Looking for America, Asking for Credit Card Numbers
The day I lost my faith in common decency was in front of a post office in Issaquah. I stood there in my bright orange t-shirt, gripping my clipboard and grinning ear to ear while sweat oozed out of my pores. It was nearly 100 degrees out that day. I greeted everyone entering and exiting the mail room with “Hi there, moment to help stop dog fighting?” My coworker, standing at the other side of the door, was faring much better than me. She was a natural at this, I was not. As she told a soccer mom about the statistics of euthanasia in dogs a man approached me. He’d already been talking to my coworker so I wasn’t sure what he wanted to talk to me about.
“I’ve been watching you, and I’ve come to a conclusion,” he said.
“What’s that?” I said with a smile and ‘golly gee’ tone.
“You’re not worth very much,” he replied then walked over to my coworker to shake her hand and thank her for the information.
Oh what a time it was. A time of innocence.
It was a desperate summer. I was committed to staying in Seattle and not going back home when my sophomore year ended. I’d spent the previous summer in Alaska so I was sure I could make it on my own in a town more familiar. My dorm roommate and I decided to split a studio apartment a couple blocks away from campus. I had a job lined up in September with the campus radio station, but in the meantime I’d need cash to pay for our new dwelling – which was only slightly bigger than our dorm and had slanting floors and mold, but that’s another story in itself.
I’d been applying for everything I found on Craigslist but only one job seemed interested in me. I didn’t really know what the term “street canvassing” meant on the ad. To be frank, everything on it seemed like a scam. “Make up to $3,000 a week fighting for animal rights!” “Great for college students!” “Make a difference!” I was just waiting for the part where they were going to ask me to sell knives. I talked to my friend Katie Joy whom I worked with at the campus newspaper after finding out she worked for this same canvassing company. I asked her if it was a scam. Her response was a simple, “no.” I should have asked for more details, but at this point it was really the only criteria that mattered to me.
I interviewed in person and got a job on the spot. Well, at least a trial run. Things were looking up. I was going to get to work in the cultural hub of Capitol Hill in Seattle. I had the potential to make good money. I even got my friends Wes and Alex to jump on board. I had a job.
Kristin and I were still dating at the time and she was going to study abroad in France for most of the summer. Even though I was jealous she’d be spending a summer with Parisians, sipping rosé, I felt like I was going to still have a fairly decent summer making my own in the city. We weren’t going to be able to communicate for the first half of the summer as she’d be without Internet or phone access. It was going to be hard, but we’d survived the previous summer being in different countries without contact. This would be cake compared to that.
I walked in on my first day and was issued my bright orange t-shirt, a clipboard, and a pitch to memorize. I embellished as necessary.
“Hi there, moment to stop dog fighting? Great! My name’s Dusty Henry and I’m hear representing the ASPCA. Are you familiar with us? Have you seen the show ‘Animal Cops?’ Or have you seen that Sarah McLaughlin commercial with ‘in the arrrrrms of an angel’ in the background? Yeah it makes me choke up every time too. Well, that’s us! Did you know that everyday thousands of dogs are euthanized…”
And on and on it went until eventually I was asking people for their credit card numbers. I’d say all this, standing in the same spot for eight hours a day with a perma-grin on my face. I was trained to combat any excuses they had. They molded me into a machine that was ready to tell someone that a one time contribution wouldn’t help as much as a monthly one. All of this adding to my quota. If I didn’t make my weekly quota, I would be reprimanded. If I had two days where I brought in nothing, I would be fired. The stakes were high.
In truth, I am an animal lover. I am unashamedly a dog person with a fondness toward cats as well. But I wouldn’t say I’m passionate enough to take to the streets for the ASPCA’s cause, even if they’re a great organization (though I was working for a third party that was working for the ASPCA – very big difference). I’m not even an extrovert. Talking to strangers on the street everyday is an introverts nightmare. For a paycheck though, I was ready to become an advocate and sell myself.
My first day on my “trial” I qualified for the job, raking in a few hundred dollars in donations. My new boss made an offhanded joke when we went back to fill out my employee information. I should’ve seen it as a harbinger instead of a clever welcoming.
“My god…Jenny come in here. It’s finally happened. The prophecies were true! He is the chosen one. The 100th person to work on this campaign.”
I felt like a Luke Skywalker, but in reality I was an Anakin waiting to disappoint.
Everything about the job was demoralizing. People walking past you like you don’t exist. People offended you would dare interrupt their day by speaking to them. People with designer bags telling you they don’t have the money to spare. It was enough to make a bitter soul out of a doe-eyed, hopeful college student. I wasn’t even working much in Capitol Hill. We’d convene at the office every morning to find out where in the Seattle area we’d be sent out too. Everyone crossed their fingers to the get highly profitable East Side (Renton, Issaquah, Bellevue) and not the infamous downtown area.
Despite it all, I wanted to make the best of this experience. Most of my cash was going toward rent, food and gas. In truth, I was really just making minimum wage.( The “up to $3,000 a week” thing was only if you were getting commissions, which only happened if you did better than the top percent of the office – something I never accomplished). I realized that if I never spent any of my hard earned cash on something I actually enjoyed I was going to go crazy. On a brilliantly sunny evening, I walked down Broadway Ave to Gruv Records (which has since closed). Searching through the bins I found a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. I’d been playing my copy of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme constantly over the past couple of years, often citing it as one of my favorite sounding records. Kristin had also recently gotten me into the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack, which featured the song “Bookends,” so Paul and Art were on my mind. I picked it up used for a couple of bucks and headed back home, only to remember that my stereo receiver was busted. I still couldn’t reap the benefits of my paycheck.
Even though I couldn’t even listen to the record, the lyrics would haunt me throughout my unwanted endless summer.
“But if your hopes should pass away
Simply pretend that you can build them again”
Easier said than done, Paul. Thanks for the tip though.
“Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you”
Cool guys, appreciate that. Maybe I can preserve memories of a time I didn’t hate every person who passed me on the street.
“Somethin’ tells me
It’s all happening at the zoo.”
No! It’s happening in your own neighborhoods. Dog fighting is more prevalent than you’d think, ya darn hippies!
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”
Alright, maybe you two do get it. Damn.
Working on Queen Anne one day, I almost quit. It was halfway through summer and halfway through the day and I wasn’t getting any ‘tribs (a clever term we used in the canvassing game for “contributions”). Kristin surprised me with an international phone call. I didn’t recognize the number so I was thrown off and confused. And as soon I realized it was Kristin a homeless man tried to make conversation with me. I tried to get him to leave without being rude as I was on the call. Kristin understandably took it as me being disinterested and the phone call ended before her friend’s cellphone bill would get too high. I felt utterly defeated.
I went and found my coworker a few blocks away with the intention of offering my resignation. She told me she understood how the job can kill your soul but that I should take a day to think about it. She called into the office and told them I was sick and sent me home (funnily enough, she ended up quitting the next day). I walked back to my empty apartment and laid on my bottom bunk (yes we had a bunk bed). There, honest to God, I sobbed in the dark. This summer had already defeated me.
For whatever reason, I pressed on. My friends were all as miserable as I was, so there was some solace in that. I ended up becoming a manager of sorts for getting enough ‘tribs in one day, so things were looking up for at least a little while. By the end of the summer, I was considered one of the more seasoned employees there – the turnover rate was incredible. Only a few months in and I was leading training sessions. It could only mean it was the near end for me.
Between missing my quotas consistently, watching all of my coworkers bail ship, and getting into yelling arguments with scam artists in wheelchairs (don’t ask); I was losing it. I had a talk with one of my bosses about why I was doing bad. I told him about how when I was training new employees as their manager, I’d give them the best spots to get ‘tribs. He told me this was the opposite of what I should be doing and that my number one priority should be myself. I disagreed with that and continued doing what I was doing (what I like to think Simon and Garfunkel would do too).
I reached my two zero days and even became the first person they decided to give a third chance to. But when I got another zero day I walked in and gave my resignation – trying to leave with dignity.
It’s hard for me to even muster the desire to play this LP even today. When I look at it all I can think of is that bummer of a summer. I remember this record sitting at the front of my record crate with Paul and Art’s eyes looking right at me. They’d stare as I ate my Top Ramen or as I rummaged through the couch trying to find change to buy a Gatorade. It was like they were mocking me, knowing I couldn’t listen to their record if I wanted to.
This was all very melodramatic, but was all very real to me. I’m still young and I can still see how my emotions got the best of me. Those aren’t even likely the hardest times I’ll ever face in life. It really was a time of innocence. I was much more naive than I let on. Maybe if I’d bought Bridge Over Troubled Water it would’ve eased my mind. Or maybe Sounds of Silence would’ve made me realize I’d made a huge mistake earlier on. Instead, I walked out bitter and wounded. But I’d bounce back just fine. This record will always be a reminder of that. It’s a reason to stay humble and aware that things could always be worse. I’m much more careful about complaining about my job and circumstances.
I searched for America on the streets of Seattle and didn’t find what I was looking for, or at least what I was hoping for. Perspective is everything.
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