| 01 December 2006
"I street canvassed for a childrens charity" - Composed by Anthony.
I street canvassed for a childrens charity for about six hours when I started to taste a hint of metal and knew it would be like any other sales job. In one sense. It’s also a lot like fishing. That was back in February, when by the time people fleeing their work flooded State Street for their trains it was already night. “I just want to go home, baby,” said the last of a stream of people - an old black lady, whose laughter over my rejection was not unsympathetic. She trotted off wrapped in a long, dark shawl and slumped over from the weight of her purse. Anymore I might have tried to lure her back, but at the end of my first day I no longer had the words.
Maybe you spoke with a person like me when passing from Starbucks back to your office building, or, if you’re only a tourist in Chicago that time you asked a young person in a bright red jacket where you might find the Magnificent Mile. “I’ll be happy to point it out to you,” they replied, “if first you give me a minute of your time.”
During such a minute, you would learn or have repeated to you some of the following facts:
1) That 30,000 children die a day and that the leading causes of this holocaust are, among other idiotic conditions, diarrhea and chicken pox.
2) That if you’re an adult earning less than a dollar a day, chances are you’re a single mother.
3) Hundreds of thousands of kids have been recruited into violent militant groups that often make light-weight weapons specially for them.
4) That in addition to giving out food provisions and necessary vaccinations, human aid organizations do other things like train teachers for impoverished communities, construct wells and other irrigation systems so that there’s drinkable water nearby and fund micro-loan programs that can significantly alter entire families’ futures by providing amounts to them as modest as $50 or $100. (What can you do with fifty bucks here?) And
5) Someone you were expecting to have to hand a five to will request that you sign up, then and there, to become a child-sponsor and donate $20 to $30 a month – through a credit card (!).
“What are you doing nowadays?” I’ll be asked by old acquaintances, at a party, a bar.
“Really… I hate those people,” is their usual response when I tell them.
“You do that?”
“Yep.” Three days a week at first, during what was supposed to be my final semester of college, before a combination of financial pressures and an over-appreciation for the pared-down task bumped me up to full-time. During those nine months of work I happened to have glimpsed a sliver of human nature that I, at least, would not have confronted otherwise. Please take the following as an anthropological find. After all, if bus-drivers are the sole audience to some set of insensitive or awkward gestures on the part of us passengers which we non-bus-drivers remain oblivious to, I hope one day they would bring it to our attention.
Here’s one fact I’ve learned. It doesn’t matter if Chuck always discusses financial matters with his wife first, or if Michelle volunteers with autistic kids “so that’s [her] way of helping out,” or if Susan already contributes to United Way through work. If Chuck ate something different for breakfast, if the canvasser Michelle spoke to had described a relief project in Gaza rather than one in Ethiopia, if the other canvasser hadn’t removed his glove before shaking hands with Susan – a gesture which she took to be phony and over-the top, then you Susan, Chuck, Michelle would have signed up that time that time you did not.
At least that’s a belief. However, if someone wants to argue otherwise, saying that under no circumstances, ever, would he become a child-sponsor, then I’m willing to defer to his judgment.
Another observation I’ve made, and one which my belief in is a bit more unshakeable, has to do with why most of us are not donating to organizations like the one I work for. It’s not lack of funds: a dollar a day to save someone’s life - give me a break. It’s not skepticism in cost-effectiveness, either: if you’re diligent in finding out how your dollars are spent (and you should be) you have access to tax information and project audits of many leading NGOs, which are ranked in quality and accountability through multiple easily-accessible independent advisory boards (e.g.:charitynavigator.org). What keeps us away is simply the notion that global poverty is just a natural world order, an inescapable fact of the planet. I imagine it’s similar in texture to how most whites must have perceived Jim Crow politics from the Emancipation Proclamation on up to the civil-rights era. As grim possibly, and sometimes banal, but ultimately unavoidable.
This is a mistake.
We live in a time where the advancement of communications technologies, the success of humanitarian aid foundations and the growth of microfinance projects are deeply unprecedented.
“But you’re just putting a band-aid on the problem,” a girl I stopped on the street told me recently. She goes to the same college I’m enrolled at. “It all comes down to capitalism. Look, you should come to the annex next week. We’re doing for stuff for real change there, trying to get the Bush regime kicked out of office. We’re having a DJ and everything.”
The morning’s conversations had gone well enough. An old woman in a fur coat and sunglasses (no); a black cop in his forties, laughing (no); a twenty-one year old black girl in a starter jacket (yes); an Indian woman of about thirty with a large Macy’s sack and a yellow rubber bracelet (yes); an eager-looking college couple in corduroy and scarves (no). In the afternoon cold though a recurring stutter I’ve had since a kid has blown into ridiculous proportions. The patient, humoring expression this girl from my school gave me was probably be the worst part of that rejection. That’s the thing about this job, one minute you feel like Che Guevara, the next you’re Willie Loman.
I want to say to her, Yeah, you’re only one person so you will not change the entire world through your single sponsorship. What you will do is spend 93 cents a day that you would waste otherwise instead on a project that provides everything from textbooks to shoes for kids who have to walk to the schools that are built for them to protective bed-nets to guard against malaria - here a children’s book I haven’t seen in seventeen years called Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears flashes back, set in an African jungle and about how a chain of events ignited by a mosquito results in a falling branch killing a baby owl and the mother owl no longer being compelled to wake the sun; it won the Caldecott – and I manage “Yeah, you’re only one person…,” before her patient look recedes into a gracious nod, meaning she thinks I’m agreeing with her, and I have no idea what I want to say next. “Look,” I tell her, “I hope you have a good time at this rally.”
She pats my arm warmly. “You should come.”
Fuck it, next.
Office-workers are now flooding Michigan with the accompaniment of black kids far-piercing staccato drum beats over white buckets. My eyes are watering from the cold and I must look strung-out from trying to stop five hundred people. In moments like these, you (I) need to compose yourself (myself). It seems strange that I have to be fresh and clear for the next person I speak to since what I really want to do is punch them.
The next person turns out to be a young woman in a plaid jacket with frazzled reddish hair and her hands clenched deep in her pockets, who withdraws one hand she connects first to her mouth and then reaches around to her hear to indicate to me that she is deaf.
“Wait, listen. I mean, can you read lips?”
She nods. I try that out, though in reality I don’t make a sound. I just hoped it would still work. She mostly flips through the binder I hold anyway. Pictures of smiling Sudanese kids in a classroom, a close-up of a girl from Ecuador writing with a pencil, two Louisiana girls testing each other with a stethoscope. A pie-chart of the expense-breakdown. George Clooney standing with the CEO, Brad Pitt and Diane Sawyer with kids.
“How long do I do it for?” she asks.
“As long as you can.”
Taking a seat at the bus stop bench beside us she takes the application form and reaches into her purse. She fills in everything herself for two minutes.
|posted by DialogueDirect Inc. @ 10:55 AM