Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Eric the Charity Dog

Look at this fellow, just a little bit outside of Marks and Spencers:

Ok, I know that's not really the best of photos. I'm not quite sure what my phone camera was up to. Let's try again, taken from a different angle (I'd make a terrific spy):

Can you see him? Here:

It seems you'll have to trust me on this, but he's a pleasant seeming fellow, honest and tries hard, but perhaps endures more than his fair share of ill luck. Yes, he's a little hapless. And he also happens to be one of these charity guys, who pounce upon you with colossal grins during high street shopping and use numerous forms of trickery to get you to pay £10 or £50 or whatever per month to some bunch of deserving unfortunates (or the homeless), and take a healthy commission.

As many of you may know, I'm not by nature an overwhelmingly sympathetic person, especially to these very irritating faux-charity grinners (and especially not to the homeless). But in the last couple of days, I've been feeling a little sorry for this fellow.

I'm a man of vast amounts of free time: my employers haven't forgotten about me but seem to not trust me on oil rigs these days so instead send me away on mini boat trips. This suits me fine, and I get to fill my free time with idle pursuits and routines, including pacing about my enormous flat, striking snooker balls with great force, wearing a selection of housecoats (five new bought in Edinburgh a few weeks ago), reading weighty tomes and melting candles on my coffee table. And also, daily strolls to Marks and Spencers at 11.50am to buy a chicken wrap and Belgian chocolate milk drink for my lunch.

This week, each lunch-time amble, I have seen this chap, let's call him Eric, looking a pained mixture of desperate and forlorn in the square outside Marks and Spencer. It's like watching an eager dog looking for a friend, and the sad look in his eyes when the world refuses to befriend him. While Eric's two colleagues, a squat dude with dreadlocks and one of a variety of "wacky" (but pretty) females, seem to successfully attach themselves to a series of shoppers, and bounce, chat, grin and laugh maniacally with them, poor Eric is alone. They are the fine pedigrees - Eric is the rancid mongrel. And nobody wants a scraggy, mangy, dirty dog.

But Eric isn't a bad dog; no. It's his very niceness that is his undoing. He doesn't grin, he just smiles nicely. While his colleagues force themselves upon others, like roaring hyenas on prey, Eric smiles politely, steps nervously towards a shopper, and accepts with grace when they ignore him or just shake their head. Then Eric looks down, looks sad, loses another piece of the essence of his being, before quickly bucking himself up, looking up, and stepping nervously towards another uncaring civilian.

And it's heartbreaking. I've seen him every day for three days, when both entering and leaving Marks and Spencers, and the frequent other times I pass by the square, only minutes from my flat. Perhaps that's twelve times in the last three days. And each day, Eric is alone, or being spurned, or today managed to have some very short conversations with a couple of people - but just old ladies who'll speak to anybody, until they realise they may have to part with their money.

I think a significant reason Eric has managed to tweak the usually inflexible strings of my heart is because his forlorn hopelessness in a job he is obviously unsuited to reminds me of myself. No, not in my job now, which makes me blush with joy every time I think of it, but in a godawful job I had many years ago. I've had a number of really terrible jobs in my time, such as working behind a safety-grill in a Haddows in Northfield, collecting glasses in the internationally-condemned Amadeus nightclub 10pm-3am Thursday to Sunday, and washing dishes in a place called Girvans in Inverness, with idiot chefs who enjoyed country music - but the very worst was with a company called Universal Energy.

Universal Energy deftly pounced on me one day when I was in the job centre. With promises of vast fortunes to be made, and remarkable incentives for those capable, I was caught like a greedy fish on a hook, or a 13-year-old groomed via the internet. With a host of other young males, I went on a three-day course in a glorious country mansion, enjoying free food and yet more promises of everlasting success. Only slight niggle at the back of my mind - what did the actual job entail?

It was door-to-door sales, trying to convert non-Hydro Electric customers back to using Hydro Electric. Maybe it would save the customers money, but only a matter of pounds each year. That was glossed over, of course. I was chucked out into some grim outskirt of Aberdeen, with a gigantic list of addresses to visit and hassle, and with a well-rehearsed conman routine ready.

For it was sheer trickery. To go to doors and ask people upfront to change their electricity company just doesn't work. It's not a good sales technique. Instead I had to masquerade as a kind of meter-reader, with a torch and clipboard, and a smooth patter to enable myself to get a foot in the door. Then, still under pretence of being "official", I would have to seem concerned about the reading, and then explain how by converting to Hydro Electric they could be making all kinds of savings.

I very quickly realised that I'm not a good salesman, and that the job was an absolutely miserable way to make a living. Stranded in the suburbs with nowhere to go but your next house, your next attempted con followed by rejection, and with hours and hours stretching ahead, it was awful, and completely exhausting. I only made one sale in two days, but many times got into people's homes. It was only then, when I'd gone through my patter, perhaps by now with a cup of tea in my hand, and brought out the papers to sign, including the direct debit section, did it dawn on my hosts quite why I was really there. I can remember the looks of their faces, and the many (mostly polite) excuses they made to quickly get rid of me.

Two incidents remain vivid. The first was during the first morning of on-field training, accompanying a guy called Alan, who was experienced and one of the best. He managed his way into the home of an old lady, everything was very friendly, and he'd totally fooled her into believing he was doing her a massive favour by getting her to sign these papers. But before she signed them, she'd have to check with her husband, she said, and he was out for the morning. Alan wasn't wanting to accept this, and his mood soured, and his attempts became more aggressive, and the lady - in her 80s and fairly frail - obviously wasn't comfortable. She didn't sign, fortunately, but Alan was clearly very annoyed, and insisted he would be round the next day when her husband was back (he didn't). It was very unpleasant.

The other occasion was alone, and into someone's home with the usual patter of lies. The chap, in his 40s or 50s, was very friendly, and had a very disabled son with Down's syndrome. He went upstairs to get something, leaving me with the son, who couldn't talk, for a few minutes. I attemped small talk anyway. When the father came down, he showed me something, his recent electricity bill I think, and I did my pretend ummering and erring and moved onto the subject of how he might be able to save some money, as I took out some papers. The penny immediately dropped with the guy, as he realised I wasn't a real guy from the electricity board, I was just a salesman. His face hardened, and he was visibly furious, absolutely furious. "Get out" he said bluntly. I hesitated, and he said again, "Get out, now."

The true salesman, in cold sales at any rate, has to be able to plough through life and its potential customers without pause for reflection, and certainly not regret or pity. I realised very soon into this job that I was never destined for sales, and especially not door-to-door with an electricity company, and quit on my third day and went back to doing dishes. A dirty dish never looked so welcome. And so when I see Eric, trying his best in a job he's clearly unsuited for, seeing his pathetic eagerness in the face of an uncaring public he's on commission to hassle, and knowing exactly how he's feeling as his very soul is slowly evaporating, I do indeed feel very, very sorry for him.

And feel very, very relieved that these days I can drink coffee on a boat for a living, and studiously avoid people like Eric during my free time at home.

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