A Canvasser's Journal
The top-ten responses given by passersby to this New York City street canvasser working for the Democratic National Committee's "Beat Bush" fundraising campaign:
"I love Bush!"
"We love Bush!"
"Why don't you people get a clue already?!"
"I licked Bush this morning."
"Beat Bush? Got a stick?"
"Beat Bush? I'm going to shoot the motherfucker!"
"Kerry's a fag."
I was standing under an awning on 8th Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets in Manhattan, and having a tough go of "Beating Bush" with my canvasser's clipboard; most pedestrians scampered right on by with barely a glance in my direction. It was a grim and rainy afternoon. In a moment of big-tent reverie, I imagined Teresa Heinz Kerry pulling up in her limousine and taking care of me and my fellow drowned-rat canvassers. "C'mon boys, come in out of the rain and get a taste of the 'other America.'"
It was a day for daydreaming the impossible, since canvassing in this spot, in these conditions, was rather a waste of time. Sure, I had banged a "hundo" (that's a hundred-dollar donation in canvasserspeak) from a bi-coastal professional pianist making his great white way down the avenue, but that was before the big rains came. Now it was pouring and windy, it was Monday, people had spent all their disposable income over the weekend (or didn't have any to begin with) and, in any event, we were posted about two blocks from a busy Midtown unemployment office, information given to me by a gracious and easygoing black dude who came ambling by.
My canvassing crew was hustling bucks in a part of town with a famously grungy pedigree; "back in the day" this area was identified more with SROs, porn theaters and pot dealers, rum-blasted sailors, false-prophet street vagrants, strutting gangsters, wild-eyed crackheads, transsexuals, wandering-eye geniuses, punks, drunks, travelers, junky poets; all those nameless witnesses to that hoary old New York. Now there's not much more than a bunch of so-so restaurants catering to the tourists.
The crew was not happy to be out here, and I, as "team leader," shared their unhappiness. We had already lost the young Polish-American student who'd been assigned to the group. She claimed female troubles moments after we deployed, gave me her clipboard, and was never seen or heard from again (at least I never saw her again). I was left with two teenage boys, one wearing flip-flops (with nary a whiff of irony) and boasting an eyebrow piercing, who wore his red DNC shirt like a hat. He was just about the last person you'd give your money to, and hardly anybody did. Both kids were just out of high school (local fancy-pants schools) and were headed off to college in the fall. By 2:00pm they had raised between them something like 20 bucks and were trying to cajole me into an early bailout. They took long lunches; they recognized as I did that this was a wet and wearying fund-raising scenario compared with the big DNC blowout at Radio City Music Hall a few nights previous. We were the nickel-and-dime gritty-city crew; never had I felt so much a part of Part II of John Edwards's "two Americas" as I did that afternoon--the poor, wet, huddled part. I told the two of them, "Go disappear into Starbucks if you want." I started to hate John Kerry. I quit not long after.
The "Beat Bush" campaign has now morphed, post-convention, into an "Elect Kerry" drive. During the two weeks I worked for the DNC, our "greeting" was, "Hi, do you want to help beat George Bush?" Now, the canvassers' script reads, "Hi! Do you want to help elect John Kerry?" The shift is strategic, and also legalistic--before Kerry was formally nominated, the party couldn't officially raise money for him; hence, "Beat Bush." As pungent and satisfying as that slogan was, it left the party open to "you're a bunch of haters' charges" and highlighted the unfortunate but very real "Anyone But Bush" dynamic of this election season.
I happened to catch a young activist named Lori Waters on C-SPAN one evening as she was relaying a story about an experience she had with a Washington DC-based DNC canvasser. I called Waters to get some more details about the encounter; she is the young and telegenic executive director of the Eagle Forum, the rightwing-a-ding "pro family" organization founded by conservative gadfly Phyllis Schlafly back in the 70s. "The woman approached me and said, do I want to defeat George Bush?," Waters recounted with a slight laugh. She responded in classic Socratic fashion: "I said, Don't you want to ask me if I want to support John Kerry? Why don't you ask me about supporting your candidate? Don't you like your candidate?"
Ummm. Not really?
The sticky wicket of doing this sort of work for the DNC is that you at least expect the better principles of the party to be reflected in the canvassing job--but they are not, and it is an embittering thing to contemplate. There's no "universal healthcare" in the canvassing universe, just as there is no job security--you must make a weekly fundraising quota, or you will get fired. Of course, the majority of the people doing the work are college students; it seemed that no matter who I got to know at the downtown office, they either were going to Wesleyan or Princeton or Columbia or Smith or Duke.
Many canvassers don't really need the money, it's a summer job, they're still on their parents' medical plans, they have trust funds, and they have abundant supplies of idealism, hope, optimism and the rest of it. I, on the other hand, needed the money, don't have healthcare coverage or a trust fund, and have pretty much given up on America. "Help is on the way"? You have got to be kidding me.
At least as I experienced the Bush Beating youngsters, they generally were not jaded, world-weary, misanthropic or cynical. Skeptical, yes, and some seemed particularly out-front radical, even beyond the obligatory flesh-piercing and rampant multiculti joie de vivre. But some were so self-centered that I wanted to smack them.
After work many of the canvassers would retire to the Nancy Whisky bar, down the street from the Grassroots Inc. office (By way of quick explanation--canvassers don't technically work "for" the DNC even though you wear their shirt and are speaking for the party when raising money. You work for Grassroots Inc., an organization that is basically contracted by the party to raise money for it.)
At the Whisky, the requisite slamming of tequila shots would commence, and the endless fillings and refillings of pitchers of beer, all guzzled lustily in the aftermath of another hot day pounding the pavement for elite Democrats. Summertime flings would be launched, canvassing war stories told and retold, there was dorm chat and chants of "Four More Beers!" There were always a couple of cherubic, Olsonish blonde girls wearing those fashionably tacky early-eighties-style skirts that seem to be everywhere this summer; there were earnest former Deaniacs fully committed now to the Anybody But Bush program; there was Abdul, who was going to Howard Law in the fall. I liked Abdul because I could joke with him about Howard's lousy affirmative action policies and he didn't report me to Al Sharpton.
Drinking and "saving democracy" go hand in hand, since, after all, canvassing is one of the most thankless job known to humankind, and it takes a certain kind of personality to be able to stand the work day in and day out without going postal. You must be deaf to verbal abuse and theatrical in some measure; I can do the latter but I'm lousy at the former. For this reason, I burned out after two weeks. They swore at me, I swore right back. They gave me the finger, I flipped the bird in their face. They'd say, "We looove George Bush." I'd offer my sarcastic condolences. This is very bad canvassing form though the tart-tongued Mrs. Heinz Kerry might have approved.
Furthermore, you've got to be able to deal with being totally ignored by the vast majority of passersby, and you must be ready to indulge and engage that angry and gullible old local lefty paranoid who's (hopefully) still got a few dollars' worth of grief to unload on George Bush. They love Nader and Dean and want to blab all afternoon about it, but you've got to wrap it up quick and make the grab for their wallets. These people are in no short supply in New York City, and also provided the worst liberal-bonehead response of all when asked if they wanted to help Beat Bush: "Oh, don't worry, we're going to beat him this time."
I wouldn't be so smug about that if I were you.