It’s unpleasant to knock on a door that was paid for by oil money when you’re waving the banner of an environmental campaign. Houston recycles 2.6% of its waste—the worst rate in the country—and during my summer as a canvasser, the good people of Space “Purple Drank” City stonewalled me left and right.
“You know who really creates the trash problem, it’s the Mexicans!” said one chestnut-haired fortysomething in the door of her fake-stucco mansion. She handed me an icy glass of sweet tea, her 63-degree AC whooshing past us into the swamp of the summer night. “It’s just, they weren’t raised to take good care of things.”
“That is an opinion,” I said. “Do you recycle?”
She laughed gleefully. Her clavicle was leather over bone. “Oh, honey! Didn’t anyone ever tell you that our Lord Jesus is gonna come back before any of this is even a problem?”
I am a person who likes difficult situations, and at the time—pre-Peace Corps—I thought that working for a good cause was the immediate equivalent of doing good. So I was compelled by the strange, intrusive act of canvassing. It appealed to me, trying to win over the ex-Enron conservatives and memorize all their bookshelves and, of course, make a buck.
That was another big hook. Canvassing was potentially lucrative: Half of the funds we raised went right into our pockets, making the job’s moneymaking possibilities as decent as the larger business model was wasteful. I knew that I would never donate to an organization with such an enormous overhead. But would I work for one? At the time, absolutely. I tamped down any lingering discomfort with the reminder that I needed to work somehow. Better this than bartending or a temp cubicle, I thought; better to get to know your city while you still have the energy to do such a thing.
So I knocked on 25 doors an hour for 5 hours a day, riding the carousel of Houston demographics, people infuriating and surprising and beautiful to the last. One Dominican teenage girl gave me a pot brownie and rubbed peppermint oil on the inside of my wrists. A couple from Syria, confined to wheelchairs in a modest bungalow, handed over a check for $500, two passionate letters about recycling, and their grandson’s phone number. (I’ll admit: I felt both mercenary and ecstatic as I walked away from that house, knowing I’d made $250 in about fifteen minutes.) Once I sat on a silk couch consoling a weeping libertarian millionaire whose mother had just died, and then—once his eyes cleared enough to see my clipboard—got swiftly ejected with a few quarters and a lecture on how environmental regulation undermines big business and the American middle class.
We were all supposed to raise a $160 minimum of donations each day, but of course this didn’t always happen. There were plenty of days full of F-bomb showers from stay-at-home dads, commands to get on my knees and accept Jesus, terrible animosity that just clung to me like a smell. And that summer, it was 100 degrees at noon: Spike Lee weather, the type of heat that makes bad vibes snowball into no money, a late-night lecture heavily flavored with cult speech, and cheer-up tacos after your shift.
To make quota and stay employed, I applied some tricks to the trade, mostly things I’d learned while waitressing. I made more money when I wore cowboy boots and repeated people’s names. I deferred to women, flirted with men. I was terrific with old people. “I love terriers!” I chirped, as a gaggle of puntable Furbies pressed their red rockets to my ankles.
And on good days, I liked that my paycheck reflected just how much community had been organized. The letters and the grass-roots cash piled up. HP, a Houston stronghold, amended its corporate policy and stopped exporting electronic waste to developing countries. We got a piece of recycling legislation passed unanimously through the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House, and then we cursed the name of Governor Good-Hair when he (Rick Perry) vetoed it.
It was a shock to me to find out that household income didn’t influence donations at all. Unless we were in one of the two Houston neighborhoods where people are both liberal and rich, we got the same from the house that cost five million as from the house that rented for $500 a month. Of course there’s complexity in this, but the unevenness was bare and obvious. (I didn’t know yet that it is a rule in America that the less money you have, the larger percentage you give away.) Last year, I was back in Houston for a little bit, teaching poetry in a shabby, flourishing community with an average discretionary income of $26,149. Families in that neighborhood, the Third Ward, give 11% of their money away to charity. In the leafy, formal neighborhood where I myself went to school, discretionary income averages $426,792, and families donate 5%.
With canvassing, I reached my limit when a seven-year-old named Fernando emptied his entire piggy bank into an envelope. As his family looked on proudly, in the house where two bedrooms slept eight, the kid drew me a picture of a sickly Earth studded with degrading consumer electronics. His mom gave me a Solo cup of horchata and I left, dazed and sorry underneath the glowing, polluted Houston sky. I walked to a bodega ATM, pulled out $10 and added it to the envelope so I could pretend that I wasn’t taking half of Fernando’s small wealth. That night, I quit. And even as I drove home free, I had a sick suspicion that that summer wouldn’t be the last time I’d reduce a person to dollars in the name of a good cause.
Because idealism, in isolation, doesn’t do anything; it’s just a noble circle-jerk. And there’s no way around the fact that the 5% from my neighborhood millionaires adds up to $32,000 more than the hard-given 11% from the Third Ward parents whose kids wrote poems about how they aspired to be rich—the kind of rich where you own your own shoe store. It’s my old all-white community, the people who go hunting with senators and show up twinkling at galas, who really get things through the Texas House. A thousand kiddy planet drawings, a bucket of change: it’s laughable. It means almost nothing.
And in the end I kept that drawing of Fernando’s feverish Earth. It was a good drawing. Too good to be up on the walls of the nonprofit’s office, absorbing the scent of incense, his sincerity reduced to motivational schmaltz for our own private cycle of blustery human effort: the swarm of new canvassers striding in, striding out, hoping to make enough of a difference that they’d have rent by Tuesday, would eat like a king.