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Canvassing and Loathing in Suburban Ohio

Knocking on doors in Ohio gets the police helicopter and 12 armed cops out in force.

It’s a strange, hellish place, an American suburb on a Midwestern winter night. I walked calmly past yet another mailbox, exactly like the last and the 10 others before it on the same block, clipboard in hand. There were no trees in this brand new development, something I found disconcerting, as often I would stare up at a tree and remember that yes, I was on earth after all and that creatures other than suburbanites did exist.

I breathed deeply and looked up to the sky, where not a single star shone above the orange glow of the city. I puffed my chest up confidently and stepped up the sidewalk. I needed this sale to get closer to the Andes. Nothing else mattered.

I knocked firmly on the door, the 30th of the night. These doors had become my comfort zone and I immediately felt very calm. I squared my shoulders and cleared my throat as I heard footsteps moving through the house toward me. I forced a smile and waved as I saw someone look through the curtains to me. A moment later the door opened.

“Hi there!” I exclaimed enthusiastically immediately making intense eye contact with the young man at the door. The goal was to make him not only trust me, but feel slightly overpowered and uncomfortable about this eye contact.

“My name’s Morgan,” I continued. “I’m with Working America… We’re part of the AFLCIO. We fight to keep good jobs here in THIS country where they belong. We’re out tonight organizing and fundraising. Take a look at our goals and let me know which one’s most important to you…”

The rap. I said it 2,000 times a month, and it worked. I handed him the clipboard confidently, nearly putting it in his chest, all the while maintaining a nearly psychotic lock on his pupils with my own eyes.

He took the clipboard, probably happy not to have to bear my maniac glare for the time being. I looked into his house for the first time. It was just like all the others, a big house with virtually no furniture. I could see the glare of a TV coming from a side room. It was the suburbanites’ fireplace. All these people with big empty houses stood as a metaphor for me of a whole lost, pathetic society bent on self destruction.

“Jesus, it’s cold out here,” he remarked, breaking my train of thought.

“Well, sir, this is very important. We have to talk to people all year to maintain and grow this movement… Well, sir, which of those issues is the most important to you?”

“Yeah, these are all important… getting health care for everyone is really important…”

“It sure is,” I assured him, bending ridiculously at the waist to regain eye contact with the target. “Forty seven million Americans don’t have health insurance… that’s a huge problem isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah.”

“That’s why we have to UNITE to pressure our political leaders to resolve this crisis,” I said, gesturing with my hand like a politician and trying to make my voice seem as sincere as possible. “You see, together we can succeed. Our strategy is simple: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS… Now I’m sure that’s something you can get behind, right?”

“Yeah, sure!” he replied, sounding enthused.

“Great!” I replied with genuine enthusiasm, smelling money. “Go ahead and put your name down there and back it up with a contribution.” I instructed him, handing him my gel pen, all others being dysfunctional in the freezing cold.

He took the pen silently and began to write his name.

“Don’t forget your telephone and email, there,” I instructed, pointing to their respective locations. “Great…” I continued when he finished, “Now, with your contribution I need you to work with a check. You can do that, right?”

“Uhh, yeah… How much do you want, man? I’m kinda broke.”

“Don’t worry; we just need you to help out with $60 for this year. That’s just $5 a month. You can do that, right?”

“Sixty bucks? Sorry, man, that’s a lot…”

This was a tricky moment. I had to remain very confident and firm and maintain the maniac eye contact.

“Too much right now, you mean, or too much in general?”

“Ha, well, it’s just a lot of money, man. I’ve got a lot of debt, you know…”

“Well, that’s fine, that’s our high level goal but I’ll be honest with you, a lot of folks meet us about halfway at the $36 mark. That’s just $3 a month. If you need to you can pledge that check up to a month ahead. Now, I’m sure you can meet us at that $36 mark, right?”

“Dude, I was thinking more like five bucks… Is that alright?”

“Well, thank you, but bump that up to $12, that will give us $1 a month to work with,” Everything was a negotiation, but I was essentially getting something for nothing, so couldn’t complain. He came back with a check in a minute and we finished the transaction. I gave him a little receipt and he gave me the money.

I left the door and walked out into the night yet again, pocketing the check and walking to the next mailbox and house, which was exactly the same as the last and the two dozen before it. I repeated the same rap with no success and continued, and continued.

Walking through this place was like walking through a different planet. I was from the countryside and an economic migrant in a strange city. There were no jobs and no money in my little hometown and, after coming home with exactly one dollar in my pocket from Mexico, this was my only option. I was living with my sister in the center the city, trying to sell something that I couldn’t be exactly sure that I believed in but needed to convince myself. Every day I repeated the same thing, trying to live as cheaply as possible by eating pasta and avoiding any excess. I had no real friends other than my sister’s dogs but it was a necessary sacrifice. After every door I would look up to the sky and try to imagine the clear Andean air surrounded by mountains. All I needed was the money to get there…

I came to the next door, exactly like the last. It said, No Solicitations, but I knocked anyway. Technically, as I wasn’t selling anything, I wasn’t soliciting. After knocking, I saw a woman through the curtain run past the door. I waited at the door for several minutes, expecting her to answer, but she never did. I turned around and walked back out by the sterile sidewalk, which had probably never been used.

I knocked on two more doors with minimal success when suddenly I saw a helicopter swooping overhead with its spotlight down. I knocked on the next door anyway, but when suddenly 4 police squad cars pulled up to the house where I had just been, I realized they were probably looking for me.

At that moment, a young woman opened the door.

“Uhh, sorry to bother you, but yeah, I’ve gotta go talk with these guys… Look, I’m a door to door canvasser for Working America… Yeah,” I explained awkwardly as I stepped away from the door. She simply looked back at me awestruck, not saying anything, and closed the door behind me.

I walked back toward the squad cars with my hands up smiling.

“Are you guys looking for me?!” I asked.

“What are you doing here?!” a black cop with gun drawn demanded from me.

“Don’t shoot, man! I’m a canvasser for the AFLCIO. I’m organizing and fundraising… Are you guys looking for me?”

“Motherfucker!” the cop shouted. “All this shit for nothing! We got a helicopter out here for Christ’s sake! Hey, what’s that in your hand?” he demanded.

“It’s my clipboard, you want to see it?” I asked, my hands still raised.

“Yeah!” he said, grabbing it rudely.

I stood by with my hands lowered now; most of the police had holstered their weapons and were milling around kicking grass. There were a dozen of them in total.

“I don’t believe this shit…” he said. “Well, you’re done for the night. Don’t knock on any more doors or we’ll arrest you.”

“Uh, well you’re gonna have to explain that to my boss…”

“I said don’t knock on anymore doors. I mean it! I’ll take you in if you continue. Is there anyone else out here?”

“Yeah, my partner’s here, I’ll have to go find her.”

“Alright, go find her and go get a coffee or something. If you knock on another door I’m taking you in.”

“Understood,” I said, smiling that I had the rest of the night off and a good excuse. It had been a bad night anyway.

The helicopter was already called off and the other cars were already pulling away. I was living in a highly efficient police state. After the cops let me go, I went back in the direction of my friend and found her in the street. We strolled half a mile to the nearest gas station and waited for several hours drinking hot chocolate and coffee until pickup time.