In defense of handbill handouts
I have to confess something: I have a serious soft spot for the flier guy.
All my friends think I am crazy—not to mention totally un-green. “Fliers cause major litter,” one told me. “They are killing trees!” exclaimed another. Most people feel that the flier guy is just a person who is in your way when you are trying to get somewhere. All this is certainly true. But the flier guy is also, in my opinion, a vibrant part of our urban landscape.
I’m not talking about the person who stops me on the street to convince me to vote for someone or donate money to a good cause. I’m talking about the guy who stands outside the eyeglass store on 96th Street handing out offers for discount glasses, or the guy on 103rd who is promoting 2-for-1 pizza night. Unlike an encounter with a “non-profiteer,” the exchange with the flier guy is quick and painless. You are not at all obligated to respond. He doesn’t really care whether or not you like what he is handing you; he is only asking that you help him do his job by accepting a piece of paper from him. Presumably, he is doing this for a low per-hour, or per-flier fee. When I accept a flier, it feels like an easy way to help someone who is struggling get ahead. Not that flier guy isn’t aware you are probably going to immediately throw it away. The exchange with the flier guy is like a game of hot potato in slow motion.
Many pedestrians will walk right by the flier guy, ignoring him as if he were an overly aggressive pigeon. Some people become “flier-swatters” and actually bat the paper away. I myself always try to make eye contact and smile at the guy as I take a flier. I will wait until I am about a block away before discarding it. I don’t want the trash can right on his “beat” to be filled; I feel it is kinder to have him believe that he is reaching people, that I am taking the time to at least glance at the paper before I toss it.
But even I don’t always love the flier guy. If I am very late for something he can be an annoyance; moreover, not all of them follow what I think of as proper Flier Guy Protocol. If the person is blocking the subway entrance, I will refuse the flier. (Sometimes I feel like saying, “You are not going to get anywhere standing here! People are trying to catch a train!”) The other big flier guy sin, in my book, is to aggressively thrust a flier at me when my hands are obviously full. (Am I supposed to take it with my teeth?) The most efficient flier guy makes eye contact, smiles, avoids getting in people’s way and aims for empty hands. And while flier guy styles vary from the polite offer to the theatrical brandish, there are some guys who are true artists and manage to get the thing into your hand before you even know what is happening. When the guy is doing his job well I will often have a fleeting impulse to stop and chat with him (“Where are you from? Do you do this freelance or are you a store employee? Do you hate this job?”) Maybe some day I will even hand something promotional of mine back to the flier guy: “Here, I’ll trade you!”
I realize that in a perfect world all commerce would be conducted without using paper. But to me the flier hand-out is part of the marvelous mayhem of New York City street life—one of the things that makes the city rich, complex and stimulating. New York has always been roiling with people selling things, yelling things and interacting in all kinds of ways. Sidewalk hawkers are part of the deal. Engaging with the flier guy helps make us participants connected to our surroundings rather than invisible beings floating anonymously along. And whether it’s a “Jesus Came From Outer Space” pamphlet, an announcement about a new karaoke club or just a smile of gratitude from a stranger, sometimes the flier guy provides you with something that can make your day just a little more interesting.
Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, is the author of seven books on social interaction. Her latest book is a novel, Etiquette for the End of the World. You can contact her at JeanneMartinet.com.
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