The day of the welcome traveller has long since passed, and whether it's the cause or the effect, uninvited callers these days only seem to want your money. For a while I was one of them - a door-to-door canvasser for one of the province's hundreds of charities. Those who spend their time haunting people's stoops are a superstitious lot but also an underappreciated source of folk wisdom.
Your front yard tells more about you than you might think. Fenced-off homes often house fenced-off people. People with manicured or paved yards may not be neat but are generally uptight. Those with wild, overgrown gardens are almost always the most talkative.
On the other hand, pictures of ducks or wolves on the mailbox don't indicate a love of ducks or wolves so much as a love of mailboxes. A welcome mat should never be construed as an actual welcome. And a surprising number of people who own sizable and attractive houses are flat-out broke.
Dogs are most instructive. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool cat person, but I've come to appreciate canines for their honesty. Humans are eminently skilled at repressing their internal processes, but I guarantee your dog is soaking up every single sublimated emotion, becoming a living barometer. If someone seems a little too aggressively friendly, I always check for an angry or anxious dog.
As the world becomes ever more private, it disintegrates into a million self-contained dramas, and the canvasser is the walk-on bit part. Sometimes I felt like a celebrity cameo in a sitcom; much of the time I had the impression I was in the wrong play.
I was an aberration in the script, and not everyone was good at ad libbing, as evidenced by the cryptic one-liners that often began and ended interactions. "You want the next house," said one homeowner before I could even begin my pitch. "We don't smoke the stuff," said another. "I'm unconcerned,' confided another. Oh. Just in general?
If you ever doubted that white people have more money, try canvassing. If you think social democracy means you're guaranteed to waltz gracefully into a comfortable old age, try canvassing. The stark financial divide between adjacent neighbourhoods can be rattling. There are a lot of discarded people littering the outskirts of this city, and sometimes the best our society can muster to overcome problems is to send people like me to ask them for money.
But they never complain as much as the rich. The nature of the job means canvassers are often sent to harass the fetidly wealthy, and herein lies canvassing's inherent contradiction: those most likely to have money to give you are the ones least likely to give it to you.
Every time they complained about how many people had come to their door in a week, I imagined consolidating all the country's canvassers into one outfit that would go out collecting money to end capitalism. Our pitch would be that we aim to make canvassers obsolete. I guarantee we'd make thousands by the hour for that goal alone.
In many ways, it's thankless, tiring work, and striking up conversations with 200 random strangers in an evening can test a person's faith in humanity. But in neighbourhoods I'd never have visited otherwise, I learned useless but fascinating truths, like the fact that the east end has demonstrably more hand-wound door chimes than the west.
Or that, for whatever reason, the more prosperous the neighbourhood, the less likely it is to have any standardized house numbering system. "Knowing how to count? I can pay someone to do that for me."
And it made me aware of the random intersections of time and place that blanket a city, the countless threads of circumstance crisscrossing the map.
Sitting in Parkdale at the end of a long shift, I wondered sadly whether that woman was trapped in an abusive relationship and pondered the meaning of that single obituary page ripped neatly and placed reverently in a recycling bin. Marley lyrics filtered out of a nearby roti shop into the dusk like an affirmation: "My feet is my only carriage...."
I imagined a place where the unexpected visitor is a precious thing. And I wondered if could get there by sunrise if I started walking now.