Digging a Hole

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's Not a Job; It's an Adventure

Oh, werd?
While every other sector of the economy falters, canvassing has never had a better summer. Little 'ol NJEF is cranking out $30,000 a week in small door-to-door donations, and we aren't even the biggest thing happening in the canvassing world right now. Ann Arbor Clean Water Action is sending out 65 canvassers a day. Farmingdale Citizen's Campaign for the Environment (led by local celebrity Brian Moyer) continues to raise about $1000 more than us every week. (Damnit Brian!) We currently collect on average 180 handwritten letters PER DAY from Jersey folks to targeted officials thanks to our staff of 40 canvassers. Liberal arts students (and grads) are flocking to canvassing because no one else is paying right now, so the staff are sharper, wittier, and better at hacky-sack than ever before.
With all of this success and joyful chaos, it can be easy to forget just how insane this job is some days and how thin of a margin we sometimes operate on. So here is a tale about Thursday.
On Thursday, we sent out five "burbs". Burbs is short for Chevy Suburban because that's what Jane Fonda donated to canvassers in the 70s. While we don't drive them anymore, the name applies to any vehicle driven by canvassers to turf. The burb I rode in, Poseidon (yes, we name them), is now the oldest in our fleet. (Wait, no, Eric's mom's station wagon is the oldest. The 'Mercedes Benson'.) Anyhoo, Poseidon is a 1995 Ford Clubwagon that seats eight, has a massive engine, and can fit 10 cases of Yuengling in the trunk... not that we know that for sure. The previous oldest burb was Jynx, a 94 Astrovan prone to malfunctions like the power steering and braking cutting out simultaneously on the Parkway. Everyone was okay. David Dower considered opening the door and rolling out, though.
Last weekend we sent three canvassers to Ohio on a cross-train. They drove Nora's Prius together. Unfortunately, Nora's Prius hit a pothole and rolled off the highway. Everyone was okay, but the three canvassers spent an interesting three days trapped in Clearfield, PA. Think 'Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar'.
Due to this accident, and our burbs' general oldness, we have been extra vigilant on safety. No canvasser heads to turf without a seat belt securely fastened. Lucky thing, because on Thursday, Poseidon hit a pot hole, and with a clunk, Shamar suddenly found himself without steering. Wrestling the lurching burb away from a dangerously close Volvo, he managed to slow the vehicle and pull it off the road.
Me: Good thing we were all wearing our seatbelts!
College kid: Actually, I had just taken mine off to get something out of my bag.
On further examination, we saw that the rod that connects the two wheels together for steering had broken off of the right wheel (the clunk), so while Shamar could steer the wheel under the burb, the right wheel was free to do as it pleased. Poseidon was grounded.
Even a red-hot canvass can not afford to compensate eight grounded canvassers, so we called the other burbs and sent folks off in all available other seats (including the rear jump seats in the Mercedes Benson!). Then, Eric eventually drove a friend's car to pick up myself, Shamar, and our Day 1 trainee.
Day 1: This day sure is turning out to be weird.
Our turf that day was a woodsy, wealthy enclave in Wayne, NJ alongside a lake. Just as Eric pulled up to the neighborhood, the skies opened, and thus began a downpour that would last the rest of the night. My plucky Day 1 and I hiked across massive lawns, braved attacks by life-size bronze gorillas and rhinos, and dodged traffic on the wet, rural roads.
Finally, the time came for her to canvass by herself on her training turf. The map showed a road to our left, but to our left was only a pump station and small brook. I called Eric.
Me: It's pouring, and where a trainee turf should be is a river and woods.
Eric: On Google Earth, it looks like you can cut through two backyards, and you'll be there.
Day 1: You'll come with me, right?
Me: Not to worry. I'll make sure you make it though.
Day 1: This day is soooo weird.
We began to hike through wet weeds across the first backyard and over a rock wall to the second. That's when I realized that the weeds were poison ivy.
Day 1: I don't think I am allergic to it.
Me: Well, we'll both know soon.
After two backyards of wet ivy, we came to a third. This was clearly not as easy as Eric had described, and I soon realized why. On the satellite photo, the two streets were next to each other, but the satellite missed the fact that one street was on the top of a mountain, and we were on the bottom. That's when a homeowner came to his yard to see what two wet activists were doing there.
Me: First lesson today, always anticipate questions and answer them before they are asked.
Day 1: Should I write this down? I think my clipboard melted.
Me: Hello there sir! We were on our way to Bass Road, and according to our map, it should be right here. Clearly, we are lost. Would you kindly direct us to the nearest road?
Homeowner: Uh... Indian Road is at the end of my driveway. How did you...?
Me: Great! Thanks so much. Guess we made a wrong turn. Well, so long then.
Day 1: That was amazing. This day just gets weirder.
At that point, the rain became a torrent. We gave up on any hope of finding a way for the Day 1 to canvass and pressed on. The next house looked friendly and had a porch.
Woman: You are soaked! Let me get you an umbrella.
Day 1: This is my first day, so I didn't think to bring one. Plus, we got lost in the woods.
Woman: What?!
I explained our dilemma, and she quickly offered to escort us through her backyard and into the neighbors' yard behind her. ("It's my mother's house.")
With my Day 1 safely to her turf and drier than before, I set upon the task of raising money despite the geographical and vehicular mishaps. Though there would be compensation for lost time, the state of non-profits' financial affairs are not well, and every dollar would help. The rain drove harder and harder as if to beat me into giving up. Finally, I had time for one last home.
Woman: You are soaked! Why are you out here?
Me: Organizationally or personally?
Woman: No, why are *you* out here?
Me: To be honest, sometimes I am not entirely sure, but it comes from a pride in my home state and a desire to make it a better place to live. Plus, I collect incredible stories which I love and never sit at a desk.
So, I told her the entire story of the day. She looked me in the eye, asked me what I needed, and wrote the check. Then she gave me a sandwich to share with other canvassers and insisted that I wait for my ride on her porch rather than walk back into the storm. I gladly took her up on the offer. Eric soon returned to pick up myself and Shamar. The Day 1 was already in the car, soaked but successful.
Day 1: Yeah, that was pretty much the weirdest day of work I have ever had. I need a hot shower. Don't worry, though. I'll be here tomorrow.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I'm So Two Thousand and Late

Oh, werd?
I bought an iPod.
Now who wants to help me learn how to use it?
Where do you put in the cd?

Jersey Fresh

Oh, werd?

At the risk of infringing on Barbara Kingsolver’s copyrights, I am going to discuss a weekend of eating locally. (Also, I risk infringing on Ben’s territory of blogging about meals. Y’all should read his blog.)

Anyhoo, on Saturday morning I bounded out of bed as if on Christmas morning. (For my Jewish friends who have never known the excitement of thinking a magical man with a flying sled has broken into your house and left a heaping pile of wrapped gifts under an indoor fir tree overnight, this means I was *very* excited.) It was the start of the Montclair farmers’ market!

I hopped on my bike, and Eric grabbed his roller blades for the short trip to the Walnut Street train station where the tents and tables were displayed. At first glance, one could be easily lured into a trance by the bright red “Jersey Fresh” tomatoes. That is until I considered our own baby tomato plants growing in the backyard. New Jersey, particularly North Jersey, does not produce real tomatoes until mid-July. These were hot house tomatoes from South Jersey (parts of which, I believe, supported the Confederacy). Also, many of the “farms” at the market were actually middle-men that sold produce from other areas. It was still a small-scale economy, but it was not quite direct from the farmer produce.

We wandered to the far corner of the train station parking lot where a no-frills table displayed the *actual* spring bounty of Jersey – organic lettuce, spring garlic, parsnips, and spinach. Behind the table stood an unassuming man with torn jeans and dirty hands. Farmer John!

FJ: You get a 10% discount for being a CSA member. Um… 10% of $3…. Here. Just take another handful of parsnips.

We bought parsnips for soup, lettuce for salad, and spring garlic to garnish the asparagus we planned to bring to the farm picnic the next day.

At another table, we ran into the spice man who used to operate under our apartment (next to the liquor store). We had last interacted with him when he raced out the back door of his shop to donate a rubbing spice to our backyard rib roast two summers ago. He had a variety of curries for sale in small ziplock bags. We grabbed a pack as well as a free-range chicken from the neighboring stand and a couple of Confederate tomatoes.

Finally, on the way out, we stopped at the fish table. Although the fish table was waving the “Jersey Caught” banner, many of the fish did not seem like local fare. (Mahi mahi?) There had been Barnegat Bay oysters and Highlands clams, but savvy locavores from Montclair had already snapped them up. Even the local bluefish was sold out. (Okay, so Montclair locavores aren’t *that* savvy… Who pays for bluefish? If rich Montclarians are cutting back by buying “cheap local bluefish!” someone should tell them that if you drop something shiny in the Raritan Bay, like, say, your ring finger, a bluefish will bite it.)

That night, we feasted on curried free-range chicken garnished with tomatoes and spring garlic.

The next day, we roasted Jersey asparagus with olive oil and spring garlic and headed to the farm picnic potluck. The invitation noted to "BYO". We assumed (as I'm sure most twenty-somethings would) that we should BYO beer. As we realized when the column of Volvo station wagons parked by the fields opened to reveal hordes of toddlers and newborns, we were supposed to BYO babies. Oops. As throngs of new parents opened containers of milk, juice, and animal crackers, Eric and I cracked some Flying Fish Summer Farmhouse Ales. Who knew having young offspring was a prerequisite of joining the CSA? Luckily, there were four other childless people from the Jersey City CSA with whom we quickly joined forces.

The farm tour itself was wonderful. We learned how the seeds and plants were added to the fields. We saw mature asparagus plants waving in the breeze. Farmer John told tales of running over the irrigation system with the tractor on a regular basis.

(Eric: See? Farmer John likes beer too!)

We also learned about farm labor. Despite the fact that there are almost no experienced farm hands for hire from the state of New Jersey, Farmer John must, by law, prove that he tried to hire some Jersey Fresh employees by spending money on ads in newspapers and Craigslist. (Awesome Summer Jobs in Agriculture! -Sussex County, NJ) Invariably, there are no qualified locals, so he is then allowed to bring back his crew of Central American farmhands, most of whom are from Nicaragua. But not this year.

Farmer John: Nicaragua didn't sign some free trade agreement, so I am not allowed to hire my guys this season. I'll have to find a whole different group of workers from a country we are better at oppressing.

(Yay politically radical farmers!)

The amount of work that goes into operating an organic farm is immense, and the profit margin is slim. Farmer John does not own any of his land but instead rents it from relatively wealthy NJ landowners. Virtually all of NJ's farmland is worth way more on the real estate market than a farmer could earn from it, so available land is too expensive for John to buy. Unfortunately, other than tomatoes, Jersey's main crop right now is McMansions and condos. One benefit of the downturn is that some land may reach a price that farmers can actually afford. Until then, though, it was heartening to see so many families (and six twenty-somethings with beer) celebrating their commitment to local agriculture. We all want to keep farms in our regions, but to do that we have to buy from our regions, teach our children to eat food from our region, and bring beers to farm family picnic days.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

And Now, the Elusive Conclusion

Oh, werd?
At 4am, Eric, Kevin, my dad, and myself piled into Eric's car and headed for the Point.
At 4:07am, we realized we had forgotten the bait.
At 4:14 am, Eric, Kevin, my dad, and myself resumed heading for the Point. We were the first fisherpeople to drop lines. The sun began to crack the horizon. My dad cast into the surf and hauled in multiple sharks. As the sun slowly rose, other fishermen joined us along the coast. I chucked lures repeatedly to no avail. No one was catching anything other than sharks.
Kevin chose this moment of slow fishing to attempt to remove a snarl from his reel. He chose his favorite lure, the $10 needlefish, to (theoretically) cast out his line as far as it would go. With a mighty wind up, a mighty fling of his surf pole, and a mighty SNAP!, Kevin's line broke off and his $10 needlefish took a mighty leap into the Atlantic Ocean.
Covered in clam juice and sand, we returned to my parents' house. Dejectedly, we washed off our poles and put away our lures. On the way home from a final shore lunch, the rain became more steady. My dad told us about *one more* spot where stripers can be found in Cape May: ___ ___. We agreed to stop there briefly to watch the fishing action.
The rain came down in needles. Fishermen and women wearing long rubber pants waded into the rough surf to cast hi-los beyond the waves. Sea gulls were blown nearly sideways by the driving wind. And people were catching fish. I looked at my dad, and it was clear he agreed: one more try.
At high tide, Eric, my dad, and myself walked in the driving rain to an open piece of beach. We drove sand spikes and baited hooks. None of us had rubber pants, so we took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our jeans, and waded into the freezing water armed with surf poles. After we threw our weighted lines, we left the line running out while dashing back up the beach to our sand spikes. Then, we waited. Our feet froze in the surf. Eric's hand began to bleed from holding his broken pole. No one wanted to give in.
Suddenly, my dad's pole bent clean in half. He raced to the pole to set the hook and began to reel in the fish. With a whoop, I grabbed our bucket. After a brief battle, the striper was landed. A striper! It did not make the minimum size for a keeper, but it was a beautiful fish.
Shortly afterwards, my dad's pole bent again. This time I raced to the pole to haul in the fish. Although this striper was slightly smaller, it still took all of my arm strength to wrestle it to shore.
Bloody, frozen, but triumphant, we called it a day. The stripers we had caught were shorts, but they were the fish we had come to catch (well, once we had found out there were no winter flounders anyhoo...). These stripers will be at the Jersey Shore again in the fall season, after a summer of eating and growing. I'm sure we'll be there too.
...And Kevin's $10 needlefish still prowls the open ocean off of Cape May to this day.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Striper Fishing: The Elusive Part 2!

The "part 2" is even more elusive than the stripers!

Oh, werd?
Dawn broke over Cape May, New Jersey.
We opted to skip dawn and try 9am.
9am broke over Cape May's ferry terminal. The dead striper still sat on the beach. Racist graffiti glistened on the inside of the Port-O-Potties in the late morning dew. (Why is it that people think of the nastiest racial epithets while they are pooping? Honestly, there are better things to do with that time.) Eric and I baited our hooks with whatever we thought might work and tossed in our lines.
At this point, we had yet to even see someone catch a striper. In fact, we hadn't even heard a fisherman *claim* to hook one that "got away". We had heard that stripers like clams, but I love casting even if I am not catching, so I attached a lure with a squid strip onto my line. I am not sure what I was trying to attract with that, but I was pretty entertained casting and reeling for an hour or two. I got as many hits on my line as Eric and the other fishermen (none), so I took that as a sign to continue my strategy. Eventually, the tide shifted (and we got hungry), so we grabbed Kevin for a lunch break.
Kev: Ya know, when Dad goes fishing, he goes to Cape May Point.
Me: So, why were we hanging at the ferry jetty with the poop and the racists? Where do stripers live anyhoo?
Eric: Um... I think they were spawning...
Me: So.... where?
Kev: Let's try the Point!
Without waiting for the correct tide or grabbing our full tackle boxes, we drove to the strange but adorable neighborhood near Sunset Beach and scampered over the dunes to the water. A fisherman was walking off the beach as we approached.
Fisherman: Yeah, I caught a few shorts. Lots of sharks though.
Shorts! Small stripers! We were finally at the right place. Despite the wrongness of the tide, Eric, Kev, and I fished for over an hour with the fever of knowing that someone had caught something. We caught absolutely nothing but vowed to return at high tide.
High tide on the Point jetty. Small groups of fishermen (and women!) dropped lines into the ocean. Kevin and Eric opted for high-lows (two baited hooks on one line with a weight on the end). Still not knowing exactly what successfully catches a striper, I tried various combinations of lures and squid strips. Suddenly, Eric's pole bent.
Eric: I have a fish!
Kevin and I reeled in our lines and grabbed our bucket of "things we need if we catch a fish". (This includes the bucket, a towel, gloves, pliers, a knife, and this cool de-hooking tool in case you catch something that can bite you like a shark.) The "things we need" kit had gotten zero use the entire weekend, so we slipped and slid enthusiastically across the wet jetty rocks with the entire bucket-full of tools. It was a good thing we did...
Eric: I caught a skate!
Kevin (donning gloves and a manly voice): I will lean over the rocks to unhook it - WHAT THE HELL!?
Me and Eric: What?
Kevin: Crap. You caught a skate... and a shark.
I leaned over the rocks to see and sure enough, there was the skate, hooked on the upper hook and in a total panic because just below it was hooked a three foot shark. Crap, indeed.
Kevin calmly unhooked the skate and turned to consider the problem of the shark. As he did, the skate, trying in its frightened state to flee the predator also on the line, snagged its fin back on the hook again. The shark snapped at it hungrily. Kevin looked to the heavens for patience. He finally got both creatures untangled, but the shark chased the skate up into the jetty rocks where they rolled and tossed in the surf in a space the size of a suitcase. By this time, I felt queasy at the stress we had caused both animals. Kevin declared, "I may never fish again after this." Finally, with hands wrapped in no more protection that gardening gloves, he reached blindly into the tiny shark-infested hole and pulled the skate free. He tossed the kite-shaped fish into the ocean. The shark, deprived of its prey, soon swam free of the rock hole as well.
We fished a little while longer. I caught a small skate. Kevin tried out his beautiful, new $10 lure, "the needlefish". My parents arrived to offer us dinner.
Dad: Any hits?
Kev: Sharks and skates...
Dad: Well, clearly there is one thing to do. We all have to get up at 4am tomorrow morning.