Worth killing

19 Jan

It was around seven o’clock in the afternoon when that restless anxiety I had been grappling with all day began to ferment into full blown desperation. I had been dropped off almost three hours earlier into the aptly named suburban hellhole of Killingworth. It’s one of those reasonably wealthy New England towns with vast stretches of timberland perfectly ruined by the oncoming steam roller of SUVs, McMansions and spider web networks of hideous asphalt. The houses are separated by a thicket of wilderness on every side, just barely wide enough for the owners to fool themselves into thinking that they live in the midst of an enchanted forest. It was my job to go door to door here, as I did in towns across Connecticut every day that summer, interrupt whatever these people were doing, and ask them to give me money. For the environment, presumably. That’s what my sky blue t-shirt and meticulously organized clipboard said, and that’s all they had to work off of to trust me.

I was passionate about what I was doing- it certainly was an excellent cause- but I was also both highly competitive and financially motivated. This was a job, no doubt about that, and if I didn’t rake in at least $120 every day, I would be fired. It was the ultimate roller coaster of a job: one moment, you could feel the frustration and hopelessness coursing through your veins, emotionally and physically draining your mind, body and spirit. The next, a grumpy old man with a thick mustache, a Southern accent and a Hummer H3 parked in the driveway turns out to have been an old hippie and drops you a quick $200 and a bottle of soda. Days like that, canvassing was better than sex. The high you feel when a complete stranger you met six minutes ago hands you money, simply because they believe in what you are doing, is utterly life affirming. There are good, decent and generous people out there. But then again, for every one of those beautiful souls, there are a dozens evil bastards whose parents never loved them and whose only outlet for their misery is abusing innocent college students who are just trying to save the world.

Anyway, it was about 7pm and I was starting to feel the familiar nagging sensation every canvasser who hasn’t made quota yet suffers. I was moving quickly all day, but now feeling that I had something on the line, there was an extra, nervous bounce in my step. The next house I hit was a modest, slightly worn, brown two story with a poorly maintained front yard. Weeds poked out of the stone walkway that led to the front door, and as I approached, the inside of the house erupted into a cacophony of high pitched dog yelps. Judging by the age of the house, the mildly unkempt manner of the place, and what sounded like at least a dozen small canines, I guessed it was a rather old person’s house. There was no car in the driveway or anything else to judge this stranger by, so I knocked on the door and hoped for the best.

“He-Helooo?” the old woman answered, slowly opening the entrance.

“Hi! How are you?” I began, firing off the first line of my memorized speech.

“I’ve been better. What do you want?”

It’s never a good sign when someone answers with anything other than “Good, and you?” First of all, when I ask someone how they are, I don’t really care. All I want to hear is “Great! Excellent! Fantastic!” and then be asked, in accordance with our society’s carefully developed etiquette, “How are you?” To break these rules shatters, completely without provocation, the Disneyland fantasy myth that the world is the wonderful place where anything can happen and you should totally get out of bed tomorrow because otherwise you’ll miss the rays of sunshine and the unicorns. If you yourself break this simple rule, just think about what you’re doing to society. Modern civilization would collapse if we were to even begin to understand the suffering that goes on in this world. So please, always say “Good.” Because a) I don’t really care about your problems, and b) That morsel of positivity helps keep everyone else’s spirits up, and I guarantee its helping someone, somewhere. Maybe its the mailman, who decided not to go on that killing spree he’s always fantasizing about. Maybe its that stripper who still thinks she’s going to be a marine biologist, who decided not to try crystal meth because maybe some day, she can have a good day too.

But I grow tired of etiquette. My conversation with the old dog lady started off on the wrong foot, and her attitude never relented. She spoke to me with the stale rhetoric every disillusioned pensioner holds in their heart: I’m wasting my time, Politicians are pure evil, and she might as well burn her money as soon as give it to me. I’m not sure what it was though, but somehow, maybe through the honesty of my passion, or the joke I made about knocking on her door and being greeted by a “Puppy Symphony,” (You can tell I find it hard to connect with old people) she ended up settling on a modest $10 contribution. Some days, $10 feels unbearably frustrating: maybe you could have bumped them up to $25, maybe they would have gone for a monthly contribution, maybe you should have pushed harder, but that’s not how I felt that day. That little jolt was a hit of pure adrenalin. It is a high that I can only begin to describe, but like many other dangerous drugs, it only made me crave more.

I left the woman a “New Members Packet,” and with a smile and a new found sense of confidence and energy, I bounced back to the street and off to the next house. I could feel a magnificent winning streak coming, and by simple force of will, I knew the next house would be a big giver. I cut across the lawn early, adjusting my backpack and breathing deeply as I tread the gravel driveway that snaked its way through the large opening in the wooden fence. At first, the house was obscured, strangely, by the rotting hull of an old sailboat, lying silently on the sparsely grassed dirt lawn. I turned the corner, and the house, as well dozens of other truly random items strewn across the yard, came into view. It was a big house, certainly, about three stories tall and looked somewhat new. The trim was well painted, and the tricycles, antiques, and gardening equipment left out led me to believe these were people who wasted a lot of money and didn’t care. It was definitely the kind of house that could afford a generous donation.

I moved towards the door, working in my mind to prepare all manner of conversational tangents, ready to charm and persuade whoever might be on the other end of it. I almost made it to the stairs, when suddenly, the door swung backwards and open, revealing a middle aged man with a drooping face, partially obscured by a truckers hat. I took a step back as I waved, only about a meter or two away, and opened with a “Hi! How are you?” He didn’t make eye contact, and moved swiftly, almost past me as he responded in a dull monotone:

“Good, let’s take a seat, I’ll hear what ya got.” I was a bit stunned, but still buzzing from the last contribution, I followed him onto the lawn towards a set of terribly mismatched chairs.

Hi I’m , and I’m here with Envi-“

“Take a seat,” he interrupted as he sat down. The one he took was directly in between where I was standing and the only other normal sized chair, leaving me in the awkward position of having to walk all the way around him, or take the almost comically miniature one beside me. I sat down in the tiny one as he swung around and moved the normal one for me.

“So, what are you here for?” he asked blankly. A quick smile bubbled to my face as I began my schpiel.

“Well I’m with Environmental Justice Connecticut, and we’re working to promote clean energy, like wind and solar-”

“I was the chairman of the Town Water and Natural Resources Board,” he interrupted. That really struck my attention.

“Really?!” My enthusiasm was genuine interest in the work he had done, but more so a reflection of the ‘JACKPOT!’ alarm ringing in my head. This was going to be a great conversation.

“Yeah, I’ve worked with the EPA, USGS, all kinds of environmental organizations.”

“That’s really cool. What kind of work did you do there? Like, arsenic and-“

“Mostly water quality control and working with reservoirs. We take samples and drill tests. I’ve got some equipment inside and I’ll show it to you on the tour. I put every nail into that house.”

I didn’t even register the throwaway statement about going inside, and instead hooked into the part about building the house. He and his five friends, one of whom, he informed me, had died recently in a car crash, had built it over the course of several months. We continued our conversation, which was mostly pleasant, albeit punctuated by strange moments of morbid sentiment. For instance, when we started talking about college, I found out he had an economics major from Southern Connecticut State University. But he also told me that his brother had gone to Yale, and hung himself before graduating. I thought nothing of it, and although he promised me a “good donation,” I was unable to close the deal quickly enough, and we soon transitioned to the house.

I followed him inside, noting that the stairs felt oddly proportioned. He held the door open as I crossed in, and then closed it behind me. The sound of that door slamming shut initiated a horrific wave of terror. Immediately, as I looked around and as shivers of fear began to crawl up my spine, I realized this place was a hell hole. It was dark, musty, and covered in garbage and wood chips. Everything was broken. Rusty pipes and strewn bits of insulation dangled out of holes in the walls and the ceilings, like hideous flowers were shoved in to fix them. The floorboards were thin and cracked, and what I at first thought was a giant skylight was actually just a huge tear in the roof. Its gaping maw of jagged, broken splinters screamed death into the deepest recesses of my mind.

“See the big iron stove over there? That’s how I keep this place warm. Load it up with five foot logs,” he droned.

“Cool…” I mustered. What I really thought was ‘Awesome. I’m going to be burnt alive. At least I know how it’s going to happen.’ But he continued.

“We call it the incinerator. Cause you could fit a body in there.” At least I had the satisfaction of knowing I was right.

“Great, you know, I really have to get going…” I pleaded.

“Oh come on, let me show you the next room…”

The next room was where the US Geological Survey maps and equipment were, as well as a series of axes and crossbows and more dilapidated shit. I was struggling to find a way to escape this terrible monster, but he kept blocking the exits, his hands in his pockets and his monotone rambling on and on and on.

“See that building over there?” He motioned towards a large hole in the wall, through which I could see a small shack. I considered trying to wriggle through the hole, but it was definitely too small.

“I used to rent it to a young couple. Then one day, the boy stabbed the girl seventeen times in the bathtub. Then he ran over here and ripped out all of my copper piping. That’s why it’s such a mess. Never did find the body…” I didn’t question his disturbing statements, or their apparent lack of logic.

“That’s cool man, listen, I really have to get going…”

“No, no, no, let me show you the upstairs…”

So we trudged up the stairs, with him carefully maneuvering so I had to go up first. Terrifying. We got to the top, where the roof had collapsed over a bird shit filled jacuzzi.

“That’s my hot tub. It’s seen better days.” I desperately wanted to get the hell out of there. The next room he showed me had a floor covered in the kind of wood chips you use for hamsters. There were bird cages and a broken television set stacked up against the wall.

“This is my bedroom,” he announced. Then he turned towards the room at the end of the hallway whose door was closed. He stopped.

“You must be tired. Must have been walking all day.”

“Yup, and I’ve got to get back to my job! Gotta hit a few more houses before the sun goes down!”

“You should spend the night here. It would be a lot better than walking back all the way to where ever you came from. That room in there is my guest bedroom. You’ll see it later.” And that was officially the creepiest thing I have ever heard.

“It’s a nice room, you can stay as long as you like, we’ll have a great conversation about the environment and stuff,” he continued. Images of human taxidermy flashed through my head, as the gruesome scenes of my own murder played out. No one would ever find me. I was going to vanish one day while canvassing an enormous neighborhood. I had hit at least 100 houses today, and had been constantly on the road. I had no chance.

“No tha-” I began, but carefully reassessed my course of action, “You know what, sure. That would be great. But first I have to go finish my job. I really have to go…”

“Sure, yeah, of course. We’re going to have a great night, that room is really cool…” He went on pressing me to sleep over, and I never bothered to correct him. I didn’t want him to know I had a car ride waiting for me at 8:30 and that I was never, ever coming back to this town.

Finally, we made it downstairs. I had been in the house for almost half an hour, and he kept pushing the idea that I was going to come back and spend the night.

“Yeah, yeah, I just have to hit a few more houses, I’ll be right back,” I assured him.

“Let me get your cell phone number…”

“Uhhh…uhhhh…” I panicked. What if he calls to confirm? “I.. uhhh.. I don’t have service, so I can’t really get my number. I’ll be back though!” I made up a ridiculous lie, which, somehow, he bought. As I stepped out the door, something really crazy popped into my head. I turned back, just for a second, and asked:

“So what about that donation?” I couldn’t resist my canvassing instincts, as much as they were probably going to get me killed. He had, after all, promised me a ‘good donation,’ and I couldn’t just let that go.

“Well I don’t have a job, I’ve been in jail for the past six months. Hell, I don’t even have a car. I ride my bicycle to my girlfriend’s house. I’ll be expecting you back soon.”

“Yeah, definitely, man. Just give me an hour!” ‘You lying, murderous, creepy prick!’

As soon as the door closed, and I looked back to make sure, I started running for my life. ‘Freedom!” I thought as I scrambled through a gap in the crooked wooden fence. I bolted as if my life depended on it, which it probably did. I started laughing as I ran, sprinting as far as I could before running out of breath. I slowed down to regain my composure, and the fact that I hadn’t yet made quota started buzzing in my head. I resolved to finish this day.

When I got to the next house, I prepped my clipboard, rang the doorbell, and waited. But when an old lady came to the door, I froze.

“Hi, how…” I stammered, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.” I’ll never forget that woman’s puzzled expression. She didn’t even say a word. Just watched me as my tormented mind collapsed in on itself. I didn’t have the energy or the patience to do this anymore today. I resolved to just hustle back to the pick up zone, eat my chocolate covered pretzels, and wait for 8:30 to roll around.

As I walked back through my turf, I kept looking behind myself, imagining that I was going to catch sight of the murderous freakshow, frantically peddling his tricycle after me, waving a meat cleaver and shrieking incoherently. The fear was still with me. I was still less than a mile from the house. In a town called “Killingworth,” no less, an irony that didn’t dawn on me until a friend pointed it out when I told my story later that night.

“And your crew was in- Killingworth? Right?” I could see her fighting to hold back laughter, before her eyes got wide and she suddenly became very serious. “. You could have just disappeared. No one would have any idea where the hell you were. Oh my god, that’s so scary.”

But that was not the end of the story. As I turned on to the next road, rounded a corner and began to walk down the last hill before the pick up zone, I could feel a sense of anxious victory wash over me. I was alive! I had made it out of that hell hole! I won! And what did I win? Life. I watched a beautiful, brand new Chrysler 300 cruised up the hill, and silently planned my victory-cower behind a historic building near where I had been dropped off earlier. But as I watched the car drive past me, it came to sudden, screeching halt about 5 meters behind me. The car shifted into reverse and backed up until I was standing right in front of the passenger side door. ‘Oh god, what now?’ I thought to myself, before the window rolled down to reveal a kid about my age. ‘Phew,’ I thought.

“Hey man! What’s going on? I felt bad cause you were like walking and stuff and nobody walks around here, except Paul, and he’s a dick!”

“Uhhh.. Hey! Yeah I’m just canvassing the neighborhood, about to get picked up,” I replied.

“Oh that’s cool, yo, you want some of this pizza man? I got a ton of it, do you need a lift?”

“Uhhh…” I hesitated for a moment, but very quickly, as thoughts of psychopaths chasing me popped into my head, I decided that catching a ride to the bottom of the hill was a good idea. “Yeah, you know what? A ride down to the intersection would be awesome.”

“Cool! Hop in!” I opened the door and sat down in the passenger seat. The car was amazingly comfortable. He had the Rolling Stones blasting, a box of pizza, the moon roof open and the air conditioning blasting. He was really energetic, but he seemed like a good guy and I was thankful for his help.

“Here have some pizza,” he insisted as I buckled myself in.

“Sorry, I don’t eat pizza.”

“What!? You don’t want my fucking pizza?”

“Sorry I don’t eat cheese, I’m a vegan…”

“Haha naw, it’s cool dude. I respect that. So what are you doing here? You live around here?” We made some basic conversation, I found out his name was Tony, and I explained that I was going door to door to raise money for the environment.

“Awww shit, sorry man, I chop down trees for a living, but you know, it’s okay because some times it’s so people can put solar panels on their roofs. So we’re like, on the same team. I do my part.”

He slowed the car down as we approached the stop sign, and my destination, at the bottom of the hill, but before stopping, he asked me one final question:

“So man, do you like, smoke weed?”

“Well….yeah of course!” I laughed. Suddenly he turned his head and grinned widely.

“Awesooooome!” he announced as he slammed his foot down on the pedal, burned rubber, blew the stop sign, and fish tailed into the middle of the intersection. I flew backwards in my seat from the sudden acceleration, and thought to myself, ‘Fuck…What now?’

“Yeah sick! Let’s go hit up my dealer!” he explained, before whipping out his cell phone and making a very quick phone call.

As we bolted down the road, he was eating pizza with one hand and spinning through the car, grabbing loose dollar bills that had been floating around the whole time. He handed me a wad of them.

“Yo, can you like, throw these in the glove box?” he asked.

“Sure, no problem,” I said as I reached towards the handle. I pried it open and was shocked to find that inside, were dozens and dozens of needles.

“Yeah, I used to smoke a lot of weed, but now I do dope. I figured, with this job I have now I make 22 an hour, so why the hell not? Plus, I bought this sick car!”

“Hell yeah! Why not?” I don’t think he picked up on my sarcasm.

We arrived at a gas station a few kilometers down the road and pulled up next to a shitty pick up truck with a chubby red neck leaning on it. Tony got out of the car and went to make his deal. We weren’t there to pick up pot. Apparently he already had some in the car. No, we were picking up a rather hefty bag of heroin. After talking to the dealer for a few minutes, Tony waved at me. “Yo, tell this guy what you’re doing! The stuff with the global warming and shit!”

I ended up having a very enlightening conversation with these two guys. At one point, the dealer, Bill, asked me, “Didn’t we just elect Obama and shit? Can’t he just make this happen?”

“No,” I replied, “We elected him President, not Emperor. To get stuff done we need to build up public support.” I ended up giving a basic civics lesson about how Congress works.

“Well shit,” Tony said, “Sign me up! You’re doing some cool shit, man. How’s fifteen bucks?”

“Awesome, just sign your name on the clip board!”

“Yo, Bill, give this kid some money! He’s saving the damn planet you ungrateful fuck!”

In one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, I signed up a smack addict and his dealer to become members of an Environmental organization. My world had become an insane, surreal juxtaposition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Gacy. Spinning in the absurdity of my situation, we hopped back in the car and headed back to where I needed to be.

“Shit man,” he began, randomly, “I haven’t had sex in like a week. My girlfriend is in fucking Japan.” He turned to stare at me. “I want to fuck so bad!”

“I…uhhh… can’t help you with that one…” I replied.

It was about 8:25 when we reached the intersection where I was supposed to be picked up. We pulled over onto a grassy patch next to the woods. The sun had just set, the forest was dark, and the mosquitoes were out in full force.

“Shit man, it’s all dark and shit…” he said as the car idled.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. They’ll be here in a few minutes, thanks for the ride!” I responded, opening the door.

“Naw man, I feel bad, it’s cold out there, and there are all these bugs and shit, you need some protection.” He leaned into the back seat and began rifling around. “Fuck there’s so many mosquitoes! And it’s dark and shit…here we go!” He turned around and handed me a blanket.

“Yo, that should keep those mosquitoes away, and its warm. It’s my girlfriend’s swimming team blanket, it’s cool she’s got like ten of them. I wish I had a flashlight or something, it is fucking dark…”

“Naw, it’s all cool! Thanks for everything, have a good one!”

“Yeah man, peace! I really wish I had a flashlight to give you…”

And with that, he sped off into the night. I still have the blanket, which I have affectionately dubbed “Heroin Blanket.” And so, despite what a fascinating story ignoring them can make, this is exactly why the Fund has a House rule, a Car rule, and an intoxication rule (I did end up smoking with Heroin guy). Imagine if I had broken them in reverse?