By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
They spot you as you're walking near Union Square on your lunch hour. Two impossibly fresh-faced, college-age canvassers with clipboards station themselves at either end of the block. They're facing each other, so that no pedestrian heading in either direction can escape the trap they've set on this sunny summer afternoon.
As you approach them, you do what you can to pretend not to notice. You adjust the headphones of your MP3 player as a way of advertising that you can't hear anything lower than the sound of an airplane engine. Or you pull the celebrity trick—holding a cell phone up to one ear, even though you're not really on a call. And whatever you do, you don't make eye contact.
But there's no way you're escaping the pitch.
"Got a minute for the environment?"
Or . . .
"Got a minute for gay rights?"
Or . . .
"Got a minute for the ACLU?"
And despite your evasions, you just can't keep going, because the canvasser—who is younger and lither than you—has pounced into your path with the quickness of a jungle cat and is staring at you with an expectant, disarming smile.
And you stop, because you can't dodge the Most Annoying People in Lower Manhattan.
It's noon, it's over 90 degrees, and Garth Mramor, late of Buffalo and Colorado University, overtakes a woman before she has time to run away. With sweat dripping down his ruddy face, he stares into her eyes and delivers his pitch at breakneck speed, knowing that he has only seconds to get it all out.
"Hi-my-name-is-Garth-and-I'm-from-Children-International-and-we're-trying-to-help-children-in-poverty. Children-in-abject-poverty. There-are-kids-dying-every-day- because-they-don't-have-something-as-silly-as-food-and-water. I-mean-even-a-bum-in-New-York-can-have-two-meals-a-day!"
Despite the fact that his breathless spiel is all monologue, Garth's job title is "dialoguer." It's a term coined by an Austrian company known as the Dialogue Group, which helped to develop this brand of street confrontation and brought it to U.S. cities a few years ago with a subsidiary called Dialogue Direct.
Garth pauses to catch his breath and then whips out a laminated picture of his own sponsored child, an innocent-looking boy sitting in a hut thatched with palm fronds. The location, he says, is the Dominican Republic. He checks to see whether he still has the attention of the woman in front of him. He does, but then realizes he's talking to a reporter.
"Children are dying and you're wasting my time!" he says, scowling. Mramor drops the laminated photograph back into his duffel bag. He doesn't apologize for seeming rude. "Being nice doesn't work," says the irritated college student. "I signed up two people today by being an asshole, and I'll continue to do that. Have a nice day."
In the summer months, hundreds of canvassers fight for sidewalk space with people selling comedy-club tickets, homemade rap CDs, and trial passes to exercise gyms and hair salons. It's tempting to think that the army of young recruits is a sign that a new generation is joining in progressive causes. But actually, it's a sign of something else—that the pushy approach is a money-maker for nonprofit organizations.
Dialogue Direct claims to provide Children International with a 150 to 160 percent return on its investment. (Children International itself, however, wouldn't corroborate that claim, saying that it doesn't discuss marketing strategies.) Other organizations like Greenpeace and the ACLU are sending more canvassers onto the city's streets each year and are signing people up for their causes at record rates.
But the canvassers for children's charities set another kind of record: for sounding the most desperate. Every pitch is couched in life-and-death terms, as if a child is about to expire that minute if you don't open your wallet.
And nothing stops them. Not rain. Not rejection. Not even the all-too-frequent smartass who yells at them: "I don't give a flying fuck about children!"
At 4 p.m. every day, just after finishing lunch at Wendy's or Taco Bell, Stefan Siveski rounds up his teammates for a group huddle in Union Square. The others circle around him. They're decked out in fluorescent charity gear so that they look like human highlighters. Opposite Siveski, there's the Fridge, a large English lad on summer break, whose real name is Adam Warzynski. (You might have heard his British accent outside Whole Foods: "Do you have a minute for a charming English gentleman?")
Next to Siveski stands the Joker, a 22-year-old student whose real name is Leisel Renaud ("I used to work for the YMCA, but now I'm helping children that are dying. So it's really good!"). On Siveski's other side is Sarina Martin, 21, of Gramercy Park, who is getting her real-estate license and whose nickname, World Vision, comes from a previous stint with a rival fundraising company.
Siveski, laid-back, charming, and handsome, is not only the leader but one of the best salesmen, averaging about four sign-ups a day (mostly ladies, whom he's not above calling "my eternal sunshine" to turn their heads).
"I admit, I let the rain get to me," he says to the others, referring to some recent soggy summer weather. "But think about the kids we're trying to save here. A million girls in India that don't have water to drink." A giggle is heard from inside the huddle. "There's nothing funny about this!" he snaps, though without losing his cool. "We're on six, and our target is 15," he says, referring to that day's goal. "We can't have any excuses, guys!"