Signing a Petition Hulton Archive/Stringer
By Chris Vespoli

AWKWARD NEW YORK is a weekly column about the uncomfortable experiences of Chris Vespoli in and around NYC. Every Tuesday is another cringe-worthy account, from being fat shamed by a Dunkin’ Donuts employee to crashing Fashion Week.

One of the great underrated movies of the 1990s is the cult comedy PCU. It stars Jeremy Piven (before he became a douche), Jon Favreau (before he slimmed down), and David Spade (before his career tanked hard enough for him to do Joe Dirt 2on Crackle). PCU centers around a group of brash, underachieving college seniors who become the targets of a campus-wide political correctness crusade that’s bent on driving them out of their residence, an abandoned frat house known as The Pit. OK, they’re not exactly innocent victims — they did dump 100 pounds of raw meat onto a group of vegan protesters — but still, the movie does a great job of skewering the overly-sensitive, easily-offended college student of the mid-90s, not to be confused with the overly-sensitive, easily-offended college student of the mid-2010s, whom comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have maligned recently in the press.

PCU introduced a term into the Gen-X lexicon — causeheads — those quick-to-protest college-agers whose militant idealism fickly wavers from cause to trendy cause. As a social liberal myself, I think causeheads do serve a valuable purpose. After all, it’s the grassroots efforts of LGBT activists and straight allies that led to the large sway in public opinion on marriage equality, culminating in the Supreme Court’s recent landmark decision. And I’ve donated to many causes I’ve felt strongly about over the years, like cancer research, veterans services, hurricane relief, and even Amnesty International, during a particularly altruistic point in my college career. But not all causes are created equal, and not all causes are worth my time, all of the time. This is my thinking when some smiley 20-something with a clipboard tries stop me on the sidewalks of Manhattan.

I’m sure you know the people I’m talking about. You can find them in groups of two or three staking out the entrances to office buildings around the City. They all implement the same approach: First, they make eye contact, then spout a disorientating conversation starter. It could be a non-sequitur about the shirt you’re wearing, or a comment about your glasses. While you’re trying to figure out just what the fuck is happening (Does this person need help? Are they just crazy? Is this how one of those hammer attacks start?) they block your path in attempt to get you to stop and engage with them. This is the point of no return. If you realize right then and there that they’re a person asking for a donation, or for you to sign a petition, you can shoot them down and keep walking. A split-second’s hesitation, and they’ve sunk their claws in you. “Do you have five minutes for autistic orphan refugees of the Sudan?” they’ll ask. Of course you have time. Only a monster wouldn’t have time to support such a noble cause. So you stay. And you listen. And you sign whatever they want you to sign. And you miss your train.

A group of this ilk has set up shop outside the building where I’m currently working on a freelance writing gig for a cable TV network. I have no idea what they’re hawking, as I’ve managed to shoot down their first three attempts at getting me to stop. When they tried stopping me in the morning, I was “late for a meeting.” When they tried stopping me in the middle of the day, I “only had a few minutes to grab to lunch.” And when they tried stopping me at the end of the day, I was “late for a dinner.” (I was really going to therapy. Whatever, it’s just as self-indulgent as a high-caloric meal.) My problem now is that I’m running out of excuses to get them off my back, and it’s getting pretty uncomfortable. I’ve resorted to some cheap tactics, like pretending not to hear their eager pleas over the podcast I’m listening to in my earbuds. I’ve even begun walking in a serpentine pattern as to avoid their lines of sight, like helicopter pilots do when coming in for a landing in Iraq as to not take anti-aircraft fire.

Try as I might, I know it’s just a matter of time until they get me. And when they do, I’ll cave.

Something strange might happen, though. The cause they’re hawking just might be important enough for me to care, and I’ll be forced to eat crow. After all, The Pit and the causeheads in PCU were ultimately united by a common enemy — the university’s power drunk president and her Reaganite cohorts. And goodness knows there’s plenty of crazy out there in the real world to rally against…

Just as long as they don’t want my phone number. I don’t give that shit out for anything.

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