During the last few months I was in Albuquerque, I took a job knocking on doors. Working America is a social action group that participates in local, state, and national political issues, which might bring them under fire for being a PAC. They aren’t, but what they do is similar when it comes to unsolicited campaign donations, information dissemination about candidates and other aspects of elections or proposed legislation.
Now, I had no stake in the campaign I worked with them to cover. It was a Santa Fe mayoral race, and aside from the fact that I would have been ineligible to vote because I didn’t live there, I had no concept of what might be important to the residents of the city. Therefore, I couldn’t have said whether the candidate Working America was supporting was better or worse than his competition. But I needed money and the money was reasonably good. My job was a pedestrian pamphleteer, and since I was accustomed to walking nearly four miles a day anyway, an additional two or so was no hardship.
The Doorbell Damn It Doll
The hard part was knocking on the doors. Working America sent canvassers on prearranged routes, and they often revisited territories they’d covered previously. That meant that people were not always happy to see me, and if they answered the door, I was often treated to some choice invective. On one occasion a man actually set his dog on me for daring to knock on his door. He screamed at me to leave his property and called me names as I fended off his large-breed dog’s snapping jaws. In retrospect, this encounter could be made a humorous anecdote. At the time, it was dark, I was half frozen from walking the streets for hours, and exhaustion was beginning to set in.
On many other occasions, I found myself having extensive conversations with complete strangers about anything but what I’d come to do–hand them a pamphlet, ask a few questions, and move on. They were often wonderful people–older and inclined to visit. I learned a great deal about Santa Fe by taking a few minutes to engage. While it made me less than successful at canvassing, it mitigated the tedium, frustration, and loneliness of that job. I was often lost in a warren of poorly lit, sparsely populated streets, twisting my ankle by stepping in unexpected potholes or steps. It was frigid. The sun set early on those late winter days in truly spectacular desert fashion, and the wind never let up, biting into exposed skin or finding any chink in protective clothing. It often snowed or sleeted for most of a shift.
A Day of Steady Rain
One of the last days I worked this job, it rained. Rain in the desert isn’t really like rain in the Southeast, though the same general concept applies. It tends to fall in enormous, frigid drops, as if it stayed in the cloud as long as possible, but finally was too heavy. So it fell, too quickly to warm very much, and with great enthusiasm to splatter on the pavement, your head, down the back of your neck between collar and skin.
However, it was actually relatively warm in Santa Fe that day, and the rain was uncharacteristically gentle–almost a mist or a drizzle for the most part. Now, it still soaked me to the bone, but up until the last hour, I was unperturbed by it. I was canvassing a neighborhood I’d visited before, and my progress was relatively steady. I only encountered a few unpleasant individuals, for which I was thankful. But for all that, being perpetually soggy began to wear on me after a few hours. There was no shelter, no dry place to sit for a brief rest as I usually did about two hours in.
For the Price of a Cup of Coffee
I don’t blame anyone for not inviting me in. That’s usually inappropriate, and I wouldn’t have dared to ask. But as the day wore on and there was no rest, no place to use a bathroom or eat the bagged snacks I carried under my thick pea coat, I started to feel raw, stretched thin. I knocked on one door and a woman answered. I informed her who I was and with what organization I worked. And she invited me in.
It seems like such a small thing, this courtesy. Yet, it meant so much.
She was cooking food for some gathering later that day, and keeping an elderly neighbor company as she did. He sat at the small kitchen table just beyond the kitchen archway, working on a project. It turned out they were his memoirs of being a soldier during WWII. He explained them to me, showed me his picture from the time and that of his late wife. The woman served me coffee–hot, overly sweet and with too much cream. It was perfect. She insisted that I use the restroom, eat some of the food she was preparing, and stay a few minutes to warm up, saying she was a nurse and didn’t like the way my hands were looking.
Before I left, I felt warm and calm, and slightly drier. She packed a bottle of water into my bag along with some more food, and saw me to the door. I cannot describe to you how touched I was by her simple kindness, her generosity, and her willingness to allow a stranger into her home on a gray, rainy day in late winter. I come from the South, and that is supposedly our m.o. But it’s not. Kindness of this sort is typically reserved for a known member of the community or family group. When the conditions apply, generosity is forthcoming. When they don’t, there’s an ugly undercurrent of suspicion. You feel it.
I recognized this in my own bearing while I was in Albuquerque. I can be quite pleasant–warm and generous–but if I feel a stranger is asking for too much, moving a little too close, or cadging for information I don’t want to give, I can be a perfectly awful harpy. I think my encounters in Santa Fe during that unusual stint of employment planted a seed of understanding in some dark back space of my brain. It marked me. While I am no less severe when I feel cornered or put upon, I am more likely to be gentle with strangers who are simply attempting to be friendly. Perhaps it is a difference between desert kindness and the sort I grew up with, but I can’t quite be sure. Whatever the case, the unexpected hospitality of a strange woman on a wetly miserable day in Santa Fe marked me, changed me, and has made a difference in how I engage. Though she introduced herself, her name has long since faded. The memory of unstinting goodness has not.