Robbie is so much better at canvassing than I am, it’s not even funny. Look at him, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, relaxed and louche. A modern-day Fred Astaire leaning on his invisible streetlamp. The stragglers of 7th Avenue actually stop for him. He has an urgent look in his eyes that contradicts his stance. People want to know what’s up and before you know it, they’re signing his clipboard, filling out “Address Line #2.” If there’s drilling or construction or if it’s lunch hour, I can’t make out the nuances of his pitch. But otherwise I can. He’s animated and he enunciates. I can hear him from fifteen feet away where I stand, facing him, wearing a matching T-shirt three sizes smaller.
It was my idea to do this. I called Systems Social. I printed out our applications. I did the research. I am the people person here, the one who cares. My summer internship at The Department of Environmental Protection fell through and so did Robbie’s (interning for a state senator—I guess his mom had some kind of falling out with the senator’s wife over a property line and a lilac bush and Robbie’s resume was collateral damage). So I said “I still want to do something meaningful with our summer” and Robbie said “I don’t give a shit anymore, I just want to be outside” and I said “I have an idea.” As it turns out, I am only a people person with people I already know. Which apparently means I’m just a person. Not like Robbie, who is a whirling dervish of charm and persuasion. Forget talking the leaves off the trees. He could get the whole tree to uproot itself with a well-timed wink. He makes his quota by noon. Today he has obtained the signatures and financial pledges of nineteen people and it’s not even 2 PM. I have obtained five and one gentleman resides at 666 Seal Clubber Lane. So: four.
Robbie broke up with me two weeks ago. I find people like to indulge in the alternate reality of a clean breakup. They say things like “it wouldn’t be so bad I didn’t live in the same building as Sheila.” I can no longer muster empathy for those people. To be fair, the only reason I know this is a common fantasy is because I have been venting about Robbie to anyone who will listen and this is what comes back over the transom. Still. I’ll give them all something to cry about: Try spending six hours a day facing down the man who left you for another woman.
There’s a joke Robbie once told me: What’s grosser than gross? Siamese twins attached at the mouth and one of them throwing up. I ask you: What’s more heart-breaking than heart-breaking?
Cho Hee is her name and she is a certified nail technician at Divine Diva across the street. I think she’s older than us but not by a lot. She is beautiful, despite some unfortunate hair accessory choices. She smiles more than I ever have and she doesn’t have any pores on her face. It’s the weirdest thing. Robbie is (sorry, was) my first real boyfriend, my college sweetheart. We’re both juniors and International Relations majors. I tutored him for finals. That’s how we became a couple. What no one tells you about getting left for someone else is how stacked the cards are against you. Because in addition to wondering what your boyfriend (sorry, ex-boyfriend) is thinking, you get the added bonus of wondering what this random Korean woman is thinking. It seems unfair. Mathematically.
Systems Social gives us an hourly rate commensurate with a part-time barista, but mostly we work on commission. The majority of the money does go to charity but not all of it. It’s confusing where it all goes. The company allocates the funds using some kind of global desperation algorithm to which I am not privy. This doesn’t seem to bother Robbie but it bothers me. For years the streets were dominated by the five gangs of good will: Children, Animals, The Environment, LGBT and Uteruses. Systems Social unites them all—the theory being that people don’t have 60 seconds for women’s rights, but they do have 60 seconds for a shot at fixing the whole planet. It’s not a bad idea. Unfortunately for the men and women on the ground, it can be tricky to encapsulate our mission while getting body-checked by hurried businessmen and careless tourists. Unless you’re Robbie. Robbie, who will single-handedly save the life of every transgender ivory-billed woodpecker in need of free birth control.
I wonder if he gets off on it, watching Cho Hee rub and scrub other women’s feet, the top of her ponytail just visible behind a reflexology chart.
When things were good with us, I loved canvassing. We complained about it because that’s what you do, but I loved it. Watching my boyfriend standing in the middle of the street, staring straight at me while people whooshed around us in both directions? It was like a music video. It made me feel alive. After I accused him of having a wandering eye (“it’s my job to have a wandering eye,” was his defense), things felt more pistols-at-dawn. Pistols between noon and six, to be precise.
Canvassing is naturally demoralizing work. So few people can say “no” normally. People yell at you for speaking to them without being spoken to first. Like you’re some kind of emotional mugger and their lives will fall to pieces if they treat you like a person. They yell at Robbie more. He takes the nut jobs and I take the creeps. This is how gender works. Still, we made a good team. A jogger would pass one of us, downstream or upstream, and ignore either Robbie or me on the first round. Then one of us would get him six strides later with a “He try to get you to sign that pre-nup, too?” or “She’s too pretty to be trusted, right?” and this little heart-shaped light bulb would go off in the jogger’s head. Romance is as humanizing as canvassing is demoralizing. Once you have romance, you can save the whales and the orphans and the lot of them. One guy went so far as to tell us we should “take our show on the road” and Robbie spread his hands, holding his clipboard against his forearm, bowing to the sidewalk. I’m telling you: the man has a knack. His political career will not be thwarted by a lilac bush.
We used to laugh about the fearful ones, the ones who popped in their headphones or placed fake phone calls or pretended to receive disconcerting emails just as they passed us. Do we look that scary? Who raised these people to be so petrified of disappointing others? The fearful ones want us to think they are busy but what they really are is resentful of our youth. That’s what no one can say. Though, how does that account for my own behavior? I have never told anyone this but I avert my eyes when I spot other canvassers.
I have crossed the street to avoid people like me.
He kept using the bathroom at Divine Diva. That’s how this Cho Hee business started. He said their bathroom was cleaner than the one at Subway and he liked the smell of the hand soap. It wasn’t the hand soap he liked the smell of. Obviously. I’m the one who cares about the environment. It’s hypocritical of him to date Cho Hee. Do you have any idea the chemicals they use to remove a gel manicure? You don’t want to know. She pretends either not to see me or not to speak English. I want to tell her that I stand out here all day, watching people act out the same minor ruse. She can’t fool me. I thought about learning how to say as much in Korean, just to mess with her. But things are awkward enough as it is.
After Robbie broke up with me (he looked at me one day and said “Cho Hee and I are going to lunch” and I said “great” and he said “and by lunch I mean dinner”) the fissures in my canvassing skills revealed themselves. Without the joint performance, me in the role of magician’s assistant, I’ve realized I’m no good at asking people for things. As hard as it is to say “no,” it’s even harder to hear it. “No” is tough all over. I worry about the implications of this fact. Will the world steamroll me? Am I just a girl in a box, waiting to be sawed in half? But then something will happen—I’ll hop away in time to spare my foot the phlegm of a homeless man—and I think maybe I’m being too hard on myself.
“Hey,” Robbie speaks to me for the first time today, “I’m getting a bottle of water. Do you want one?”
I nod yes and prematurely thank him. He goes inside the Duane Reade, letting the automatic doors swallow him. It’s hot and my skin is burning. Yo, Cho Hee! Expose yourself to more UV rays than the hand dryer and let’s see if your skin’s so perfect! I have this pocket-sized fantasy in which Robbie has noticed my scorching forehead and reemerges with suntan lotion. He insists on applying it himself and I shut my eyes and let him. It’s very intimate even though we’re standing in the middle of a street on the most crowded island in the western hemisphere. The potential of wish fulfillment is killing me. It’s so distracting, imagining what an interaction like that could mean for us, that I almost don’t appreciate the moment. Facing the oncoming sidewalk traffic without Robbie looking back at me is oddly thrilling. I am a vampire looking in the mirror. I am one hand clapping. I see each face with a faultless clarity. I wonder if I register to these people as what I am or if I’m merely a lost girl in an ugly T-shirt. Can they see me? Can they tell I want something from them? Because I do. I want something from all of them.