. I thought this a good answer as it would be three to four thousand dollars more than what I had at the moment and ignored her caveats that we’d need to work a 40-hour week, and consistently exceed our quotas since we’d get to keep 30 percent over the quota, which would increase with our levels of experience.

“My quota, for instance, is $150. All of you will start out with a goal of raising $80, but remember this,” advised Carly, eager for a different subject, “if they ask for a flier for ‘later consideration’ keep pressing them. No one sends in money after taking the fliers; they get lost or tossed. Don’t let them close the door. Transition to the petition. And keep talking. And don’t say “you.” It’s too aggressive. Talk about ‘us’ and ‘we’ and ‘our.’”

Carly handed out our assignments in the form of neighborhood lists and home addresses then ceded the floor to Marcus, a Senior Regional Field Analyst and Army veteran with blond surfer hair and a pink tank top.

“What we’re doing matters,” he said, pacing before the group. “It’s a service. We’re not selling insurance here. This is life and death. If someone isn’t polite enough to even listen and yells at me, I give it back to them and tell them it doesn’t make a difference to me if they get cancer and die. That makes the point.”

A bit much, maybe, but I laughed with everyone else and that afternoon, an aging Monte Carlo driven by Marcus dropped Carly and I off in a quiet, leafy neighborhood of late-model houses and SUVs. After two hours of ringing doorbells with Carly and observing her facility for separating money from its owners, I was sent off on my own.

An hour of doorbell-ringing on unresponsive houses later, I didn’t have a single dollar to my name when I approached a three story split-level, ranch-colonial in Easter egg pastels. A husband, Ken, and wife, Julie, listened politely as I stumbled through my bullet points then invited me inside and pointed out a chair at the kitchen table. I sat, Julie left the room, and Ken paced. For the next twenty minutes, he provided a history of his house painting business, how he started with nothing and how this made success all the sweeter. And that I needed a tougher attitude.

“Life is about selling,” he preached. “And how do I know what you’re doing is for real? A fellow like you shows up on my doorstep with a backpack, how do I know you’re not dangerous? How well do you know these people? Do your parents know what you’re doing?”
I told him I was out there because it was high time people started caring about something beyond their own “individual concerns.” I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as I said it.
Ken hunched forward to assume a stance best described as defecatory. “You don’t get it. People don’t care about anything but themselves. That’s the truth.” In his pose, I saw opportunity.

“Poop. I’m here because of poop. Cow poop, horse poop, chicken poop, hog poop. Mostly hog poop. Poop’s a part of life, but I don’t want to swim in it. Or drink it. Do you? Rivers aren’t toilets.” I felt like I’d invented a bumper sticker, and I liked it.

“Now I’m interested. I don’t know how it relates to me, my water’s fine, and I like bacon, but I’m curious. If I give you ten dollars, how much goes to solving the problem? How do you go about solving the problem? And how do I know my money is used for that and not to pay you or make more fliers?”

Since some of the money did go to me and did go to fliers, his line of questioning grated. I could tell he thought of himself as a teacher, but he wasn’t the kind of teacher who rooted for you to succeed; He was the teacher who had wanted to be a famous physicist but, instead, was teaching algebra and compensated by reminding you that you were disappointing your parents. But there was a checkbook in the house, and I was determined to introduce it to one of the oldest consumer and public interest watchdog organizations in the United States, so I answered.

“Nine out of every ten bucks,” I explained, pretty sure I was mostly right, “goes directly into lobbying local representatives and program work.”
“What does that mean? How do I know you aren’t lying? Can I call you and get a report on the use of my money?”
“You can call the organization.” I pointed at a phone number on a flier.
“I’ve never heard of your organization,” he said, “Maybe if I call, the person on the other end of the phone will lie to me, or maybe it’s a fake number. Can I call you?”
“No. You can’t call me.”
“Then you aren’t personally accountable.”

At this point, I had my doubts about what I was doing. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was a sucker for taking this job. Maybe idealism was for fools. Maybe all of this was a dream orchestrated by a worldwide conspiracy of industrialists flying around in black helicopters who had implanted microchips in my brain so I might serve an agenda so insidious and complex it was beyond my comprehension. Anything was possible.

“I’m trying to help.”

The statement caught my attention since that’s what I was trying to do. Such helpful people were lucky to have found each other. I told him it was time for me to go and walked next door where his neighbor hollered at me through the screen door to take my Jesus somewhere else.
I skipped a few addresses and tried a different street on the assumption that emotional states cluster like invisible matter and I needed to get outside this one’s gravitational field. A plump woman with white hair answered her door in a sweatshirt stitched with a dozen cat faces and balloon letters asserting “Persians are Purr-fect.” When she blinked up at me I felt more intrusive than at any other point so far and quickly introduced myself, telling her I was collecting money for the environment and left it at that. It was an approach that demanded dismissal. She held out a twenty.

I looked at her, looked at the money, then back at her. Finally someone understood what I was doing. I might have been inarticulate and disheveled with my shoelaces untied, but she still got it. So what if she had a silly sweatshirt? At least she cared about the goddamn planet.
She folded my fingers around the bill, patting them closed, and gestured toward a tree in the front yard.

“What do we have if we don’t have our home?”
“Nothing,” I said.

She asked why I’d become involved, and I told her about the rivers, avoiding the word poop. “Oh,” she brightened, “the pig shit. Well honey, remember people like their barbecue. This is North Carolina.”

“It is,” I said while thinking that I’d suggest future Field Analyst training be condensed into three statements. People are selfish. People like barbecue. Cat sweaters are underrated. That’s pretty much all you needed to know to survive this job. She was still patting my hand.

“Thank you,” I said, by means of extraction. With a final squeeze, she told me to go get ’em.
I had five hours to go, and was a quarter of the way to my quota, but the first donation of the day would also be my last.

Trying to think like a Field Analyst, by the middle of the week, I developed a working profile of a donation-prone house. I didn’t work door-to-door long enough to fully test my theories, but preliminary anecdotal data implied an existence of certain cost/ego coefficients multipliable by variables like square footage and garden plumage. Single story was good. An over-manicured lawn with a complex garden spilling into the street was bad, as was any house hidden in deep shade and difficult to see from the street. Garish paint jobs — eggshell blue shutters and sunrise yellow on the front door — bad. Don’t bother walking up a driveway filled by an SUV. An old diesel Volvo is your friend. And whatever they drive, read their bumper stickers.

My third day on the job, a woman a few years older than I invited me inside; confessed she was house-sitting and bored; and offered me a chair and a beer, which I refused (the beer) because I wanted to maintain an air of professional dignity. She was pretty in the same way that Carly was pretty, and the thought sparked a strange fantasy where I imagined both of them hitchhiking across the country to Grateful Dead or Phish concerts. Asking again if I was sure about the beer, she took a flier, offered up a few dollars, and told me to stay as long as I wanted. The way she said it made me jumpy. I thanked her and left, telling her I had a quota. I needed to hit my quota.

That night, after work, I joined Carly and Marcus and a six-pack of Olympia on a soccer field. Pleased to have what I thought was a funny story, I interrupted Marcus, who was muttering something about the problem of benzene in tap water, to mention the beer offer. The story stopped Marcus in the middle of freeing his ponytail from its rubber band. He studied me from within a ratty blond halo.

“You didn’t take it?”
“Well, no. I would have smelled like beer.”
“I think it’s sweet that he didn’t,” said Carly, looking my way to smile.
“Man, bring gum if you’re worried about smelling like beer, but take the beer. Be friendly. See what happens. And untuck your shirt.”
The object of his discontent was a green short-sleeved polo usually reserved for meeting parents and other adults I wished to impress as a nice young man.
“What’s wrong with my shirt?”
“You look like you’re ready to play golf. And drinking a beer with a donor doesn’t always end with drinking a beer.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“That’s actually happened? To you?”
“It’s a wild world, my young Jedi. A wild world.”

The past few days hadn’t inspired much hope, or patience. But in the unlikely event that Marcus was correct and I had unknowingly stumbled my way into an issue of Penthouse Letters edited by Greenpeace, the potential for similar interactions in the future did sound like evidence that good things can happen to good people, and of the world working the way it should. Then again, how often would I need strangers to offer adult beverages and companionship to offset the other people who thought I was in a cult? The answer: a lot more than seemed likely. Walking to my car, I told Carly I didn’t think I was cut out for going door-to-door. She smiled and asked me to give it some time. I said I would.

Two days later we ended up at her place, a house in a kudzu patch filled with old mattresses and bongs, where I met a few of her roommates and learned the scent of patchouli oil and unconsummated attraction. “The world is unjust,” she observed, collapsing into the sofa, the latest issue of Mother Jones across her lap. Then, after a pause, she said there was something she’d been meaning to ask. “When do you think you’ll be ready for a higher quota?”

On what would be my last day, and at house #3, I was interrupted in sentence #1 by a chemist for Glaxo who told me I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about before slamming the door. At house #7, I was asked: “If you’re so opposed to urban sprawl and mass development on wetlands where, then, are all the people supposed to go?” We argued about house size and two car garages and herbicides leaching into the soil and fish kills and I earned another snort, another slam, and a heart swollen with righteous indignation.

Ignoring my own preliminary findings re: cost/ego coefficients and house profiles, I braved a driveway filled by vehicles plastered with Marine Corps bumper stickers. The door opened to a darkened room framing a man my age in a white t-shirt and blue jeans. He looked like he considered bench-pressing a serious hobby and regarded me with a mix of confusion and revulsion. I smiled and began my pitch. He told me to go fuck myself and get a real job.
Taking longer to leave than I should have, I stopped on the bottom step, untucked my shirt, and fell into a funk. Marcus came to mind. He wouldn’t have taken crap off this guy. The thought shamed me. I wasn’t quite ready to do a perfect impression of him but made an attempt. “Fine,” I muttered, “get cancer.”

I was halfway down the front walkway when I heard the creak of door hinges and the rush of quick footsteps. A hand smacked into my back. I skipped forward, found my balance, and turned around to find an angry man asking me in a loud and high-pitched voice that rose with his anger at what I’d said. “I am a deadly motherfucking weapon, motherfucker,” he told me. “Now get off my yard before I rip your head off and shit down your neck.”

It was the first time outside of a movie I’d heard someone make such a promise. Apparently people really do talk like this. Sensing it wasn’t the moment for a witty comeback, I gambled that he’d leave me alone, turned away, and resumed my departure. When he didn’t continue his pursuit, I stomped indignantly across his lawn to let him know who was in charge.

He was a jerk, and I’d shown up unannounced and uninvited, but he was not entirely wrong about one thing. I needed a job that would teach me something other than how to absorb abuse. Approaching a couple houses with halfhearted queries, I accepted their shaking heads and spent the rest of my shift luxuriating in the grass next to the fire hydrant that was our pickup spot until Marcus drove up in the Monte Carlo and rolled down his window.

“Give ’em hell?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Always.”

is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa. His work has been listed in Best American Essays, and appeared in The Iowa Review, The Morning News, and the Burnside Review, among other places.

One comment:

  1. Those who actually address activists who arrive at their door:
    1. My next-door neighbor, who talks with everyone as she chain smokes on her porch and engages anyone who will pay attention. She doesn’t care about the cause.
    2. A neighbor on the block who baits the activist and argues and is generally belligerent.
    3. A young couple who sees themselves in the canvasser just a few years ago before they got their corporate jobs
    I don’t want you coming to me. I research issues that interest me, that I view as relevant to me/the street/the community/the world. If you knock on my door after our town has been found to have contaminated water, you are welcome. If you come to my door and *dare me* and *challenge me* as in, “do you *even know* about this initiative? Are you *even aware* of what I’m talking about?” Then you deserve all my contempt. Which I do not verbalize to you because I’m a decent sort of person. I don’t engage. I walk away. While you think you are the brightest thing my community has encountered and we need you to keep us green or ethical or supporting a political party, know that most of us look into causes we need and want to know about without the “dare” of your scripts. Script delivery with arrogance is anathema and, while passion is great, belittling is not. Do not come to my door please.

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