NYC’s Narrative.ly brands itself as “a community of talented storytellers who are devoted to uncovering and sharing in-depth local stories with a universal appeal.” A couple of weeks ago, they published a Do Gooder series, including a story about Doers Network founders Jesse Speer and Josh Goolcharan. Here’s an excerpt from Helaina Hovitz’s piece, “If You See Something, Do Something,” which details how hard it can be sometimes to do a random act of kindness, no matter how good the intention.
On the day of the train stunt, Speer and Goolcharan try to raise awareness of their efforts in Union Square. The heat threatens to melt the pavement while drug addicts and pierced teens lay on backpacks, Hare Krishnas dance, and men in cowboy hats blow whistles. People sitting on the steps—everyone from skateboarders with headphones still in their ears to wayward shoppers briefly stopping to enjoy entertainment and a snack—glance over at the Doers, who have posted up a bright blue sign reading “Free Favors.”
Few bother to inquire.
“If it’s doable we’ll do it for you within a five-block ra-di-us!” they rap.
Five minutes pass with no takers. They rotate the sign.
“It was nerve-wracking,” says Goolcharan. “Some people gave us dirty looks.”
Another five minutes, and they move again to meet the flow of traffic coming from the end of the greenmarket. One man, apparently mistaking them for some kind of knowledge gurus, tells his wife to go up to them and “ask them anything you want to know.” Finally, a woman asks, “Can someone drive my son to a two-week camp up in Pennsylvania every morning?” That seems like a perfect job for the Doers, a first for the day. “Send us the request on our website and we’ll try to find a way to make it happen for you,” answers Speer, handing her a card.
Things take a weird turn when Robert Elliconell, a 24-year-old with a mop of curly brown hair and brown bloodshot eyes, rolls up on his bike and asks, “Wow, anything?” as he takes off his shirt and drops the bike. “Within reason,” Speer answers. Soon Goolcharan is walking the young man to Walgreens, where he buys a giant Red Bull.
After that, Elliconell escorts more people over, instructing them to “ask them for anything.”
A young man wearing a do-rag and and carrying two plastic swords tells Speer he needs $20 because he lost it at a party the night before. “Can I have five bucks to get on the train?” pipes another man. Speer ignores the question, but he persists.
“Actually, I want a monster,” the man with the swords says, changing his mind.
The awkwardness is palpable.
Speer knows that they are being taken advantage of, but wants to stick to what the sign says.
“We also didn’t want to cause a scene,” he says in hindsight. “I didn’t want to turn them away in case they didn’t go away—it would reflect badly on the Network if we had to go get the cops or start yelling.”
Goolcharan jumps in with a compromise. “We’ll buy you anything you want to drink from Walgreens,” he offers. The guys try to get him to buy them cigarettes, which he declines to do.
The Doers decide for a change of strategy. They try to “mysteriously” buy coffee for strangers, but the Starbucks on 14th Street doesn’t let them: they can’t participate in such a stunt unless it’s an official business partnership. Speer offers to buy a can of Pepsi for a woman from a hot dog cart, but she repeatedly refuses.
Then comes more inspiration: they give $15 to an ice cream truck driver and tell him to cover the next five people’s cones. “Most people will refuse it unless you basically force it upon them, which is what we did,” observes Goolcharan.
“It’s weird, you don’t really see things like this in New York, says 22-year-old Steven Medina, walking away with a free slushy. “It makes me want to do something nice. I have too many pairs of sneakers. I think I’ll give them away.” He contacts the Network later that day to ask how he can become involved with the project.
Eventually, Speer and Goolcharan end up handing out money again, which makes for an eerie coincidence when, four days later, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream stands in the same square handing out dollar bills as part of a campaign to stop corporate financing of politics.
But even giving out money in New York isn’t as simple as one would imagine. This time they try a more complicated tack. They use a tag flyer—the same kind of tear-away sheets people stick on lampposts offering services, but with a plastic sleeve holding their business card and a few dollars in each slot instead of the phone number. They place it right by a rack of Citibikes, and people walk by, in droves, without taking or noticing anything. Finally, a little girl sees it. “Oh my god, there’s money!” she screams when she takes one down, looking at her stunned mother. Without missing a beat, she rips off the rest and runs away, disappearing into the crowd, while her mother tries to tell her to somehow “put them back.”
“The cash tags went as I expected,” says Goolcharan. “The same thing happened the first time Jesse and I did a trial with it.” That was in a park in New Jersey, and the Doers were dumbfounded that over the course of two hours, not one person took the money.
“Most people would look at it and keep going, and you will always have that one person who, rather than just take one, snatches all of them,” says Goolcharan. “You can’t control what people do with an act of kindness.”
Read the full story here.