One strategy for dealing with street activists: Keep on moving. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune…)
It looks as if spring has finally decided to grace us with her finicky presence. But with the glorious return of soul-warming days comes one of my least-favorite Chicago phenomenon: the sidewalk activists and the coinciding guilt that blossoms along with them.
OK, maybe I'm being a little dramatic. But am I really the only one who dreads the resurrection of these sidewalk-preaching do-gooders? As much as I hate the minus-7 degree wind chills of Chicago winter, I appreciate the fact that those six months of doom and gloom give me a reprieve from sidewalk shame. Now as I take my innocent stroll to CVS, I am bombarded with moral-conundrum-creating questions.
Do I want to save the whales? Do I care about a woman's right to choose? Do I believe in marriage equality? Yes, Yes, YES! I do, I really do! As a traditional bleeding-heart liberal, I care about just about every cause a sidewalk activist could throw at me.
And yet there is just no way I'm stopping to hear their well-articulated spiel and really no way I'm signing up to make monthly contributions.
When I first moved to the city, I opted for the basic avoider move: head down, shoulders slumped and absolutely no eye contact. Being a Midwesterner, I felt guilty but I had no idea how else to articulate the sentiment that while I cared about the environment, I was never going to give away any of my precious $11 per hour salary.
And then in the summer of 2009, a boyfriend got a job as sidewalk cause-hawker and I saw the profession in a whole new light. Although said boyfriend lasted only one soul-defeating day on the job, I realized the main reason I felt so guilty when ignoring these green-vested folks was not that I was turning my back on the cause but that I was denying the existence of some of the most idealistic youth of my generation. They were just trying to make their daily quotas before they returned to their basement apartments to make their zines! Couldn't I at least say hi?
And that is when I created the pre-emptive strike method of dealing with street canvassers. As soon as I see the gleam in their naively optimistic eyes, I smile heartily and ask them how their day is going. There usually is an exchange of pleasantries, and then before they can make the sales pitch I compliment them—something simple like "those are some comfortable-looking shoes" or "that neck tattoo is really suites you." By this point I'm usually passing them. The key is to keep moving. After their obligatory thank you, I wish them a fantastic day turn and enter CVS guilt-free.
My hope is that both of us walk away feeling good; the activists because I have confirmed their fantastic taste in body piercings or cut-off shorts and myself because I didn't make a canvasser cry out of rejection.
Of course in the end we can ignore the person but not the issues. Although it is great to not make canvassers cry, it also is good to actually contribute to the causes you support. My suggestion: Each year, pick a group and donate. Volunteer on your weekends. Send a petition to Congress. Do something to make your sidewalk activist proud and maybe, just maybe, enjoy this spring a little more.
Niki Fritz is a RedEye special contributor.
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