Last Sunday I was promenading through the Janns Mall - excuse me, the Janns
Marketplace - when I stumbled into a predicament. I was turning the corner between Hollywood Video and the Bean Scene when I walked directly into the line of vision of a petitioner. Before I could duck or change direction or fake a seizure, the man had established eye contact with me. I was a sitting duck. Think, Jason, think... He began to creep toward me. There was nowhere to run.
"Would you mind taking a moment to sign my petition. You're registered to vote, I take it. Who was the 26th President of the United Sates? Have you ever been convicted of a felony? What's your mother's maiden name?..."
Now, I like to think that I'm a nice guy. I say hello to strangers and tend to smile for no reason at all. I let other drivers merge in front of me on the freeway. I don't stare at hobos who talk to themselves. But not once have I ever desired to stop and sign one of these bloody petitions. This guy could have been gathering signatures to save me from my own cancer, and I wouldn't want to stop and chat. Maybe I'm turned off by people who have the time to circulate petitions. Maybe I'm the product of an era that invented the drive-through marriage.
Petition Joe continued without a breath. "I'm helping save the famished children of southeast central Mozambique from a nomadic existence whereby the average family has 62 children and only one lentil bean to split amongst them. They also suffer from epidemic gangrene, melanoma and smallpox."
I was dizzy with indifference. I could see a teenager inside the Bean Scene laughing at me. I had to say something to Petition Joe before he pulled out a soapbox and began a formal sermon.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm not registered to vote."
Absodoodlyutely no problem," he said. "I've got a stack of forms right here." At which point he reached into his portable post office and pulled out a stack of voter registration forms.
"You certainly do," I said. "And I'd fill one out right now, but you know I don't have the time."
Then came the moment that I dread more than anything else. The man cocked his head ever so slightly and regarded me with one eye. And with that one eye he expressed a look of concern. He was "concerned" that I did not understand the severity of third world hunger. He was "concerned" that I was a detriment to the very political system in which I lived. He was "concerned" that I might be Satan. My dad used to give me that look when I wouldn't share a cookie with some snot-nosed kid who thought he was my friend. My dad didn't understand that when it comes to cookies, a kid has no friends. Now that I'm older, I can have all the cookies I want. Petition Joe was asking for something more precious: my time.
"It will only take a moment," he said. "Did you know that you could feed a whole village for six months on the food you threw away today at lunch? Think of the good you will be doing. Don't you want to shop with a lighter heart? Did you know that 'dog' is just 'god' spelled backwards?..."
Think, Jason, think. Do I stop to fill out this guy's paperwork or do I walk away? If I walk away, I'm going to have a conscience crisis... If I fill out forms, he's going to keep lecturing me...If I feed these kids, they're just going to get hungry again anyway... While I weighed the pros and cons, the man began to address the issues of beaurocratic tyranny, endangered species, and maggots in my cereal. His one disapproving eye probed me up and down. I had to do it... I couldn't... Aaaaargh!
"I'm sorry, sir, I just don't have the time," I said. With that, I turned around sharply and began to march away. Before I could get out of earshot, however, he said something altogether cruel, something that echoed down the corridor for all the world to hear: "Have a nice day, sir."
With a "sir," no less! I had to defend myself. I had to retort. I called back over my shoulder, "I'm a realist. I'll have a so-so day, thank you."
Every time we bump into a petitioner, we are accosted by an unsolicited opinion. It makes you want to wear a sign like the one on our houses: NO SOLICITING. These petitioners force themselves on us much the same way a commercial does when it comes on at twice the volume of a program. These people walk up, grab us by the heart and say, "Give me your time or I'll squeeze." Inasmuch, they are no different than a bum on the streets. The only difference is that the bum is asking for a different resource -- money. At least with the bum we get to see the charity to which we are contributing. These public accostings are becoming epidemic. A bag lady approached me the other day holding a little metal gadget and said, "Excuse me, sir, but would you be so kind as to swipe your ATM card through my Pandhandler's Express machine?"
The next time you're walking in public, keep your head up. If you see one of these guiltmongers pushing his views or his poverty or the injustice his ancestors suffered in 1892, change direction immediately. Do not make eye contact. Pretend to have a hearing problem or maybe gangrene. If it looks like you're trapped, drop a bag on the ground and begin cursing maniacally like it was a vile of anthrax. Otherwise, you could end up just like me -- a guy whose day at the mall was ruined by another's goodwill.