Monday, April 16, 2012

Gotta Pay to Play

 During the bleak summer of '09, while I was searching for work on Craigslist, I came across a job ad that seemed exciting. "Looking for those who want to become proud Grassroots Activists for Gay Marriage" the ad read, with the last part in bold font. Now I am a big supporter of gay marriage, and I'm also a big supporter of things that make me seem impressive. Maybe it was the bold font, but this ad seemed to to cover both of those areas, so I applied to the job and was able to schedule an interview for the next day.    

That night, as I laid in bed, I thought nervously about the upcoming interview, and that's when I realized that I actually didn't really know what a Grassroots activist did. I had heard the phrase many times in my life (I went to UC Santa Cruz after all) but it wasn't til just then that it dawned on me that I only had a vague idea of the meaning behind it.

Oh well, I thought, I'll just try to BS my way through the interview and hope for the best. 

The next day, I went to the interview, which went pretty much like this:  

Interviewer: So Mr. Walker, why do you think you would make a good grassroots activist for gay marriage?

Me: Well... because, gay marriage is important, especially on a grassroots level. And without activists, how are people going to know that.

Interviewer: Know what?

Me:... that gay marriage is important... and also... grassroots, you know.

Interviewer: I see. I like what I'm hearing. Can you start tomorrow?

That night I couldn't sleep. I was too excited. I mean, I was a Grassroots Activist now! For Gay Marriage! I was a part of something important, something that mattered.

This was made all the more exciting by the fact that I really had no idea what they wanted me to do, as that bit of information was not covered in the interview (I feared to ask because I didn't want them to think I wasn't qualified for the job.) So now I was laying wide awake in bed, wondering what the hell to expect for tomorrow. 

Maybe it was on purpose that they didn't tell me what I needed to do,  I considered, maybe it's something dangerous, or even illegal, and they can't risk anyone knowing beforehand.  

I decided this was the most likely reason, and then I repeated my job title in my head, over and over. Each time, feeling more and more impressed with myself. 

Randy Walker, Grassroots Activist for Gay Marriage

Randy Walker, the Great Gay Marriage Grassroots Activist 

Grassroots Activist Randy Walker,  The Hero that Gay Marriage Needs  

Randy Walker, The Robin Hood for Homosexuals. He Steals from the Homophobes and Gives to the Fabulous  

It went on like this for awhile, continuing to spiral into greater and greater hubris, until I finally fell asleep.
Day 1

The next day I arose from bed and headed to the Grassroots Campaign Headquarters. I know what you're thinking, you're thinking that that sounds like a hideout for superheroes. Well, sadly, it was not. Instead, it was a place where I was handed a slip of paper with words on it. I was instructed to memorize these words down to the letter, and then repeat them later to strangers on the street. The words contained a message. Sadly it was not a cool secret message, but rather an overt and slightly tactless message: we need money, please give.

Naturally, when I realized my job was to simply ask for money, instead of the silliness that I had imagined the night before, I was a little disappointed. But I knew that this made a lot more sense and that it does take money to do anything in this world, including making a change for the better. So I braced myself for a day of asking strangers for money.

Now, this is never an easy thing to ask, but it especially wasn't easy during the 09 summer, because if you remember, that's when the recession was at it's absolute worst and nobody had any idea when things were gonna get better.

 Oh man, I thought,  this is gonna be interesting.  

But I was determined to do a good job, so I stood in one corner of the room and memorized those words until I had it down pat. Afterwards, I hopped on the Activism Bus (again, not super hero-related in anyway) which took me to the section of the city that I had been assigned to "street canvass" ( a fancy term for asking for donations).

As I rode the bus, I made conversation with some of the rest of the activists and tried to pick their brain for information.

"So what's it like doing this? What should I be expecting?"

"Well," One of my fellow activists replied, "It can be a pretty hard job at times. It's not easy to get money from people these days."

"Yeah, I figured that." I said. "But I mean, even if we have a couple of bad days, we're bound to have some good days as well, as long as we keep at it with a good attitude, right?"

"Yes..." He said reluctantly. "except, each day you have to earn sixty bucks, and if you don't you get fired."

"What?!" I laughed in disbelief. "Nobody told me that!"

"Yeah, they don't tell you until the first time you come up short. Then you get a warning, then the next time it happens you get fired."

"Oh. Well, sixty bucks isn't that hard to get, right?"

He gave me a slight smile when I said this. "It can be. Depends on the day. You'll see what I mean."

I kept silent for the rest of the bus ride, trying to prepare myself for what was to come. Remember, I told myself, you're Randy Walker, Gay Marriage Activist of the Grassroots Variety. 

About ten minutes later, I was dropped off to my assigned section, downtown Pasadena. This seemed like an odd place for them to send me, but I did my best to get people to talk to me. "Help overturn Prop 8?" I called out to the passer-byes, as I had been instructed to do. But I found that technique less than effective.

 Then I noticed that people were averting their eyes long before they heard what I had to say. That's when I realized what the real trouble was: my clipboard. As soon as people see a man standing still on the sidewalk and holding a clipboard, they shut off their ears, keep their eyes straight ahead and increased their pace until they're safely passed him Logically, I could understand this mentality. But personally, and emotionally, it felt bad man. Real bad.    

The second half of the day went a little better.  Later, I found that this was true for all of my days as an activist.  Maybe it was because in the afternoon, people had just a little bit more compassion for their fellow man than in the morning.

 But whatever the reason, I was able to converse with many more people during the second half of the day.

Not that these conversations usually went anywhere, mind you. On my first day, most people wanted nothing to do with me or my cause. In cases like this, I usually got a quick "no thank you" before they walked away, but occasionally I would get a snarky "Go with Jesus" reply. The first few times I received one of these comments, I tried to engage them in a healthy discussion of why they felt Jesus would hate gay marriage. But each time I did this, I ended up wanting to shoot myself because their logic was always completely circular and mind-numbingly ignorant. So after awhile, I just started replying back "You first." and then focus on other people who might be more receptive to my cause. 

But I soon discovered that when I did find others that were receptive to the cause, another obstacle would arise.

"Look, I believe in gay marriage, but I'm not giving money to anyone in this economy." This was a very common response.

"I got no money for myself, much less for you." was also a popular way to reject me.

 One woman, who was all smiles and sympathy when I first told her I wanted to legalize gay marriage, acted horribly offended when I ask her for donations, and promptly started to scream at me: "Excuse me?! Did you just ask for money?! Look, I'm happy to sign whatever it is you want me to sign, but there is no way I'm giving you any money. I have four kids I have to feed. One of them is in college. You have any idea how much tuition is?! Also, my husband has cancer. Throat cancer! And so does the dog! What do you want me to tell them, that they have to die now because I gave all my money to you? I don't think so buster!" Just to spite her, I really wanted to ask her if she thought her dog's life was more important than human equality, but I wisely stopped myself from doing so. 

At one point I looked at my watch and realized it was 3, meaning I only had 2 more hours to make my quota, and I hadn't gotten a dime yet. That was when I began to wonder if I was going to get fired on my first day.

But then, as luck would have it, I came upon a nice old man who believed in the cause and donated a hundred dollars. So I was safe... for the day.

On the bus ride back to headquarters I asked another activist why I had been sent to Pasadena, as it seemed like a rather conservative place for what we were trying to do. Wouldn't it be better to go someplace that was more friendly towards our cause, like West Hollywood?

"West Hollywood, and the neighborhoods like it, have been sucked dry." She told me. "During the 08 election there were street canvassers and activists on every corner, trying to get support for the cause. The people there gave and gave and gave, and then Prop. 8 passed anyways. Now, there is a lot of bad mojo there. People are still hurt and bitter from the election. We sent some people there a couple of times... it didn't go well." She said this last bit like something bad had happen, but she didn't want to discuss it further. "Now," She continued, "we go to the more conservative areas in the city, hoping to find some like-minded individuals among the Republican crowd."

That night I laid in bed awake, again unable to go to sleep. I just kept thinking about what the girl on the bus had told me. West Hollywood is off limits! That was definitely a disappointing blow. You see, I sort of had this fantasy in my head of being sent over there and being embraced by the people who were touched by my passionate activism. He's just like Harvey Milk, the imaginary people in my head said, only he's straight. Which is a damn shame, we might add. 

Now it seemed like this fantasy would never come to be, which again, was disappointing. But even more disconcerting was the fact that we were being sent to the most conservative areas in town and trying to raise money for gay marriage. To me, this seemed a lot like the Romans feeding the Christians to the lions, only this time the Christians were us, the lions were Christians, and the Romans were suppose to be on our fucking side. Oh well, I told myself, not much I can do about it now. Better just try to sleep and mentally prepare myself for tomorrow. 

Day 2: 

The second day on the job was much like the first. Except instead of Pasadena, I was sent to some small ultra-conservative blue collar town on the outskirts of town. The only notable thing that happened here was a homeless man stole my lunch bag which I had hid behind a tree while I was canvassing. But I don't think the homeless man stole my lunch because he disagreed with my politics, I think he stole it because he was hungry. So in that way, I did a good thing, which was nice.

 I also raised a total of 30 dollars, half of my daily quota, which was not so nice, and led to me having a dreaded "sit-down" with my bosses back at Grassroots HQ.

Now let me tell you something about these HQ sit-downs, they're not fun. Not fun at all. First of all, they make you sit down in this small room, where tons of index cards are tact on the walls. And each of these index cards have a name and number on it. The names belong to activists who made over 200 dollars in one day, and the number is the exact cash amount they brought in on that day. So you just have to sit there and stare at all the names of people that are better than you, while you get reprimanded
for being a shitty Grassroots Activist for Gay Marriage.

As for the sit-down itself, there elements of it that definitely reminded me of the interview I did to get the job:

Boss: Randy, according to your clipboard you only brought in 30 dollars, which is half of your quota. Can you tell me what happened?

Me: I don't know... I reached out to everyone that passed by, and I said everything you wanted me to say.

Boss: OK, well, what are you going to do tomorrow?

Me: I'm...going to... reach out to everyone who passes by and say what you want me to say...

Boss: Good, see that you do. Because we'd hate to lose someone like you on our team.

That night, I laid awake in bed and thought about these last words. It would really suck to get fired from this job in my first week. I mean, I had already made sure to rub it in my gay friends faces that I was doing more for their cause than they were. Oh, did you hear Ron? I'm fighting the good fight to legalize gay marriage, so one day you and your boyfriend can get married. No big deal, I just believe in helping others. That's just the kind of guy I am.

 I was going to look really stupid if I didn't last more than three days on the job. So I became extra-determined to do a great job the next day, no matter where they sent me.

Day 3

Glendale. They fucking sent me to Glendale on my 3rd day. Can you believe that? Glendale, the ultra conservative,  Armenian-filled neighborhood (nothing against Armenians, but statistically, those guys are not big fans of gay people). I mean this place was such an obviously bad choice for what I was trying to do, that more than one skateboarding teenager approached me (while laughing) and stated the following sentiment:

"Seriously dude,  Glendale is not the town for this. You're not gonna find any luck here. Try somewhere else."

 "I can't. I was sent here by the people above me. It's part of their strategy."

"Well, their strategy is fucking whack!"

I tried, more or less, to explain the same thing back at Grassroots HQ, during my second "sit-down" in two days, after I had returned with only 4 dollars (which was given to me by a nice elderly woman who I suspect didn't really understand what I was telling her, but wanted to help anyways).

"Don't try to blame your way out of this." I was told. "Plenty of people of have been successful in Glendale. There's a reason we use this strategy, because it works."

That night, I laid awake in bed and took turns between wondering how I had escaped from being fired, and envisioning myself back at that sit-down when they told me they used that strategy for a reason, and shouting at them: Your strategy is fucking whack, bro!

Day 4

On the fourth day of my activist career, I was sent back to Downtown Pasadena. And again, I experienced more or less the same thing as my first day. Except this time, I ended up talking with this man who was dressed in a nice suit and tie. He looked a little young, but he came across as a successful business man, who seemed very eager to help my cause.

In fact, his monetary support seemed like such a sure thing, that half way through the conversation I started to space out and envision my own index card pinned against that stupid wall at HQ.

The card would read: Randy Walker, the Ultimate Grassroots Activist for Gay Marriage. And below that, a number, the dollar amount that told everyone how great  I was at grassrooting for gays. What would that number be?  I wondered greedily. 250? 300? 600?! I mean the sky was really the limit when it came to wealthy, and generous, sympathizers of the cause.

Then I shook off this day dream, refocused my attention to the present, where this wealthy business man was still talking to me. It was at this point when I realized that he was now inserting the dreaded J word into his sentences.

 That's right, Jesus. And he was using the word in very bad ways. Like telling me I need to be with Jesus, and accept his love, and stop trying to help the sinners.

Dammit all to hell! I thought. This was just a big ruse. He's not a wealthy sympathizer for the cause, he's just a crazy Jesus freak in a nice suit who tricked me into talking with him for an hour and acting like he wanted to help me, just so he might get me to agree to join his Church. Dammit all to hell! 

Later that day, I had my third sit-down at HQ. They asked me why I was only able to bring in 24 dollars. I told them that religion screwed me, just as it had been screwing gay people for years. They told me that was not an unacceptable response, and that I had one day, exactly one, to get things in gear, or I was out.

So that night, I laid awake in bed and wondered. I didn't worry, fret, or panic. I just wondered calmly, what the hell was I gonna encounter tomorrow? No doubt more averted eyes, rude responses, and Jesus freaks. And perhaps, just perhaps, a lovely pile of money that amounted to sixty dollars. It was possible. I just had to really focus myself and go out there ready and hungry. I owed it to gay marriage, and I owed it to myself.  

Day 5

Yeah, I'll just save you the suspense and tell you now, I didn't make a fucking dollar on this day. Not a single dollar.

 I don't know what to tell you. I tried, I really did. I mean I literally talked to everyone who came by me.

Including the sketchiest dude I had come across in a long, long time. He looked like a gnarly biker dude who had seen a lot of bad things, and done even more.

 He looked like he was in his mid-forties, and he was built like a brick shit house, except for his protruding beer belly, of course. He had angry biker tattoos up and down both arms. And he was wearing a wife-beater that was covered in food stains. His pants were tattered, and his face had a large scar running down his cheek. And to top it all off, he had an epic, thick and filthy mustache whose ends dropped down past his chin. Basically, if I was profiling, I wouldn't have given him the time of day. But I wasn't profiling, I was desperate. So I talked to him. And I'm glad I did. Because, while I didn't end up getting any money from him, I did end up getting this incredible response after I asked him to help legalize gay marriage.

  "Gay marriage, huh? You know, I had some gay friends back in the day. They're all dead now. The virus got 'em. You gotta pay to play, baby, you gotta pay to play. I paid once. I spent two years in jail for having sex with a minor. I didn't know she was minor though. I met her at this bar, and one thing led to another and pretty soon we're doing it in the bathroom. The bartender called the cops, and the cops came down and asked me why I was banging a 16-year-old in a bar bathroom. I told them she was in a   21-and-over bar, but they didn't care. I just got outta the joint last month. You gotta pay to play baby, you gotta pay to play. Now I have to go go buddy, my mom's waiting in the car."

Later that day I had my fourth and final sit down at HQ, which didn't go so well.    

"The fact is, Randy, you've been here for five days. And in those five days you made 158 dollars for us, while getting paid 10 dollars an hour, for 7 hours a day. So you've actually managed to cost us, and our cause, money that we need to fight the good fight."

 And that was when it was decided that I, Randy Walker, the Grassroots Champion and a Hero to the Straight and Gay Alike was no longer needed to help overturn prop 8.

 I'm not gonna lie, that night, as I laid awake in bed, I was ambivalent on how to feel. On the one hand, I no longer had to do something that I hated doing (asking people for money), but on the other hand, I now had to live with the fact that I hurt the very cause I wanted to help (I'm sorry my gay friends, and relatives). It was a confusing night, to say the least.

But then, as I continued to lay in bed, I thought back to what that biker guy had said to me. I played his words back in my head, over and over. And for just a second, I thought I had found a deeper meaning to those words that put this whole ordeal in perspective...

But then I realized I was just suffering from sleep deprivation, because really what I had heard was a bizarre, rambling response the likes of which may never be heard again. And that made me feel a little a better about everything.

And then I went to bed.

The end.

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