Twenty Five years ago today, I stuck my foot in a door.
It was a trick that Cathy Dees, my field manager and trainer, taught me, for ensuring that no suburban housewife in any devo turf was going to terminate my rap before I’d got to the bit about the slaughter of the harp seal pups, the big eyes, and the ask. That was the day I became a canvasser for Greenpeace.
If you’ve never gone door to door for a cause, the next few paragraphs may not mean much to you, beacuse what I’m about to say here requires first-hand experience to understand, and if you ain’t been there, you ain’t been there. But I’ll do my best to explain.
You travel with four or five companions in a car or a van to a cheap diner somewhere in the American suburbs. You have your dinner, you chit chat and gossip, your field manager tells you what issues may be hot, what Greenpeace is doing that might be on TV, what issues might be resonating in this particular neighborhood, what the organization is pushing at the moment. Then they hand out your turf map. That’s a xeroxed slip of paper you tack to the back of your clipboard with highlighting in colored pencil which shows you the confines of the area you’ll be covering. You also get a set of 3x5 cards listing any current members that are in the area so you can ask them to renew. You all plunk down money for your meal, and somehow, every single time, the pot is short and the field manager has to work it out.
Your field manager drops you off one by one on different corners. High performers get dropped off first. Personal favorites or people on a down day go out last to minimize street-time.
And there you are, somewhere in America, where the most reliable signal that someone is home is the blue flicker of a television screen on the curtains. You’re alone with a clipboard, and a map, and a job to do: convince people to join Greenpeace.
I spent two years walking up the driveways of good turf and bad in all kinds of weather, praying to see a Volvo with a bumper sticker, but often getting a pickup with an American flag decal. Canvassers are improvisational demographics experts, and after a while you could just look at a house and read the secret signs that told you if this was a potential Greenpeace member or not. Among hopeful signals, none in the 80s rivalled a Volvo in the drive with a bumper sticker of any description. If a pet came to the door with the owner, it was a piss-poor canvasser that didn’t walk away with a membership. It that pet was a golden retriever, you generally didn’t have to open your mouth: they already had their checkbook out.
The pickup truck with the flag decal was almost always a lost cause, with the one exception I can remember of a right-wing militarist who surprised me with a back-slapping, crew-cut, have-a-beer-goodbuddy kind of welcome. As it turned out, his incomplete knowledge of Greenpeace led him to believe we were an anti-Russian organization, as I slowly realized amid his paeans to our work at “going after them damn Commie whalers.” At most doors, I used whales or seals as my opening salvo, then moved on to talk avidly about our disarmament campaign and the need for a nuclear weapons test ban — the issue that brought me to Greenpeace. But on this occasion, I’ll admit, I just took his check, and gave him a heartfelt thank-you for his contribution to world peace.
There are a hundred stories. The old woman who stood silently in the door and just pointed at me with narrow eyes. The National Rifle Association member who chased me off his property with gun in hand. The ancient fellow who I believe had me confused for a Jehova’s witness (or given the look I had in 1982, Amish) when he heard the first sentence of my rap and said “Greenpeace? No thank you, I have my own religion.”
I was a decent canvasser. Not an extraordinary one, but most nights a solid deliverer of memberships and petition signatures. I say most, because every canvasser runs hot and cold. Canvassing is an emotionally draining exercise. You need to be pumped up, confident, able to convey passion and inspiration. And there’s no faking it: you have to genuinely feel it if you want to convey it to a stranger at the door. Because every door is never more than 3 seconds away from slamming in your face, and the reasons for slamming that door are infinite, the messages that will swing it open, few. There were nights that I bounded out of the car on my mission, and nights my field manager practically had to pry my hands from the upholstery to get me out into the streets. On the nights you didn’t believe in what you were doing, the evidence was measurable in dollars and cents.
The first night that I broke $500 in a night and got a ‘grand slam’ — what we called a $5, $10, $25, $50, AND the elusive $100 donation — I crawled into the van that rounded us up from our turf and said nothing. Normally, a good night makes a canvasser effusive. Everybody shares their tally. Everybody shares their stories. I remember just settling into the car seat, listening to a Genesis tune on the radio, and savoring what I’d done as the van rolled through Boston and the steetlights flickered past.
I’d convinced someone to take action to save the world. Yeah, you can say it was only a check. You can say it’s an easy way to shift the guilt and responsibility off your own plate. You can quibble about how much of that check gets lost in administrative costs. But I’d talked to people who didn’t know what Acid Rain was. I’d told people about whaling. I explained how we thought the world could get rid of nuclear weapons. I told them about people who had hope, and were acting on that hope, and needed other people to hope along with them as well. And they opened their doors, and they invited me in, and they gave me money. They voted for what I had to say. They joined Greenpeace. Maybe all they had to give was a few bucks. But a few bucks would buy a spark plug. And a spark plug would fire an engine. And an engine would drive an inflatable boat into the path of a harpoon. And those two bucks would be a part of what saved that whale. And saving that whale would be part of what was needed to save the world.
In the car that night, I felt a sense of direction my life hadn’t had until then; that I was on a path, I had something to give, and I believed in what I was doing.
I started out canvassing a couple nights a week. Then it was Monday through Saturday. Then I was volunteering in the office on Sunday too. Then I was helping out from 9am until we hit the streets at 3pm, canvassing my turf, and rolling back to the office around 9pm. When it became obvious I had to quit my day job to maintain my Greenpeace habit, I threw the I-Ching. “Work on what has been spoiled” was the hexagram that decided things. And that was that.
I stuck it out as a canvasser for almost two years, volunteering the rest of my time, before a salaried position opened up as a disarmament campaigner, and I was off the streets.
Tonight I’m up late at home after a day in the office that began at 8:45 and ended at 11pm. I’ve been working on a website that tries to convince people to take action to save the whales. It’s late and I’m tired and somehow in the 25 years since that night in the canvass van and this I’ve become older: a father, a husband, a homeowner — things that kid in that van couldn’t even imagine becoming. I’ve lived in a half a dozen countries. I’ve sailed the Arctic Circle and the Bay of Bengal. I’ve walked to ground zero of a nuclear weapons test. I’ve been to sea, I’ve gone to jail. I’ve helped set up Greenpeace offices in Rome and Moscow. I’ve had laughs and drinks and adventures and horrible mishaps and miserable experiences with some of the most inspiring people to have graced this planet and this time. And I’m still working for Greenpeace.
Andrew Davies, who has been around a while now himself, was telling some young volunteers about what 25 years in Greenpeace meant. He was trying to explain why that’s rare, and why Greenpeace has a high turnover rate in people coming and going. “If you stay too long, it makes you crazy,” he said. When I mentioned that wasn’t a very flattering comment on my mental health, he looked at me and said “Let me put it to you this way. I’m not taking it back.”
OK, point taken. I’ve spent 25 years trying to keep in balance the daily doses of despair and the general sense of hope that by making a choice to do something for the planet, people can actually achieve something for the planet. And there are days I believe that mightily, with all my being, and days I cluck with ancient pity at how naive a 49-year-old man can be.
But I take comfort in that old Bernard Shaw chestnut: “The reasonable person adapts to the world; the unreasonable person persists in trying to adapt the world to themselves. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable person.”
In short, you gotta be crazy to try. But if nobody tries, game over.
So Cathy Dees, wherever you are, I’ll drink a toast tonight to the heights of unreasonableness you introduced me to, and for making me stick my foot in a door called Greenpeace.
Then I’ll put down my glass, and get back to work.