The Sunset State

sasinfrank Issue: Section:

"it don’t matter at all where you played before, california’s a brand new game...” --gatlin brothers

it’s embarrassing to think how naive i was when i arrived in california.

i’d done a few cold-call relocations that turned out pretty well. pulled into boulder at three o’clock and signed a lease by five. began working two days later, helping to remodel boulder high. a small crew of mates & i had dropped into st. thomas, usvi, not knowing a soul. i was the first to find work and a place to stay. san juan, puerto rico was like putting on an old sandal. grad school in lexington, ky was laughably easy thanks to my sister.

if i had had any idea how clueless i was the day i hopped off the greyhound in santa barbara, i would have known to be scared shitless.

as it was, i glibly called the number on a poster stapled to a utility pole. “WORK FOR THE ENVIRONMENT” it said. it promised “Full and Part Time Positions Available.” all i had to do was call this “Pat” at the number listed.

i called “Pat”. he or she wasn’t in just then, but the helpful lady on the other end of the line seemed pretty excited to hear from me, personally. right there on the spot she set up an interview.


i borrowed a housemate’s bike, wound my way down to isla vista, and found the office of the Public Interest Research Group.

a bona fide east coast jewish radical named sheila gave a rousing speech to a group of about six of us. it was basically Activism 101, and though i was fairly familiar with the verses and choruses already, this sheila could really sing it. just when she had us reaching for our pitchforks and torches, she stopped talking and told us that she would now speak with us individually. i remember eyeing my fellow applicants, wondering�� how i could set myself apart from them and land this gig.

the interview went swimmingly. for the first time in my life, i really felt like i had sold myself pretty well. sheila offered me a job before i left her office.

that evening i told my girlfriend, who was the reason i’d come to santa barbara, the great news. she wasn’t impressed, but i think she liked the idea of me not being around in the evenings...

jim, the stoner housemate, said, “yeah, i worked a few weeks for those guys, knocking on doors, begging for money. they ripped me off.”

his girlfriend katy, whose mom owned the house in the foothills, corrected him, “that was greenpeace.”

“same difference.”

i wasn’t going to let those wet blankets damper my enthusiasm, no sirree. i threw myself int��o my new position as an environmental campaigner. i digested the PIRG lore: how it had been the brainchild of saint ralph nader; how thousands of small axes banded together had chopped down some big big trees in the past. i learned the methods and tactics and terminology: never let go of the clipboard; always connect your request for money with a specific, concrete example of the campaign being waged; never refer to your business at the door as “fundraising”-- you are “organizing at the grassroots level.” “focus on membership, not money.”

for all the spin and passion, the fact was i loathed the idea of going door to door asking for money. but that’s what the job was. and sheila seemed to make it seem like a noble endeavor.

i trained with sheila my first night. she killed i��t. she was on fire. two minutes at the door, and the checkbooks came out. i had begun the evening petrified about ever making quota, knowing that i would be let go if i didn’t make it in my first three nights alone. after a couple of hours, the idea of actually being able to pay rent and bills doing this important work began to seem possible.

the deal was that you were assigned a specific turf for the night. you hit all the houses on that turf, renewing members if you were lucky, but mostly cold-calling. at the end of the week. you had to meet a quota. anything you brought in over quota, you got a percentage of. two weeks below quota, and you were sent to fight the war on some other, non-PIRG front. “thanks for your efforts, soldier" (pat pat, steering toward the door...)

“there is no b���ad turf” was a PIRG adage, meaning that if you approached every door with the same enthusiasm and righteousness, the imperative of joining the cause in the form of writing a check would be equally as attractive to every citizen-- regardless of race, creed, orientation or socio-economic circumstance.


i was only ever able to make quota in the first three days because sheila liked me. genuinely. i think she wanted to keep me around the office. maybe she thought i had potential as an organizer. maybe she just liked that i made her laugh. whatever the case, she took me under her wing. she gave me a new name, erasing the first half of “robert”, which i had always gone by, and replacing it with the blunt back end. she introduced me as “bert”. it stuck. to keep things straight between the skeptical public and the folks answering phones in the office, i began introducing myself as bert.

it may have been nothing more than good strategy. robb hated to ask for anything. asking for money left an especially no��nxious metallic sick taste in his mouth. she must have seen that. bert, on the other hand: bert aped sheila and charmed the pens to the checkbooks, too. at least at first, when he was cutting his teeth in funky white liberal neighborhoods strewn with bumper-stickered volvos parked beneath big gracious trees. that is, in the prime turfs that sheila was tearing off for him.

the down side to being bert, i soon found out, was that a lot of people thought it funny to ask me, “haha, where’s ernie?” instead of replying with what i felt like saying--”if he was up your ass, you’d know, you fucking nitwit.”-- i usually laughed amiably and said something like, “that’s a good question. you’re the first person who ever asked me that.”

anyway, eventually my turf assignments got a little shittier. then a lot shittier. somehow i kept dragging back to HQ with quota. that’s when she���ila promoted me to Turf Manager. that meant i drew up the assignments from the map, dropped off the canvassers, canvassed the best turfs, then picked up the canvassers and brought them back.

right place, right time. sheila’s assistant director got redeployed to the office in irvine. i moved up.

that’s when i learned that soylent green was people, so to speak.

basically, everything we did was a finely-polished script that came from the national office. there was no Pat (or Taylor or Alex or Jaime or any other operative with a vague, asexual name.) the name a person calling in asked for helped us keep track of the traffic generated by our posters in different parts of town. though sheila’s introductory speech had been a work of her own singular genius and d��evotion, she was working within the time parameters and three-act structure approved by the national office. the individual interview was a little less structured; its purpose, however, was simply to make sure the person was coherent and not very likely to kill anyone while on our clock. in other words, if the candidate had a pulse and was willing to walk around at night asking for money, we hired them. the campaigns we worked on, the interface at the door, the articles and fact sheets we carried on our coveted clipboards, the wednesday night pizza parties on the beach: all came from the top. it was a huge, well-oiled machine.

which is not to say it was a bogus or ineffectual machine. it had been built from the ground up, over time, and because of their cons��tant streamlining, the PIRGs really did (and do) exert some pressure on the political process. i’ll admit that it was a little disheartening to learn that the machine was fueled by a transient work force who we used until their utility or resolve wore out. we spat out their bones and shoveled more bodies in.

i learned not to get attached to any of the cool, simpatico folks who came to work for me when i took over the santa cruz office. most people could hack it for a couple of months, tops. eventually getti���ng told to fuck off 85% of the time grinds your spirit down.

one cool kook who had worked for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in nicaragua came through. the guy could hold his own with his holiness the dalai sandino. one of the greatest instinctive political minds i had encountered.

but he couldn’t canvass for shit.

so after three days without reaching quota, i gave him the standard “thanks, soldier, but go fight elsewhere” speech and sent him toward the door. my co-director, molly, grabbed me by the shirt���, got up in my face and demanded, “what the hell did you do??”

“i fired his sorry ass.”

“you can’t fire rick! i want to hear more about nicaragua... i’ll take him out for a re-training.””

“whatever. NEXT.”

rick was the exception. he became a lifelong brother. when he started missing quota a few months later, we promoted him to Turf Manager to keep him around longer.

besides rick and sheila, i don’t know where any of the hundreds (literally) of people i worked with are these days.

we had a pretty good run in santa cruz. we ran a campaign called “Pesticide Watch” that aimed to eliminate the use of pesticides along the roadsides of california. we did some direct action, lobbied in sacramento. ol bert even did some teevee and radio interviews. all the while, we kept going out and knocking on doors five nights a week, through all of california’s four seasons: earthquake, fire, flood and drought.

“hi, i’m bert from Pesticide Watch. we’re out here in the neighborhood tonight to get CALTRANS to stop spraying carcinogens and pathogens on our roads...”

so, for me, it was a momentous day when CALTRANS agreed to cut their use of pesticides in half by the year 2000. (they never did, by the way: for a brief shining moment, it seemed like the long hours, the crappy pay, the constant revolving door and the endless chorus of NO might have been worth it.

i was a little deflated, though. my heart wasn’t in it all that much didn’t help that the national office thought that i would make a terrific campus organizer, and so i began making more and more trips up the hill to UCSC. the kids weren’t into my rap. the ones who were already activated had their own organizations and causes. the apathetic ones probably went home thankful that the goofball from greenpeace had given them a breather from some boring physics lecture.

and, really, it was hard to see what i was doing as anything other than hauling in grist for the mill.

i could tell my days wit��h the PIRGs were coming to an end.

so, just before christmas i found myself making the rounds up in capitola. the people who had given to the PIRGs before, “current members”, generally gave more willingly. not much more willingly; i’d say you had a 1 in 5 chance of coming away with a check, as opposed to a 1 in 10 chance from a cold call. i had a handful of “current members” on my turf that evening. they had either moved or weren’t home, so my night was shaping up into a potential struggle.

“hi, i’m bert from Pesticide Watch. you may have seen us recently (turn the clipboard so they can see the press piece). we’re the citizens group that got CALTRANS to stop spraying our roadsides...”

thirty seconds of dialogue, and then the pitch...

“uh, yeah that’s great, but not right now...”

down the flow chart, just like i’d trained hundreds to do. “well, that’s great that you understand the seriousness of the issue. the reason we’re out here, right now, tonight...”

t���hen it’s time to cut my losses and move on.

“hi, i’m bert from Pesticide Watch. you may have seen us recently (turn the clipboard so they can see the press piece). we’re the citizens group that got CALTRANS to stop spraying our roadsides...”

thirty seconds of dialogue, and then the pitch...

“wish i could help, but we’re a little short on cash.”

this lady’s not worried about money. she’s looking for legitimacy. “no, i hear you. believe me. but, take a look at what we have done (flip to success sheet) when hundreds of citizens like you and me speak together...”

dammit! i hear the phone ringing. she’s off the hook...

“hi, i’m bert from Pesticide Watch. you may have seen us recently (turn the clipboard so they can see the press piece). we’re the citizens group that got CALTRANS to stop spraying our roadsides...”

thirty seconds of dialogue, and then the pitch...

“i’d have to talk to my wife about it.”

(refrain from telling this guy it’s high time he grew some balls...)

“hi, i’m bert from Pesticide Watch.��� you may have seen us recently (turn the clipboard so they can see the press piece). we’re the citizens group that got CALTRANS to stop spraying our roadsides...”

thirty seconds of dialogue, and then the pitch...

“i’m so sick of all you people coming around trying to save the damned whales, save the damned rainforest, save this’n’that environment... we gotta save people, you know. people gotta work, you know. how people gonna feed themselves if they don’t work? it’s like that show i saw with that one lady...”

even in capitola, you occasionally get the shut-in cranks who watch too much poisonous tv and are coiled and poised to spring at the first human that staggers across their path. as with a snake, it’s best to back away slowly.

needless to say, this was not shaping up into a red-letter day. i did what i had instructed many who had found themselves in this position to do. i found a tree, leaned against it and recalibrated. first, slow the breathing. relax the shoulders: maybe i’m telegraphing tension. ���then take a mental vacation to a happy place. for a minute i was tubing down the Dix River in central kentucky, a gaggle of friends and a cooler of beer floating behind.

right. let’s make this happen.

the next house on my list was a “current member”. even better, she had signed on at the $75 level last year. moving up the rise of the driveway, i saw a divine signifier: an older, slightly worn volvo station wagon. several bumper stickers, dancing bears included. yes. yes. and in the fenced-in back yard, i spotted a big goofie mutt, wagging his tail at me. and then, oh my god, he was joined by another...

shoulda brought a dump-truck, i was thinking.

this is the profile we canvassers dream about...

lord, don’t let me blow this.

roll the neck. bounce on the toes. wipe the palms dry on the pants. exhaaaale...


check the name once more. ellen guidry. ellen guidry. ellen guidry, take me home, ellen guidry.

wait, there isn’t another way to pronounce g-u-i-d-r-y is there? no way it could be ��GUIDE-ree, right?

ellen guidry. el...

the door opens. first sign of trouble: it’s a guy. mid-40’s professional. tall, good-looking. well-groomed. must get through him to ellen guidry. he could be an uptight straight arrow who indulges his hippie artist wife, but takes every opportunity to reign her in behind her back. seen it a thousand times. must get to ellen.

big smile. “hi, i’m bert from Pesticide Watch. i’m here to talk with one of our members, ellen guidry...”

more trouble: the guy is hanging on to��� the door. he’s not looking at me. he seems rather distracted, actually, by something in the room behind him. toddler? i hear a television, but can’t see it. i think he can, though. maybe he’s got something on the stove?

he says, “she’s not here. she won’t be back til late. (pause while he looks back into the room, then back at me) whatcha selling?”

that question is a tough one to get around. we two people are not operating from the same set of premises. it’s going to take some actual conversation to get ���us on the same page. that’s going to be tough, given that he just wants to get away from the door and back to whatever is so much more damned important than saving the planet and my job...

what would sheila do?
time for the elevator pitch.

i tell him flatly, “well, she’s a member of Pesticide Watch, and i’ve come up to renew her membership. she signed on at the $75 level last december. this year, we’re asking our returning members to join on at the $100 level.”

“i swear i think you all were just up here last month...” he says between glances back over his shoulder.

i happen to know that greenpeace was in fact in capitola last month. i’m preparing to gently enter that into our conversation when HE says, “no, that was greenpeace.”

he seems to notice me for the first time now. “who are you, again?”

“bert, from Pesticide Watch. we’re the ones that got CALTRANS to agree to reduce their pesticide use...”

“yeah,” he says, hand still on the doorknob. he lets go of the door, takes a few steps to a hall table an���d pulls a pen & checkbook from a drawer. his head and attention are oriented toward the other room the entire time.

i’d seen some weird shit at the door before, but this just beat all. dood was walking back to the door, writing a check.

without looking at me, he asked, “Pesticide Watch?”

“yes sir.” i held the clipboard up so he could see the logo. he didn’t look at it.

“how much?”

straight sheila: “a hundred dollars.”

he finished writing, tore the check and handed it through the screen door.

i said to the back of his head, “great. thanks. your check will be your receipt. if you’ll give me just a second, though, i’d like to give you a copy of our quarterly newsletter...”

and that’s when i saw the name, right there in boldface type: ERNIE GUIDRY.

maybe this whole kooky exchange was beginning to take on some cosmic significance. of course!

“you’re ERNIE??!” i blurted.
dood wheeled on me. at last he was looking at me. right at me. just me. full focus on my eyes. and he wasn’t happy. he was daring me to ��áask about bert, i could tell.

i put my palms out in supplication. eyes wide, i said, “i’m BERT!!”

his face softened immediately. then ernie was smiling at me. then he laughed and said, “i’ll be damned...”

ernie opened the screen door just enough to stick his hand through. it was a warm handshake. we said, “well, how bout that?” at the same time, which caused us both to chuckle.

ernie told me that he was just then watching IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. he pointed with a flourish in the direction he’d been looking the whole time i’d been at the door. this fact seemed gravely important to him. the gravity was lost on me, though, and that quickly became apparent to ernie. i’d only been bert for about a year, after all. he’d been ernie his whole life.

so ernie schooled me. in the movie, bert is the cop and ernie is the cab driver. he told me that jim henson had styled his domestic-partner-puppets ��after these two salt of the earth characters. ernie said he took great pleasure in pointing out this heritage to would-be witticists fixated on the sesame street reference, and suggested i do the same.

and i would have, if i had remained bert for much longer. as it was, i kinda felt like there was now some odd closure to my california chapter. i hadn’t asked to be bert. and i certainly hadn’t been looking for ernie. but once i found him up there in capitola, it seemed like a sign that my work was done.

i thanked ernie for his commitment and for sharing the serendipitous moment with me. we shook hands again. ernie went back to watching IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and bert went back to meet his Turf Manager, quota in hand.

ps... i think the derivation story has been since discredited. oh well. ernie believed it then. so did bert.

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