Monday, September 28, 2009

Chugging in Chelmsford

Note: Even if you don't make it all the way through this post, it's worth scrolling down to see the picture.

There's a lot ironic about being run out of town by police from a place like Chelmsford.

Partially because it’s apparently being done to protect townspeople from charities; in a big way because I had a legal right to be there for my job; and, even more so because people in Chelmsford didn’t seem bothered by face-to-face fundraisers.

They certainly liked me more than shoppers near Oxford Street liked me. People with bag loads of sweatshop-produced high street fashion never quite seem ready to indulge in hypocrisy that soon after swiping their card. And they liked me way more than the wealthy population of the aptly named London borough, Richmond, did. The only donor in a seven-hour shift there was the guy who makes their coffee at the local M&S department store, and he lives in Brixton.

Sure three of my new Chelmsford acquaintances were despondent, drunk and homeless, two were evangelistic racists, one declared George W. Bush to be the ‘great leader of our times’, another asked for my phone number for a business proposition requiring a ‘pretty face’, and yet another claimed to have done 8 years in prison for robbing banks, shooting people and working for Montreal's notorious Italian mafia, but maybe that's precisely why the police might want to run United Nations-endorsed charity fundraisers out of town. Our kind, we just don't fit in.

Our first post was on a small footbridge over a canal – the idyllic sort of bridge you might imagine belongs in an old English town with its resident troll waiting to eat, or at the very least, maim wayward offspring. My fundraising partner and I were the slightly less hideous, though no less terrifying trolls on top of the bridge, with intentions to do exactly the opposite for the world’s children. The other half of our team wasn't so lucky.

The story goes that one particular community officer has developed a nearly clinical, Seinfeld-esque obsession with street fundraisers. He's studied the rules and regulations in the hopes of catching us on a technicality, and having us purged from his town. He doesn’t see us as face-to-face fundraisers – our official title – but rather as ‘charity muggers’ or the pejorative, ‘chuggers’. And just as much as we’re tasked with raising funds to eradicate preventable diseases that kill five children every few minutes around the world, he is tasked with eradicating us.

While I missed the opportunity to meet the stocky, cocky antagonist myself, I certainly felt, smelled and trod in his effects.

The psychological warfare was multi-faceted, and according to my team leader, has been fine-tuned over the course of several years. Just keep smiling, she advised, and never let him know he’s getting to you.

I’ve encountered plenty of schizophrenic members of the British public on this job, and I’m loath to develop any comparable paranoia. I’d rather not think the police and town council of Chelmsford are actually out to get me, but indeed that seems to be the case.

Their first strategy is to cause physical discomfort. Usually we stash our purses, lunches and civilian clothing in a large waterproof bag and chain it to a post like most would lock a bicycle, so we’re more comfortable and agile while attempting to charm people in the street – but not in Chelmsford. In Chelmsford, that’s now illegal.

Until recently, as I'm told, kind shop workers took pity on our small groups, and offered to hold our things until the day’s end. But they’ve been ‘spoken to’, and it seems that’s no longer an option. So now we carry everything, all day long, and nurse our sore backs at the end. This tactic is subtle, but effective.

Seemingly convinced we’re criminals cleverly cloaked under the guise of charity branding, Chelmsford police are also rumoured to subject fundraisers to spontaneous criminal checks and enlist ‘mystery donors’ who are tasked with making us slip up to a reportable and ideally banish-able degree. Unfortunately for them, the company I work for drills fundraising ethics into the heads of new recruits from day one, we’re always very careful to let donors know exactly what they’re getting into, and none of us are convicts.

Still, it’s unsettling to do my spiel with a British officer circling me like a Great White, lunging in for nibbles of my shtick – his teeth almost visibly gnashing beneath his stiff upper lip.

There was nowhere to escape – the council has restricted fundraisers to working inside very specific areas of the high street, clearly marked by circular patterns in the bricks of the pedestrian lane. Not one foot was allowed to stray over the border of our small posts, but that was fine. We could do our jobs just as well with or without the freedom of mobility, I thought. But that was before they brought in the cavalry.

Na├»ve perhaps, it being my first day in Chelmsford, it surprised me that the police would not only force us to remain inside a very small space, but that they would also fill it with horses for our entire first shift of the day. When asked, the equestrian officers’ response was, “We’re on a job.”

So are we, I thought – and one of the horses made a large steaming deposit on the tiny bit of workspace which remained beside my co-workers – but yours is way shittier.

I took this on my lunch break, which, by coincidence or not, also happened to be when these officers and their horses moved on to greener pastures.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Say it to my face, but make it quick

There are two kinds of clipboards. The kind my boyfriend likes using to interview celebrities and festival goers, which attract 5-minute fame-seekers like free money, and the kind I've been issued for my new temporary job, which makes even grown men jump into traffic-heavy streets to avoid me.

That's the power I wield.

Since I have to work a student job for modest pay to stay afloat, despite having first graduated in the not-so-auspicious year 2000, until I find something better (wish me luck with my phone interview tomorrow), I suppose it's fortunate to have found one that comes with a superpower.

Given the choice, I'd have gone for the ability to fly, or to speak and understand every language of the world, but the power of repulsion is fascinating all the same.

Each morning in the blustery streets of London, I don a bright blue T-shirt emblazoned with UNICEF across my chest, hang the laurel of my ID badge around my neck, and tuck my clipboard as discreetly as possible under my arm, and become my alter-ego: The Bane of Your Existence.

I am a charity fundraiser for United Nations Children's Fund. And I am loathed.

Here, street fundraisers are also known as 'chuggers', short for 'charity muggers', and to be sure, some have earned the slander. I've been backed up against a post box, desperate for escape from an aggressive, toothy street fundraiser, and that's never made me sign up for anything. But my company has a strict no guilt, no pressure, no cornering and absolutely no flirting policy, so I have to use charm and logic to counter my unfortunate superpower, and that's really hard work in a city known for little eye contact or warmth of any kind.

So like a monkey, I dance. My sister calls it 'the dork dance', and it's the only thing I've come up with that makes even busy Londoners smile, even those who just really want to rant about charities overdoing their fundraising, the Credit Crunch, inept children who refuse to move out, student loans, medical bills, wives and husbands, having been declared legally insane, Gordon Brown, immigration, unwanted pregnancy and conspiracy theories. I haven't heard it all, but I expect I will by the end of today when I finish another shift at Brighton Pier.

Sure I look like an idiot, but amid the flow of thousands of people, I can easily slip into the shell of merciful anonymity - anonymity being London's only guarantee.

Thinking back to my early years studying Cultural Anthropology, as far as observation goes, I'm in a really good position. With license to speak to anyone, any trace of a stereotype I'd brought along was blown to bits in the first hour, though I'll admit seedlings of new ones are taking their place. Women, for example, can be very scary people. Old people aren't necessarily nice people. Saying 'good morning' is just as likely to receive a Big F as a 'good morning' in return. And the average Londoner is a terrible actor.

Just as I spot prospective donors 5 metres away, they spot me. Commonly, they'll pull a mobile phone out and fake a conversation, without bothering to turn it on. I'm both flattered that they'll go to so much effort to avoid having me say 'hello', and offended they think my powers of observation are so weak. In quieter areas, my presence parts the sea of pedestrians. They'll climb over bicycles, squeeze around lamp posts and dodge traffic to avoid me.

And then there are the runners.

While there are fewer, they're the best. These maintain composure until the very last moment, and then sprint just a little way. Just enough to get past me. Sometimes I feel like the oracle from that children's movie The Neverending Story, wondering, maybe even hoping I really might be able to zap those not true of heart with my laser eyes.

Some choose partial blindness and simply close their eyes while they walk past me. "I can still see you," I say with the same lilt I use when I play hide-and-seek with children who haven't quite figured out that you need to hide your whole body, and not just your head.

Others simply unload. They see my smile and 'hello' as an invitation to vent all their frustrations and disturbingly common racist views, and while I understand how this might happen when dealing with the general public, "F*ck you!' never really feels like an acceptable response to 'good morning', no matter what I might be wearing.

So, thankfully it's Friday, and I can come home and relax with all the reasons I have for enduring this sort of treatment: Friends, love and a new, albeit challenging, life in London.

That, and the fact that UNICEF really does do good work for children.