There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The dogs saw us before we saw the dogs, and by then it was too late. They were charging, two meat-seeking missiles streaking down a long gravel driveway straight for me and Pete, who’d just finished telling me that dogs rarely bother Greenpeace canvassers.
We threatened them with our clipboards. They were unimpressed. “Go home!” I yelled, backpedaling to the curb. They were already home. That was the problem. When we finally made it to the street, the big black Labs paced the property line, barking and snarling, until we disappeared around the corner.
Not everyone we met that day would be so happy to see us.
It was my first night on the street as a Greenpeace canvasser, and Pete was training me. Although we represented the most glamorous, intrepid, and successful environmental group on the planet, our job was neither enviable nor easy. We were going door to door in a remote nook of Silver Spring, handing out literature and collecting petition signatures and demanding money from everyone unfortunate enough to be home when we knocked.
Most of the “doors” (as they’re known in canvasser slang) were annoyed. The rest were downright nasty, slamming the door or curtly dismissing us. One guy pursued us down the street, loudly demanding to know what kind of gas mileage our unmarked minivan got, if we were such great environmentalists. But by nightfall, after four hours of toil in tropical heat, we’d coaxed a pocketful of checks and cash out of some passionately lukewarm donors.
Each summer, in a migration as regular as that of Canada geese or gray whales, idealistic college grads flock to Washington, hoping to land a job saving the planet. But the major environmental groups have been cutting staff of late, and competition is fierce for even the lowliest positions. Many of the thwarted enviro-wonks end up as Greenpeace canvassers, for which the only prerequisites are the ability to walk, talk, and cope with rejection.
Greenpeace is the largest environmental employer in the nation. Seven nights a week, in some 22 different metropolitan areas, its battalions go forth, Birkenstocked and burning to raise a few dollars to save the earth. On any given night, about 850 canvassers will knock on almost 40,000 demographically appropriate doors, lecture the stunned occupants about dioxin and whaling and a swarm of other planetary perils, and then try to separate them from their money.
The funny thing about their approach is that it works. Last year, the canvass raked in $12 million, about a quarter of the group’s total American budget. I toiled in Greenpeace’s D.C. office, one of the largest canvass bureaus in the country and also one of the best—it contributed more than $1 million to Greenpeace’s coffers in 1994. I was an eco-wage slave, a grunt in the green army, the proud holder of a McJob for the Planet.
The ad is irresistible. “Thrilling jobs for people committed to the future of life on this planet,” it promises. “Discover how liberating meaningful work can be.” I call the phone number, and a pleasant woman tells me to come in the following Wednesday evening.
At the appointed hour, I walk into Greenpeace’s national headquarters, in a converted warehouse just off 14th and U Streets NW. In the local canvass office, a largish room on the first floor, about a dozen would-be canvassers slouch on sofas, watching a video. Mountain bikes dangle from the ceiling. Posters on the wall honor Martin Luther King Jr., the Rainbow Warrior, and the musical Hair.
On the television, Greenpeace crusaders are zipping around a rust-stained whaling ship in their signature inflatable Zodiac boats, dodging harpoons. We watch other Greenpeaceniks rappel off suspension bridges, flee Russian naval vessels, and interpose themselves between Eskimos and fur seals. Next comes a scene of Greenpeace Zodiacs dogging a British freighter, preventing workers from dumping drums of nuclear waste overboard. When the Zodiacs don’t get out of the way, the evil peons heave the barrels right onto the boats.
A sigh of envy rolls around the room.
Shortly, a clean-cut guy named Austin emerges from the director’s office to tell us about the job. He starts by asking us to introduce ourselves and explain why we want to work at Greenpeace. We shift uncomfortably in our seats, wondering how much to reveal.
“My name’s Will,” begins the guy to my right, “and I’m a Buddhist, which means I’m at one with the earth. The reason I want to work at Greenpeace is because if you’re ripping something outta the earth, it’s like you’re ripping something outta me.”
Will sort of sets the tone.
We’re a diverse lot. Among the college kids and recent grads, the button-down shirts almost equal the tie-dyes and Tevas. There are also some peculiar older people. I sit next to a wizened fellow named Ray, who reeks of nicotine and seems slightly sinister. On my right is a ponytailed Deadhead of about 40 named Jeff, who drives a cab for a living and speaks fluent Klingon. He’s a born bullshit artist, and as he regales us with tales of his decade following the Grateful Dead, I mark him for an instant success.
When we’re acquainted, Austin delivers his spiel. “I’ve been an environmentalist from the cradle,” he says, “and when I found Greenpeace, it was like a perfect fit.” That was four months ago. “We’re up against a cadre of multinational corporations,” Austin continues. “Greenpeace’s entire annual budget is equivalent to three hours of operating time for General Motors.”
We’ll start as “community activists,” Austin tells us. The job, alas, does not entail rappelling. But over time, he says, we’ll be able to apply for a job “upstairs,” with the national staff. Only later will we learn that Greenpeace is under an indefinite hiring freeze because of financial problems.
That’s where we come in. We’re each expected to raise a quota of $120 a night. Base pay is $5.70 an hour, but we get to keep a third of what we raise above quota. Some canvassers raise $400 a night and more, he says, which translates into pretty big take-home bucks.
While it’s important that we reach people with Greenpeace’s message, we’re here to put the green in Greenpeace. So we’ll be on probation until we’ve made quota five nights running. “One measure of how effective you’ve been,” Austin reasons, “is the amount of money people are willing to give.”
“It’s not hard to make quota,” Austin tells me afterwards, “if you’ve got normal intelligence and communications skills.”
When I arrive for work two days later, my fellow recruits are playing Hacky Sack in the back alley. Before I can refuse, I am sucked into the circle. Thankfully, we are soon summoned inside to hear a briefing on water pollution.
The briefer is a campaigner from upstairs named Mark, who juggles three Hacky Sacks as he talks to us, ramblingly and slightly condescendingly, about chlorine and dioxin. We canvassers listen raptly, like freshman benchwarmers in the presence of the starting quarterback.
Then back outside, where we hack a few more agonizing rounds of sack before piling into minivans fragrant with dried sweat. In Pete’s van with me are a wan-looking college kid named Dave, on his eighth day, a 40-ish Swede named Robert, and three other veterans. The other canvassers ply me with advice for my rookie night—all except Dave, who maintains a sullen silence.
We make our way out of the city on Georgia Avenue, past a Cambodian Buddhist temple, two mosques, and three Korean Presbyterian churches, to the farthest reaches of Silver Spring. We pull into a strip mall restaurant for lunch, where at 3:30 on a sultry afternoon we are the only customers. When the owner, a middle-aged woman, strikes up a conversation with Robert, he canvasses her.
“Robert rocks,” Pete whispers.
Our assigned area—our “turf,” in canvass jargon—is like lots of other turf, a mix of new and slightly less new homes on the outskirts of Silver Spring, where country lanes have sprouted cul-de-sacs like malignant growths. The newer homes ooze prosperity, with Lexuses in the garages and decks out back. Even a few faded Clinton/Gore bumper stickers, a promising sign.
At each door, Pete knocks, introduces himself, and delivers his “rap,” a brief little speech about Greenpeace or about a particular problem that will never be solved unless the person writes a check this minute. There’s no script, and he’s free to rap whatever issue he chooses, but it helps to stick to one topic. Today he’s harping on the paper industry’s use of chlorine bleach, and how the resulting pollutants have been “linked” to breast cancer.
This at least gets the women to listen. Maryland has the highest breast-cancer rate in the nation, he’ll say. One in six Maryland women will develop it, according to Pete. Having grabbed their attention, he smoothes into his “money-ask,” the crucial part of the rap: “The reason we’re here today,” he’ll say, “is because we need your support.” In a big way: He typically asks for $104.
“That’s only $2 a week for the year,” he’ll say, as shock registers on his target’s face. “Less than thirty cents a day.”
We’re supposed to ask for big money. Nobody will write big checks unless we do. Pete is resourceful. If they’re overdrawn, he offers to take a postdated check. If they don’t have checks, he suggests cash. He even accepts MasterCard and Visa, and if that fails, he’s not above pleading for a dollar or two.
“I’m in begging mode today,” he sighs, after wheedling two bucks from a teen-age girl who looks like Cindy Crawford’s kid sister. But he won’t take no for an answer until he’s heard it two or three times. He’s careful not to trample the shrubbery as he leaves.
In just over a year, Pete has risen to the rank of field manager, which means he’s responsible for this quadrant of suburbia, encompassing greater Silver Spring and—the mother lode—Takoma Park. He also does Alexandria. He remembers the exact date when he started, but he’s a little vague on what he did before Greenpeace. It’s considered impolite to ask too many questions, but most of the veterans came to canvassing from temp jobs—or, like Pete, no job. The senior canvasser in the office has done it for eight years, even longer in canvass years than Cal Ripken’s streak. It must be better to work outside, I chirp, than in the National Wildlife Federation’s mail room.
“A mail-room job,” Pete grumbles, “would look pretty good right now.”
For all the hacky-sackery, the canvass is as efficient as a tuna seiner. Pete painstakingly outlines his canvassers’ routes on a master map and on their individual maps. Tomorrow, his crew will scour the next neighborhood over, and then the next, until Greenpeace has hit every single house on every single street in this chunk of gainfully employed Silver Spring.
We have to be thorough: Each one of us costs Greenpeace about $80 a day, I figure, including wages, transportation, and overhead. People who don’t consistently make quota are pretty quickly dropped. Pete has had a couple of bad days, so he needs to make an extra $40 tonight, on top of quota. After four hours, the bills and checks stuffed into his pockets total only $143. Not bad, but not quite good enough.
Before we leave, I go and canvass a few houses on my own. Miraculously, one woman puts down her infant to write me a $20 check. My elation lasts the whole long van ride home. This is going to be easy.
Worst thing about the job so far: the mandatory Hacky Sack. Every time I look up, a little bean bag is arcing my way.
Best thing about the job: not having to show up until 2 in the afternoon.
The day typically begins with a pep talk from John Sellers, the head of the canvass office, who announces the previous night’s top canvassers. The other canvassers applaud each winner’s name loudly, as though they were in a Tony Robbins seminar. Almost nobody breaks $300—except, that is, for Robert, who makes $487 one night and almost $400 the next. After that, we might hear a briefing from a campaigner, or watch a video on nuclear proliferation. Then we grab our clipboards and head out to the alley, where we’ll stand around for another half-hour, playing Hacky Sack and, of course, smoking.
For people so concerned about cancer, I’ve noticed, Greenpeaceniks seem to smoke an awful lot.
Though I possess “normal intelligence and communications skills,” as Austin put it, I’m having mixed results. Some doors give money as soon as I invoke the magical name of Greenpeace, but most don’t. I’m trying not to take it personally. The difference between an average canvasser and a great canvasser is the ability to turn “no” into yes. This is accomplished by…well, I haven’t figured it out yet. Neither has Jeff with the ponytail. I’d pegged him for a born canvasser, but to my surprise, he raises exactly zero dollars on his first night—a “bagel,” in Greenpeace slang. Maybe his Klingon stories didn’t go down well.
One afternoon, while we’re waiting (as usual) for the vans, I spot Robert in the parking lot and sidle over to make small talk. What’s the secret? I ask. What does he rap? How does he do it? He squints at me, dragging on his Marlboro.
“It doesn’t matter what you say,” he says finally. “You could say anything. What matters, the important thing really, is how you say it. It’s the performance of it that counts.” He must perform pretty well: He’s supporting two kids and a wife on his Greenpeace pay.
Luckily, Robert’s in my crew today, along with two of the other top canvassers in the office: Jeffrey, the crew leader and one of the few black canvassers, and Jim, a burned-out lawyer. Also in the van is an enigmatic character with a long gray ponytail, a Redskins hat, and mirror shades, whose name appeared on the sign-up sheet as “Rainbow Warrior.” I sit next to another neophyte named Ken, a preppy-looking blond college boy. Ken canvassed with this crew yesterday, and he was impressed. “These guys,” Ken marvels, “could sell used shoes.”
Canvassing is rooted in the American radical tradition, from voter registration drives in the Deep South to the earliest presidential campaigns. In a mass-media age, canvassing is a quaint vestige of direct-contact politics, the kind of campaigning that organized labor unions and ended segregation. At least that’s what I try to tell myself. Even in an age of CNN, Greenpeace considers this the best way to reach potential supporters.
But it’s also a variety of the great American hustle, the door-to-door hucksterism that has, since time immemorial, moved Fuller brushes, vacuum cleaners, and encyclopedias. The qualities that bring someone to Greenpeace, I’m learning, are not necessarily the same that make for a good canvasser. To succeed, one needs that unlikely combination of a monk’s idealism and a salesman’s slickness—the best canvassers are like a cross between St. Francis of Assisi and the Juiceman. One West Coast canvasser admitted that he once ranked among the top Buick salesmen in the country. He considers Greenpeace his penance. And not surprisingly, he canvasses very well.
At exactly 5 p.m., Jeffrey lets me off in a neighborhood of brand new, identical houses, plunked onto some farmer’s pasture like outsize Legos. This kind of turf is called “Devo,” for new development, and it tends to be unpredictable. The people are prosperous, but also wary, perhaps because of their freshly minted mortgages. I canvassed Devo last night and collected a respectable $108, just shy of quota.
I survey the identical doll-houses, the pesticide-soaked lawns (that’s why we call it “turf’), the shrubs topiaried to strict Residents’ Association standards. And I feel charged. Tonight, I’ll do better.
My clipboard is stuffed with fact sheets, petitions, and year-old newsletters. My head is crammed with choice factoids on all the issues we rap, from ozone depletion to whales, nukes, and, oddly, Time magazine. Apparently the magazine hasn’t yielded to Greenpeace’s demands that it switch to unbleached stock. There’s a crate full of anti-Time flyers, but that seems like a nonstarter. So does nuclear disarmament, the subject of today’s briefing. “Nobody raps nukes,” a kindly veteran woman told me, handing me a sheaf of breast-cancer leaflets.
At the first house, a couple is sitting on the porch, and I’ve already started lecturing when I notice that I’ve interrupted a deep discussion. “It’s not a good time,” the man says, his eyes red-rimmed with tears. OK.
I skip the house with the funeral wreath on the door, as well as the one with the Humvee in the drive. I don’t make much money for a while, but at least there are no vicious dogs.
Then the natives turn hostile.
A kid with a Super Soaker spies me as I make my way up his street. “Hey, Paperwork!” he yells, as I scribble on my clipboard. “Try doing paperwork with this!” Water trickles down my spine, mingling with sweat. And I am grateful, the first few times. But he keeps it up, and I start to get angry.
Finally, I turn on him, fully intending to turn him into a lawn ornament, but he scurries out of reach. Look, I explain, this isn’t fair. You can’t shoot me when I’m unarmed. It’s against the cowboy code. He disappears, then reappears at the next door with a loaded Super Soaker for me. We play Die Hard on someone’s front lawn, and I drench the little bugger.
There’s something weird about this neighborhood: People keep saying they “can’t sign anything.” Turns out many of them work for the Department of Energy, an eternal Greenpeace nemesis. A couple of them give me cash, so as not to leave a paper trail. “Sorry,” another guy says, “I spray chemicals for a living.” Slam.
Rejection: I can handle it.
Front doors open to emit the smell of burned dinner. Every garage is aromatic with gasoline and lawn clippings. Housewives shrink from the door and say, “Oh, I couldn’t write a check. My husband keeps the checkbook. He should be back on Monday.”
That’s called getting “spoused.”
Inevitably, I stumble into domestic confrontations. “What are you gonna do?” a chunky teen-age girl screams at her impassive and equally chunky mom, standing on the lawn. “Hit me again?” Mom rolls her eyes at me. I hurry past.
I know the night’s half done: At the next house, the TV is saying, “Wheel!”
But nobody inside seems to understand English.
At one house, the husband is just coming home from his job—as an environmental engineer, it turns out. We discuss river restoration and toxic waste for a while, and then I attack: I ask $104—asking big money is important—and he nods and fetches the checkbook. But when he hands me the check, it says only $10. “Don’t look so disappointed,” his wife snaps, marching up to within six inches of my face. “I’m absolutely inundated with you people, and if you don’t like it, you can give the check back.” I stuff it quickly into my pocket and say, “Thanks!”
I hear more middle-class hardship tales tonight—huge medical bills, lost jobs, kids in $20,000 colleges, live-in in-laws—than you’d find at one of Bill Clinton’s town meetings. So, despite their evident wealth, they really can’t give me any money. I stop to think about this for a while.
Life, I decided, is a canvass. The key to success is persuading other people to do things that they really would rather not do. Austin, for example, canvassed us into this job. But I’ve never been much good at convincing people to do anything—sleep with me, for example, or give me money. Canvassing is not about saving the earth; it’s a game. If the doors won’t give money out of concern for the planet, I’ll have to make them give, using deceit, manipulation, and shame. One in six Maryland women will develop breast cancer, I repeat, having no idea whether it’s true. One in six. Or maybe one in five.
It’s hot, the kind of day when air-conditioned disc jockeys say, “It’s a reeealll scorcher out there!” and segue, wittily, into “Cold as Ice.” Just as I’m about to collapse under the nearest rhododendron, a mild-mannered guy invites me in. As I sit in his living room guzzling ice water, he tells me about the problems he’s seeing as a neuropsychologist: the large numbers of inexplicably disabled, mentally impaired kids, and how he thinks toxic chemical pollution is responsible. And it starts to hit home. Our kids are being poisoned. A silent tragedy is taking place, and we are already reaping our damaged, pesticide-sprayed fruits.
Unfortunately, despite my ever more desperate money-asks, he refuses to give me a dime, so I leave empty-handed, having wasted half an hour. However productive our little dialogue might have been, it’s a disaster from a quota point of view.
But he’s given me something better than money: conviction. I go back out, rapping chemical weapons incineration with an evangelist’s vengeance. I want to say to these people, “Put your hands on the clipboard and be sayved!”
And by 8:30, I’m four bucks over quota. The red sun is dissolving in a hazy dusk. Nearby high-voltage lines hum with electromagnetic energy, inflicting God knows what kind of damage upon my DNA. And I don’t care, because the planet is $124 closer to salvation.
I decide to hit one last house, a place I’ve already tried twice with no answer. This time, they’re home. The guy comes out, he loves Greenpeace, and while we stand around chatting, his wife slips me a check that brings me up to $174 for the night. I’ve rocked.
“How’d it go?” Jeffrey asks, when he picks me up. I tell him, and he gives me a joyous high-five. I even beat Robert, and it’s only my fourth day. Back at the office, I hack the sack like Maradona.
It was inevitable, then, that my luck would run out. Sooner or later, every canvasser has the Really Bad Day. A few stick with it—Lou Crews, the national canvass director, didn’t even quit after an obvious psychopath “donated” him a piece of bone with teeth attached to it. A Portland, Ore., canvasser once opened a door to face a drawn gun. These things happen.
I just didn’t expect the Really Bad Day so soon. The night after my $174 triumph, Pete drops me off in a middle-income neighborhood of Alexandria, an uneasy mix of yuppie gentrifiers and poor blacks and whites. I sense that I am being tested. “There are gonna be some assholes,” says Pete. “You’ve just got to get past them to the cool people. You can do it.”
Most of the dozen people who started with me have already bailed—including Jeff, the Klingon-speaking, cab-driving Deadhead, who I’d pegged for a born canvasser. He bageled three nights in a row and hasn’t been seen since. Will, the Buddhist, is gone, too, as is Dave, the college kid I’d met the first day. This is a grueling job. The ad runs every week. Like the fast-food places where we eat lunch every day, Greenpeace is always hiring.
The long-timers are an odd lot, to say the least, and plenty superstitious. In the van today, I sit next to a white-haired guy named John. “I did a voodoo on the Organization of American States,” John tells me. “It worked pretty good.” Why? I ask. “They were doing some things I didn’t approve of,” he says, and it seems best to leave it at that. I politely decline his offer of protective amulets.
The night starts promisingly. At the very first door, a plump young woman shakes her head and says, “No, I won’t contribute,” but I stick with her, coaxing and wheedling my way to a $15 check. I’m pumped, but things start downhill immediately. At the next house, I start rapping the woman on the steps before I realize she’s crying. She looks at me and just shakes her head. “Don’t ask me any questions today,” she sobs. As I ring the next doorbell, a patrol car pulls into her driveway.
An old woman smiles and says yes, she’s heard of Greenpeace. Would she be interested in helping us? No, she doesn’t think so. At the office, they gave us this handout on overcoming objections. With older people, it advises, don’t hesitate to mention the grandchildren. So, I tell this woman, doesn’t she want them to have a healthy planet? “Screw ’em,” she says, still smiling sweetly. At the next house, the rather heavyset woman dispenses with all politeness. “Good—bye!” she shouts, and slams the door so hard my ears ring.
I’m starting to hate the doors. They’re nothing but a bunch of cheap, greedy bastards whose excessive lifestyles are killing the planet. Even though they can afford houses, cars, food, and cable—the best stand ard of living humanity has ever known—they become paupers as soon as I knock. “These people are liars,” John Sellers tells me later, back at the office. “Of course they have money.”
But to them we’re not the saviors of the planet, we’re pests. They can’t tell the difference between us and the rest of the unending procession of doorbell abusers: the Mormon missionaries, Jehovah’s Witnesses, pollsters, and Girl Scouts who interrupt their microwaved dinners every goddamn night. Unlike the door-to-door salesmen of old, we’re not offering anything in return for their money—except, perhaps, relief from our presence, and relief from whatever guilty feelings they might harbor for this suffering planet of ours.
And that’s not much.
By Wheel of Fortune time, after two hours on turf, my tongue feels like a sweat sock and my vocal cords are raw, as if I’ve just chugged a glass of toxic effluent. My raps dissolve in a haze of ecobabble, mystifying the doors and myself alike. And I’ve sunk as low as a canvasser can sink: I drank water from a hose.
By 8:45, I’ve got $40, but there’s one last house. I’ve had my eye on this house, afunky yellow bungalow with a sprawling garden—always a good sign—and a kayak on the front porch. All it needs is a giant Greenpeace banner on the roof. I mount the steps, and peer in the open door. A guy is standing in the kitchen in bicycle shorts, talking on the phone.
“Knock, knock,” I sing.
He glances up at me, and says “excuse me” into the receiver.
“I’m from Greenpeace and—”
He puts the phone down.
And he screams.
“Get the FUCK out of my yard!”
“But sir,” I stammer, “are you aware that the U.S. Army is planning to burn chemical weapons just a few miles away?”
I hung up my clipboard after that night, but my curiosity didn’t fade. Hanging around the Greenpeace office, I’d heard about some canvassers who stood head and shoulders above the rest, great conjurers of cash, money-asking masters who regularly broke $400, even $500. The best canvasser, people said, was a guy out of the Cincinnati office named David Teplitzky. His lifetime average was said to approach $1,000.
“He’s so committed to Greenpeace,” one canvasser told me, “that he just assumes people are as into it as he is.”
I call Cincinnati, and they tell me Teplitzky’s in San Diego, but the guy who answers the phone there thinks Teplitzky has gone to San Francisco by now. Maybe Seattle.
I finally catch up with him in Los Angeles. On a Wednesday morning last August, Teplitzky and I drive to Greenpeace-Los Angeles, which is housed in a turquoise stucco building just off the Santa Monica Freeway.
Teplitzky is roly but not quite poly, his loose frame topped with a turbulent mop of curly hair and a three-day stubble. Like most Greenpeacers, Teplitzky has done a variety of things with his life, including a five-month stint as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker and several years living in Japan, where he wrote a novel. More recently, he mountain-biked from Bangkok to Bali with his wife and infant daughter. He also apparently owns an art gallery in Cincinnati. I get the feeling that canvassing is not his primary source of income, and wonder if that’s what makes him so good.
Teplitzky walked into the Cincinnati office in the fall of 1990; typically, for canvassers, he was “between jobs.” He quickly established himself as the Barbra Streisand of canvassers, raising 10 and 15 times what ordinary mortals did. And in so doing, he changed the rules of the game. Before he came along, $100 was considered an outstanding night. Now it’s subpar.
Teplitzky has never not made quota, though he did once get a check for a quarter. He estimates his lifetime average at around $700, but Lou Crews, the national canvass director, says it’s more like a grand—and that’s over some 600-plus canvass days in all 22 Greenpeace cities. These days, Teplitzky spends most of his time training other canvassers, but he still pounds the turf every other week or so.
“I love canvassing,” he gushes. “I love talking to people.” It’s not about asking for money, he insists, but “validating the person you’re talking to. For me, it’s sort of an honor to meet someone who you don’t agree with.”
The Los Angeles digs are nowhere near as plush as Greenpeace-DC. AC vents dangle uselessly from the stained ceiling, as canvassers drift in and out through the open garage door. The day’s heat is already stifling.
Inside, other canvassers are bustling about, preparing for tomorrow’s action, which will apparently involve large numbers of handcuffs. The second function of the canvass is to provide the bodies for Greenpeace’s fabled direct actions. Tomorrow, the Greenpeacers will cuff themselves to large cement barrels in order to blockade a sludge dump on an Indian reservation in the desert east of Palm Springs.
The L.A. canvassers are the usual band of misfits and adventurers. There’s Sonia, a Latina from East L.A. who quit a good job in the legal department of a major oil company to work for Greenpeace, but still dresses fashionably. Or Kevin, an aspiring actor and Alexi Lalas lookalike, who considers his true vocation to be Greenpeace, not acting. And then there’s Gaston, a deceptively gentle soul whose idea of a good time is to free-climb the side of a glass office tower and decorate it with an angry banner.
L.A. canvassing can be pretty rewarding, given the concentration of liberal-minded celebrities. Ice-T, who knows a thing or two about home invasions, usually dispenses a sheaf of $100 bills. Cheryl Tiegs answers the door herself and writes big checks, but no canvasser has gotten past Madonna’s guards.
This is security-minded turf. A few nights ago, Sonia and David were attacked by huge guard dogs who jumped through a plate-glass window. Sonia spent the rest of the evening chilling next door, chez Herbie Hancock. Teplitzky canvassed one woman who said she was a porn star. (“Her name didn’t ring any bells,” he says.) His hardest night in L.A. was spent in the late Richard Nixon’s neighborhood down in San Clemente. He still made $200.
We’ve drawn almost as tough a turf assignment, a bedroom community so far north it’s not even on my rental-car map. For some reason, the fringes of suburbia are the most difficult areas: These people are as wary and conservative as their spiritual ancestors, the pioneers. Last night’s crew of four people brought home less than $300.
Paul, our field manager, deposits Teplitzky and me in a neighborhood of one-story adobe ranch houses on curving streets, a cedar-spiked and palm-punctuated oasis nestled between blank burnt-ocher mountains. “Have fun working with David,” Paul cackles, climbing back into the van. “I hope you got your sleep last night.”
David’s already set off walking at a fast clip. “Let’s go get a big check,” he says. He walks like he grew up here, marching confidently around the streets without consulting his hand-drawn map, appraising every house. “Yuppies,” David says to a pair of newish Volvos in a driveway. “Holier-than-thou attitude, “I gave at the office,’ probably.” We skip that house.
Christmas lights decorate the next house. “It’s very hard to get a Christmas-tree-light person to give,” he observes. Cars are everywhere, two or three to a driveway, even when nobody is home. We skip houses with a Winnebago in the driveway or (less obviously) dust covers on the cars. I make him canvass a Winnebago house anyway; the woman doesn’t even open the door.
Pretty soon, we have our first Weird Canvassing Moment: A teen-ager storms past, talking agitatedly to himself. “Hi, Dad,” he barks into an imaginary cell phone. “I just killed Mom, and I’m in jail!”
We don’t see anyone else walking around, just me, Teplitzky, and the teen murderer. Because: It’s hot. The desert heat seeps from the pavement into the soles of our shoes, baking our feet. The sun roasts my retinas. The mountains overwhelm us with their silence.
Teplitzky is turning out to be a disappointment, so far. By 7, he’s got less than $100, much of it in $5 dribs and $10 drabs. The cash and checks are stowed in the right front pocket of his shorts. He superstitiously refuses to keep money anywhere else. He also carries a lucky $2 bill in his wallet. “It’s about to get really good,” he insists. I silently doubt him, but at the next door, it gets really, really good.
Nobody answers the bell at first, but there’s a truck in the driveway that wasn’t there an hour ago, so we wait. After a while, a guy in his mid-20s wearing bike shorts and a loose ponytail opens the door. “C’mon in,” he says, like he was expecting us. David and I follow him to his office, where one wall is decorated with a compound bow and three hunting rifles, and the couch is adorned by his wife, a Nicole Brown Simpson blonde. Inspired by the guy’s shorts, Teplitzky starts telling a story about biking all the way across Malaysia just to eat a Big Mac in Panang. This has the guy in stitches.
His wife reclines on the couch, gorgeously sipping her glass of white wine. When I turn to her to make small talk, she reveals that she is wearing no panties. She scowls at me, as if to say, naughty boy. And then she giggles. Her glass is sweating, and so am I.
Meanwhile, Teplitzky is closing in. The reason he’s here, he says at last, is because of breast cancer. Chlorine used in the paper-bleaching process causes breast cancer in women, and should be stopped. “If it caused testicular cancer,” he says, “it would have been solved yesterday.”
The wife makes a serious face over her half-drained sauvignon blanc. As her husband reaches for the checkbook, Teplitzky unleashes the most masterful money-ask I’ve ever heard. He suggests a donation of $3 a week: “That’s enough for a beer and a small tip,” he says. Or $5 a week, “which is two beers and a pissed-off waitron.” Or $10 a week: “A small pizza with maybe one topping, if it’s any good—but no tip.”
The guy goes for the pizza, and dutifully cuts a check for $550—$30 more than David asked for. As a coup de grâce, Teplitzky teaches the wife how to order sushi in Japanese. “Hamachi,” she repeats, mouthing the word for yellowtail. Then he’s on the phone, getting their names on the Greenpeace “special event list,” for a private party on board the new Rainbow Warrior. When we finally leave, they thank us for coming by.
“I’m totally in the comfort zone,” he says, when we’re on the street again. “Now we might do $1,000.”
Teplitzky is not like other canvassers I’ve seen. Like all true geniuses, he succeeds by breaking rules. We were taught to rap issues and preach the Greenpeace gospel. Teplitzky prefers instead to love-bomb his quarries into submission. He’ll say stuff like, “I just wanted to say how happy I am to be here tonight, in this neighborhood, talking to all you wonderful people!”—and he’ll mean it. And people will give him money for this.
Doors detect phoniness the way dogs smell fear. Nobody’s fooled by a scripted rap unless they also believe that you are sincere. My mistake was to try to push Greenpeace, when nobody really cares about chlorine-bleached paper—at least not enough to write a check to a stranger. Teplitzky is selling a product he can truly be sincere about: himself.
We roust one guy from a nap, and he answers the door all bleary-eyed and barefoot. Before the poor fellow knows what’s going on, Teplitzky is sitting on the living-room floor, strumming our host’s acoustic guitar. “Do you play well?” Teplitzky asks him.
It’s the right question. From another room, our host fetches a vintage steel guitar, with which he gives us a 15-minute slide-steel recital that would put Ry Cooder to shame. He’s got no job, we learn, and a motorcycle accident crippled his left leg. So he writes a $50 check and shows us to the door. “Don’t get depressed about the way the world goes,” he advises us.
Our world is going pretty well. By the time Paul picks us up, darkness has swallowed the mountains, the streets are quiet, the desert soil is surrendering its heat. Teplitzky’s lucky pocket bulges with $809 in checks and cash, all of which goes to Greenpeace—he long since stopped taking the canvasser’s customary one-third commission. As usual, nobody else in the van even came close.
The next day, we’re up at dawn for the long drive out to the desert. As soon as we open the van door on arrival at the Indian reservation near Palm Springs, the flies attack: vicious, angry, small, biting flies. Then the smell hits. A hundred yards away looms its source, the sewage “sludge” dump, a half-million-ton mountain of L.A. shit.
The band of Greenpeacers moves to block the entrance to the dump with a larger group of Native Americans from the local tribe. They roll the concrete barrels into place and form a human chain, ready to block the next sludge trucks—when they show up.
For three hours, none do. The temperature climbs above 110 degrees, which is probably why this town is called Thermal, Calif. A gaggle of local reporters is on hand, plus the local sheriff. The protesters badger the sheriff, but he can’t do anything because it’s on a reservation, and hence the domain of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Also, he’s not a hazardous-waste expert. The Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn’t show up, but someone produces a cell phone and a call is made. The BIA people also beg off, saying they can’t do anything about the dump because the matter is “tied up in court.” A TV helicopter hovers above, then flies off.
Around noon, we hear that the trucks are piled up at a rest area on I-10. My heart sinks. A little later, a huge, stinking semitrailer finally pulls up, gears growling. Everyone tenses—the Native American and Greenpeace demonstrators, and the small knot of county cops—waiting to see what the driver will do. He turns toward the line of protesters blocking the dump entrance, thoughtfully signalling first.
“Fuck,” says a deputy sheriff, marching toward the scene of what he assumes will be carnage.
But the driver changes his mind and parks a ways down the road. The cab door swings open, and a colossal, sunburned cabron of a man clambers down. He gives his name as Martinez. He says he’s paid $92 per load. If he brings the truck back full, he gets nothing. He surveys the blockade, then hops back in his truck and disappears into the shimmering heat.
The incident neatly captures what’s wrong with Greenpeace, I decide. With our theatrical blockade, we’ve inconvenienced the hardworking guy who lives in East L.A., not the sewage-sludge mogul. To get his attention, maybe we should jump the fence at his Bel Air mansion and play Marco Polo in the pool.
But it works, I learn later. A couple of months after my visit, Greenpeace entices a New York Times reporter out to lovely Thermal. Within a week after his story appears, and after months of thumb-twiddling, a federal judge suddenly orders the dump closed.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Peter Hayes.