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.


mo.stoneskin said...

Loved this post. Never been to Chelmsford but maybe I should. I promise not to bash any fund-raisers when I visit. The sad truth is that these days there are far too few bridge trolls.

Nic said...

But you gotta remember, Chelmsford is in Essex. We need strict police here or we'd all be dead!

UnBob said...

Good to know they're keeping the streets safe from YOUR kind!

wyliekat said...

That is just . . . mean. Honestly. I'm agog at the shear . . . mean of it all.

Kate Savage said...

mo.stoneskin - If you ever do go to Chelmsford, unfortunately the only tip I can give you is: Watch where you step!

Nic - Oh, you're from Essex! That's right! I can see why the police there are so down on street fundraisers...what with distracting them from tackling real crime and all. :P

UnBob - Maybe I should ask for local protection from that ex-mafia guy. Maybe that's where I went wrong...

wyliekat - I literally laughed until I cried. In fact, I cackle-shout-guffawed! That's why the officer is facing me in this shot. I made an incredulous ruckus.