Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thou Shalt Subsidize Thy Neighbor's Children

When we were buying a house several years ago, we looked at towns with reputations for good schools, parks, strong community ties, easy commute, cultural opportunities--all the typical things a family with young children might consider. As you can imagine, a community with all of these attributes in a major metropolitan area is not easy to find, and not cheap. When we finally found the house we eventually bought, within days of the house being listed for sale, there were three identical offers from, I suspect, three interchangeable families. Real estate to me is proof of Darwinian theory. And we did indeed prove to be the fittest of the trio of over-educated couples with a pair of precocious children.

Both my husband and I spent most of our lives in urban apartments. In these settings, there are usually more dogs than children, and you can run into someone hundreds of times in the mailroom before realizing the person is actually your next door neighbor. No one knocks on your door, unless it is the Chinese food delivery person. For the childless or pre-child person, it is as ideal as it gets.

So you can imagine our shock--dare I say horror--the first time we heard the doorbell chime at our new home. We looked at each other not knowing what to do. Why was someone ringing our doorbell? Had one of us ordered pizza without mentioning it to the other? After considering the Dominos option, my mind went completely blank as I tried to think of other possible reasons someone would be at our door. The panic continued as we flailed around wondering what to do. Should we turn off the lights and pretend we aren't home? Should we grab a baseball bat? Should we call the police?

I tiptoed to the front door and peered out the peephole. There was a smiling man with a stack of brochures. In my best fake-calm falsetto I asked, "Can I help you?" He mumbled something about wanting to know if we needed anyone to touch up the paint on our house's exterior. "No, thank you!" I shrilled through the peephole. The anxiety over our uninvited visitor gave way to anxiety about our house's exterior paint. The house looked tidy and maintained, but how would we know? We never owned a 1920s Spanish home before. Was there some protocol about exterior upkeep we were not privy to? Was this intruder judging our home-owning skills?

The house-painting solicitor, it turned out, was the first of many similar seemingly judgmental would-be entrepreneurs. I learned to identify the men-with-homemade-business-cards by their shuffling footsteps and liberal use of the word "ma'am" or "senora" through the locked door. No, we do not want new windows, driveway paving, garage door, gardener. Sometimes, the knock on the door would yield not a single person in coveralls, but a group of elderly adults in their 1970s Sunday best. These folks did not carry business cards--at least not calling cards for an earthly business. Rather, they were selling something more than just a maintenance service. They solicit for their "man." These geriatric disciples persevere despite our neighborhood being replete with bumper stickers for Obama, against Prop 8 (i.e. in favor of same-sex marriage), peace signs, and a spattering of those stickers with the word "Co-exist" written in an intertwining of crucifixes and Jewish stars. Good luck with your proselytizing, witnesses of Jehova!

As disconcerting as these strangers are, they are easily ignored. The same cannot be said, however, for the hoards of neighborhood Girl Scouts, Orchestra members, Little League players, and Eagle Scouts. There's no way to get out of buying cookies, wrapping paper, caramel popcorn, or cookie dough when you know the kid's parent is on your block's Neighborhood Watch committee and can make the difference between  your car being burglarized or not. And you would be amazed how much 8 ounces of cheddar popcorn goes for when it is being sold for a "nonprofit." The unspoken quid pro quo of kid-friendly 'hoods is the old "you buy my child's fundraising items, I'll buy your child's fundraising items."

However, we learned pretty early on to interrogate the little urchins before ponying up any cash. The requisite questions are: 1) Who are you? 2) Where do you live? 3) Can you name at least one of your parents? 4) Can you provide a picture identification that you are related to said person? I have considered acquiring a monocle so I can grill them like the prosecutor in "Judgement at Nuremburg" or "Witness for the Prosecution"--some sort of histrionic prosecutor. Once they have successfully answered all four questions--the pass rate must be 100%--we succumb and purchase the least expensive item available. We once inadvertently committed to buy magazines from a boy in a Scout uniform who, it turned out, lived in a different town altogether, but one that did not yield as many suckers as ours. We will never make that mistake again.

Another drawback to living on a street with kids the same age is they are all selling the same things at the same time. My son's school and activities have many fundraisers each year that require the selling of tickets or items. Knowing that every kid on the block is vying for the same neighbor dollars, we opt for a kinder, gentler strategy: We write a check and buy all our son's tickets ourselves.


  1. Ha ha. Interesting to read about cultural differences, that doesn't happen here in Oz at all. What does happen is fund raiser chocolates. Parents of children bring their chocolate fund raiser box to work and leave it in a strategic place. Being a school chocolate dependency runs high among staff so the chocolate bars are quickly sold out, especially as you have to walk past them several times a day and hear their siren call . . .Then there's the inevitable email asking those of have left IOU's to cough up the actual money.

  2. I experience both the Oz chocolate bar phenomena, and the fundraiser plague at work. I work in mental health for an organization that is so laid back the employees could probably set up bingo machines and no one would say anything...that being said, I am hit on by anyone selling anything, and feel obligated to buy since I am one of the newest employees (1yr coming up). The only problem is, I don't have any kids selling anything, and I don't sell anything, so there is no payback (although I do give away the occasional painting). I try to buy whatever will do the least amount of damage to my waistline and pocketbook.

    I feel for you Karen. :D

  3. Hi, Josie! My office is full of the infamous chocolate fundraiser bars. I have indeed been guilted by staff into buying blocks of chocolate (usually with a church's name on it) to help their niece or nephew. It suspiciously never seems to be the actual parent. I have to hope they are not pocketing the money! I never have cash on me, but instead of the IOU route, I usually end up trying to get together enough loose change in my desk to pay. Sort of a humiliating ritual all around.... :) K

  4. Hi, Cath--I have tried to give the fundraising coworkers a few bucks as a donation instead, but there seems to be some rule about actually selling the damn bars. I admit to actually throwing away some of them away rather than eating them in a fit of PMS. There doesn't seem to be a specific season per se for such fundraising, so I am always caught off-guard and always succumb. Glad to hear from Josie that it is an international phenomenon! Take care! Karen