Usually, in front of Powell’s Books on Hawthorne Boulevard, there’s a homeless person selling the STREET ROOTS newspaper (which I always buy for a buck, even if I already bought a copy of the current issue from a different vendor). In my experience, STREET ROOTS vendors tend to be humble, polite, never aggressive, and always sincerely thankful, often almost abjectly grateful.
But one day last week, instead of a STREET ROOTS vendor, there were these two clean-cut early 20-somethings – dressed in identical, impeccable red-and-white shirts with the logo and name of some organization (I forget the name, darn it), holding clipboards and (I think) literature. As I approached the bookstore, the female of the pair kind of leaned toward me without exactly stepping in my path and hailed me by asking in a strident, upbeat tone: “Hi! Wanna help a hungry child in poverty today?”
“Not right now,” I snapped, walking into the bookstore, reflexively annoyed. Of course I was a little hooked, but felt a distinct dissonance between their perky well-fed cheerfulness and the tragedy of starving children.
When I came out again some minutes later, the two charity missionaries were chirping brightly at other passersby: “Hi! Wanna help a hungry child in poverty today?” “Hi! Wanna help a hungry child in poverty today?”
I scarcely saw anyone engage with them, much less give them money. Most people glanced away, guilty and grumpy. One guy just shook his head, looked downward, and offered sheepishly, “I’m feeling kind of impoverished myself lately,” which I thought was pretty lame. It seemed to me that he was ineffectually trying to dissociate from his guilt. I compared his answer to my own forthright “Not right now!” and felt superior.
I walked from Powell’s Books to the New Seasons grocery store a few blocks up the street. Another pair of sparkling, fresh-faced young solicitors were stationed there as well. “Hi! Wanna help a hungry child in poverty today?” one of them asked me.
“Not right now,” I said – my cool new go-to line.
Upon exiting New Seasons, I observed the canvassers for another half minute or so. It was another female/male pair, supremely well-groomed with a freshly laundered vibe, not the least bit grimy or threatening or scary looking as an actual homeless person might be. They themselves were certainly not the hungry children in poverty of whom they spoke, though I was sure that whatever commission they earned on whatever money they took in (they may have been volunteers, but somehow I doubt it) was probably very small, definitely not enough to support them through college or anything remotely like that, and they were probably still living at home with their parents. The supervisor or coordinator or whoever they reported to probably got a slightly larger take of their and their peers’ combined proceeds, and who knows? Maybe some small percentage of what they collected actually funneled down eventually to impoverished individuals, after their little cut was taken and other administrative costs were allotted (including the cost of printing their t-shirts). In a sense, this organization of theirs was kind of an employment program, I figured.
Then again, I doubt they collected much money; I did not see anyone give them anything. Still, when they weren’t hectoring people to help hungry impoverished children, they energetically bantered with each other, keeping one another’s spirits up, which I deemed rather plucky and admirable. Whoever had placed these kids together in pairs had had a bit of foresight; they certainly needed each other. Just one of them alone, standing there parroting that punchy little one-line script of theirs would likely have felt soul-crushingly stupid after a short while.
Later, I fantasized about talking with those kids. “Look,” I might have said. “I’m not gonna give you any money. But can I have five minutes of your time to hear about your program and talk to you a bit?”
And I would have really listened too. Even now, I’m curious about exactly who they were.
And then after listening, I might have said, “Don’t you realize you’re competing with actual hungry and impoverished people who sit or stand out here every day, some of them with small children? That is –hungry kids we can actually see? Why would you expect store patrons to give to you rather than directly to those in need, who are always pretty close by on this avenue?
“And also, your pitch is intrusive and manipulative. You’ll succeed in causing people to feel guilty for a second – who’s gonna say ‘No, I do NOT want to help a hungry child!’? – but you won’t get their money because they’ll resent having their emotional chains yanked like that.
“So if you really believe in this program of yours, why not try a different approach? For example, you could respectfully ask people something like, ‘Excuse me, might you have a moment to hear about this program I represent that I’m excited about because it really helps homeless kids? I can explain it in about 20 seconds.’” (Twenty seconds is actually a pretty long time to explain something, even if it doesn’t sound like much.)
But alas, no such conversation ever took place. The young canvassers were gone the next day when I went back there. I guess their presence was some sort of a failed, one-day experiment or something. Weird.
How on earth did they get New Seasons and Powell’s to let them displace the STREET ROOTS vendors (and other random street beggars) anyway? That in itself was kind of a coup, even if just for a day.
I tried googling their patented opener: “Wanna help a hungry child in poverty today?” but came up empty. (Yes, I also tried spelling out “want to.”) I still don’t know exactly who they were. Do you? Maybe they were actually from a religious cult; they did have a certain Moonie-like shine about them. Enlighten me please if you know.