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Rap or Run: Going Door to Door for Greenpeace in LA

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I've had some frustrating jobs in the past--mostly in retail--but there is nothing quite like the pain and humiliation of stumping for a cause and a minimum wage paycheck. When I was a mere young'un, at 18, I spent six months working as a door-to-door canvasser for Greenpeace. Yes, I was one of those annoying neo-hippie crusader types (mind you, I bathed and shaved and did not spread any funk, unlike some of my crystal-gazing coworkers) who rang your doorbell at dinner time, carried a clipboard emblazoned with "Save the __________!" stickers, and asked you for money. Even then, if I'd come to my own door I'd have hated me too.

Working for an often radical group like Greenpeace had a surprisingly rigid and almost corporate feel to it. We all drew a base salary (I would probably be ashamed to admit what it was in 1995, if I still remembered it) but were required to fill a quota of financial support each week. Every night a manager would map out our individual "turf" and give us photocopies of the area from the Thomas Guide marked up with our designated streets. We also were given cards that listed past donors, and were urged to hit them up first for renewals. This was by no means a guaranteed strategy to make quota; many times the past donor listed had moved, had abandoned their do-gooding attitude, or, in the worst case, were dead. I'll tell you, there is nothing like knocking on a door and asking for Mrs. So-and-so, only to be informed by a still-grieving widower that his wife was no longer with us. But that was just one reason why the gig was a nightmare.

Photo by jovike via Flickr

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Every night we'd pile into white mini-vans and head out in small groups to our turf. Once there we'd take some time to get our bearings, grab something to eat, then get dropped off one by one at our designated drop-off and pick-up point. We had a couple of hours to make our way, all alone, through the streets, knocking on doors and giving what we called our "rap"--a focused spiel aimed at grabbing the attention of the home's tenant and getting them to sign a petition at the least, and fork over some cash at best. I stank at this, hardcore. Some of my coworkers, like this dude named Lovell, rocked the rap. He could sell hair gel to a bald man. We all had our style of delivery and chosen topic to focus on. Me, I tried for the sweet young thing mode and pitched the threat of nuclear waste in our water thanks to the Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Dump. I know, who wouldn't rather hear that than watch Wheel of Fortune? Sometimes, though, to break the monotony, we'd pair up under the guise of "skill-sharing" and do the turf as a team. Of course, this meant the pressure was doubled to make quota, but man, it was amazing to see just how many people invited hippie-dippy-trippy people like my former co-worker Chenani (who once called in sick to work because "Mercury was in retrograde"--no joke) for a cup of tea and to write a check. On nights when some of us were feeling rebellious, we would pair up and goof off, smoke cigarettes in the minivan, or goof off on our own, opting to spend the evening in a cafe or restaurant and claim the evening was a total wash. (Who me? I'd never!)

Sometimes the humiliation of being on foot alone in a neighborhood had painful manifestations. When we'd get stuck in a purely residential area there was nowhere to go to the bathroom, so we'd be forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers who might allow us to enter their home and use their facilities. When doing that, I experienced being told flat out "No way!" or having the door slammed in my face, or, at worst, having the Bel Air patrol called on me. (The latter happened more frequently to those on staff who were non-white, and that is a fact.) Sometimes, when I was let in, I still wasn't trusted, and was asked to leave my bag with the owner (you know, in case I lifted a handtowel or a mini scented soap) which made me feel like a criminal. Some neighborhoods, like Rancho Palos Verdes, made us all undergo a background check, get fingerprinted, and take a photo which was then laminated onto an id badge we had to wear visibly at all times while we were in the area, which sometimes felt like adding insult to injury, in my opinion, although I can understand the motivation behind the rules.

One night I had someone, to my glee, say "yes" to giving a donation fairly quickly, only to be handed a giant bag of pennies that I then had to tote around for the rest of the evening. I stood patiently through many anti-environmental diatribes, was called all manner of names, and listened to many life stories from lonely old people. The people weren't awful across the board, mind you--many were kind, understanding, and sympathetic. Some wrote checks, some offered me cookies and water, some politely declined. We were trained to look for telltale signs of liberalism; a Volvo bearing a bumper sticker parked in the driveway was supposedly a beacon of compassion and a guaranteed donor. At every door there was the new possibility that lurking in residence was a nice soul with a disposable income and the desire to better our environment. Mostly, though, behind every door was an asshole.

The absolute worst thing that ever happened to me as a canvasser wasn't something that took place on a doorstep, porch, or in a foyer, but rather happened on a sidewalk on St. George Street between Franklin and Griffith Park Blvd in Los Feliz. I wrote about it in 2003 on my personal blog, so I will, with my own permission, copy the text here:

so it's a lovely los angeles weekday evening, and i've sat down on a little grassy patch near the curb to sort out my turf map, my donor cards, my pamphlets. and...plop! a bird sitting on a phone wire above me drops his poop right on my clipboard. "eeeew, gross!" i think! now there is a little red junker car parked about a foot or two over from where i sit. i see a hand reaching towards the opened passenger window, and it's waving out a tissue my way. "wow!" i'm thinking now. "how nice of this stranger to have witnessed my plight, and now he is offering me a tissue to help me tidy up! who needs to be a cynic these days, this is an act of true kindness!"

so i get up, and walk to the car window, and reach out to accept the tissue from the driver.

and then i see it.

yeah, i really see it. it. his "manhood", right in the palm of his hand. and it isn't a still life. there's some action going on there.

what always gets me is that look of rapt pride that washes over their faces. like: "look at me, i'm masturbating in a parked car in los feliz, and i want to share it with you, innocent eighteen year old non-profit canvasser!"

i don't know how i kept my cool, but i did. i politely took the tissue, went back to my belongings, gathered them up, and trotted off. ok, i scampered off, rather quickly.

he followed me for a couple of blocks, until i lost him on some hilly, narrow side street.

I wasn't traumatized exactly, but was pretty shocked and felt a bit unsafe. Thinking back, I wonder why on earth we thought it was okay to roam the streets alone, particularly us young women, at night. Although sometimes we were given cash, I don't recall any of us getting robbed, but I'm sure it has happened in LA and in other canvassed cities in the U.S.At the end of the night we would get picked up one by one, then head back--often somberly, if most of us had struck out--to the office, telling stories from the night's adventures on the way. Those who'd chanced upon a television producer who did a dollar-a-day renewal were naturally more buoyant in spirits than someone like, oh, let's say me, who probably spent most of the night writing bad poetry in her journal and working up the nerve to ring just one more futile doorbell. Back at the office, which was at National and Overland, we would "cash out" and our managers would keep track of our take and give us a talking to if we weren't meeting quota. Every other Wednesday was payday, which we referred to enthusiastically as "Bar Night" and we gathered together at any of many local watering holes (most of whom were lax on the whole checking ID thing, since me and my best buddy were 18 and 19, respectively) and drank away our meager pay.

The camaraderie was one of the plus-sides to working as a Greenpeace canvasser, and we often took week-long camping canvass trips to lovely Santa Barbara, or banded together to do protests (I was pictured once in the LA Times banging a metal pot and shouting "Unocal, you no care, get your pipeline outta there!") against big businesses. One time we interrupted some convention in Orange County in a mock funeral procession in protest against the use of mahogany wood. Two of our staffers, whom I could name, but am not sure even to this date if I should, climbed up the side of a building in Universal City and hung a banner for the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), another group they both worked with, which caused quite a stir during rush hour. Mind you, I never went so far as to sign up for one of the organization's legendary boat trips; yelling outside an office and carrying a sign was about as far as I could take it.

A few months into my tenure there, when it was evident I hadn't found my career niche, things around the office got very red-tape in nature, and there was much in-fighting, quitting, firing, and consulting with upper management. It got very he said-she said, and the vibe, as I would soon experience comparatively, was more corporate than collective. The structure was collapsing. By that summer I had knocked on my last door, and had left my last of many weekly quotas unfulfilled. I quit.

Now, when I'm leaving Whole Foods and someone says to me, clipboard in hand, "Do you have a few moments to save the environment?" I can't help but laugh. I also can't help but think these kids are brave to stand in parking lots all day, but also lucky--standing in a parking lot is way more cushy than tromping the streets and knocking on doors. Reading blogger Brain Fitzgerald's own account of life as an on-foot canvasser strikes a definite chord with me. The local office saw its demise not long after I left, and the degree to which it has been resurrected I do not know. Apparently, at some point Greenpeace outsourced its canvass operation to a national company, but, according to this 2006 web-posting, John Passacantando, head of Greenpeace USA, has since brought the canvass back to inside the organization, which may account for those kids outside Whole Foods.

Working as a canvasser wasn't all that bad. One of the best things to come from that job was that I know certain areas of the city like the back of my hand, and learned a long time ago how to get around with ease through the city streets. Sometimes I find myself driving through a part of town an experiencing a weird sort of deja-vu, and then I realize I am driving through what was once my assigned turf over a decade ago. I will admit the best aspects of the job were of the tangential nature, and often had to do with breaking some sort of rule, like wandering off turf to spend the night drinking iced mochas in a local coffeehouse, which is exactly what my best pal did one night in Hollywood. She had such a blast that she took me there soon after, and when she moved away a few months later, that place became my home away from home, long after I'd left Greenpeace. It was there that I met one of the cafe's employees (the word "barista" not yet in the collective vocab) --a fella I've had the privilege of falling in love with twice, first in 1995, and then again over a decade later when we re-connected. But that's another story entirely...

Of course, just for the record, what's one of the things he and I have in common?

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We both at some point in our younger and idealistic lives, went door to door for Greenpeace.

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