Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Push Over

Yesterday I did something I never thought I would do: I handed my credit card to some kid on the street. OK, not some kid. A Greenpeace kid. And he wasn't really a kid either. Tom was pounding the pavements of San Francisco over the summer between semesters at Vassar as a champion for Greenpeace. "In just a few minutes you'll be a Greenpeace warrior!" I laughed at the thought of me, dressed as the Roman God of war, writing twenty dollar checks once a month to Greenpeace, violently stabbing the dot for the "i" in my last name.

This is a test, I told myself, a test of your strength. Don't give in to the hype, the campaign, the pressure. Hold your ground firm. It's a sales pitch. A game.

It reminded me of a moment in the movie "Rodger Dodger". The main character is in advertising. He tells someone that commercials aren't just about making someone feel like they want something, it's about making them feel bad about what they do have. Dirty dishes. Smelly pets. Too much weight. Bad sex. You would be happy if your hands weren't so dry. You would be happy if your hair would just lay flat. You would be happy if your car could do donuts like this. The choices you've made aren't good enough, you need to make these choices.

Anyone who's been in retail or sold girl scout cookies or who works a bar crowd looking to take someone home knows the secret to selling anything is persistence and stamina and a tough skin. Assume everyone will say no first, because they will. Assume everyone will say no twice, because they will. Assume everyone will say no a third time, because they will. But if they haven't run away, punched you, or called the cops after the third no they aren't going to. And it'll only take two more nos before the yeses start flowing. And if after all that, you still get a no...walk away, pretend it never happened, and move on to the next person. And start all over.

I once asked a guy, who I thought was good looking enough but didn't have any particularly charming qualities that I could tell, how he dated so much. He was out with new girls all the time; while another friend of ours who was gentle and good, handsome and intelligent, had a hard time getting a date. The answer was simple, "I ask until I get a yes." And if you don't get a yes? "I ask someone else." Easy as that? But what if you liked the person you got a no from? "Then I don't like them any more." Easy as that? "Easy as that. I can't like people who don't like me. It's no fun." Easy as that? For a salesman? Yes. Easy as that.

It doesn't matter the product. The formula works. But it's not an easy skill to master. One must also have in their bag o'tricks the "Gift of Gab", that elusive ability to talk about everything and nothing at any moment. To remember names, places, facts, ideas, authors or make up what you don't know. The singular ability to put people at ease, to get them rilled up, to make them feel sexy, or to make them just feel wanted. Often you will hear people say, "When he talked to me I felt like he was really talking to ME. He looked at me." It is the ability to read the slightest facial expressions and react to them accordingly. To make people be as putty in your hands.

But I wanted to be stronger. I know the tricks. I know the five no's. I've never been the life of the party, but I know whey someone is talking their way into my thoughts. I can see a sales pitch when I see one. It doesn't matter if it's Cutco Knives, braclets, crying children or what. I've even resisted kittens. KITTENS!

But I was no match for Tom Stevenson, a street warrior for Greenpeace.

Like others of his ilk, kids out of college for the summer maybe fresh from some Ivy League school where they feel the world is out of touch with reality, he held a small folder in his hand and an open friendly look on his face. We've all seen them. The Greenpeace kids, the stop smoking kids, the save the children kids, and the political kids. They are eager and enthusiastic. They ask guilt inducing questions you have to answer like, "Do you have 30 seconds to make the world a better place?" or "Do you have ten seconds to save a child's life?" or "Do you want cleaner air?"

To make them more official looking they now wear bright colored rain jackets and polo shirts. (I should have asked Tom if his blue polo was made from recycled cotton, or fair trade, or something like that.) They also hunt in packs now. Usually groups of four stand in such a way on a side walk that you can't help but walk by one of them. And they are all well schooled in the arts of intercept and gab. "You look like the type of person that cares for the environment."

I was grudgingly walking up the stairs out of the Church street station. I had chosen to walk to the rehearsal space in the Mission rather then take the N train to BART and BART to the street I needed. My recent resolution to once again try and loose the 30 or so pounds I had gained the year after I graduated from college propelled me to enjoy the beautiful summer day. But I had wanted to take the escalator, which was unfortunately broken. My thoughts were on the exposed innards of said escalator and exploring that mysterious mechanical world when I emerged on to market. My mind elsewhere, I just narrowly missed running into a suit who's mind seemed bent on escape. Behind him a blue polo happily kept pace. Like any trained city dweller, I cast my eyes downward and prepared my "no's".

"Oh come on, I know you already saw me." He said in a flirty way I'm sure works with all the girls. "It's just Greenpeace, and I know you know about Greenpeace."

"Thank you, no."

"It'll only take a few minutes and I'll walk with you."

And that was it. I wasn't going to shake him. I had already smiled. I had already looked him in the eye. And I took the walk with you as a challenge.

Sure. Walk with me. I dare you. Walk with me all the way to Mission. I know you have to work that corner. I'll get you nice and lost while we talk about Poler Bears and Old Growth Forrests. Then I'll give my sixth no, and you'll have to find your way back.

And that my friends was how I lost the war. As soon as I let him walk with me, that was as good as a yes. I mean, come on, other then Eco-terrorism, which Greenpeace may have been wrongly accused of anyway, how can you say no to saving the earth? I tried to hold my ground, but I was asking stupid questions because I'm under informed and careless about my own environmental footprint. Because I'm a hypocrite and one of those guilty liberals who feel bad about everything. Because I hate the thoughts I have like: "Fuck you, I'll drink my bottled water and I'll like it!" or "There is no good solution so I'm just going to keep going the way I am." or "This is all irrational sensationalism."

But to tell you the truth, I didn't want to spend the twenty dollars a month on Greenpeace, because I wanted to spend it on another group. I really did. And that's the honest truth. I didn't want to let myself be sold because I wanted to invest in stoves. Dr. Ashok Gadil, a physicist at Berkeley and an inventor was approached to invent some sort of press that could turn their garbage into fuel pellets. The problem being it's too dangerous for Darfurians to venture out to look for fuel. Women will be rapped and tortured. Men will be killed. And the journey to fuel sources could be seven hours round trip. Or the cost of the fuel makes it impossible to buy food. Or if a family buys food, it is impossible to buy fuel to cook it with. Even the simple act of boiling water to make sure it's clean to drink is beyond most families.

But Dr. Gadil said, the refugees don't make enough garbage to burn. There is nothing to burn.

So we have to find a way to make what they do burn do more with less. So he invented a stove that is simple to use and burns hotter with less. The organization he is partnered with is trying to find a way to have the stove manufactured in Darfur with materials that already exist there. Refugees would buy the stove, but they would be buying it from there own people and the money would stay in the country.

And what can we do for Darfur? We can't go around sticking flowers in people's guns. We can't send in our military to stop what we don't understand, or to force our own sort of colonization. Our hands are tied. And, again, I am horribly ill informed to even so much as have an opinion. How can I help? But, I like this. It feels good. It feels like something that could be good, not just for Darfur, but other refugees all over.

So, I will be giving money to this cause and asking others to think about it. And I should have said something then, to Tom, about the human element.

But then, Greenpeace appeals to me because of the theatrics. The performance of the protests. The costumes, the signs, the colors. And I do want to save the rain forests, the old growth, the polar bears, the owls, the oceans...and the humans.

And so I gave in. Why? For the same reason every sucker gives in, it was easier to do then not. I didn't want to just walk away, I didn't want to be that person that day. I didn't want to say anything mean. I didn't want to argue. I didn't want to make excuses. And I didn't want to feel bad about myself any more. And Tom had an answer for everything. He knew all about this movement, and that movement. He knew all about the horrible things Kleenex was doing to the world. He knew all about this Bill in Washington and that one. He talked excitedly about all the good Greenpeace was doing. All the good it would do with my money...once they got it.

So I gave in.

At the end of our walk, after I'd turned over the credit card and gotten the cute Greenpeace thank you thing, I asked Vassar what his major was.

He didn't know. Maybe psychology. (A major that had always been in my mind a refuge for people who just didn't know what to do...like business.) The was going to be in his second year, and he wasn't sure. He liked psychology. He started talking about it a little, but I could tell the fire was gone. He was no longer in his element. He was unsure and uncomfortable. He wanted to get back to his corner and try to make another sale. He had finished this one...

And it made me sad. He was going to one of the best schools in the country and, even though he was a sales person, he obviously did care about Greenpeace. And he was totally lost. Lost in the city. Lost in his education. Lost in life.

He walked away. Stalking out his next victim and I couldn't help but think, "I hope Greenpeace fights as hard for that kid as he's fighting for them." And maybe psychology was the right place for him. The ability to reach into someone else's mind and play. And maybe he would do great things with it. Maybe he'd go into environmental law and maybe win one or two unwinable battles against the Goliath's of business.

And then I wished he were still walking with me. Not Tom, but that sales person. Someone who would fight for me. Someone who would wade through all the "no's" and the bad feelings. Who would deflect the negative and doggedly fight for a yes. A signature. A positive. An answer. Someone who would be able to shake it off and try again.

And then I was glad I signed up, that I gave in. That there is someone like Tom out there fighting for the things I care about. Whales. Bears. Small islands. Rainforests.

Me.

And I can still give to Darfur Cookstoves.

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