Whenever I see Bill prowling the aisles at work with a sign-up sheet in hand, I know I'm going buy something I don't want and don't need.
"We've got a great deal this time!" he said when he got to my desk. "The kids are selling pizza for the soccer team. You get three for sixteen dollars."
I put up with this because Bill's an old friend. The problem is the other 40 or 50 neighbors, acquaintances and co-workers who hit on everybody in sight to raise money for worthy causes. Still, I don't like to seem like an easy mark, even to Bill. So I let him make his pitch.
"This year," he said, "we're doing it a lot smarter. We're selling pizza by mail."
"Well, UPS actually. You order the pizza now and it gets delivered to your door."
Sigh. "Do I get some idea when they'll deliver it?"
"Not exactly," he said. "But we'll be able to tell you within a couple of days."
"Let me get this straight," I said. "I give you $16, and some time in the indefinite future, a truck is going to pull up in my driveway and dump three pizzas on my doorstep."
"You realize this is July," I said. "It's 98 degrees out there, and if no one's home, the stuff will sit out there and melt on my doormat, right?"
"At least it won't get cold," he said.
The awful part is that I've had weirder pitches than Bill's.
In fact, sometimes I think the only thing keeping the economy going is the people hustling pizza, greeting cards, candy bars, oranges, peanut brittle, window ornaments, fruitcakes, soap, raffle tickets, gift wrap, submarine sandwiches and other detritus in the name of schools, scout troops, church fellowships, little leagues, marching bands, cheerleading squads, PTA's and karate teams.
I've been guilty myself, although I gave it up after one or two abortive attempts at peddling junk when my older boy was in nursery school. Every kid in the neighborhood was knocking on the same doors and hawking the same stuff, which drove the folks without children crazy. So all the parents wound up buying stuff from each other's kids.
I drew the line when Ike's school wanted him to peddle fruit -- as in 50-pound cases of the stuff shipped up from Florida. Ike was only four at the time and obviously incapable of hauling around crates of oranges that weighed more than he did. I called the principal and told her that if I'd wanted to peddle grapefruit, I'd have bought a horse and wagon and an A-rab's license.
Since kids obviously can't unload any of this junk themselves, it falls to their parents. And they inflict it on their co-workers.
You can't turn a corner in our building without stumbling on a case of industrial strength M&M's with a little sign that says, "Help the girls at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow -- Only $1."
What the heck, it's only a buck. The problem is that you wind up eating the whole box -- something like 500 M&Ms. You can't even give them away to the next guy because he's wolfing down the industrial strength Reese's Peanut Butter Cups he bought from the mother of the captain of the North Elkridge Baton Twirlers.
But the worst offenders may be the Thon people: the people who do Walk-a-thons, Ride-a-Thons, Bowl-a-Thons and Swim-a-Thons.
In the Thon world, an otherwise rational friend or colleague asks you to write a check to an eleemosynary institution. In exchange, he performs some bizarre and unaccustomed physical act.
If people want to engage in this kind of masochism on their own, so be it. I am annoyed when they inflict it on others. Take Janet, who approached me one day and asked if I'd sponsor her dog in a 10-mile Pet Walk-a-Thon.
Now Janet's beloved, whom she describes as "Yorkie-poo," is an insignificant ball of fur designed by his creator to adorn the lap of a dowager on an overstuffed chair in front of a roaring fire. I abhor cruelty to animals, and this was an open-and-shut case.
"How much will it cost to spare the dog?" I asked her.
"I don't understand," Janet said.
"How much do I have to pay you not to drag the poor dumb beast halfway across Maryland?"
Janet walked off in a huff.
If she had just asked me for a few bucks, without dragging the dog into the mess, I would have been glad to donate to whatever charity she and Yorkie-poo were promoting. Like I said, I'm a soft touch.
In fact, I often marvel at the amount of money and time we waste selling or doing silly things to raise money for charity, when a simple outstretched hand would suffice.
I figure at least 60 percent of the money I spend on a can of stale peanut brittle goes to some middleman. Instead of paying $5 for the candy and ruining my teeth and waistline, I could give $2 to the kids at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow without the sweetener. They'd have more money, and my cholesterol and blood sugar count would be a lot lower.
Which brings me back to my friend Bill. I didn't want his kid's pizza melting on my sidewalk. So I went for the bottom line.
"How much profit do you make on these $16 pizzas?" I asked.
Strangely enough, he didn't know, so he phoned his son. The profit turned out to be a princely $4.
"I'll make you a deal," I said. "I'll give you $5 if you promise not to dump those pizzas on my doorstep."
` "Done," Bill said.