The girls and I had just gotten back from their capoeira practice and were settling down to read when the doorbell rang. The puppy made a break for it, running right into the young woman's flowered tennis shoes.
"Can you grab him?" I asked frantically, before even letting her say hello.
She obliged, and when I saw he was safe, I looked at her properly. She was nearly a foot shorter than me, wearing pink and purple eye shadow, and clearly freezing. She started in on her solicitor's spiel, but before she could make out a sentence, I asked her inside.
There she tried to continue to sell us the $100 book and magazine subscriptions I couldn't afford, but kept interrupting herself to pet the dog or coo at the kids. She was a nice woman who didn't really believe in her cause, and I soon saw why.
She was on the ground floor of some sort of pyramid scheme, where they sell subscriptions for points not unlike the school fundraisers. Only instead of a bike at the end of the long point tunnel, there was the promise of not having to walk door-to-door for 12 hours a day, of moving up to training the poor souls who would have to do it next. She needed 22,000 points to get there. She had earned 22 the day she spoke to me, and it was edging on the last hour of her shift.
Making matters worse, it wasn't some gungho college student full of pipe dreams and lofty ideals and boot straps for miles. This particular organization makes it a point to enlist the work of those in dire need. Those living on the streets or unable to find any other work.
They make it sound like that island in Pinocchio, all sunshine and food and warm beds. And to some extent, it is. The sellers sleep in hotel beds each night and get $25 for food a day, even, the woman told me, when they didn't 'earn' it through their sales. For the most part, though, the proceeds from the magazine sales went toward that food stipend and the room and board, and the buses which carted these people away from home, away from any support they may have had. It comes out of their commission. Unless, of course, they meet quota. Which hardly anybody does.
She has two kids hundreds of miles from here, in Key West. She wants to go back, but if she leaves this 'job' she has to find her own way home with money she hasn't been able to earn. She's stuck here until she saves enough to get out. Will she ever?
No one likes cold callers, no one buys magazines, certainly not for double their retail value, and no one should be forced to walk the streets in the freezing dark for a commission they'll never be able to get. How much of an opportunity is this opportunity, really?
She was wearing only a light sweater. The kind you'd wear to a Hampton tea party if it was going to be 65 degrees. It was below freezing, this day, even in Florida. I gave her some coffee and we talked for a while. She wasn't allowed to take donations, not the money itself or even turn it in for points. She could only sell the really high-priced magazines, and I couldn't afford them. I could have given her $20 without going in the red this month, but she wasn't allowed to take it.
She had another hour left to walk in the dark when she left us. On a whim, I reached into my coat closet and fetched her one of my older news television jackets. Meant to withstand the Connecticut winter, it would break the wind and keep her warm at least. She took it gratefully, putting it on immediately.
The whole scene made me feel odd. Should I have invited a stranger into my home with little kids around? Should I have spoken to her so frankly about her situation and how she had come to be there in front of them? Should I have given her $20 cash anyway? Was it okay that I gave her a coat? She hadn't asked for charity, she was simply trying to do her job. Had I made things better or worse for her with my skepticism, when I outright told her I thought they were taking advantage of her? Will she be okay? Will she make it home in time for her daughter's sixth birthday? Will she be able to get her a gift, which was her main goal with this magazine selling gig? Is giving people the sense and hope that they are moving forward enough validation for a system that seems to exploit rather than serve?
I don't know any of the answers. I just know that getting out of a world with no opportunities is nearly impossible, and even those trying their hardest may never be able to do it.
And I don't know what to do about that.