On the wall of many offices of the Fund for Public Interest Research, a spinoff outfit of the state PIRGs which dominates the market for progressive door-to-door and telephone canvasses, there is a framed piece of paper in which I take inordinate pride. It is a blurry copy of a thirty year old mimeographed crew sheet; results of the first day of MASSPIRG’s 1980 summer canvass, the small seed from which the now giant beanstalk–sized Fund has grown.
I field managed the crew that day, my first day canvassing. We were in Newton, Massachusetts talking about the Bottle Bill, unknowingly standing on the cusp of the high point of public support for US environmentalism. It was an epochal moment. The next three summers saw an explosion of door-to-door canvassing, telephone outreach and direct mail that established the mechanisms which even now sustain mass membership bases of our largest organizations. Soliciting and retaining these large, tenuously connected contributor bases is one reason that our major organizations are so reluctant to challenge conventional thinking on climate.
I was a lousy canvasser. The best door-to-door fundraisers are preternaturally upbeat, friendly and outgoing. Some even have the knack for turning brief encounters at the door into durable friendships. More importantly, good canvassers do not take rejection personally. They shake off each dismissal before ringing the next doorbell. I was was not of this disposition, inclining to debate opposition instead of passing quietly by, and to sulk over rejections rather than sprint in search of the next supporter.
I was thinking about this last night as I went out to canvass our neighbors. The JPGH water meter froze yesterday and our plasterer needed running water by morning. With the schedule for completing major work down to a week, we cannot put off plasterwork for even a day. So I put on my best canvasser smile and set to ringing door bells.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m Ken, with the JP Green House, and we’re here today talking with folks in the Bourne neighborhood about the problem of water deprivation. I have here a statement of support signed by many of your neighbors that I’d like you to take a look at. We’re asking for a pledge of 120 gallons, which can be automatically drawn from your outdoor faucet for your convenience. Most people are pledging 40 gallons a day.” At least that’s what I planned to say, but I never got past the first sentence.
Our neighbors aren’t strangers, they are friends and they’ve followed construction triumphs and vicissitudes with close attention. They couldn’t restrain themselves to let me get through the deadpan routine, cutting in with concerned questions and in one case to shoot back, equally deadpan, “I’m sorry, but we don’t give water at the door.”
Entering a new neighborhood is a delicate thing, but something many Americans do without much thought. Most folks pick a new apartment or house based on physical characteristics, neighborhood attributes, closeness to the T or highway, cost and so on. For all the wistful progressive language about “community values” and conservative concern for “community standards,” most Americans don’t meet their neighbors until they are moved in. This blasé attitude makes sense in a nation as vigorously on the move as ours. According to the US Census Bureau, the median duration of residency in the US is just 5.2 years. If you’ll be moving on next year, what does it matter who lives next door?
Andrée and I knew when we starting looking for a home together that we might be there for some time, perhaps even into old age, so when we began to look seriously at 133 Bourne Street, we decided to meet our potential neighbors. When the first concept of the JP Green House began to take shape, we knew that such a project could not move forward without consulting the folks who would have to live with our choices.
Over the course of a couple weeks in June, 2008, we canvassed the Catharine/Bourne crossroads turf. We were welcomed, quite literally, with open arms. Invited to sit at the dinner table, crawled over by toddlers and pets, quizzed, knowledgeably and in detail, about our design and construction ideas, taken in hand and introduced to the next set of neighbors and instructed to regularly report back. We learned about Peg Prebble long before we met her, the former motorcycle mechanic turned electrician who watched over 133 Bourne Street, like some Druid spirit of ancient buildings. Peg was the one who realized pipes had burst and called the Water Department, who covered busted windows and traced a mewling sound to brickwork below the house and rescued the stuck kitten. Who else were we going to hire when it came time to find our electrician? Who other than Peg would have worked until midnight, on top of her a full day of regular work, to get the project ready for inspection before she went off on vacation?
We could not, had we drafted guidelines ourselves, have found a more welcoming, warm, kid-full & kid friendly neighborhood. It does not diminish the glow to say that much of the enthusiasm rose from relief that someone would finally tackle the dingy, abandoned, white elephant of a building glowering over the intersection. Anyone would have been welcomed, I think, but not everyone would have been welcomed as warmly.
Joe McDonough, our taciturn plasterer, got his water this morning, off the tap at Christine & Linda’s house across the way. I hadn’t had much chance, recently, to speak with their boys Gabriel, 8, and Louis, 5ish, so after the water matter was squared away I had questions to answer. “Will there be a tub that is hot?” asked Loius. I spoke of our plan to put the old cast iron bathtub up on bricks at the edge of the garden, to fill with water and kindle wood fires beneath. “Oh,” he said, “I meant hot-tub not hot tub.” Come next winter, I said, we shall have the best hot tub for hot-tubbing in all JP, and he seemed pleased.
Only one of the slew of digital shots I took this morning of the plastering crew in action is any good. Thus we find quantified, unlooked for proof that plasterers are indeed faster beings then plumbers, carpenters or electricians, who are well recorded in many carefully framed shots because they do not move out of frame in the split second between flash and shutter.