My Friend John Was Slow Because He Was Illiterate, Not Because He Smoked Weed

John and I smoked weed together every day, but I didn't know he was illiterate until we both worked as summer canvassers for a shitty nonprofit environmental organization.

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Jun 1 2014, 8:49pm

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tulsa City-County Library

Around this time of the year, I remember summer represented freedom to me when I was a kid. When school became arduous, I always reminded myself that summer would soon liberate me from all homework and responsibility. Eventually, I became old enough to work during the summer, and having a job cut my summer in half. Once I started working, I knew that summer would become shorter year after year until the season was exactly as busy as winter, fall, and spring—only hotter. I had slight reprieve from this decline when I couldn’t find a job my second summer in Philadelphia.

That summer, I was broke. I could only afford a couple of 40s and a three-for-ten nick bag from the neighborhood dealer. Many times, I went halves on the deal with my friend John. We started the day with a blunt and then rode our bikes all over town to fill out job applications. At the start of summer, we had hope, but six weeks into the season, we were still unemployed. We ended our days back at my house, where we consumed a day’s ration of weed and malt liquor. The daily job-hunting rides became a mere gesture, but right as we accepted our penniless destiny, a company called Environmental Action called both of us.

The nonprofit raised funds for environmental awareness and offered both of us job interviews. We went to their office, which looked like a campaign office. Lots of banners and charts showing how close employees were to their collective fundraising goal covered the walls. A perky blonde girl greeted us and explained how the job worked. We would go door to door in various Philly neighborhoods and ask residents to give a shit about the level of mercury in their drinking water. “Once you tell them our cause, you’ll ask if they can contribute,” she said. “Contribute to what?” I asked. “Aren’t we already spreading awareness by going to their house and telling them about the mercury?” She gave me a wide-eyed look. “The contributions help us spread even more awareness,” she said. “You want to make a difference, don’t you?” I nodded my head. She made the job sound shitty, but Environmental Action was the only employer that called us back, and we’d definitely be able to smoke weed on the job.

The blonde girl rounded us up, along with a few other applicants, and told us to stand in a circle. She stood in the center and taught us an exercise. “This is the script,” she said, gesturing toward her clipboard. “This is what you’ll say as soon as the resident opens their door, and you must stick to it. In order to make sure we all have it down, we’re going to go around the circle and each of us will read it to the person next to them.” Everyone in the circle smiled and nodded except for John. He looked at me with terror in his eyes. I asked him what was wrong. He stammered, “I… I can’t… I can’t do this.”

I couldn’t figure out what bothered him. The first person started reading the script, and John muttered, “Fuck it,” and then fell silent. He sweated profusely even though the place was air-conditioned. Finally, someone passed me the script, and I read it to John. “Hello sir,” I began. “My name is T. Kid, and I’m with Environmental Action. Did you know that your drinking water could contain toxic amounts of mercury?” John stared at me as I gave him the spiel. He repeated my words in a whisper, throwing me off script. “Stop that,” I said, laughing. I got through the script and then handed it to John. He turned to the guy on the other side of him. “Hi, sir. I’m John and I’m with… with… um.” The name eluding him was, of course, Environmental Action, the company whose name was written on the page in his hand and adorned on giant banners around the room. An awkward vibe spread around the circle, and people tried not to chuckle. Finally, I whispered, “Environmental Action.” He smiled and said, “Ah, of course. Environment… um… Action.” He continued to bumble through the script. Though he glanced down at the clipboard, I could tell he recited the speech from memory. You see, John was illiterate.

As I listened to the next person read, I tried to think of another instance when John struggled to read. We regularly drank 40s, smoked blunts, watched TV, rode our bikes, and hung out in the park. None of these situations demanded reading skills, so there was no way I could have known that John lacked them. When we left the office, I asked him about his illiteracy. At first he acted a little cagey about his problem, but I promised him I wouldn’t change my opinion about him—John was a talented graffiti artist and generally a well-adjusted dude. He said that he had managed to get through high school in special classes and then only attended art school, so he never really needed to know how to read. He had some rudimentary skills, but a whole script scared him. I told him I’d help him with reading when we were on the job. He laughed and said, “Yeah, right, as if we’re getting this fucking job.”

Despite our poor showing during the circle exercise, the nonprofit hired us. On the first day, the blonde girl handed us each a clipboard, an ID badge on a lanyard, and a blue T-shirt with “Environmental Action” printed across the chest. Before she dropped us off in West Philly, she told us to stick together for the first few houses until we got the hang of it. John and I put on our T-shirts and hit the street—suddenly, I realized I’d have to confront people at their homes. The task scared me. As we approached the first house, I stopped and said, “Maybe we should duck out down that other street and smoke real quick before we do this. You know, calm the nerves.” After a quick smoke sesh, we hit the first house. An elderly woman with a buzz cut opened the door. John took the lead: “Hello, sir, my name is John and I’m with…” The name had escaped him again. (This was less a product of his illiteracy and more a side effect of being stoned on the job.) The woman adjusted her glasses and read the words on John’s chest. “Environmental Action?” she said in a meek, raspy voice. “Yes! That’s it. Environmental Action. Did you know that your water is poisoned?” I couldn’t hold in my laughter anymore. As soon as I started cracking up, the old lady shut the door on John. He turned around and then chastised me.

As we went from house to house, I realized John raised money better than me, despite his disregard for the script. For a laugh, he continued to purposely forget the name of our organization, making people relax. But we both hated the job. When the blonde girl picked us up, we shamefully handed her our lanyards. “That’s fine,” she said. “The first day usually weeds out half the people.” That made us feel better, but John still had one last question to ask her: “Do we get to keep the T-shirts?” 

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