At the turn of the century I’m honing my hustle. I find practice and $400 a day after taxes in California’s unique voter driven ballot initiative system. I am a paid petitioner. Human nature and how it relates to politics and the entranceway of grocery stores becomes my study. I find that my put-on-airs intelligent tone inspires authority and trust in people around policy. I learn to size up and box down opinions. When it comes to sales, you either have it - or you don’t. The first day of this gig I learn I’m in the top percentile.
During the presidential elections the work becomes my life and I make serious money. I’m promoted to manager within a week and train the troops each morning - taking a cut off of the few that return at the end of the day, and the even fewer still remaining by the end of a week. This job pays every few days in cash for verified voter signatures. It attracts anyone eligible to be a registered voter who wants a quick buck, and only keeps those willing to hustle for it. In California, as I learn to educate so many men of color, once a felon is off probation they are eligible to register. Many tell me their probation officers have told them differently.
We are a motley crew, the Professionals. Corner dealers from South Central, telesales guys from Mission Viejo, a ghetto white kid who wears a Jewish star, toothless ex-methusingbikers from the Valley, superobese activists, safety pinned punk rock kids in squats downtown - anyone who can learn a script or riff on political themes at any level in any neighborhood. We all have our specialties in Los Angeles County. We all have the places we do the best. They call me a “switch” because I can be put almost anywhere.
I have trouble with white upper class liberal neighborhoods. When I drop Jamil there he makes bank on white guilt. Raised in Compton now we carpool from Hollywood to West LA together smoking blunts and shooting the shit all the way. Like a sitcom of race relations we learn things from one another that we’d never have otherwise. One day he asks me how I like his weave and I think he’s asking me how I like the weed (he insists on providing it even though mine is better, he won’t take a free ride). A good eight minutes of hilarity ensues before we figure it out.
The funny bleeds out of that story days later, when I see him for the last time, with his pregnant wife. He pulled that same weave out of his hair behind a dumpster while running from the cops, guessing correctly they wouldn’t be able to distinguish him if he just changed his hair and shirt. His first babymama was having alcohol and crack issues and when he visited he scooped up his undiapered child and began taking photos of the condition of the house he found her in. High on crack, seeing he meant to take their child, she met his eyes, tore her clothes off, scratched a rake in his arm, and ran through the halls of the public housing screaming “RAPE”.
I wrote Jamil a professional character reference. By that point I know he is the son of Muslim booksellers and his wife has converted. She is from a middle class black family and is happy to realize that I am someone she can converse with. Despite his lifestyle matching any hip-hop song - he is no rapist, only dabbles in drugs, art, sales, and territory - and he is a good man and an excellent petitioner. I’ve never seen him or his wife since. Jamil was facing his third strike, and no one talks about it but I know he is going away for life at just 23, no matter how many letters we all write. Yet another example of how the criminal justice system ignorantly swallows the lives of black men.
It’s an interesting job for a while, and I often gladly, sometimes sadly have to accept the coworkers in this field will always come and go. Part politics, part sales, part coming to terms with how few citizens want actual democracy, yet at the same time no one trusts their representative government. For a while I’m being paid by the Republican Party $1 for every Republican registration, which I sell to the democrats with:
“Take a dollar away from the Republican Party!”
I take pride in my origin, the reason I’m there in the first place. It’s the last job I ever get out of circling newspaper classifieds with a pen. The listing reads “FIGHT THE WAR ON DRUGS AND FATCATS IN WASHINGTON!”. My leading petition for my first round is Proposition 56: Non-Violent Drug Offenders to Rehab Instead of Prison. I’m wooed at the training with the superobese activist’s statements:
“You are the frontlines of democracy.”
There’s fire in my presentation for this one more than any other and I feel the difference I make at the Shadow Conventions focusing on the War On Drugs months hence. I’m still proud of it.
I keep the petitioning skills after I’ve left the crew and after having an affair with one of the other managers, a toothless ex-methusingbiker who confesses through tears to me in a hooker motel that he once cut someone’s hands off and left them to die and still wonders whether they did. I am fascinated by his street stories and his cock that won’t fit in any of my holes. Once this bores me and consequently blows up in my face - that crew is never the same.
Fortunately there are endless crews and I can use my chops anywhere in California - and once the word gets out that you are good you get calls. One day I do. I honestly cannot remember the issue in question on the petition, or any of the arguments I used to get people to sign it. I remember the place, the methods, and the people.
The place is El Segundo, California. I am called in from Los Angeles to work a local petition that someone was desperate to get signatures for. El Segundo is dominated by oil interests and I’m sure the petition was paid for by them. El Segundo is named thusly because of Chevron’s second refinery built there. It’s a small, blue collar company town within spitting distance from the westside of Los Angeles. Now that massive industrial cleanup is finally happening, the town attracts corporate headquarters of all kinds. With these come a corporate elite that are pushing out the old breed of locals. These are middle Americans that have resettled here from everywhere, to live out their days breathing in solvents from a brand new building of steel, glass, concrete, and carpet. They’re ready to rest at the top of the corporate ladder they’ve dutifully climbed, clocking in to be ignored and let time pass. They and the refinery workers, who value back-breaking work for a lifetime, do not see eye-to-eye. I contend daily with the tension around this.
El Segundo is a maze of new corporate stores, but the customers of these are not the voters that are our target. For this I have to hit the local joints, and stay away from anything chain. Because I am not a resident of El Segundo - I am assigned a Witness who is. I am paid per signature, and this initiative doesn’t pay much. I’m lucky if I make $250/day. My Witness, however, will make $15/hour regardless. Theoretically he could - but he never makes more than I do. I’m relentless.
The only requirement for a Witness is that they be an El Segundo voter. I show up at the grocery store parking lot. The organizer and the Witnesses are lined up in front of the store waiting for adoption. They give me first pick. I thought I couldn’t be shocked, but the selection of Witnesses terrifies me. Conveying and convincing seems impossible with one of these leering over me. Anyone can be paid to watch. At the very end of the depressing barrel-scraped lineup, an older man with sun damaged skin, stubble, and greasy grey hair under a faded baseball cap reaches out and shakes my hand. He wears white clothing, stained, and mismatched. Paper white pants and a cream shirt.
“Hi! I’m Magic Bob.” There is a faint hint of alcohol on him, but I can tell it’s not from today.
“Hi Magic Bob.” Something about the twinkle in his bright blue eye makes me say this smiling. “I’ll take this one!” I call out to the organizer.
“Awesome, she picked ME. Do we get to have sex now?” he trots alongside me like a puppy.
“No, Bob, we don’t.” I am signing paperwork. “What makes you Magic?”
“I’ll show you.” He’s beaming at me. “Do you have a deck of cards?” He asks this assuming that I am in his world, a world of cards and sleight of hand and scarves and birds.
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, I do.” Suddenly there is a deck of cards in his hands. I swear I didn’t see him produce it. The organizer takes my paperwork and hands me a 50lb box of petitions to start. I head towards the car while Bob pockets the cards.
“That’s it?” I ask.
“That’s not enough magic for you? You can’t have it all at once you know.” He shakes his head.
We race towards the best local spot and claim it for the duration. During 6 weeks of working 12 hour days together, Magic Bob and I become very well acquainted. Much to his chagrin, we never have sex.
Bob is homeless, alcoholic, sex addicted, and a bonafide, practiced, and brilliant magician. He never drinks when he works, and he works construction or handymannery or anything he can get his hands on that will pay him daily cash. If he can get crack or cocaine on top of alcohol and sex he’s happy to add that into the mix.
I choose the first two weeks of the petitioning time to try out the Master Cleanse for the first and unfortunately not last time. The benefits and drawbacks of fasting aside, that one has no advantage other than understanding the mindset of a trend. Bob puts up with my manic clarity under the influence of starvation quite well, and never gives me any shit. He supports and bolsters any behavior that I choose.
He entertains me and the marks all day long with magic and jokes, tirelessly. Everyone in town knows him, which almost always makes my job easier. He is always smiling, always eager. At the end of the day, we stop by the organizer, drop of the petitions, and get paid. I then take him to the strip club, opposite a hotel. He drinks himself blind and spends all of his money. At first he has enough to buy a hotel room and a prostitute after the club. By the end of the gig he sleeps in the gutter or park outside the club and has a tab that I refuse to pay off for him.
He asks me for money incessantly, yet never holds it against me when I refuse. The only thing that makes him mad is when someone calls what he does “magic tricks”.
“What’s the difference between magic and magic tricks?” I ask.
“50 years of practice.” he says sternly. I get that he takes this seriously.
“Have you ever worked magic professionally?” I’m driving him to a construction gig he’s working after a half day of Witnessing me petitioning. It’s the first time I’ve given him anything, despite his constant asking. It prompts a tourettes-like episode of him petitioning me for sex, calmly and patiently denied.
“I’ll tell you if you have sex with me.” It’s his last try of the day.
“No, Bob, I’m not having sex with you.” I retort almost automatically at this point.
“Well okay then I’ll tell you anyway” You’ve got to hand it to him for taking rejection as well as he does. “I did work the clubs for a while here. Vegas is where it’s at though. A buddy of mine, I was working on his house out in Agoura Hills and his agent stopped by one day we did a private show. Then he came see me at the club. I had a good night, too. They offered me a deal.” The corners of Bob’s mouth are no longer smiling.
“A Vegas deal?” I try to encourage him.
“Yeah.” He says listlessly.
“Whyn’t you take it?” I ask.
“Well, there were strings, you see…” he trails off. I think of all the strings it could involve except the one it does.
“Sobriety?” I ask.
“Basically, but no. I’d have to lose 30 pounds for the deal. Clean up my act a bit for the stage. They don’t care what I do on my off time, but… I can’t lose 30 pounds. I’d have to cut out the booze to do it. Million dollar deal, too. 1.2 a year. Still stands, ya know.”
“Bob, if I were you I’d take that. I’ve lost 30 pounds. Even on this cleanse I’ve lost 10 already. It’s not that hard, really.” I rarely give him advice, and he smiles at this piece.
“You ain’t me, sweetie, you ain’t me.”
The next day he meets me brighter than usual. “Good morning Bob!”
“Let’s go the park!” he says “We can register all the bums to vote and get them to sign. It’ll be like 25 signatures.”
“I can’t argue with that.” I say, despite being sure he’s come into some cocaine and wants to sell off as much of it to them as he can before he himself blows through it. Alcohol and sex are far more important to him than cocaine or crack, and maintaining a steady work rhythm for 40 years is how he’s kept himself in both. Still, we'll be registering people to vote. On our way he makes me think of a card.
“BUT DON’T TELL ME WHAT IT IS.” he says. His intensity under the influence scares me a little, but Bob and I are so accustomed to one another’s rhythms by now that we still find a stride. I think of the 8 of Hearts, but keep it to myself. He shuffles the deck as we walk towards the library, the back lawn of which the local homeless crowd refer to as “The Park”.
I tap the deck at Bob’s request and he flips the cards over and the backs of them have turned from red to blue.
“How the…?” I trail off, still slowly walking. He offers them to me again to tap. I do it again. They change again, in front of my eyes.
“Do you want the red pill, or the blue pill?” he asks, again with that twinkle in his tone. He goes into his pocket and hands me a folded leather case with a snap that I’ve never seen him have before. I unsnap it and inside are two compartments, one empty, the other zippered. In the zippered compartment is one card. The 8 of Hearts.
“You really are magic, Bob.” I am flabbergasted. He puts his hand on my shoulder.
“I know.” He leans in. He's positively magnetic. “Will you have sex with me now?”
“No, Bob, I won’t have sex with you.” I laugh.
That day we get tons of signatures from Bob’s homeless friends. Under his instructions, I sit by the sidelines while Bob collects them and sells cocaine. I’m grateful for the day off, as collecting has become more and more difficult. We’ve had to frequent smaller and smaller stores to the point of standing outside of corner convenience stores, we've gotten creative about where people congregate, and now literal and have resorted to churches. After today we’ll spend the final two weeks door-to-door canvassing before the campaign is mercifully called to a close.
Bob proves less useful on the canvassing grind, the grueling walks and odd pace interfere with his magic. Still, he hangs in until the bitter end, and we hug goodbye in the same parking lot where we met as though we’ll see each other again, but both with tears in our eyes - knowing the underlying reality.
But I do see Bob again, one more time.
It’s a few years later and the first time I smoke DMT. Hours after this experience my friends are called to El Segundo for strange, unrelated reasons. Despite an intense and dark first DMT experience I’m euphoric at comedown and all day, and I ride along with them just to experience memory lane in my current state. We park at a meter on the main drag just as I’m finishing telling my friends the story of my tenure in the town. We’re just down the street from The Park. I get out of the car.
“So, I hope I see Magic Bob...” I say, and looking up he comes walking around the corner.
“HEY!” he runs at me and gives me a hug. I introduce him to my friends and he does a little magic for them. He seems worse for the wear physically, better at his magic - yet same as ever. “What are you doing here?” he asks me incredulously.
“I just did DMT for the first time and I wanted to see you and there you were.” I blurt out.
“No shit.” He grins at me like a partner in crime and then sobers “That stuff’s a wild ride. Be careful with that shit - it fucks with your magic.” he looks more stern than usual. I nod. We talk for a while and then I’m called back by my friends to leave. As a final goodbye I take his hands. "Hey wait, you know those bums we registered that day?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"They voted you know. Every one of them." His face beams with pride. So does mine.
"Yeah, I remember."
"They voted you know. Every one of them." His face beams with pride. So does mine.
“That's fucking awesome. Frontlines of democracy." I smile, and massage his hands. "Take care of yourself, Magic Bob.” I mean it.
“Ok, I will. You take care of you, okay sweetie?” He looks deep into me. “Can we have sex now?” he asks, as though he never has before.
I lean in and kiss him on the mouth. “No, Bob. We can’t.”