Out with my eight-year-old son at a basketball court in the park, we were having a great time — he shooting baskets, me rebounding the shots — when a stranger interrupted our fun. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t pay much attention until he was a foot from my face, asking me what he said was an urgent question: “Do you care about organic farming?”
“I do,” I said as I grabbed a ball that had fallen to the left of the rim, “but not now.”
The man appeared to be in his mid-30s. Carrying a clipboard, he was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a green jacket, and had short, brown, curlyish hair. To me, he was obviously liberal, and there was one overriding reason he had approached me: I looked like him – only more liberal. I also wore jeans, but my hair was longer and crazier – sort of Malcolm Gladwell meets Bob Dylan. I had on my glasses – the ones with blue rims that my friend Thomas says are like Woody Allen’s but that I say are more (to use a Seinfeld term) “hipster-dufus.” Above my chin, I have a graying “soul line” (as opposed to a soul patch) that I like to think is a sign of my artistic bent. I was wearing a long-sleeved, aqua blue shirt that has circles and swirls all over. The shirt is one-of-a-kind – I bought it in San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury district, which is minutes from my house. My jacket: green leather – also one-of-a-kind.
When I was 19, during summer break from college, I did door-to-door sales, pitching sets of encyclopedias in neighborhoods where parents of small kids resided. Our “team leader” would drive me and the other student salespeople to those neighborhoods, drawn there by the tricycles left on the sidewalks – which he said were a good sign of young, insecure parents in need of “knowledge.” That whole summer, I sold no books, since the single set I thought I’d sold was returned the very next day. Still, the summer was a priceless lesson in how to approach people you don’t know – I can sympathize with anyone whose job requires talking to strangers. I’ve done thousands of interviews in my 25-plus years of journalism, but on this day in the park – with my young son, trying to squeeze in as much time before the sun went down – I was in no mood to get into the benefits of organic farming, and I made that clear to the clipboard guy, emphasizing the “not now” in my “but not right now” retort.
What happened next surprised me. Instead of taking my hint, the man got even closer to me, then heaved these words, in a tone that suggested I was letting a fellow liberal – and liberals everywhere – down in the gutter: “But don’t you care about organic farming!?!”
How was I supposed to react now? Apologize for my grevious error in ignoring the future of organic farming? Tell my son, “You’ll have to get someone else to rebound – something more important has come up”? Give the stranger a few bucks and sign what may have been a petition? Ignore him? Ignoring was out of the question. In his tone, this sranger was trying to guilt-trip me, and I wasn’t standing for that. He had assumed I would roll out a carpet for him and make him tea on the spot, but instead of Decaf Earl Grey, I gave him what I thought he deserved: A verbal send-off. “I’m with my son, and I don’t want to be bothered.”
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: This stranger, who minutes earlier had never spoken to me – didn’t know anything about me, other than that I appeared to be a liberal who’d want to get behind organic farming – called me a name. I think it was the a-word, as in, “You don’t have to be an a-*-*-*-*-*-* about it.” To be honest, I was trying to avoid listening to his response. I was in no mood to get into a confrontation with someone who appeared to be a fellow liberal. It was my son who pointed out the invective showered on me by the man with the clipboard. I shook my head, the man walked away, and my son and I resumed our basketball game in the setting sun.
As it happened, minutes later, another man with a clipboard approached me. The cause of organic farming had two people trolling the streets for supporters this day. Both trollers thought they had an avid supporter in me, but (to use one of the world’s oldest clichés) appearances can be deceiving. With the same degree of disapprobation I had shown the first stranger, I told this new man that I wasn’t interested. This time, there was no stunning retort. This organic-farming advocate was older than the first man – likely in his 50s – and he simply moseyed away, letting my son and I return to our fading afternoon of basketball.